Readers recommend: songs about ambition - results

Want to get elected? Make someone love you? Light up the sky like a flame? RR regular magicman does all this and more with a high-achieving selection from last week’s topic

A strong desire to do or achieve … from the Latin: ambire “go around, canvassing, for votes”. How timely that Alice Cooper kicks us off with some grandiloquent glam rock from 1972: I never lied to ya, I’ve always been cool …” Maybe if he’d run for mayor he’d have been Elected.

But what about the rest of us? What do you want from life? To dream and be happy while we do the nasty things we must?” Trapped in a capitalist wonderland, Fee Waybill of the Tubes lays out our choices in a fierce diatribe against the commercial aspirations of modern life.

By contrast, Animal Collective don’t want to bother with “material things like social status”, but they do want four walls for My Girls. How having children focuses the mind! I’ve spoken to plenty of musicians who are a long way from even that modest ambition.

Slightly more mature than Eddie Cochran, whose ambitions are the usual classic young man wants: a girl and a car, both of which are – Somethin’ Else! But by the last verse, and a slight compromise on the car, he’s fulfilled his ambition. Now what?

“Is that all you get for your money?” asks Anthony after saving his pennies for “someday”. It seems such a waste of time. Sgt O’ Leary is doing two jobs, like most people in New York, trading his Chevy for a Cadillac. Movin’ Out: another pointed attack on the miserable shallow staircase of the rat race by Billy Joel.

Glen Campbell hasn’t given up on his ambitions, but we feel that he’s unlikely to achieve them with only “a dollar tucked inside my shoe”. Rhinestone Cowboy is a deeply sad song, a dream of glamour from the point of view of a bum who knows “every crack in these dirty sidewalks of Broadway”.

“It’s a pity half of you won’t make it” acknowledges Jay-Z in his take on Alicia Keys’s Empire State Of Mind, yet another hymn to the “concrete jungle where dreams are made” AKA New York, New York. Print the myth, or listen to Billy Joel.

Ambition to be famous powers our entertainment culture, currently in the form of X-Factor; in 1980, the show peering into this world of striving and sweat was Fame. Irene Cara sang the theme song: “I’m gonna make it to heaven, light up the sky like a flame”. Legwarmers and attitude wins.

Cute in a stupid-ass way? Scott Walker has no shortage of ambitions.
Cute in a stupid-ass way? Scott Walker has no shortage of ambitions in his cover of the Jacques Brel classic. Photograph: Dezo Hoffmann/Rex Features

Even camper than that is Scott Walker covering Jacques Brel’s classic Jackie which is hilarious and exciting all together. Imagining he has banks “in every country ruled by me”, he would still prefer to be in an opium den singing Jackie, his simple ambition to be “cute, in a stupid-ass way”. Not as easy as it sounds!

The Supremes and the Temptations joined forces in 1968, with Diana Ross and Eddie Kendricks trading vocals in the driven, forceful I’m Gonna Make You Love Me, perhaps the most ambitious thing any individual can aim for, love being capricious, whimsical and elusive.

And so failed ambition : the coulda, shoulda feeling as you look over your shoulder at the life you once knew, hopefully you’re not on a midnight train to Georgia and anyway, “rock’n’roll don’t mind”, so does it really matter? What A Waste – or not – says Ian Dury.

All this individual yearning for more is what powers our system, the commercials, the competition, the ambition to “succeed”. Selfish ambition doesn’t think much about other people. Marvin Gaye broke the mould with What’s Going On?” in 1971, raising his eyes from his navel and asking “who really cares?”. That’s ambition: Save the Children.

The playlist

Songs about ambition playlist

1. Elected - Alice Cooper

2. What Do You Want From Life? - The Tubes

3. My Girls - Animal Collective

4. Somethin’ Else - Eddie Cochran

5. Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song) - Billy Joel

6. Rhinestone Cowboy - Glen Campbell

7. Empire State Of Mind - Jay-Z ft. Alicia Keys

8. Fame - Irene Cara

9. Jackie - Scott Walker

10. I’m Gonna Make You Love Me - The Supremes & The Temptations

11. What A Waste - Ian Dury

12. Save The Children - Marvin Gaye

The next topic will launch at 8pm UK time this evening for readers to nominate songs.

Would you like to choose and write up a list of songs like based on a Readers Recommend topic? We are currently seeking a volunteer for the topic launching next Thursday 7 May (election night - should be lively) to be published the following week. There will be further opportunities in June onwards. Email to arrange.


Ralph Brown

The GuardianTramp

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