26 Hit Songs Inspired by Famous People
Taylor Swift could be the poster child for writing songs inspired by famous people — her exes and other female icons she simply doesn’t like.
But Swift isn’t the only one writing about her peers. Musicians, like many others, often find inspiration in people. They use love, heartbreak and wayward romances as fodder for hit songs — or as a rather public way to get back at their exes or frenemies.
You might be surprised at just how many hit songs are inspired by iconic celebrity romances and catty feuds. Here’s a list of the most popular among them.
Cry Me a River – Justin Timberlake for Britney Spears
They were the dream couple of millennial teenage lives. Disney stars Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake were a very public couple that ended in a very messy break-up three years into their relationship.
It’s long been believed that Timberlake’s 2002 hit, revenge ballad and Grammy winner, “Cry Me A River,” is about Spears. The song’s video even features a look-alike of the singer, and lyrics that say, “The bridges were burned / Now it’s your turn, to cry / So cry me a river.”
In his 2018 autobiography, “Hindsight,” Timberlake mentions he wrote the song in just two hours because he was pissed off and needed to get things out. Although the couple never publicly mentioned why they broke up, the song effectively laid the blame on Spears.
In 2004, Spears released “Everytime,” allegedly in response to “Cry Me a River.” The song is a plea for forgiveness for hurting a former lover.
All of Me – John Legend for Chrissy Teigen
The passionate love song and wedding favorite, John Legend’s “All of Me” is about his wife, model Chrissy Teigen. The singer has never denied the song is about his wife and their relationship, which taught him “what it means to be in love with somebody” — stop it, already!
Legend released the song just before their wedding in 2013, debuting it at a performance on Oprah’s “Next Chapter.”
Teigen stars in the music video, shot at Lake Como leading up to their wedding and ends with scenes from their wedding day. Nabil Elderkin — the man who introduced them to each other — directed the black-and-white video.
“Besides All of Me,” Teigen has also appeared in some of Legend’s other music videos for “Stereo” (where they met for the first time) and “Love Me Now.”
Perfect – Harry Styles for Taylor Swift
The hit One Direction single is reportedly Harry Styles’ response to his relationship with Taylor Swift. The song, co-written by Styles, is about a very public relationship — “cameras flashing every time we go out.”
The clincher being the line, “And if you’re looking for someone to write your breakup songs about, baby I’m perfect.”
Styles, fans believe, is referencing Swift’s album “1989,” released two years after their relationship ended. Many interpreted Swift’s work to be about that ill-fated relationship. There’s even a song called “Style” in it.
“Perfect’s” line about “midnight driving with the windows down” is similar to “Style’s” mention of midnight drives.
7 Things – Miley Cyrus for Nick Jonas
The Miley Cyrus track, from her album “Bangerz,” is purportedly about Nick Jonas and the pair’s two-year relationship. They broke up in 2008 and “7 Things” — which talks about a lost relationship and a list of seven things “I hate about you” — was released the same year.
It was the first track released under Cyrus’ own name and not her alter ego, Hannah Montana. Cyrus even wears a dog tag gifted to her by Jonas in the video.
After Cyrus announced her engagement to Liam Hemsworth in 2012, Jonas Brothers released a song called “Wedding Bells” seemingly in response to the event. (As you might guess, it was a rather negative response.)
Jonas wrote the song, and there’s a telling line in it: “If you recall our anniversary falls / 11 nights into June” supposedly referring to the day they met, June 11, as referenced in her autobiography.
Fix You – Chris Martin for Gwyneth Paltrow
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow met Coldplay’s lead singer Chris Martin in 2002, just weeks after her father passed away. They married in 2003.
Paltrow was a fan of their music and confessed to listening to Coldplay’s 2000 album “Parachutes” on repeat after her father’s death, particularly “Everything’s Not Lost.”
Martin wrote “Fix You” in 2005 to comfort his wife and make sense of her loss. The lyrics talk about being there for the person you love in their time of need. Martin used an old keyboard that his late father-in-law, Bruce Paltrow, gave to his daughter.
Martin also wrote Moses, “Swallowed by the Sea,” and the break-up song or tribute “Magic” for Paltrow.
You’re So Vain – Carly Simon for Warren Beatty
Legendary singer Carly Simon revealed in 2015 that the second verse in her famous hit is about actor Warren Beatty.
The song was released in 1972, and the lyrics led many to speculate about the identity of the “vain” person, with some suggesting Mick Jagger.
Simon herself had hinted it was about Beatty in a Washington Post interview in 1983. The other verses reference other men, but she doesn’t want to reveal their names.
