Believe it or not, some of the greatest hits in the music industry have managed to capture our hearts and ears while totally fooling us. Occasionally, the confusion has arisen from our utter ignorance to what the song lyrics actually are saying. But sometimes, artists have slipped in metaphors so cryptic that they’ve totally slid right past millions of fans. Here is a list of some of the most misunderstood famous songs in modern music history, with the true story as to what the artist actually intended when they put pen to paper. You’ll never hear your favorite tunes quite the same way again.
1. “Blackbird” by The Beatles (1968)
From one of the most hauntingly tranquil and uncomplicated Beatles ballads, to the tune every frat boy claims to know on guitar just to pick up girls, you know this song by heart. But don’t let the chirping bird sampled on the heavily symbolic track mislead you. It’s actually about humans.
Paul McCartney wrote the song while the Beatles were on their meditation retreat in India in 1968. While he has given different explanations over time, the one he most commonly mentions is that he was actually referring to the Black Power movement in the United States, seeing people of color rise up and speak out. Remember, ‘bird’ means ‘woman’ in English slang.
2. “American Woman” by The Guess Who (1970)
Ladies from the United States, admit it: you’ve tossed your hair and proudly boogied to this song like it’s describing who you are. But once you actually learn the song lyrics, you’ll realize this rocking tune is rather far from idolizing you: in fact, the band is making fun of you!
When you understand that the band, rock legends The Guess Who, hail from just across the border in Canada, suddenly it becomes clearer that they’re poking fun at their neighbors. In fact, when they were invited to play at the White House, Nixon’s wife specifically requested not to hear this jam.
3. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler (1983)
Welsh diva Bonnie Tyler’s instantly memorable raspy voice combined with some of the most dramatic song lyrics of the decade boosted “Total Eclipse of the Heart” into becoming a power ballad legend. But what on Earth was going on in that bizarre, creepy music video? The secret perhaps lies in the song’s origins.
Believe it or not, this song started off as a ballad from a…musical about vampires. Composer Jim Steinman, famous for having worked on ballads with Meat Loaf, originally intended for the song to appear in a show about Nosferatu, under the working title “Vampires In Love”! When the show did appear on Broadway in 2002, it was a disastrous failure.
4. “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins (1981)
If you thought this song was about Phil Collins being unable to save a man from drowning, you’re not alone. Eminem also took the song lyrics quite literally when he referenced it in “Stan”. But it turns out that the popular urban legend surrounding the song’s genesis has all been a pack of lies.
Phil Collins has gone on record over the past few years in the press and on talk shows, just to put the rumors surrounding this legendarily melancholy song to rest. He’s said that he was going through a messy separation at the time that he penned the tune, and he channeled that anger into a song for which he himself can’t give a full explanation.
5. “Imagine” by John Lennon (1971)
“Imagine” is easily one of the most recognized songs on the planet, made elegiac in the wake of John Lennon’s passing. With its gentle tones, and hopeful plea for peace, it’s easy to forget just how politically laden the song lyrics actually are. And that’s precisely what Lennon intended — though it had some adverse affects.
The message brought forth by “Imagine” is virulently anti-capitalist, also railing against religion (though not faith) and nationalism. Its critics, therefore, had a field day pinning the counterculture legend as promoting Communism. John Lennon clarified that he did not identify with any political movement, but that elements of the song were more or less a rewording of the Communist Manifesto.
6. “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen (1984)
With that massive American flag backdrop, and the hopeful uplifting melody, you could easily think that this main track off the eponymous 1984 album was a rallying cry for patriotism. Indeed, many forces surrounding President Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign didn’t quite get the chorus, and so were duped. Listen to the song lyrics more closely.
The catchiest refrain is written with bitter irony. The song actually critiques American society. It both seeks to understand the negative effects that the Vietnam War wrought on an entire generation, but also the American public’s shaming and ostracizing of veterans upon their return to the country from Southeast Asia.
7. “Every Breath You Take” by The Police (1983)
One of the best-selling songs of the 1980s, it managed to severely distract its listeners from its actual message. No, it is not romantic. No, it is not thoughtful nor endearing. This breathy tune by The Police is about a stalker. Frankly, its writer, Sting, rolls his eyes when people tell him they want it played at their wedding.
