So, it’s no surprise that some of history’s most famous songs have been completely misunderstood. Read on to discover the true meaning behind some of the world’s biggest music hits.
"Imagine" by John Lennon
John Lennon's "Imagine" has become a hymn of peace and love throughout generations. And although the former Beatle's song is an obvious plea for world peace, it deals with many other issues that a lot of people might have overlooked. In a 1980's interview, Lennon talked a lot about the song's mention of religion: “The concept of positive prayer … If you can imagine a world at peace, with no denominations of religion – not without religion but without this my God-is-bigger-than-your-God thing – then it can be true..."
In another interview, Lennon said, “Imagine that there was no more religion, no more country, no more politics,’ is virtually the Communist Manifesto, even though I’m not, particularly a Communist and I do not belong to any movement… There is no real Communist state in the world; you must realize that. The Socialism I speak about … is not the way some daft Russian might do it, or the Chinese might do it. That might suit them. Us, we should have a nice … British Socialism.”
"I Will Always Love You" by Dolly Parton
Country music queen, Dolly Parton, has topped the music charts many times over the years. She is recognized nationwide for her sweet and simple songs and her constant big smile. Best known for songs like "9 to 5", "Jolene," and others, there is one song that remains a timeless favorite: "I Will Always Love You." In fact, the song became so popular that legendary diva Whitney Houston recorded a version of it back in 1992.
But contrary to what most people believe (and logically so), which is that the song is clearly a love song that Dolly wrote for a romantic interest, this isn't exactly the case. Parton actually wrote the song for her mentor, the famous American country singer Porter Wagoner. She said the song was about moving on professionally, and she had written it for Wagoner to make sure he understood how thankful she was and how much she appreciated him. After all, they did work together for seven years.
"Every Breath You Take" by The Police
Everybody knows this 80s classic by The Police. "Every Breath You Take" practically became an anthem at weddings, proms, and other important rites of passage. The funny thing is, contrary to what most people believe; the tune is far from a love song.
For anyone who pays close attention, the lyrics make reference to someone who is so obsessed they have become a stalker. Sting even said of the song, “I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly, and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song when it’s quite the opposite.”
"Mr. Tambourine Man" by Bob Dylan
"Mr. Tambourine Man" has become one of the most famous songs in the history of music and one of Bob Dylan's undisputed masterpieces. However, this 1965 classic, which has been covered by many musicians since, has been misunderstood by many.
Most people believed the song to be an autobiographical song about Dylan finding artistic inspiration through substance use. Nonetheless, "Mr. Tambourine Man" was actually an ode to Bruce Langhorne, a touring musician who performed with Dylan and played a large Turkish frame drum that looked a lot like a tambourine.
"Waterfalls" by TLC
Anybody that grew up in the 90s will remember the famous, all-girl pop trio, TLC. In 1995, the trio broke records with their smash hit "Waterfalls," even though this was one of the most misunderstood songs of all time. Most people thought it was about slowing down and appreciating life, not rushing into things. But in reality, the song dealt with far more complex issues.
If you listen carefully to the song's lyrics and watch its music video, you will quickly realize that "Waterfalls" was actually about the severe social issues of the mid-90s, such as poverty, crime, and many other issues that made headlines back then.
"Total Eclipse of the Heart" by Bonnie Tyler
In 1983, music charts everywhere were topped with Bonnie Tyler's hit song, "Total Eclipse of the Heart." And even though you'd be hard-pressed to find somebody that doesn't know this 80's hit, most people are unaware of its actual meaning. As it turns out, the song's producer, Jim Steinman, wrote the song for Tyler after she had said no to two previous versions he'd written.
Apparently, Steinman had been working on a musical based on the vampire tale of Nosferatu, called "Vampires in Love," which he fixed and slightly changed until he arrived at the final product: "Total Eclipse of the Heart." So yes, this 80's anthem is basically a love song for vampires.
"Born in the U.S.A." by Bruce Springsteen
Springsteen's classic song, "Born in the U.S.A.," is an excellent example of a song that has been misunderstood for over 30 years. Even though the song's lyrics are about a man who's been sent to fight in the Vietnam War and comes home with severe psychological trauma, the loud, powerful music of the chorus made many believe it was actually some sort of 'proud to be American anthem, especially when Springsteen shouts out, "Born in the U.S.A".