However, we know she was rumored to have dated these men during the same time: Michael Crichton, David Geffen, Kris Kristofferson, Terrence Malick, Jack Nicholson, Cat Stevens, James Taylor, John Travolta and even Sean Connery.
Obsessed – Mariah Carey for Eminem
Mariah Carey’s 2009 makes no secret of the fact that it’s about rapper Eminem and his “obsession” with her. In the video, Carey dresses up as a stalker wearing Eminem's trademark hooded sweatshirt.
The feud between the singers started following rumors that they dated in 2001, which Carey always denied. Eminem’s 2002 song “Superman” from “The Eminem Show” asked, “What you trying be? My new wife? / What, you Mariah? Fly through twice.”
A year later on tour, Carey had a marionette show that parodied “The Eminem Show” by using Eminem puppets. The song “Clown” says, “You should've never intimated we were lovers / When you know very well we never even touched each other.”
Oh, yes, it keeps going. In his 2006 song, “Jimmy Crack Corn,” Eminem calls Mariah a liar. And even 50 Cent weighed in on the feud, releasing a track called “All of Me,” which says, “Em predicted it all, I don’t know how he knew it / He said women from Hollywood they liars, liars, liars / You f**k them, they get you heated, deny it like Mariah.”
In 2009, Eminem addressed Carey’s husband Nick Cannon in “Bagpipes from Baghdad” telling him “I wish you luck.” It all finally led to Carey’s “Obsessed.” The rapper retaliated with “The Warning,” in which he threatens to release voicemail and pictures about their relationship.
Dear John – Taylor Swift for John Mayer
Taylor Swift often uses her relationships as inspiration for her songs. “Delicate” was about her secret romance with Joe Alwyn. Tom Hiddleston inspired “Getaway Car,” and Joe Jonas inspired “Last Kiss,” “Forever and Always,” and “Holy Ground.”
Then, there’s the 2010 song, “Dear John,” whose title makes it obvious that it’s about John Mayer. It was released a year after they purportedly dated briefly. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the rocker said it was “cheap songwriting” and it “humiliated me.” Swift called his claim “presumptuous.”
Mayer’s song “Paper Doll” was allegedly a rebuttal, referencing a Moroccan red scarf (Swift’s favorite color and the name of her album), and calling her “22 girls in one” (22 is the name of her single).
The biggest clue is the line “Someone’s gonna paint you another sky,” a callback to the “Dear John” lyric, “You paint me a blue sky and go back and turn it to rain.”
Still Feel Like Your Man – John Mayer for Katy Perry
John Mayer, much like ex Taylor Swift also uses his exes in his songs. In 2002, he wrote “Your Body Is a Wonderland” reportedly about then-girlfriend Jennifer Love Hewitt.
In 2017, he released “Still Feel Like Your Man,” a wistful break-up song about Katy Perry.
“Who else would I be thinking about?” Mayer said in a New York Times interview.
The two had a tumultuous relationship that ended in 2015. In the song, he sings, “I still keep your shampoo in my shower / In case you wanna wash your hair.”
Bad Blood – Taylor Swift for Katy Perry
The feud between Katy Perry and Taylor Swift started after a Rolling Stone profile of the latter in which she spoke about a frenemy, a female pop star who did something horrible, namely, poached dancers from her tour. (Or after reading about the previous songs, could their rivalry have something to do with the fact that they both dated John Mayer?)
Two years later, Swift released “Bad Blood” about a relationship gone wrong. The relationship in question is her friendship with Perry.
Rumors surfaced that Katy Perry’s track “Swish Swish” (featuring Nicki Minhaj) was a response to “Bad Blood.” On the track, Perry sends out warnings to her haters and enemies. The word Swish is similar to Swift.
In the teaser for the video, she called the song “the countdown to Catastrophe” (Swift’s character in Bad Blood is called Catastrophe). There are other similarities between the two songs in terms of aesthetics and even the presence of guest celebrities.
You’ll Be in My Heart – Phil Collins for Lily Collins
Phil Collins wrote this song for the 1999 Disney film, “Tarzan.”
The song was so well received that it won an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Original Song.
The story behind the song is that Collins wrote the emotional song as a lullaby for his daughter Lily who was 10 at the time.
In 2016, in an appearance on Harry Connick Jr.’s talk show, Lily mentioned that “we grew up watching Disney shows and movies together, so that was his way of kind of being able to do it for his kids.”
Thank U, Next – Ariana Grande for Pete Davidson
Ariana Grande’s hit song is a farewell letter to all the men she’s loved before, including ex-fiancé, Pete Davidson. She specifically mentions “his big d*ck energy.”