Escaping the press scrutiny of his romantic life, Sting holed up in Jamaica, at the estate of James Bond writer Ian Fleming, and set to writing. He thought of a lover, driven mad by obsession with a past flame, and the creepy surveillance mission he embarks upon, almost like Big Brother. Enjoy your slow dance.
8. “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan (1997)
“Angel” is one of the most touching, gorgeously evocative songs ever written, driven by soft piano and Canadian singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan’s silvery, ethereal voice. Featured in the Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan romance City of Angels, for many it became linked to the film’s sentiments, where an angel falls for a mortal.
The song’s actual history is truly heart-wrenching. Sarah McLachlan dedicated the hymn to the touring keyboardist for rock group The Smashing Pumpkins, who succumbed to substance abuse. With its lyrics, it is intended to explore the dark feelings of helplessness and loneliness that could lead a person down that tragic road.
9. “The One I Love” by REM (1987)
Sure, the title and opening line of this hit by college rock giants REM could set up the listener to believe that this song is a romantic ballad. But once again, it’s time to pay better attention to the song lyrics and its overall tone. The song is savagely bleak.
Its outlook on romance reduces the partner to a mere prop, and singer Michael Stipe has said in interviews that the song is “incredibly violent”, and brutally honest in its acerbic outlook. Because so many listeners haven’t got the message, he’s also said that at this point, perhaps they should just go on believing what they believe.
10. “Iron Man” by Black Sabbath (1970)
With an escalating series of four face-melting power chords, Black Sabbath, the godfathers of heavy metal, taught the flower power generation that not everything was rosy, and headbanging was a great way to get out your aggression. However, its use in ads for the movie bearing its name may confuse you.
The song title and its subject have nothing to do with the Marvel Comics superhero Iron Man, even though Stan Lee and his collaborators had created the character just a few years prior. The song is about a disaffected man travelling back from the future, trying to warn mankind of their impending apocalypse, being ignored, and taking out his wrath.
11. “Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett (1980)
With this tune and its nasty song lyrics, former Runaways member Joan Jett roared into the music scene and proved she was a force to be reckoned with. The thing is, she wasn’t just trying to impress listeners with a bad girl image. She was writing from experience in an industry that didn’t want her.
This punk rock legend had struggled just to get her album released, being rejected by no less than 23 record companies. Following the astronomical success of her timeless hit “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” the next year, she released a video to “Bad Reputation” mocking the record labels who had turned her down — causing some to take umbrage and request that MTV stop airing it.
12. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles (1967)
Yes, it was the ’60s, and everyone was into opening and expanding their minds, occasionally with the use of chemicals. So it’s understandable why many listeners heard this trippy song with its whimsically psychedelic lyrics and assumed it was about more than meets the eye. The truth is a lot cleaner.
John Lennon’s three-year-old son Julian had been in nursery school, and came home to his dad and drummer Ringo Starr, holding a picture he had drawn. He explained that it was his classmate Lucy, flying in the sky with diamonds! John loved the sound of it, and put pen to paper.
13. “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton (1974)
Cover or original, if you haven’t heard this song, you’ve been on another planet. Dolly Parton’s insistence on retaining the publishing rights to the song she wrote ended up being one of the best business deals in music history, thanks to Whitney Houston. From the song lyrics, you could easily deduce it’s the most epic love song ever.
However, Dolly Parton actually wrote the hit about a non-romantic breakup. She had made the decision to part ways professionally from her long-term mentor, Porter Wagoner, after having partnered with him as a musical duo for seven years. She wanted to make sure he knew she still respected him and wished him the best.
14. “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind (1997)
Few songs from the ’90s can be as light and easygoing as this master hit of the radio waves. As catchy and bouncy as the tune is, the original intent of the song lyrics was something far more sinister, something that was ultimately censored for airplay. Fans had no idea what was actually behind the writing process.
Songwriter and lead singer Stephan Jenkins was disturbed to see how many of his friends at the time had fallen prey to substance abuse, and even wrote some explicit references in the song’s original lyrics. The song’s meaning, therefore, was lost when it was tidied up to be made more marketable.
15. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana (1991)
With just two pairs of chords side by side, Nirvana managed to redefine the music world and to give a voice to an entire generation lost in space. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is without a doubt one of the best known songs on the planet, and yet, as the “Weird Al” Yankovic parody alludes, we’re still not sure what it’s about.
