Use Popular Songs to Teach Similes

Contemporary Songs Lyrically Compare Two Unlike Items

Bob Dyland "Like A Rolling Stone"
Blank Archives/Getty Images

A simile is a literary device, a figure of speech in which a direct comparison of two, unlike items, is used to reveal a much greater meaning: 


A simile draws resemblance with the help of the words “like” or “as”.

For example, "You're as cold as ice" is a simile in a song that has the same title by the rock group, Foreigner:


"You're as cold as ice
You're willing to sacrifice our love"

In this example, the lyrics are not referring to the weather; instead, these lyrics compare a woman to ice to illustrate her emotional state. There are many classic folk, pop, and rock and roll songs from the 1960s-1990s that can be used to teach the concept of simile.

The use of a simile in a title is in the 1965 song by Bob Dylan, who most recently won the Nobel Prize in literature. His song "Like a Rolling Stone" is about a woman who has fallen from wealth to despair:


"How does it feel
To be without a home
Like a complete unknown
Like a rolling stone?"

Arguably, the song's title may be the most famous simile in all of modern pop and rock music. And, now that Dylan is a Nobel Prize Laureate, the song—and the singer—can be a great jumping-off point for a class discussion of similes, the very meaning of literature and more.

Additional songs with the word "like" used as a simile in a title include:

Another classic song lyric with similes that uses "like" as a direct comparison is Simon & Garfunkel's (1970) "Bridge over Troubled Water." This song uses a simile to describe how friendship is an emotional bridge when there are problems:


"I'm on your side
When times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down"

Finally, Elton John composed an ode to Marilyn Monroe, "Candle in the Wind" (1973). The song, co- written by Bernie Taupin, uses an extended simile of comparing a life to a candle throughout the song:


"And it seems to me you lived your life
Like a candle in the wind
Never knowing who to cling to
When the rain set in"

The song was re-crafted into a slightly altered tune, "Goodbye England's Rose," which John performed at the 2001 funeral of Princess Diana. Even though this was nearly a quarter century after the original, the similarity of the lyrics—and the popularity of the sequel, which shot to No. 1 in many countries— demonstrates the enduring power of a well-crafted simile.

Students should not confuse simile with another figure of speech called a metaphor. The difference between the two is that only a  simile uses the words "like" and "as" in making a direct comparison. Metaphors make indirect comparisons.

Metaphors and similes are very common in music which provides a high-interest tool to teach students about both concepts.  Previewing the song lyrics, however, is critical. Often the reason for the figurative language such as a simile is to avoid using more explicit language. Several of the similes in song lyrics or the other lyrics in the song can be for mature students only. 

A teacher may also want to preview the song's video to make sure that the visual content associated with the song, which could be familiar to the students, is appropriate for the classroom. The list below has been previewed for high school students. If there is questionable material, it is noted.

The following contemporary songs all include similes: 

01
of 10

"Africa" Remake by Weezer

"Africa," a top chart hit from the band Toto in 1983. has returned in a remake by the band Weezer.  The reason? A teenager (14-year-old Mary) set up a Twitter account to pester the band into covering the song. Weezer drummer Patrick Wilson responded to her, and soon the band covered the song. There are several versions where Weird Al Yankovic joins the band in a rendition.

The lyrics are available with Weezer on this video link. One great example of a simile in the song "Africa" is 


"As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
I seek to cure what's deep inside, frightened of this thing that I've become​"

The simile also is a​ reference to Olympus, the home of the gods in Greek mythology. That is a bonus literary allusion.

Songwriters: ​David Paich,​ Jeff Porcaro

02
of 10

"Back to You" by Selena Gomez

The song "Back to You" by Selena Gomez is featured in the soundtrack of Season Two of 13 Reasons Why.  She also serves as an executive producer on the series which was based on a young adult novel by Jay Asher. The central plot deals with the suicide of a student, Hannah Baker, who leaves a box of cassette recordings detailing why she took her own life.

The song begins with a simile, comparing how the singer remembers how she felt returning to an ex-boyfriend. Note: The "shot" is a reference to alcohol, although it could also be to a vaccination: 


"Took you like a shot
Thought that I could chase you with a cold evening
Let a couple years water down how I'm feeling about you
(Feeling about you)
And every time we talk
Every single word builds up to this moment
And I gotta convince myself I don't want it
Even though I do (even though I do)"

Songwriters: Amy Allen, Parrish Warrington, Micah Premnath, Diederik Van Elsas, and Selena Gomez

03
of 10

"Simple" by Florida Georgia Line

The song "Simple" by Florida Georgia Line is just that, a simple retelling of an uncomplicated relationship.  

The song opens with a simple comparing a couple to a "six-string" guitar. The guitar is a fretted musical instrument that usually has six strings. The guitar is the basis for many folk and country-western songs.

