From Da Vinci to the Dancefloor: Why are songwriters so fascinated by the Mona Lisa?
By Katie Gillespie
Picture the Mona Lisa. Now picture her again, except the refined features of the Italian noblewoman, Lisa del Giocondo, have given way to those of Nicole Scherzinger, who attempts to emulate the signature smoulder that has stoked debate for hundreds of years. With her face brought to life, Scherzinger sings operatically – apparently enough to earn her a feature on the track. However, should you pause the video at an unfortunate moment, she is left with the expression of someone who rather urgently needs a wee. I am, of course, referring to the music video for will.i.am’s ‘Smile Mona Lisa’, a catchy yet oft-overlooked song from his 2013 album #willpower which was revived in video format three years later as the product of a bizarre marketing effort from the Louvre.
will.i.am is among many musicians who have taken inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. A surprising number of hits refer to the masterpiece, from ABBA’s ‘Our Last Summer’ where Frida Lyngstad smiles like Mona Lisa whilst her love interest woos her with talk of politics –a tactic not likely to have much success whether used in 1980 or 2023– to Megan Thee Stallion’s chart topper, ‘Savage’, in which she christens herself the ‘hood Mona Lisa’. Although particularly commonplace in pop music, this phenomenon transcends any boundaries established by genre or by geography, with mentions of the Louvre’s prized possession cropping up in afrobeat, reggaeton, rock and country.
The fascination songwriters have with the Mona Lisa is another manifestation of the ongoing obsession that we all seem to have with the painting. It pertains to an age-old debate over the so-called secret behind da Vinci’s carefully painted smile, to which art historians, scientists, and journalists alike have offered their two cents over the years. Commenting on how artists like Fernand Léger or Andy Warhol have created works out of the Mona Lisa’s image, in his essay ‘"Mona Lisa": The Best-Known Girl in the Whole Wide World’ art historian Donald Sassoon explains, ‘Everyone had realised that you can always get a few minutes’ fame on the back of Mona Lisa.’
Although a cynical take on Mona Lisa-mania, Sassoon’s sentiment extends beyond the realm of visual artists and into that of music. When Kanye West raps ‘I'm just saying, hey, Mona Lisa / Come home, you know you can't roam without Caesar’ in ‘Flashing Lights’, his anachronistic references convey the sense that he’s participating in a game of historical name-dropping. Many others are guilty of careless referencing as well. Even though she hasn’t been alive since the sixteenth century, poor Lisa is subjected to the hypersexualising lyrics of the reggaeton bop that Nicky Jam and Nacho name after her. Describing himself as her Leonardo, Nicky Jam croons that her body hypnotizes him. Historical accuracy certainly gives way to creative license, but I’m left to be convinced that women’s fashion in 1600s Florence truly butters Jam’s toast.
Writing about the Mona Lisa in a 2001 article, Sassoon explains: ‘By the cultural conventions of the twentieth century, she is neither beautiful, nor sexy. The painting is not grandiose, or politically inspiring... It does not tell a story. Just a plain woman, smiling a little.’ With his description of the painting in mind, songs that reference the Mona Lisa can better capture the enigmatic nature of the painting when their songwriters move away from using her name to allude to the concept of beauty. When songwriters use the Mona Lisa as a springboard from which they tell their listener a story, perhaps diving into their own personal experiences to do so, the results can be absorbing.
Britney Spears draws from her own experience in the public eye in ‘Mona Lisa’, a song she wrote for her album, Original Doll, which was never released. As the story goes, she wrote and recorded a demo for ‘Mona Lisa’ whilst on her The Onyx Hotel Tour. Knowing her record label, Jive, would not approve of the album on 30th December 2004 she took the song directly to KIIS.fm radio station in Los Angeles. Unsurprisingly, the following week a representative from Jive stated that there were no plans to service ‘Mona Lisa’ for radio. However, the song had been released out into the world and the similarities Spears draws between herself and the Mona Lisa make for an eerie comparison which foreshadows the popstar’s mental health struggles in the years to follow.
