The name game: the best name-checking songs

Tony Madden

William Shakespeare was the first to beckon the age-old question: What’s in a name? In the case of songwriting, I like to think it’s the power of specificity. There’s something so visceral in using your art to call people out by name, and it can make for killer some music.


Without further ado, here are some of those songs – the iconic and the not-so-iconic – that make such beautifully flagrant references to names.

Dear John – Taylor Swift

Miss Swift is one hell of a songwriter, and her catalog has come to feature a number of name-checking songs: “Tim McGraw,” “Hey Stephen” and “betty” are just a few. Perhaps the most deep-cut of these is 2010’s “Dear John,” a call-out to former boyfriend John Mayer. “Dear John” is among Swift’s saddest numbers. Few songs have so accurately captured the pain of being taken advantage of. 


“Don’t you think I was too young to be messed with?” Swift sings. “The girl in the dress cried the whole way home. I should’ve known.”

Jolene – Dolly Parton

Good golly, Miss Dolly. “Jolene” from Dolly Parton’s 1974 album of the same is perhaps one of the most recognizable country songs of all time. It tells the true tale of Jolene, a man who got a little too close for comfort to Dolly’s man. 


“Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene,” Parton sings. “I’m begging of you, please don’t take my man.”

MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) – Lil Nas X

A new “satanic panic” came in the wake of Lil Nas X’s music video for “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name).” Named after himself, the music video features a number of nods to religious themes. Most notably, Nas slides down into hell on a stripper pole to seduce the devil himself. It’s incredible, frankly.

Joanne – Lady Gaga

Gaga called “Joanne” the heart and soul of her 2016 album of the same name, and the lyrics ring true to this. “Joanne” is a lament for Gaga’s late aunt, who died more than a decade before she was born. Still, Gaga says, Joanne remains an inspiration to her.


“Take my hand,” Gaga sings. “Stay, Joanne. Heaven’s not ready for you.”

Georgia Lee – Tom Waits

On August 22, 1997, the body of 12-year-old Georgia Lee Moses was found in a grove of trees near Highway 101 in Petaluma, California. She’d been strangled, and had to be identified through dental records. She was last seen with an unidentified man at a gas station two weeks earlier, but the clues stop there. To this day, the case remains cold.


Her memory lives on in Tom Waits’ 1999 song “Georgia Lee,” which begs the question: “Why wasn’t God watching? Why wasn’t God listening? Why wasn’t God there for Georgia Lee?”

Jerome – Lizzo

Lizzo says it best when she tells Jerome to “take your ass home.” “Jerome” is an ode to self-love, which is a recurring theme throughout Lizzo’s entire “‘Cuz I Love You” album. 


“I’m sorry, 2 AM photos with smileys and hearts ain’t the way to my juicy parts,” she sings.