Literature In Lyrics: Lolita

by Amanda Flinner

In our Literature In Lyrics series, we look at how famous books have inspired songwriters and worked their way into song lyrics. Here, it's Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

When Lana Del Rey first arrived on the music scene, she described her image as "Lolita got lost in the 'hood." She was referring to the title character of Vladimir Nabokov's 1955 novel Lolita - the subject of the third installment of our Literature in Lyrics series. Because the story is told from the perspective of Lolita's sexually frustrated stepfather, the title character has earned the reputation of a teenage temptress who drives men wild. Most artists, like Del Rey and Katy Perry, perpetuate the taboo image of Lolita rather than the reality of her being an underage victim of sexual abuse. Let's take a look at Lolita's musical legacy.
Light of my life, fire in my loins
Be a good baby, do what I want
Light of my life, fire in my loins
Gimme them gold coins

- "Off To The Races" by Lana Del Rey

Lolita is about a middle-aged literature professor Humbert Humbert and his obsession with his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Dolores, whom he nicknames Lolita. After her mother dies, he abducts the feisty pre-teen from summer camp and manipulates her into engaging in a sexual relationship. In Humbert's twisted mind, he's the victim – a weak man unable to resist the temptation of a seductive woman-child. These days, the book remains controversial for its depiction of child sexual abuse, but the name Lolita is still synonymous with a promiscuous young girl with an eye for older men.

Lana Del Rey ran with the narrative on her debut album, Born To Die, even calling one of the tracks "Lolita." But it's on "Off To The Races" that she meets her Humbert Humbert. She describes him as a bad man who's a tough thief with "a soul as sweet as blood red jam," while her own is "tar black." The chorus even recalls the opening line of the novel: "Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins."

So over summer something changed
I started reading Seventeen
And shaving my legs
And I studied Lolita religiously

- "One Of The Boys" by Katy Perry

On her 2008 song "One Of The Boys," Katy Perry uses Lolita as a blueprint to get guys – albeit guys her own age. Like Del Rey, she overlooks the abuse theme and equates the story with the sexual awakening of a young girl hitting puberty.

Even the album cover pays tribute to this interpretation, with Perry emulating the character (specifically Sue Lyon's provocative performance in Stanley Kubrick's 1962 film adaptation). The photo captures the singer, wearing a polka-dotted crop top and teeny, high-waisted shorts, lounging on a lawn chair in front of a white-picket fence.

Perry's fascination with Lolita doesn't end there. In 2014, she posed in lingerie for a Twitter selfie, adding she was "feeling v Lolita rn." She also named her brand of false eyelashes "Lovely Lolita" after the character. "I have studied this woman's every move," she explained. "I found her a most fascinating creature... she was young and innocent but had a bit of a sex kitten in her and knew exactly how to use it."

I'm your Lolita, La Femme Nikita
When we're together, you'll love me forever
You're my possession, I'm your obsession
Don't tell me never, you'll love me forever

- "Lolita" by The Veronicas

The Veronicas, an Australian pop duo made up of twin sisters Jessica and Lisa Origliasso, also see Lolita as having the upper hand in her relationship with Humbert. On their 2012 club banger "Lolita," the narrator views herself as a combination of Nabokov's nymphet and La Femme Nikita, the expert assassin who uses her beauty as one of her deadly weapons in the 1990 French film of the same name.

"To us, Lolita, is about power play," Jessica explained. "It's the power play between genders and age groups, as well as people's perception of taboo, boundaries, what is acceptable and what a Lolita is: She's a bad-ass and she's on a mission. She wants to destroy something, either her own perception of what's right and wrong or everyone else's. She wants to prove something to herself."

It's no use, he sees her
He starts to shake and cough
Just like the old man in
That book by Nabokov

- "Don't Stand So Close To Me" by the Police

The Police's 1980 hit "Don't Stand So Close To Me" is about a teacher who becomes attracted to one of his students and tries to resist the temptation of an affair. When she comes near him, he becomes flustered and feels like "the old man in that book by Nabokov." Although Sting claims the tune isn't autobiographical, he did work as a teacher for a few years and had "been through the business of having 15-year-old girls fancying me – and me really fancying them! How I kept my hands off them I don't know..."

We'll climb the mountains before we meet the sea
The rain will stop eventually
I'll drive slow across black ice
And you'll be safe to rest your eyes

- "To the Key of Evergreen" by The Devil Loves Prada

Mike Hranica of The Devil Wears Prada interprets the relationship between Humbert and Lolita a bit differently than modern readers. The band's song "To The Key Of Evergreen" was inspired by the Nabokov novel, which Hranica says is "controversial given it's based on a love affair between an older man and a younger girl, but the aching sorrow in their love is absolutely stunning and magical."

On the 2016 track from Transit Blues, we meet the couple on a cross-country road trip as they weather the elements, like rain and black ice, to reach their destination, much like the obstacles they have to face to be together. In the book, the on-the-road adventure includes Humbert dragging the girl to various motels across the country and bribing her for sexual favors. How romantic.

With a thrill in my head and a pill on my tongue
Dissolve the nerves that have just begun

- "True" by Spandau Ballet
In the early '80s, Spandau Ballet guitarist Gary Kemp was crushing hard on Clare Grogan, the singer from the Scottish new wave band Altered Images. He poured his feelings about the unrequited romance into the 1983 ballad "True," which is peppered with references to Lolita, a novel Grogan gave him. The plea to "take your seaside arms and write the next line" paraphrases Humbert's observation of Lolita's "seaside limbs."

Another is "with a thrill in my head and a pill on my tongue." During Humbert's first hotel encounter with Lolita, he laces her ice cream with sleeping pills in an attempt to rape her. But the specific scene that inspired Kemp is much later in the novel. Lolita finally escapes her stepfather's grasp... into the arms of a pornographer who tries to force her to star in his films. When Humbert finds out, he shows up at the man's mansion with "a pill on my tongue" to steady his nerves before he shoots him to death. Kemp's intentions in the song weren't so sinister; he just needed a little something to keep his cool around Grogan.

Previously in Literature In Lyrics: The Stand by Stephen King
January 13, 2020

More Song Writing

Comments: 1

  • AnonymousLolita has to be one of the most perverted, debauched pieces of literature anyone ever had the nerve to put to paper. Pedophilia will never be a thing, sorry. Do better
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Tom Keifer of Cinderella

Tom Keifer of CinderellaSongwriter Interviews

Tom talks about the evolution of Cinderella's songs through their first three albums, and how he writes as a solo artist.

"Private Eyes" - The Story Behind the Song

"Private Eyes" - The Story Behind the SongSong Writing

How a goofy detective movie, a disenchanted director and an unlikely songwriter led to one of the biggest hits in pop history.

What Musicians Are Related to Other Musicians?

What Musicians Are Related to Other Musicians?Song Writing

A big list of musical marriages and family relations ranging from the simple to the truly dysfunctional.

Hawksley Workman

Hawksley WorkmanSongwriter Interviews

One of Canada's most popular and eclectic performers, Hawksley tells stories about his oldest songs, his plentiful side projects, and the ways that he keeps his songwriting fresh.

Jack Blades of Night Ranger and Damn Yankees

Jack Blades of Night Ranger and Damn YankeesSongwriter Interviews

Revisit the awesome glory of Night Ranger and Damn Yankees: cheesily-acted videos, catchy guitar licks, long hair, and lyrics that are just plain relatable.

Chris Squire of Yes

Chris Squire of YesSongwriter Interviews

One of the most dynamic bass player/songwriters of his time, Chris is the only member of Yes who has been with the band since they formed in 1968.