In fact, it was so misunderstood that even then-president Reagan name-dropped the song, much to Springsteen's dismay. The musician vehemently explained the song's true meaning and even released an acoustic version, so the upbeat sound didn't mask the lyrics.
"Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" by Green Day
This famous ballad by Green Day became a massive hit back in the day, in part due to the fact that the popular TV show 'Seinfeld' used it in its season finale in 1998. The song has become a permanent fixture in important events - graduations, proms, weddings - thanks to its nostalgic tune.
Funnily enough, it seems nobody ever stopped to properly research the song's lyrics, or its title, for that matter. The song is not about a nostalgic goodbye to unforgettable times but rather a resentful scolding towards a girlfriend who will regret leaving the "time of her life" one day.
"Always" by Bon Jovi
Bon Jovi was one of the hottest bands of the 90s, topping music charts with hits like "It's My Life," "Bed of Roses," and "I'll Be There for You." But one of their biggest hits was 1994's "Always." As most previous Bon Jovi songs usually had a romantic undertone and were always about a declaration of love, in some way or other, people assumed that "Always" was another love ballad.
However, most of these people seemed to look over the fact that this song had a much darker backstory, which could be heard in its lyrics. As Jon Bon Jovi himself explained of the song, “It’s a sick little twisted lyric. So many people feel it’s so romantic and so wonderful, but truthfully, this guy is practically a stalker. He’s a sick human being.”
"American Pie" by Don McLean
Don McLean's 1971 iconic song, "American Pie," became a symbol of the times, and even though almost 50 years have passed since its release, you can still hear it today at friendly music jams, bonfires, karaoke parties, and more, all across the U.S. However, anybody who's ever listened carefully to the lyrics can quickly feel their nostalgic and depressing nature. Since its release, the song has been covered by countless artists, including Madonna's popular cover in the year 2000. But people just chant the famous "Bye, Bye Miss American Pie" and often forget what the original song was actually about.
The lyrically deep song is actually about the infamous 1959 plane crash that claimed the lives of Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and J.P. Richardson, and which is widely known as "the day the music died." McLean auctioned the original manuscript in 2015, saying, "Basically, in 'American Pie, things are heading in the wrong direction. It is becoming less ideal, less idyllic. I was around in 1970, and now I am around in 2015. There is no poetry and very little romance in anything anymore, so it is really like the last phase of 'American Pie.'"
"Perfect Day" by Lou Reed
Lou Reed will forever remain one of history's most talented musicians. His legendary career spanned over five decades, producing many masterpieces. One of those masterpieces was the 1972 hit, "Perfect Day." The song has been used over the years in countless upbeat and cheerful commercials for products like Playstation 4, cellphone company services, etc. This is quite ironic, considering that the song is actually about substances and how they make for the "perfect day."
For years, many thought the song was about love and how it had the power of making someone's day perfect. But it wasn't love that Lou was thinking about when he sang, "Oh, it's such a perfect day, I'm glad I spent it with you."
"In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins
"In the Air Tonight" was a huge hit when it was first released in 1981, despite its rather disturbing (alleged) backstory. It became a sort of urban legend that the song was about a man that watched another man drown and did nothing to help him. And apparently, Phil Collins witnessed the whole thing and decided to write a song about it. What's more, Collins supposedly found the man and invited him to a concert, and sang the tune right in his face.
The story became so viral on the internet that even famous rapper Eminem wrote a few sentences about it in his hit song, "Stan." However, as it turns out, the whole story was fake, and Collins later explained there was no particular backstory to the song but rather a general reference to the sadness he felt after his divorce.
"Poker Face" by Lady Gaga
Ever since Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" came out in 2008, it has been playing non-stop in clubs, parties, on radios, and virtually everywhere around the world. Now, while it is immediately clear that the song is full of controversial innuendos, not many people actually know about the specific experience Lady Gaga is referring to.
The singer revealed that the song was about a time when she was intimately involved with a man but was actually fantasizing about a woman. Hence the "poker face" she had to pull so the man wouldn't know what she was actually thinking about.
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" by Nirvana
"Smells Like Teen Spirit" is considered Nirvana's magnum opus and a generational anthem for 90s youth. Ironically so, nobody seems to have really understood what the 1991 hit song was about, and that includes Kurt Cobain himself. While many thought that it was a criticism of Cobain's generation and surroundings, the title actually came from something a friend of the band wrote on Cobain's wall.
