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Any biblical scholars listening in 2006 to Robbie Williams’ disastrous electro-rap experiment Rudebox (“career suicide” in his words) would have been surprised to discover, amid the album’s terrible raps and laboured Pet Shop Boys tributes, a passage of choruses lifted from the Old Testament.
“Kiss me with your mouth/ Your love is better than wine,” Williams sings in “Kiss Me”. The song is a cover of a 1985 hit by Stephen “Tin Tin” Duffy and the reference is to the opening lines of “The Song of Solomon”: “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine.” It is a suitably incongruous context in which to find the Bible’s most unusual book, “Song of Songs”, which has left a rich trail in pop music.
“The Song of Solomon”, or the “Song of Songs”, is a poem that takes the form of a duet between lovers. The language is erotic, a symphony of allusions to touch, sight and smell. Lips resemble “a thread of scarlet”, tongues taste of “honey and milk”, breasts are like “two young roes that are twins”. (Perhaps you have to be an Aramaean shepherd to really get that last one.)
As there is no mention of God, much exegetical energy has been spent trying to distance the verses from associations with “worldly” love. In Judaic tradition they are understood as an allegory of God’s love for the Jewish people. Christians treat them as an account of Christ’s love for the Church or God’s love for the Virgin Mary. But none of these pious interpretations can hide the simple truth about “The Song of Solomon”. It’s about sex.
A tasteful veil falls over its carnal nature in popular music, too. The crooner Perry Como adopted its alternative title in “Song of Songs”, crooning about a “night of bliss” amid the roses; sappy orchestral pop made the bliss sound as risqué as holding hands. The 1929 film Lady of the Pavements featured racy Lupe Vélez, the “Mexican Spitfire”, starring as a prostitute. In one scene she warbles the Irving Berlin-penned waltz, “Where is the ‘Song of Songs’ for Me?”, a romantic ditty in Hollywood’s tart-with-a-heart lineage.
To the Scottish poet Robert Burns, “The Song of Solomon” was “the smuttiest sang that e’er was sung/ His Sang o’ Sangs is a’ that.” Nick Cave, who balances a keen interest in smut with an equally keen interest in Christianity, has spoken of it having “a massive impact” on him, an entrée into a “world of pure imagination”.
Leonard Cohen’s work is deeply imbued with its sensual, mystical spirit. Yet Cohen carefully treads around “The Song of Solomon”. His poem “The Traitor” cast Solomon’s “black, but comely” female protagonist as a “sun-tanned woman” upon whose thighs Cohen lingers “a fatal moment”. Yet when he turned the poem into a song in 1979, a reference to Solomon’s “rose of Sharon” was changed to “the rose of high romance”, as though rejecting too insistent an influence.
Its apotheosis in pop lies in Kate Bush’s “The Song of Solomon”. Released on her 1993 album The Red Shoes and revisited on 2011’s The Director’s Cut, the song is a masterpiece of desire. Harp and piano circle with seductive deliberation around Bush as she calls out to a lover, phrasing the word “sexuality” with such drawn-out longing it becomes a mini-song in its own right. She is accompanied by female voices, the Trio Bulgarka from Bulgaria, whose murmured chants add a numinous backing to her expression of physical yearning. In an aggressively sexualised culture, it sounds as calm and dignifying as devotional music.
For a podcast with clips from the songs, visit ft.com/culturecast