Is it a paean to anger and confusion themselves, or about something more? Is it about a teenage revolution, as the music video in a high school gym would suggest? Some have even proposed that it’s about Kurt Cobain’s relationship with his ex-girlfriend. Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl has told listeners not to read too much into the lyrics, that the song perhaps has no message at all.
16. “MMMBop” by Hanson (1997)
As the late ’90s wave of bubblegum pop began to turn into a tsunami, just as the boy bands began to conquer the planet, these three teenaged brothers from Oklahoma let out a ray of sunshine, and just as quickly disappeared. But what was that strange word they had built a song around?
Upon hearing the brothers explain themselves, the song lyrics become somewhat less murky. They had made up this nonsensical word “mmmbop” to describe a measurement of time, somewhat like a flash or a jiffy. The message is about living life to the fullest and being in the moment, because in an instant, everything could change.
17. “Poker Face” by Lady Gaga (2008)
You didn’t honestly think this song was entirely devoted to card games, now, did you? One of international superstar Lady Gaga’s earliest smash hits, “Poker Face” remains one of her most popular and well-known numbers. We’ve all had to put up a poker face from time to time, but hers has a specific reason.
One can infer from the song’s lyrics that perhaps Gaga is trying to please or impress a male suitor while hiding her true feelings. In reality, the song was a way of Lady Gaga expressing her bisexuality. It was an ode to various boyfriends she had made on the rise to stardom, while still feeling her other half was unfulfilled.
18. “Like a Virgin” by Madonna (1984)
She made it through the wilderness, and launched into full-blown superstardom, thanks in big part to the coy lyrics of this pop hit and her show-stopping performance at the MTV VMAs in that wedding dress. Truth be told, however, Jim Broadbent’s quirky cover of this in Moulin Rouge was not too far from what it was originally intended to be.
The song was written by two men, Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly. If that makes you uncomfortable, don’t be: when it was written, Steinberg had just started a new, blossoming romantic relationship after leaving a collapsing one. He wrote it from a place of honesty, rather than shock value, and never thought it would be sung by a woman!
19. “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day (1997)
It’s graced generations of school graduations, wistful prom dances, and perhaps it’s even able to be classified as a tearjerker. Its wistful, nostalgic tone and strings compel the listener to reflect back on joyful times past, a life well lived, even old loves. But that’s not at all its intention.
Green Day singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong had to wait a full seven years before releasing the song, as it clashed so much with his band’s material. It was actually written during a bitter moment in his life, when his girlfriend ditched him in 1990 to move to Ecuador. Check out that snarky title.
20. “Rock The Casbah” by The Clash (1982)
Punk forerunners The Clash had been asked by their manager to write shorter songs. Most of this rollicking, snarky hit was written by drummer Topper Headon, but singer Joe Strummer tossed the old lyrics out the window. After hearing about the Ayatollah’s radio ban in Iran following the Islamic Revolution, he was incensed.
He had been told by a colleague that just possessing a disco record in fundamentalist Iran could cost the owner 20 lashes. So, while appropriating lingo from a variety of Middle Eastern languages, he wrote a tune about a king’s unsuccessful attempts to keep his subjects from listening to rock music.
21. “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt (2005)
Several years after his actions as a captain in the British Army during the Kosovo War likely helped prevent World War III, James Blunt’s hit song and its accompanying video of him disrobing in a snowstorm were an unstoppable force of nature. But look into the song lyrics and you’ll see there’s more than meets the ears.
James Blunt himself is quick to point out that his original intentions for the song were not at all a romantic ballad. Even as listeners melted to this sad story of a man who can’t be with the girl he loves, the lyrics actually speak about a guy who’s out of his mind and stalking a girl.
22. “S&M” by Rihanna (2011)
Don’t believe what the song lyrics say, and don’t believe what that highly suggestive music video will have you thinking. Rihanna insists that it’s all a metaphor, her playing on words to expound upon a point she’s making. It’s not about different ways of exploring pleasure — it’s about the media.
Rihanna says that this cheeky hit is inspired by celebrities’ relationship with the media and how it can fluctuate. She notes how sometimes she and other A-listers often feed off of the attention that the press give them, but it can dissolve into love-hate, where the scrutiny can be suffocating.
