Excerpted from The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, edited by Darra Goldstein. Out now from Oxford University Press.
In the Western musical canon, songs about sweets are a subset of a larger food-themed body of work. With subjects ranging from tacos to chop suey, chitlins to turtle soup, the American songbook alone draws from a range of cultural traditions as varied as the nation’s diverse population. It isn’t limited to solid foods: Innumerable songs involve coffee, tea, beer, wine, or whiskey. But the sheer volume and diversity of sweets songs warrant a distinct designation, one that captures the way sweets even influence band names, having inspired the 1980s hip-hop group the Sugarhill Gang, the 1990s punks the Candy Snatchers, and the modern garage rockers the Thick Shakes.
What follows is a selection of largely American songs that, in some way, construct themselves around sweets. Whether a sentimental sensory allusion or an ode to a favorite confection, these songs offer a variety of noteworthy titles in a highly subjective list whose breadth and playful eclecticism should make up for its inherent limitations.
“Blueberry Hill” (Fats Domino)
Fats Domino’s biggest hit takes place on a hill where two people make love before drifting apart, though we never learn if the hill was named Blueberry because it was under cultivation or if berry is a euphemism for virginity. We only know that the memory hits the narrator as both bitter and sweet.
“Brown Sugar” (the Rolling Stones)
With controversial lyrics involving a “Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields” and “black girls” who “taste so good,” this 1969 song’s central metaphor suggests everything from slave owners who raped their slaves to Mexican tar heroin to the way modern white upper-class men eroticize what they consider “exotic,” although some listeners claim brown sugar simply refers to attractive ebony women.
“Butterscotch” (Freddy King)
This 1961 song by the influential instrumental bluesman draws its name from one of the least utilized sweets in the American music canon, though with no lyrics to examine, we’ll never know why King chose this over other hard candies.
“Candy” (Iggy Pop)
The Stooges’ punk frontman scored his biggest mainstream hit with this nostalgic 1990 song about lost love. A duet with B-52s singer Kate Pierson, “Candy” reached 28 on the Billboard charts and proved that the wild, convulsing Iggy was as tender a musician as he was versatile.
“Candy Girl” (New Edition)
A teenage boy band’s 1983 tribute to a girl who looks “so sweet” she’s a “special treat,” this song features rhyming lyrics so charmingly innocent that you almost forget how formulaic they are.
“Candy Man Blues” (Mississippi John Hurt)
“All heard what sister Johnson said / She always takes a candy stick to bed / Don’t stand close to the candy man / He’ll leave a big candy stick in your hand.” The blues are filled with sexual innuendo, but these rank as some of the spiciest.
“Candy Says” (the Velvet Underground)
This song was named for Candy Darling, an actress in some of Andy Warhol’s films. Darling identified as a woman and traded her birth name James for Candy, partly because she loved sweets and partly because, as the song said, she’d come to hate her body, and her new identity’s elegant femininity suited her better.
“Cheese Cake” (Dexter Gordon)
Gordon’s 1962 classic contains one of midcentury jazz’s most memorable melodies and most literal titles. As the saxophonist himself put it during a concert at Carnegie Hall, “And this one is about something very, very good to eat: cheesecake.” Sometimes it’s as simple as that.
“Cherry Bomb” (the Runaways)
A car in cherry condition, virginity as a cherry to lose—this all-female rock band used the often-patronizing euphemism for purity and goodness to write a catchy anthem to explosive womanhood, in which there is no shame in desire and nothing bad about being sexual; there is only a group of women singing “Hello world, I’m your wild girl,” and demanding that the world deal with it.
“Cherry Pie” (Warrant)
This top-10 hit was written in 15 minutes on a pizza box under record label pressure. The pizza box is on display at the Hard Rock Café in Destin, Florida, and the central metaphor is even more prominent: cherry pie as a euphemism for a woman’s vagina, which, in this simplistic conception, resembles a triangular piece of pie.