Apparently, a girl called Kathleen Hanna wrote "Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit" on the wall, and since Cobain had no idea that Teen Spirit was actually a deodorant brand, he used the phrase while writing what he said was "the ultimate pop song." In a biographical book about Nirvana, Cobain said the song “described what I felt about my surroundings and my generation and people my age.” But then he goes on to say the song was “making fun of the thought of having a revolution.” Drummer Dave Grohl has said that the song's lyrics have no real meaning.
"Love Song" by Sara Bareilles
The talented American singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles topped the charts back in 2007 with her famous "Love Song." The beautiful voice arrangements, the sweet sound, and, obviously, the title had everyone thinking this was, quite simply, a love song. But actually, Sara didn't write this as a love song for a guy, a girl, or anybody, for that matter.
She actually wrote it after getting incredibly frustrated and angry with her record label after they'd constantly been rejecting her songs. Hence her strong declaration in the lyrics, "I'm not going to write you a love song, 'cause you asked for it, 'cause you need one...". "Love Song" was Bareilles' way of standing her ground, and in the end, she ended up being a huge success while doing things her way.
"Harder to Breath" by Maroon 5
Maroon 5's 2002 album, 'Songs About Jane,' catapulted the band to stardom. The entire album was basically about one of the lead singers, Adam Levine's ex-girlfriends. So logically, people assumed that the hit single, "Harder to Breathe," was also about the failed relationship. But as Levine explained, the song was written after the band's record company pressured them to "throw out more songs."
The lead singer clarified in an interview, “That song comes sheerly from wanting to throw something. It was the 11th hour, and the label wanted more songs. It was the last crack. I was just pissed. The label was applying a lot of pressure, but I’m glad they did.”
"Wake Me Up When September Ends" by Green Day
In 2004, Green Day's "Wake Me Up When September Ends" became a huge hit. However, many people completely misunderstood the song's meaning. Since the song was the eleventh track on Green Day's American Idiot album, which was greatly influenced by and made reference to 9/11, people believed the song had a strong political meaning.
What's more, the song's video theme was a War. Nonetheless, "Wake Me Up When September Ends" had nothing to do with politics and was actually a tribute to lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong's father, who died when he was seven years old.
"Closing Time" by Semisonic
"Closing Time" is another one of those songs that basically became a trademark for bars that wanted to "politely" kick people out when it was time to close. And while it does make sense that this Semisonic song became synonymous with a 'last call' anthem, since it is about people leaving a bar at 'closing time,' it has another, entirely different meaning.
The band's drummer, Jacob Slichter, once said that "Closing Time," written by lead singer Dan Wilson, was about Wilson's "anticipation of fatherhood." Apparently, his girlfriend was pregnant at the time, and he meant for the song to be about "being sent forth from the womb as if by a bouncer clearing out a bar." However, the band quickly realized and understood that audiences would logically think the song was about a bar at closing time.
"Alive" by Pearl Jam
When you first listen to Pearl Jam's hit 1991 song "Alive," it sounds like an anthem of inspiration and perseverance against all odds. The band's legendary lead singer, Eddie Vedder, shouts out, "Yeah, yeah I, oh, I'm still alive," with his unique voice and a heartfelt passion that just makes you want to keep on playing the song on repeat. But when digging a little deeper, we learn that the song has a backstory behind it that very few know about.
As it turns out, the song was written by Vedder after he discovered, as a teenager, that the man he had believed to be his father all those years wasn't his biological father - who had actually passed away years ago. As Vedder explained to Rolling Stone magazine in an interview, when talking about the guy in the song (himself), “He’s still dealing with love, he’s still dealing with the death of his father. All he knows is ‘I’m still alive".
"Just Like Heaven" by The Cure
The 80s wouldn't have been the same without The Cure, and it's no surprise that "Just Like Heaven," released in 1987, became one of their most popular songs. Although it sounds like your typical love song, the band's lead singer, Robert Smith, said there was something more complex behind the tune.
Smith explained that "the song is about hyperventilating—kissing and fainting to the floor,” and that some lyrics were actually based on his childhood memories of trying to learn and master magic tricks when he was young. Furthermore, Smith has said that “on another level, it’s about a seduction trick, from much later in my life.”