The period in which Spears wrote ‘Mona Lisa’, the early 2000s, marked the height of her fame. In her memoir, The Woman in Me, released last week, she writes of herself in 2004: ‘Whether or not I liked it, I was one of the biggest stars in the world at that time.’ During her appearance on KIIS.fm, on-air the host, Jesse Lozano asked Spears: ‘Do you have to take a super-secret, CIA mission-secure route to Burbank from your crib so you don’t get followed?’ Like that of Mona Lisa, Spears’ image had become a commodity that many were profiting from. In the demo she sings:
She was taken under, drowning in her seat
Running like an angel, she was crying but could not see
Now see everyone’s watching, as she starts to fall
Now don’t have a breakdown
You will hit the freaking wall
Evidently, Spears felt the weight of the eyes of the world on her. In the demo version of the track, she pleads with herself, ‘Now don’t have a breakdown, you will hit the freaking wall.’ When ‘Mona Lisa’ was later released in the DVD version of Britney and Kevin: Chaotic, these lyrics had been changed to, ‘They want her to breakdown and be a legend of a fall’. Whether this change was made by Spears herself, or at the command of her record label, the emotional honesty of the demo version is replaced by a commentary on what it means to be a global icon. Who are ‘they’: the public, the paparazzi, her record label, someone else? The line anticipates all those who subsequently profited from the conservatorship she was placed under from 2008 to 2021.
Lil Wayne and Kendrick Lamar take the Mona Lisa as a starting point for their 2018 collaboration, also titled ‘Mona Lisa’. As Wayne asserts on the track –‘Mona Lisa, I done painted the picture’– the two lyricists use the verbal devices they have at their disposal as rappers to each paint their own portrait of the Mona Lisa. Rhyme, double entendre, pace, tone, and pitch replace paint, brushstroke, colour and the resulting portraits are works of art.
I cannot help but picture the two versions of the Mona Lisa in the stories told by Wayne and Lamar as I listen to their song. In Wayne’s verse he characterises ‘Liz’ as a woman who sets men up to be robbed, in Lamar’s she transitions into his character’s girlfriend, who cheats on him. ‘Mona Lisa’ evokes visual imagery that other listeners have picked up on as well. One commenter on the song’s music video, published on YouTube, writes: ‘Man, this song doesn't even need any video, lyrics paint the picture better than Leonardo da Vinci.’
The lyrics are often uncomfortably illustrative. Wayne raps: ‘All of the beans you be spillin', to you, she lie through her teeth cavities, fillin's.’ Wayne and Lamar interpret deceit in the smile of Da Vinci’s original Mona Lisa and, subsequently, her characterisation on the track has something of the picaresque about it. The Mona Lisa’s beautiful exterior –her smile– hides a rotten interior, acting as a synecdoche the woman herself, whose raison d’être within the context of the song is to take advantage of men. The themes of coercion and emotional manipulation that the rappers deal with are uncomfortable, particularly as ‘Mona Lisa’ was released amid the #MeToo movement. That discomfort is intensified by their undoubtable ability to tell a story, to paint a picture in words.
What works well is when songwriters, like Lil Wayne and Kendrick Lamar, like Britney Spears, tell a story of their own –whether based on reality or not– through the Mona Lisa. What works less well is when songwriters name-drop Da Vinci’s iconic portrait and expect their listener to pin down the meaning of their reference. The ambiguity we ascribe to the painting makes it difficult to define that meaning. However, when thoroughly explored in lyrics, it is that same ambiguity which enables the Mona Lisa’s smile to be deceitful in the verses of Lil Wayne and Kendrick Lamar and wistful in those of Britney Spears.
Should you like to dive into any of the songs I’ve mentioned in this article, you will find them (and many, many more Mona Lisa related songs) in the Spotify playlist below. Speaking from experience, that will.i.am song will.get.stuck in your head, so don’t say I didn’t warn you.
 Sassoon, Donald. “‘Mona Lisa’: The Best-Known Girl in the Whole Wide World.” History Workshop Journal, no. 51, 2001, pp. 1–18.