“Cotton Candy Land” (Elvis Presley)
The song Elvis sings in the 1963 film It Happened at the World’s Fair portrays a children’s fantasy world where “every star is a candy bar, and the moon is a marshmallow dream,” offering a psychedelic precursor to Roald Dahl’s novel about Willy Wonka’s candy factory, which came out the following year.
“Honey Bee” (Muddy Waters)
In the sexual metaphor of human propagation, women often feature as the colorful flowers who emit seductive scents and wait, petals open, for fertilization, while men are the pollinators who buzz flower to flower. The bluesman Muddy Waters turns this metaphor around and makes a particular woman the bee, because even though she’s “been all around the world making honey,” she sweetens his life enough that he accepts her polyamory—as long as she “don’t sail so long.”
“The Honeydripper” (Roosevelt Sykes)
Coupled with the word honey, this blues song uses the sexually charged verb drip to refer not only to a woman’s feminine allure but the physical embodiment of her sexuality: her fluids.
“I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl” (Nina Simone)
The great singer-pianist Nina Simone wants some love in her life, though bowl here suggests she’s looking for more than a kiss.
“I Want Candy” (Bow Wow Wow)
Pop music is often more playful than cerebral, and this new wave band’s bubblegum cover of a 1960s rock ’n’ roll tune transforms the emotional strain and complexity of desire into a contagious ode to the singer’s desire for a boy so sweet that he makes her mouth water. See? Nothing complicated about that.
“Ice Cream” (Raekwon)
Raekwon and other Wu-Tang associates liken women to ice cream in this 1995 hip-hop track, representing different skin tones with different flavors, from French vanilla, butter pecan, caramel sundae, and chocolate deluxe, which the men hope to “scoop” in their ice cream truck.
“Jelly Roll Blues” (Jelly Roll Morton)
In early blues and jazz circles, the term jelly roll alternately meant “sex,” “spouse,” and “a loving woman,” and it was also slang for a man’s penis—their shared cylindrical shapes—and for the female genitalia—partly because some thought the rolled dessert cake’s folds vaguely resembled labia and partly because people compared the jelly filling to semen (“I’m gonna put some jelly in your roll”). Whatever the meaning, the cocky New Orleans jazz pianist Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe earned the boastful nickname “Jelly Roll,” and this became one of his signature songs.
“Juicy” (the Notorious B.I.G.)
Widely considered one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time, this rags-to-riches story uses the word juice to mean wealth, power, influence, and vitality. Although B.I.G. never mentions sugar or sweets, being juicy here means living a sweet life of abundance and ability, because when you’re juicy, you’re flourishing.
“Lollipop Guild” (Wizard of Oz)
In one of American cinema’s most iconic musical sequences, Dorothy arrives in Munchkinland, and a group of little people who represent a guild named after lollipops comes out to sing her this 23-second ditty.
In this 2003 international pop hit, Kelis’ milkshake “brings all the boys to the yard,” though rather than a specific body part, milkshake is, in Kelis’ words, a metaphor for “the thing that makes women special. It’s what gives us our confidence and what makes us exciting.”
“Money Honey” (the Drifters)
In this 1953 doo-wop hit, money is a force that binds and dissolves relationships and that in the process reduces people’s value to their economic usefulness—you need “money, honey, if you want to get along with me.”
“My Boy Lollipop” (Millie Small)
With its phallic shape and all the licking required of it, a lollipop may seem an overly sexual metaphor for a teenage girl to sing about, but the song’s authors might have intended nothing more than to symbolize a boy who’s “sweet as candy” and a “sugar dandy,” rather than fellatio.
“Orange Crush” (R.E.M.)
In this slyly political song, singer Michael Stipe uses Orange Crush to refer not to the sweet American citrus soda or the corrosive cultural influence that outsiders can have; he refers to Agent Orange, the toxic chemical defoliant sprayed on the Vietnamese countryside during the Vietnam War, offering a surprising lyrical twist that reveals how a simple nickname can sugarcoat unspeakable acts and mask the ugliness of battle.