23. “Closing Time” by Semisonic (1998)
The lights are going up in the bar, it’s your last chance to buy a beer, and you just might be repulsed by the way the person next to you looks under fluorescent bulbs. Chances are, this is the precise situation where you’ve heard this song playing. Doesn’t the title just ask for it?
Dan Wilson, the lead singer for Semisonic, actually wrote the song about an entirely different experience, albeit using the metaphor that bars caught onto. He was inspired as he waited for fatherhood. His first daughter, Corazon, was about to be born, and the song is actually about being bounced out into the world.
24. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” by Green Day (2004)
Green Day’s American Idiot album hit the music scene like an earthquake, one of the first and largest artistic outcries against the Bush administration and the Iraq War. The long, plot-based music video for this single fell in line with that theme, depicting a young couple torn apart when the boyfriend decides to enlist, and goes to Iraq with the Marines.
Only the song’s original intent has nothing to do with that, and in fact is rather unrelated to the rest of the album. The song lyrics are upfront about its true meaning: an ode to singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong’s late father, who had passed away from cancer when the frontman was just ten years old — in the month of September.
25. “Hey Ya!” by OutKast (2003)
One of the most successful songs of the new millennium thus far, this rollicking joyous boogie remains a staple on dance floors the world over. But in between all those bits about being cooler than cool, or shaking it like a Polaroid picture, the song’s peppy beat belies a shockingly bleak story.
The speaker of the song actually describes a depressing scenario, whereby he is stuck in a joyless relationship he longer wants a part of, and bemoaning the fact that he’s still in it whatsoever. He even references his parents as a touchstone, noting that at least they were able to keep together.
26. “Mother and Child Reunion” by Paul Simon (1972)
With it’s upbeat reggae rhythm, it would be easy to assume that Paul Simon’s 1972 song “Mother and Child Reunion” was about, well just that, a mother and child, separated but happily reuniting. Is her child coming home from college for a visit or returning after a long sojourn abroad? Not even close.
The reunion of mother and child is a beautiful thing, but it’s not actually the subject of this bop. According to Paul Simon, he was inspired by a dish from his local Chinese take-out restaurant, comprised of chicken and egg that was facetiously called “Mother and Child Reunion.” When Simon saw the name of the dish he mentally bookmarked it for a future song. Inspiration truly is all around us!
27. “Harder to Breathe” by Maroon 5 (2002)
Did anyone else play this catchy song on repeat during a bad breakup? Getting over heartbreak can be hard, and music has long served as a channel for the forlorn to cope with their emotions. However, a romantic plights is not, in fact, what Adam Levine is singing about in the Maroon 5 banger “Harder to Breathe.”
In an interview Levine revealed that the Billboard Hot 100 song is actually about frustration with the music label Octone Records asking for more songs to add to the band’s debut album Songs About Jane before deeming it ready. Levine said they felt pressured to keep writing despite the band believing the album was complete. But in the end they couldn’t be happier – the song was released as the lead single.
28. “Hotel California” by Eagles (1977)
Arguably the Eagles’ best known song and a karaoke classic (before you remember that the song is a whopping six and a half minutes long). “Hotel California” is a pensive, almost mythical soft rock single that seems to mean something else to every person who hears it. But the Eagles were happy to settle the debate.
Although rumors that it was inspired by either The Beverly Hills Hotel or the Chateau Marmont have persisted for years the song is in actuality far less literal. According to the band, “Hotel California” is half weird song “just to see if we could do it,” and half sociopolitical rumination on the high life of Hollywood and L.A. as a whole.
29. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens (1961)
Another day, another children’s song that doesn’t mean what you’d thought your whole life. That’s right, there’s no lion sleeping tonight, not in the mighty jungle nor the quiet village. Well, not in the literal sense anyway. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is a lot more profound than the whimsical verbalization of what brings to mind image of the opening scenes of Disney animated classic “The Lion King.”
Originally recorded by Simon Linda but made widely popular by The Tokens in 1961, the lion in the lyrics refers to a person and not a big cat. The lion is commonly regarded as the king of the jungle, and in this song is code for the highly influential early 19th century king of the Zulus, Shaka Zulu. The “sleeping” Zulus, lead by Shaka Zulu, would one day “wake up” and defeat the British regime of the time.
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