The song features not only a guitar but also a banjo, a five-stringed instrument.  The simile is in the refrain:


"We're just simple like a six string
The way this world was meant to be
Like laughin' love, make a lot out of a little
It's just that simple, S-I-M-P-L-E
Simple as can be."

Songwriters:  Tyler Hubbard, Brian ​Kelley Michael Hardy, Mark Holman

04
of 10

"My Shot" from Hamilton: An American Musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda

The song "My Shot" is by Lin-Manuel Miranda and is from Hamilton: An American Musical. The Tony-award winning musical is about Alexander Hamilton, which was inspired by the 2004 biography Alexander Hamilton by historian Ron Chernow.

The musical's libretto by Miranda incorporates many different genres of music including hip-hop, R&B, pop, soul, traditional-style show tunes. The musical has achieved critical praise and box office success.

"My Shot" is the third song on the soundtrack. The simile is in the refrain ("like my country") in which the young Founding Father (Hamilton) compares himself to the American colonies looking to become a country.

Caution: There are some vulgarities in the lyrics.


[HAMILTON]
"And I am not throwing away
My shot
I am not throwing away
My shot
Hey yo, I’m just like my country
I’m young, scrappy and hungry
And I’m not throwing away my shot"
05
of 10

"Believer" Imagine Dragons

In this song, physical pain is compared in a simile to a choking rain of ashes. 

In an interview, lead vocal Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons explained that the song Believer, "... is about overcoming emotional and physical pain to arrive at a place of peace and self-confidence." He had suffered a serious form of arthritis in 2015:


"I was choking in the crowd
Living my brain up in the cloud
Falling like ashes to the ground
Hoping my feelings, they would drown
But they never did, ever lived, ebbing and flowing
Inhibited, limited
Till it broke up and it rained down
It rained down, like 
[Chorus]
Pain!"
06
of 10

"Body Like a Back Road" by Sam Hunt

Originally released in country music becoming his second crossover single promoted to a pop music format .

The lyrics are for mature students only as they make a direct comparison of a woman's body to the curves in a back road.


"Body like a back road, drivin' with my eyes closed
I know every curve like the back of my hand
Doin' 15 in a 30, I ain't in no hurry
I'ma take it slow just as fast as I can..."

These lyrics could be paired with e.e.cumming poem, "she being brand." In this poem, Cummings indirectly compares the driving of a new car to a clunky sexual experience.

Songwriters: Sam Hunt, Zach Crowell,  Shane McAnally,  Josh Osborne

07
of 10

"Stitches" by Shawn Mendes

This song began its ascent onto the charts in June 2015. Shawn Mendes is quoted as explaining, "The whole video is me getting beaten up by this thing that you can't see..."

Lyrics using the comparison keyword "like":


"Just like a moth drawn to a flame
Oh, you lured me in, I couldn't sense the pain
Your bitter heart cold to the touch
Now I'm gonna reap what I sow
I'm left seeing red on my own"


The end of the video reveals that the violence in the song lyrics was all part of his imagination, a creative comparison between physical hurt and emotional pain.

Songwriters: ​Danny Parker,​ Teddy Geiger

08
of 10

"Dangerous Woman" by Ariana Grande

This R&B track song offers a self-empowerment message. In an interview with Billboard Magazine, Grande explained,  “I’ll never be able to swallow the fact that people feel the need to attach a successful woman to a man when they say her name."

Lyrics using the comparison keyword "like": 


"Somethin' 'bout you makes me feel like a dangerous woman
Somethin' 'bout, somethin' 'bout, somethin' 'bout you

In the Billboard interview, the songwriter Grande also noted, "I’m much better at making songs than telling people things." 

09
of 10

"Just Like Fire" by Pink

Pink is a modern artist known for her in-your-face lyrics. "Just Like Fire" is an empowering song about Pink's own value as a person and as an artist, as her lyrics demonstrate.

Lyrics using the comparison keyword "like":


"Just like fire, burning out the way
If I can light the world up for just one day
Watch this madness, colorful charade
No one can be just like me any way
Just like magic, I'll be flying free
I'mma disappear when they come for me"

The song also hints at how important it is to Pink that she continues to make and bring light to the world through music. The song could serve as a starting point for a lesson or paper on how each student can serve as a light— a shining example —to others through words and deeds.

Sonwriters:  Alecia Moore (Pink), Max MartinKarl, Johan Schuster, Oscar Holter

10
of 10

"Ex's & Oh's" by Elle King

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, King explained how the song came to life when co-writer Dave Bassett asked her about her love life, and she started talking about her past relationships. "‘Well, this guy’s mad at me, and I was really mean to this guy, and this guy’s a loser but he still calls me," she said.

Lyrics using the comparison keyword "like":


"Ex's and the oh, oh, oh's they haunt me
Like ghosts they want me to make 'em all
They won't let go"

King and Bassett started writing the song as a joke, but when King's label (RCA) heard it, they pegged it as the hit single.