She also refers to three previous partners Ricky Alvarez, Big Sean and Mac Miller. Many expected the song, released in 2018, to be a vengeful diss on her exes, but instead, it turned out to be a song about survival and strength.
Interestingly, Grande wrote three iterations of the song, each with a different ending because of her uncertainty in her relationship with then-fiancé Davidson.
One version has them getting married, another has them not getting married, and the third has them doing nothing — they just don’t talk.
Famous – Kanye West for Taylor Swift
Kanye West’s 2016 song “Famous” didn’t hold back. In it, the rapper refers to Taylor Swift saying, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that b*tch famous.”
The incident he is referring to is the 2009 MTV VMAs where he walked on stage while Swift was receiving an award and announced that it really should have gone to Beyoncé (a terrible move on its own).
Swift responded by saying she was never made aware of the misogynistic lyrics, despite West’s wife Kim Kardashian releasing murky videos of the same.
West, on his part, said Swift gave him the idea for the line. At a dinner with one of West’s friends, she mentioned, “I can’t be mad at Kanye because he made me famous.”
Dude (Looks Like a Lady) – Steven Tyler for Vince Neil
One day, Aerosmith’s members were hanging out at a bar and saw a person with long, teased-out platinum blonde hair. They thought it was a lady, but it turned out to be Mötley Crüe frontman Vince Neil.
Steven Tyler started making fun of him saying, “That dude looks like a lady” — which would not fly in today’s PC culture.
The incident became an inside joke and inspired the hit song, “Dude (Looks like a Lady),” written by Tyler and Desmond Child.
They later let Neil in on the joke, and he, luckily, had “a good laugh.” The incident was even written about in Neil’s autobiography.
Like a Rolling Stone – Bob Dylan for Edie Sedgwick
The title of Bob Dylan’s hit is not a reference to The Rolling Stones.
Dylan got the idea from the 1949 Hank Williams song, “Lost Highway,” which includes the proverb, “a rolling stone gathers no moss.”
Dylan based the lyrics on a real-life story. The lyrics talk about a debutante who falls out of high society. The debutante in question was model and socialite Edie Sedgwick, who was part of artist Andy Warhol’s crowd.
At the time, their relationship was strained, and she fell in love with Dylan. Dylan blamed Warhol for allegedly mistreating Sedgwick, singing, “After he took from you everything he could steal.”
How Do You Sleep? – John Lennon for Paul McCartney
The late John Lennon’s iconic song was released in 1971 after the historic and messy breakup of the Beatles. Although Lennon insisted the song was about himself, many deduced that it was about Sir Paul McCartney.
“How Do You Sleep?” was a response to McCartney’s “Too Many People,” which slammed Lennon and wife Yoko Ono.
“How Do You Sleep?” opens with, “So Sgt. Pepper took you by surprise,” a reference to their 1967 album.
The song mentions McCartney makes “Muzak” and only contributed the song “Yesterday” in the lyrics, “The only thing you done was yesterday / And since you’ve gone you're just another day.”
Hollaback Girl – Gwen Stefani for Courtney Love
Gwen Stefani’s 2004 song from her debut solo album — “Love. Angel. Music. Baby.” — was undoubtedly a hit. But it came out of a feud with singer Courtney Love.
Their feud dates back to when Love called Stefani a “cheerleader” in an interview in Seventeen magazine. Stefani took the comment so seriously that she created a high-school track and dressed herself as a cheerleader in the music video.
Let’s be honest, though, Stefani’s discontent toward Love was about more than a rude comment.
In 2010, Love confessed she had an affair with Stefani’s husband (at the time), Gavin Rossdale, before the couple was married but when they had been dating for about eight months.
Uptown Girl – Billy Joel for Elle McPherson / Christie Brinkley
Billy Joel’s 1983 pop song is semi-autobiographical. It’s the story of a “backstreet guy,” a mechanic who dreams of dating a high-class girl. At the time of the release, he was dating supermodel Elle McPherson. Initially, the song was about her.
But after they parted ways, he met supermodel Christie Brinkley and reworked the lyrics to feature her. Brinkley starred in the video, and the song was originally called “Uptown Girls.”
In an interview on the Howard Stern Show in 2010, Joel explained that he was on vacation in the Caribbean and playing the piano and looked up and saw McPherson, Brinkley and an unknown Whitney Houston watching him play.
He started dating McPherson first before reconnecting with Brinkley later.
Me and Mr Jones – Amy Winehouse for Nas
The late singer Amy Winehouse wouldn’t let anyone come between her and her man, Mr. Jones, rumored to be her crush, rapper Nasir Jones aka Nas. “Nobody stands between me and my man / 'Cause it's me and Mr. Jones,” she sang.