“Peaches” (R. L. Burnside)
A cover of an older blues song by the farmer Yank Rachell, the yellow peaches hanging “way up in” the woman’s tree could represent her breasts suspended on her frame or the rounded shape of her bottom, though they seem just as likely to symbolize the way the woman’s overwhelming femininity makes Burnside want to fetch a stepladder in order to climb up on her “top limb” to “get up there among” her sweet fruit.
“Peaches” (the Presidents of the United States of America)
With its comic, catchy lead about “moving to the country, gonna eat me a lot of peaches,” it’s tempting to interpret this as an anthem to gluttony and peaches as a symbol of rural simplicity, summer bounty, and relaxation—the sweet life away from consumer culture—but the central metaphor is no metaphor at all: Singer Chris Ballew wrote the song after sitting under a peach tree in the yard of a woman he had a crush on, while on LSD. “I really did squish peaches in my fist,” he told me.
“Peppermint Man” (Dick Dale)
Unlike most of his songs, which are instrumental, the surf-music superstar Dick Dale wrote this vocal number about callousness and emotional inaccessibility, in which a type of man he calls Mr. Peppermint has a heart so icy that he hurts every woman who tries to love him.
“Pour Some Sugar on Me” (Def Leppard)
The recognizable rock lyrics “Pour some sugar on me, in the name of love” may mean that the singer wants to be graced by a woman’s touch or they may be total nonsense, but what’s clear is that the singer is sexually aroused and covered in enough sugar to literally and figuratively be, as he says, “hot, sticky sweet, from my head to my feet, yeah.”
“Savoy Truffle” (the Beatles)
In this tribute to the chocolate habit of his friend Eric Clapton, George Harrison plucked many of the lyrics directly from a box of Mackintosh’s Good News chocolates, and he offered an honest chorus about the dental effects of sweets: “But you’ll have to have them all pulled out after the Savoy truffle.”
“Sugar Magnolia” (Grateful Dead)
One of the Dead’s old concert staples, this song uses a nonexistent, though poetically charged, flowering hardwood to celebrate a woman and the wondrous necessity of nature.
“Sugar, Sugar” (the Archies)
Legend has it that when the pop band the Monkees declined to record this tune, the songwriters gave it to the Archies, a fictional band from The Archie Show; unfortunately, the part about the Monkees never happened. What did happen was that the songwriters and session musicians who played the cartoon Archies scored a huge hit in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada in 1969, and the song is about nothing more than one boy’s love for his “candy girl.”
“Sweet Jane” (the Velvet Underground)
This Lou Reed original appeared on the Velvet’s 1970 studio album Loaded, and its soft, haunting chorus is one of the most iconic in underground rock history.
“Sweet Leaf” (Black Sabbath)
Either the band took poetic license, or they failed to recognize that the marijuana they cherish in this song is composed not of leaves but of clustered flowers.
“Sweet Potato Pie” (Domino)
Much like Warrant’s “Cherry Pie,” this 1993 hip-hop song compares the female anatomy to a triangular wedge of dessert, though the ultra-macho rapper chooses a dark, sugary tuber more closely associated with black America than cherries: the sweet potato.
“Sweets” (Ty Segall)
With lyrics like “I heard you got lollipops in your backyard / Oh, lollipop, lollipop, lollipop, lollipop / Sweets are good, sweets are bad, you’re the sweetest thing I’ve ever had,” this 2008 song seems a fitting one to come from a musician whose recording engineer described him “a big sugar head ... a kid when it comes to candy.”
“Tutti Frutti” (Little Richard)
Although they amused small club audiences, the original lyrics to Little Richard’s 1955 masterpiece were too sexually charged for the record label, so it changed “Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy,” into the vague, phonetic “Tutti Frutti, Aw-Rootie.”
Reprinted from The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, edited by Darra Goldstein with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2015 by Oxford University Press.