See 10 Songs Every Art Lover Should Know

Add these art-inspired tunes to your next playlist.

Marina Abramović. Courtesy of Luciana Brito Galeria.

“As music is the poetry of sound, so is painting the poetry of sight,” James McNeil Whistler once wrote. He understood that when the art world joins forces with the music industry, everyone is a winner. Take Lady Gaga and Jeff Koons on her hit album ArtPop, for instance; the duo seemed like a perfect match, merging the Pop Art master with the pop music maven.

Related: Who Said This—Lady Gaga or Jeff Koons? 

See below which are the top 10 tracks every art lover should know (in no particular order).

A still from Jay Z's video "Picasso Baby."

A still from Jay Z’s video “Picasso Baby.” Courtesy of YouTube.

1. Jay Z, “Picasso Baby” (2013)
Marina Abramović was just one of the many art world figures to team up with hip hop mogul Jay Z for the music video for his 2013 single, which makes references to Art Basel, the Tate ModernJeff Koons, and Leonardo da Vinci, among artists and art institutions. Jay Z also compares his own fame to that of prolific painter and sculptor Pablo Picasso, rapping “What’s it gonna take/For me to go/For y’all to see/I’m the modern day Pablo/Picasso baby.”

Filmed at Chelsea’s Pace Gallery, the video’s pop culture/performance art mash-up attracted a crowd of celebrities and fans alike. Jay Z performed the song on loop throughout the six-hour-long shoot, inspired by Abramović’s 2010 performance, The Artist is Present, where she sat silently at New York’s Museum of Modern Art for 736 hours.

A controversy arose two years later, however, when Abramović claimed that Jay Z had never made good on his promise to donate to her institution in Hudson, New York, in exchange for her participation. However, it turned out that Jay Z keeps his receipts: The hip-hop mogul defended himself against Abramović’s accusation with proof of his donation. For her part, the performance artist blamed her staff for the misunderstanding.

Courtesy of YouTube.

Courtesy of YouTube.

2. The Creation, “Painter Man” (1966)
British band the Creation released this song, which chronicles the struggles of a man looking to make it as a painter, in 1966, a year prior to their album, We Are Paintermen. Boney M. later did a magical cover of the song in 1978.

The tune is about an aspiring artist, who “went to college, studied arts,” but laments “studied hard, gettin’ my degree/But no one seemed to notice me.” Forced into advertising and cartoons to make a living, the singer can’t help but conclude that “classic art has had it’s day.” As depressing as the words are, it’s best not to overthink the lyrics of this catchy tune and just enjoy it.

Peter Zimmerman. Unforgettable (2010). Courtesy of Flickr via Creative Commons.

Peter Zimmerman. Unforgettable (2010). Courtesy of Flickr via Creative Commons.

3. Nat King Cole, “Mona Lisa” (1950)
Nat King Cole ruled the charts in the 1950s and early ’60s with a warm voice and a gift for the slow songs, and this is no exception. In a piano ballad about the beauty of a woman and the beauty of love, Cole describes his appreciation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, known for her mysterious smile. “Do you smile to tempt a lover, Mona Lisa?/Or is this your way to hide a broken heart?” Cole asks.

Lady Gaga's ARTPOP with cover art (partially) by Jeff Koons

Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP with cover art (partially) by Jeff Koons.

4. Lady Gaga, “Applause” (2013)
The Jeff Koons-designed cover was all the rage when Lady Gaga’s album ArtPop came out in 2013. (It also secured a spot on artnet News’s Top 12 Album Covers Designed by Famous Artists in 2014.) The lead single, “Applause,” a pumped-up and lively anthem, also features some fine art-inspired lyrics, with Gaga singing “One second I’m a kunst/Then suddenly the kunst is me/Pop culture was in art/Now, art’s in pop culture in me.”

Badgreeb Records. David Bowie, Hunky Dory (2011). Courtesy of Flickr via Creative Commons.

Badgreeb Records. David Bowie, Hunky Dory (2011). Courtesy of Flickr via Creative Commons.