"Summer of '69" by Bryan Adams
Contrary to what many people might think, "Summer of '69" is not a nostalgic love tribute to the magical summer of 1969. The famous "Summer of '69" song, which was actually released in 1984, was not based on its writers, Canadian singer Bryan Adams and friend Jim Vallance's experiences as teenagers in '69, which should've been quite obvious to most listeners, since Adams was barely 9 years old in 1969.
Although the song does make some references to the musicians' personal lives, Adams explained that the '69 actually referred to the 69' position.
"Buddy Holly" by Weezer
Despite its title, most people who've heard the 1994 Weezer song, "Buddy Holly," know it has nothing to do with the actual musician. In fact, after listening to the song's lyrics, "You know I’m yours, and I know you’re mine, and that’s for all time," most people assumed it was about an intimate relationship, a dedication of love. However, Weezer's lead singer, Rivers Cuomo, claims that's not the case at all: "It’s very platonic. Not a romantic thing at all."
And to be fair, after carefully listening to the song's lyrics, it becomes quite obvious that they're not explicitly romantic. Actually, they're almost purposely vague. Audiences just quickly assumed the song was romantic since it was about a guy singing a song about a girl. But in reality, that's all it is - simply a guy singing about a girl.
"The One I Love" by R.E.M.
Despite its title, "The One I Love" by R.E.M. is far from a love song. Actually, R.E.M. almost decided not to record it because they thought it was “too brutal, … really violent and awful,” according to Michael Stipe, the band's lead singer.
Obviously, the song's title makes us think it's another typical love song, but once you listen to the lyrics, you quickly realize this is not a song you would ever dedicate to the love of your life. For one thing, they call a lover "a simple prop to occupy my time." It's hard to think that would get you any points with your sweetheart.
"Slide" by Goo Goo Dolls
The Goo Goo Dolls were a popular 90s band, but it was their 1998 hit single, "Slide," that got them into the big leagues. At first, the upbeat song seems to be a typical story about two young lovers against the world. But apparently, the song was far less romantic than people thought.
As lead singer and songwriter Johnny Rzeznik explained, "The song is actually about these two teenage kids, and the girlfriend gets pregnant and … they’re trying to decide whether she should get an abortion, or they should get married, or what should go on."
"American Girl" by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers became a symbol of 1970s American rock, and one of their greatest hits was the song "American Girl." For years, many people believed the song was about a girl who'd taken her own life. Nevertheless, Petty denied the whole thing in his 2005 book, 'Conversations with Tom Petty.'
Petty explains, "It’s become a huge urban myth down in Florida...The song has nothing to do with that. But that story really gets around. …I’ve even seen magazine articles about that story. They could have just called me and found out it wasn’t true.” The rock star then goes on to explain that the song's actual inspiration came from the time when he lived in California: “I was living in an apartment right by the freeway. And the cars sounded like the ocean to me. That was my ocean. My Malibu. Where I heard the waves crash, but it was just the cars going by. I think that must have inspired the lyric.”
"Puff the Magic Dragon" by Peter, Paul, and Mary
It makes sense that most people thought "Puff the Magic Dragon" was about substance use. But most people would be wrong.
The hit song, written by Peter, Paul, and Mary, in 1963, is actually based on a poem that a friend of band member Peter Yarrow wrote. The poem, written by Leonard Lipton, was about a child that played with an imaginary friend - a dragon named Puff.
"Like a Virgin" by Madonna
It may seem that Madonna's "Like a Virgin" is pretty self-explanatory - a tribute to a young woman that is having intimate relations for the first time. However, the 1984 hit song was actually written by artists Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, and it was inspired by how vulnerable Steinberg felt about a new relationship.
In an interview with the 'LA Times' a few years after the song came out, Steinberg explained, “I wasn’t just trying to get that racy word virgin in a lyric. I was just starting a new relationship, and it just feels so good; it’s healing all the wounds and making me feel like I’ve never done this before because it’s so much deeper and more profound than anything I’ve ever felt.”
"Paper Planes" by M.I.A.
When M.I.A.'s hit song "Paper Planes" came out in 2008, most people thought it was about an illegal substance dealer. However, M.I.A. later clarified that the song was about the experiences that immigrants go through when moving to the U.S. She explained how she felt that people didn't think immigrants contributed to a country's culture in any way - something she strongly disagreed with.
