The Pretty Woman as Muse

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Carla Bruni

Carla Bruni's latest album features lyrics from the poetry of Yeats, Auden, Emily Dickinson, and other dead poets. Dave Hogan/Getty Images hide caption

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Rockers are inspired by pretty women. Pretty women are inspired by... dead poets?

Former model Carla Bruni has been romantically linked to Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, and most recently French President Nicholas Sarkozy, now her husband. But her latest album, No Promises, doesn't find inspiration from any flesh-and-blood liaison, but rather from dead poets like Emily Dickinson and William Butler Yeats.

Why do muses continue to fascinate us, and how important are they to the creative process? John Schaefer speaks with Colin Fisher, a jazz trumpeter and Harvard researcher who studies improvisation and creativity, and Ann Powers, chief pop critic for the Los Angeles Times.

Released early last year in France, No Promises came too early for Sarkozy to function as her muse. But Powers does say that Bruni falls into a tradition of similar post-war French chanteuses — or those who evoke that aesthetic, such as Feist or Norah Jones.

"It's very kind of laid-back, philosophical, cool — and I think a literary bent suits her, you know?" Powers says. "And what's exciting and kind of fun about this record is that she really doesn't make it pretentious at all. A Yeats poem feels very kind of vernacular in her mouth, in her hands, and it really works, I have to say."

The Muse's Story

Bruni comes from a musical family, and her previous record, Quelqu'un m'a dit, sold more than two million copies worldwide. But given her supermodel looks and her high profile, shouldn't she be the muse herself?

According to Powers, Bruni is tapping into that history, in a way. She worked on her English-language diction with Marianne Faithfull, once the lover of Mick Jagger. Powers says that groupies have played an important creative role in rock music, especially in its earlier stages — Faithfull is said to have written parts of Rolling Stones songs such as "Wild Horses" and "Sister Morphine."

"In the '60s, women's liberation was starting to get going — certainly sexual liberation was happening," Powers says. "So you had these strong women, but you had ... very few women who were making music — popular music or rock music specifically. So the role that women often could get was girlfriend, basically — or support system, or muse.

"This is the thing: Women behind the scenes make social connections for their men, and that's a huge reason these bands were successful, as a matter of fact, and why they endured as countercultural figures and not just like bar bands, you know."

The Source of Inspiration

The idea of the muse has existed for millennia. Colin Fisher says that the idea of creativity being foreign to humans — i.e., as a task of the gods — predates even the Greeks.

"I think we still really carry this around with us," Fisher says, "that we understand creativity — or inspiration, rather — as something that comes from outside of us, rather than something that skilled producers do and have some kind of new perspective on."

According to Fisher, artists and audiences still perceive and describe similar phenomena, but the deep muses in art history are more complex.

"We know creativity is sparked really when people are very internally motivated by their interest and enjoyment of the task itself," Fisher says. "And when they see someone, some source of inspiration that really sparks that interest and enjoyment, but also challenges their skills as a creator ... then that's when we see the deeper definition of muse than the sort of, 'We're putting someone's name on a song we wrote.'"

Not Just Women

It's not just women who can be muses, either. Powers points out that in the pop marketplace, one can market all sorts of inspiration — for example, Puff Daddy making his breakthrough hit as a tribute to his murdered friend, The Notorious B.I.G.

"I think that's a good example of how in pop, it's not just about being inspired by someone else — it's also about being able to market that story," Powers says. "We as an audience want a story behind these songs. We want to think 'Wild Horses' is about Marianne Faithfull; we want to think Diddy was really torn up about Biggie and he had to make this song. That makes us love the song all the more."

Muses will likely be around as long as erotic desires are, Powers says. But of late, both critics say that collaborations of equal footing seem to be more popular these days. In the sphere of indie rock alone, the bands Low, Ida, Dean & Britta, The Weepies, and The Arcade Fire all feature collaborations between married couples.

"I think that women's status has changed, thank God, and we see women wanting to be equal partners now more, at least in some kinds of music," Powers says.

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