5. David Bowie, “Andy Warhol” (1971)
This classic tribute to Andy Warhol immortalizes the artist’s career as a dedicated leader in the Pop Art movement. David Bowie‘s enigmatic lyrics prove to be as mesmerizing as the song itself, such as the chorus “Andy Warhol, silver screen/Can’t tell them apart at all.” The words reference Wahol’s wide range of creative achievement, from music to art to film, and capture just what an important figure he was for the evolution of art.

In 1996, Bowie would go on to play Warhol, donning the artist’s signature silver wig, for Julian Schnabel’s Jean-Michel Basquiat bio pic, Basquiat.

Irina Raquel. Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night (2014). Courtesy of Flickr via Creative Commons.

Vincent Van Gogh, The Starry Night (2014). Courtesy of Flickr via Creative Commons.

6. Don McLean, “Vincent (Starry Starry Night),” 1971
Written as a tribute to Vincent van Gogh‘s tragic life and the artist’s most famous painting, The Starry Night, the song also includes a description of a few other paintings by the Dutch post-Impressionist, such as his self-portrait without beard. “Frame-less heads on nameless walls/With eyes that watch the world and can’t forget” sings Don McLean, best-known for the hit tune “American Pie,” in one haunting passage. The singer goes on to romanticize van Gogh’s tragic death, singing You took your life, as lovers often do/But I could’ve told you Vincent/This world was never meant for/One as beautiful as you.”

7. Kanye West, “Famous” (2016)
Ah, Kanye. The man is clearly no stranger to controversy. His latest stunt, a music video for his new song “Famous,” was inspired by American artist Vincent Desiderio‘s Sleep, a 24-foot-long painting of nudes on a bed with tangled sheets. For his version, West replaced the anonymous nudes with digitally-rendered bodies of famous celebrities, including singer Taylor Swift.

Lena Dunham railed against the video, saying that its depiction of women make them feel unsafe. Swift also protested the song, which includes an insulting line about her, but West’s wife, Kim Kardashian, subsequently leaked a phone call in which Swift appears to give the song her blessing. (West is used to being all anyone can talk about, so he probably didn’t mind the uproar.)

Pablo Picasso at his studio in front of "La Cuisine" 1948. Courtesy of Flickr via Creative Commons.

Pablo Picasso at his studio in front of “La Cuisine” 1948. Courtesy of Flickr via Creative Commons.

8. Paul McCartney and Wings, “Picasso’s Last Words (Drink To Me),” 1973
Paul McCartney can do no wrong with this serenade to pioneering Cubist master and all-around art great Pablo Picasso. At his death in 1973, Picasso’s last words were said to be “drink to me, drink to my heath, you know I can’t drink anymore,” which form the chorus of the song.


Frida Kahlo. Viva la Vida, Watermelons (1954). Courtesy of Frida Kahlo Museum.

9. Coldplay, “Viva La Vida”  (2008)
Coldplay front-man Chris Martin was inspired to write the song by a Frida Kahlo painting titled Viva la Vida. The singer-songwriter was inspired by Kahlo’s perseverance in the face of polio, spinal injury, and chronic pain, he told Rolling Stone, saying, “She went through a lot of pain, of course, and then she started a big painting in her house that said Viva la Vida; I just loved the boldness of it.”


Frida Kahlo. What I Saw in the Water (1938). Courtesy of Elise Bernatchez via Flickr Creative Commons.

10. Florence and the Machine, “What the Water Gave Me” (2011)
Another Frida Kahlo painting inspired this song off the 2011 Florence and the Machine album Ceremonials.

“At lot of the time when I’m writing, things will just appear. I was writing the song and this book on symbolism was lying around, and it had the painting in it. It’s nice to mix the ordinary with extraordinary,” lead singer Florence Welsh, who penned the tune, told NME. The painting’s disturbing scene of people drowning in a bathtub are reflected in the song’s lyrics, which reference children being swept out to sea.

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