M.I.A. goes on to say, "People think that they’re just leeches that suck from whatever. So in the song, I say, ‘All I wanna do is [sound of gun shooting and reloading, cash register opening] and take your money.’ I did it in sound effects. It’s up to you how you want to interpret it. America is so obsessed with money; I’m sure they’ll get it.”
"London Calling" by The Clash
The Clash's "London Calling" became an anthem of criticism against British politics and society back in 1979. But in reality, the song's meaning was far simpler.
Apparently, in 1979, the band's co-founder and lead guitarist, Mick Jones, read an article in a newspaper that said the Thames river might overflow and flood the city of London due to severe global warming. Jones took the news very seriously and, as he said himself, "flipped." And then decided to write a song about it.
"Ticket to Ride" by The Beatles
If anyone were to ask you what the famous "Ticket to Ride" song is about, you would probably say it's about a woman on a train on the way to see her boyfriend. At least, most people would. However, as John Lennon explained, the famous Beatles' song had a completely different meaning.
He explained that they got their inspiration for the song while touring in Hamburg, Germany before they reached worldwide fame. The song made reference to cards that German working girls used to carry with them back in the 1960s, indicating a clean bill of health. Or, as Lennon liked to call them, their "ticket to ride."
"One" by U2
Since its release in 1991, "One" became one of U2's most famous songs. The track was originally thought to be a tribute to togetherness, whether it was in a fraternal, friendly, romantic, or platonic way. But the band eventually revealed that "One" was actually written at a time of great turbulence and disagreement between its members. U2 wasn't sure about its future as a band, and apparently, this uncertainty led to some beautifully melancholic lyrics.
Bono explained it perfectly when he said, "‘One’ is not about oneness, it’s about the difference. It’s not the old hippie idea of ‘let’s all live together.’ It’s anti-romantic: ‘We are one but not the same. We get to carry each other.’ It’s a reminder that we have no choice. Like it or not, the only way out of here is if I give you a leg up the wall and you pull me after you. There’s something very unromantic about that. I've known many people that play it at their weddings. I tell them, ‘Are you mad? It’s a song about splitting up.'”
"Cherry Bomb" by The Runaways
While the famous "Cherry Bomb" by the Runaways has a pretty clear meaning and is widely understood, the story of how it came to be is another matter. One of the legendary Joan Jett's greatest hits, "Cherry Bomb," is a timeless rock classic, but none of the band members expected this to happen. Actually, as the band's manager Kim Fowley later revealed, the song was written in "about five minutes"!
In fact, according to Fowley, he and Jett wrote "Cherry Bomb" for Cherie Currie's audition to be a member of the Runaways because the rest of the band didn't know the song she wanted to perform.
"Higher" by Creed
Any 90's kid will remember Creed, and if they don't, they'll definitely remember their 1999 hit song, "Higher." And while the general consensus seemed to be that the song was either about getting "high" on substances or (completely on the contrary) the band's well-known affinity to Christianity, none of these are actually true.
As Creed's lead singer, Scott Stapp, explained, the song was actually about lucid dreaming.
"Semi-Charmed Life" by Third Eye Blind
This Third Eye Blind 1997 hit was all the rage when it came out. The song's upbeat sounds made it an instant success on the 90's pop charts, and it seemed to almost play on repeat on every radio station. But contrary to what many people thought was a bright and cheerful song, "Semi-Charmed Life" was actually about substance addiction.
As the band's lead singer and songwriter, Stephan Jenkins, explained that it was about a time in his life when he and all of his friends were consuming way too many substances. Jenkins also claims he chose the "bright and shiny sound" of the song to indicate how these substances made you feel on the outside like you were leading a 'semi-charmed life,' but in reality, everything was an ugly mess.
"Royals" by Lorde
After first listening to Lorde's hit song "Royals," you would think she's referring to actual royalty (as in Queen Elizabeth II) or maybe "celebrity royals," like the Kardashians. But in reality, Lorde wrote the song's title and lyrics after seeing a 1976 photo of the Kansas City Royal's hall of fame, George Brett, signing autographs in his uniform.
According to the famous singer, she thought the word "Royals" just looked really cool written across the baseball player's uniform: "It was just that word. It’s really cool.”
"Pink Houses" by John Mellencamp
Much like Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A" was a completely misunderstood criticism of the U.S., so was John Mellencamp's "Pink Houses." Mellencamp actually wrote the song as a protest to Reagan's America and the whole "greedy capitalist" culture of the times.