Nas spoke about the song in an interview with XXL but didn’t confirm it was about him.
Another line in the song mentions “Mr. Destiny, 9 and 14,” which references the birthday she shared with Nas’s daughter, Destiny.
They were planning a joint celebration before the singer’s untimely death.
Mirrors – Justin Timberlake for Jessica Biel
Justin Timberlake said his 2018 “Man of the Woods” album was deeply personal and inspired by his family.
But even before this emotional album, Timberlake was writing about wife, actress Jessica Biel.
In his book, “Hindsight: And All the Things I Can’t See in Front of Me,” Timberlake confirms the song “Mirrors” was written about Biel. The video was released after they married, and he dedicated it to his grandparents. “I learned about long-lasting love from them. I know that’s what I have with my wife,” he writes.
The love song is about finding your soulmate and features lyrics like, “Cause I don’t wanna lose you now / I’m looking right at the other half of me.”
Chelsea Hotel #2 – Leonard Cohen for Janis Joplin
The New York hotel was famous for being frequented by several generations of writers and artists. In 1968, Leonard Cohen was trying to make a name for himself in the folk singer-songwriter scene, and one particularly rough night, he met Janis Joplin in the elevator. “She was looking for Kris Kristofferson. I wasn’t looking for her, I was looking for Brigitte Bardot,” said Cohen.
But they fell into bed together.
A year after Joplin’s untimely death in 1970, Cohen started writing about that fateful night at the Chelsea Hotel.
The song was released in 1972 and had lyrics like “I remember you well in the Chelsea Hotel / You were famous, your heart was a legend,” and more famously, “Giving me head on an unmade bed while the limousines wait in the street.”
Don’t – Ed Sheeran for Ellie Goulding
Ed Sheeran’s 2014 song “Don’t” is an angry track. In it, Sheeran talks about a woman who cheated on him with a friend.
Rumors swirled that this song was about a love triangle between Sheeran, Ellie Goulding and his close friend, Niall Horan. Sheeran had confessed on radio in 2013 that he and Goulding were dating, a fact she denied.
In the song, he sings, “And I never saw him as a threat / Until you disappeared with him to have sex, of course / It's not like we were both on tour / We were staying on the same f**king hotel floor.”
In an interview, he said “Don’t” is 100 percent true. The song mentions the woman in question is an artist as well, “Me and her we make money the same way,” and how she was “only looking for a lover to burn” (Burn is a hit Goulding song).
Goulding responded with a 2015 track, “On My Mind,” which has damning lyrics, “You wanted my heart, but I just liked your tattoos.”
Heart-Shaped Box – Kurt Cobain for Courtney Love (Kind Of)
Nirvana’s 1993 hit, “Heart-Shaped Box,” ended up being their swan song after Kurt Cobain tragically lost his life to suicide in 1994.
Many believed the song was about his wife, Courtney Love.
In 2012, after Lana Del Rey performed a cover of the song in concert, Love took to Twitter to explain that the song was actually about her vagina.
Love also said she had contributed some lyrics to it.
Perth – Bon Iver for Heath Ledger
Indie band Bon Iver’s melancholic and bittersweet song, “Perth,” is a tribute of sorts to late star Heath Ledger.
The late actor’s death led directly to the writing of the song.
In 2011, the band's lead singer/songwriter Justin Vernon revealed that he had begun working on the song in 2008 and was to meet a music video director, Matt Amato. Amato was best friends with Ledger, who incidentally is from Perth.
Those three days of work coincided with Ledger’s death, and Vernon talks about holding a sobbing Amato in his arms and trying to console him. Later, Amato told Vernon stories about Ledger, and it eventually led to the song.
Candle in the Wind – Elton John for Marilyn Monroe / Princess Diana
Elton John and Bernie Taupin wrote the song of mourning to honor Marilyn Monroe. It’s a song about a life cut short, a portrayal of a star destroyed by her stardom.
The title refers to an expression that the media used for the death of Janis Joplin, another star who died too young.
John reworked the lyrics with Taupin to sing the now iconic “Candle in the Wind” or “Goodbye England’s Rose” at Princess Diana’s funeral.
Yummy – Justin Bieber for Hailey Baldwin
Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin married in 2018. Bieber’s first album after their marriage, “Changes,” features a lot of references to their relationship.
The 2020 song “Yummy,” his first solo in four years, is apparently about having sex with wife, or so he confessed on The Ellen Show.
This confession isn’t hard to believe, with lyrics that go, “Rollin’ eyes back in my head, make my toes curl.”
Bieber has never shied away from talking about his love life with Baldwin, and the couple often write suggestive comments on each other’s Instagram posts.