Still, due to the upbeat music and chorus, many people thought the song was actually a nationalistic, pro-American tune. Especially conservative politicians who used the song to their benefit, to which Mellencamp always angrily protested.
"Blackbird" by The Beatles
There has been much debate over the years about the true meaning behind the Beatles' classic song, "Blackbird." Many believed it to be a typical love song; others thought it carried a deeper, hidden meaning behind it.
However, as the song's main writer, Paul McCartney, has explained many times over the years, Blackbird's lyrics refer to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement that was happening at the time the song was released.
"American Woman" by The Guess Who
To anybody who's only listened to Lenny Kravitz's famous 1999 cover of this song, it might seem that "American Woman" is mainly about sex appeal. However, as its original co-writer Randy Bachman, from The Guess Who, explained, the song has little to do with sex and is actually about U.S. politics in the 60s and 70s and the Vietnam War.
Bachman said that they "had been touring the States in the late ’60s. One time at the U.S./Canada border in North Dakota, they tried to draft us and send us to Vietnam. We were back in Canada, playing in the safety of Canada where the dance is full of draft dodgers who’ve all left the States.” Then, the song's co-writer, Burton Cummings, further explained that “When I said ‘American woman, stay away from me,’ I really meant ‘Canadian woman, I prefer you.’ It was all a happy accident.”
"Feel it Still" by Portugal. The Man
The popular California-based band, Portugal. The Man released a hit single in 2017 called "Feel it Still." At first, everybody thought it was a tribute to lead singer John Gourley's daughter. However, as Gourley later explained, the song was actually about the political and social climate in the U.S. at the time.
As the singer explained, “It’s another one of those lyrics that just kind of seeps in. With all the talk right now of building a wall at our borders and the Berlin Wall, it was so much just like the image that you had in your head growing up that these people are separated by a wall, and why do we need that?”.
"Who Let the Dogs Out" by Baha Men
As much as we love pooches, "Who Let the Dogs Out" is not about our beloved four-legged friends. The Caribbean classic even got its own documentary; Ben Sisto got to the heart of the film's question. After eight years of research, he found the final answer. Though it may seem like a song about a dog, the song is a feminist anthem.
The song is a "rallying" cry against cat-calling. Anslem Douglas, the Trinidadian artist who wrote the song is about how life was going great until men started cat-calling. That's when the girls responded to the call, when a woman shouts, "Who let the dogs out?"
"Macarena" by Los Del Río
If we're honest, the choreographed moves to this number are almost as iconic as the song itself. The Spanish cult classic isn't as innocent as one would expect.
The hit everyone can't stop dancing to is about a woman being unfaithful toward her boyfriend while he's been drafted into the army!
"One Way or Another" by Blondie
Initially, "One Way or Another" sounded like a cat-and-mouse game between two lovers. In reality, the song is pulled from a personal experience of Blondie's frontwoman, Debbie Harry. The rock classic is about her being stalked in a not-so-friendly event. Harry tried to inject some happiness into the song, making it more lighthearted.
To her, the song was a sort of survival mechanism; she was trying to shake it off and make everyone relate to the song, which to her was the beauty of it.
"Gangnam Style" by Psy
One of the first viral sensations, Psy's "Gangnam Style," had people singing and dancing worldwide. Behind the South Korean song lies a social satire on Gangnam's wealthy residents, the "Beverly Hills" of Seoul.
You'll notice that in the music video, Psy pokes fun at the glamorous lifestyle, but he felt odd by doing so. In an interview, the singer said, " Human society is so hollow, and even while filming, I felt pathetic. Each frame by frame was hollow."
"The A-Team" by Ed Sheeran
Comforting acoustics aside, "The A-Team" is a sad story inspired by Ed Sheeran's experience performing at a charity show for Crisis, a foundation that assists the homeless in the U.K. After visiting the shelter and hearing the residents' stories, Sheeran was inspired and wrote the song's lyrics in just 20 minutes.
He wrote the song quite upbeat so that fans wouldn't really know what it is because it was dark to him. But, if you pay attention to the lyrics, you can pick up some of the implications, especially in lines like, "Ripped glove, raincoat. Tried to swim and stay afloat."
"Angel" by Sarah McLachlan
Though the Sarah McLachlan song may be synonymous with SPCA animal commercials, there's more to the tear-jerking tune. The singer-songwriter wrote the song in memory of Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist, Jonathan Melvoin who died in 1996.
The story surprised her because she had never lived that kind of lifestyle and was overcome with a sense of empathy toward the musician. The feeling of being lonely, lost, and searching for release shoved her to pen the beautiful song.
"I Am the Walrus" by The Beatles
It seems like every song the Beatles released was up for public scrutiny; everyone wanted to know what their songs were about. Many fans thought the song was written about a plethora of substances. That being said, the legendary John Lennon was very influenced by pop culture at the time and poets like Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll.
The hit "I Am the Walrus" wasn't about anything in particular. The song was deliberately full of nonsense, poking fun at people digging for hidden meanings in his lyrics.
"Stairway to Heaven" by Led Zeppelin
Bands in the 1970s were often accused of including devil worship in their songs. Led Zeppelin was in the midst of controversy when a conservative group claimed that satanic messages were hidden in "Stairway to Heaven."
The conservatives alleged that the messages were heard when the record played backward. The band, unsurprisingly, found the accusations ridiculous.
"Hotel Calfornia" by The Eagles
One of the most iconic songs of all time and the most iconic songs by The Eagles, "Hotel California," has been interpreted for years. The chart-topper won a Grammy Award for Record of the Year, so what's it really about?
Some believe it is about the Satanic religion of Anton LaVey, but in reality, it's about the excess in America and the gratification in the music industry.
"Tutti Frutti" by Little Richard
"Tutti Frutti" is the kind of song that's fun to listen to; you can't help but start dancing when it comes on. That being said, when you listen to the lyrics carefully, you'll start to notice that the song is all about the rough things Little Richard went through.
Little Richard explained that the song was inspired by when he was working as a dishwasher at a bus station in Georgia.
"Money For Nothing" by Dire Straits
This MTV rock anthem has been thoroughly misinterpreted. Some fans thought that the entire song was a depiction of the electronics guy who seems to be ignorant. They misunderstood the song completely.
They misunderstood it completely; the song is about excess and the way it gives rockstars an easy life compared to the people who are working hard to make a living.
"Train In Vain" by The Clash
Written by Mick Jones, "Train In Vain" was initially intended to be used as a promotion for the British magazine, "NME."
The story behind the meaning has to do with Jones' ex-girlfriend, Viv Albertine. The musician used to get on the train in Shepherds Bush, and she wouldn't let him.
"There She Goes" by The La’s
The catchy ballad, “There She Goes,” seems to be a simple story of unrequited love. However, when you read the lyrics, it seems a little less innocent. The song is about substance use.
Released as a single in 1988, it was later covered by the alt-Christian-rock outfit Sixpence None The Richer.
"Fire and Rain" by James Taylor
James Taylor wrote "Fire and Rain" as a personal reflection of life’s bumpy road, capturing all of its pains and joys. The song unfolds like a three-act play with a beginning, middle, and end. The first verse is about his reactions to the death of a friend.
The second verse is about his entry into the US. The third and final verse refers to his recuperation at a psychiatric facility, which lasted about five months.
"Dancing With Myself" by Billy Idol
"Dancing With Myself" the title is both a metaphor and the name of one of Billy Idol's biggest hits. The song was written by Idol and Tony James and was inspired by Gen X's tour in Japan. Idol and James visited a Tokyo disco, where they were surprised to see that most of the crowd was dancing alone in front of mirrors and not with each other.
According to Idol, "The song really is about these people being in a disenfranchised world where they’re left bereft dancing with their own reflections.”
"Death Or Glory" by The Clash
“Death or Glory” is a satire written about those who talk big but fail to back it up and end up seeing out to "the man." The upbeat tempo and the lyrics that went along with it have been constantly misinterpreted.
The song also displays the band’s recognition of change when it came to dealing with their own success while trying to stay true to their working-class roots.
"Somebody To Love" by Queen
Though the song is about trying to find love, the song's primary meaning is commonly misinterpreted. Throughout the song, the narrator lists all of their redeeming characteristics.
Nonetheless, they can't seem to get any relief, and the repeated lyric "can anybody find me somebody to love?" isn't requesting for someone to find the narrator a partner. They are wondering whether or not anyone could ever consider him worthy of love.
"The Seed (2.0)" by The Roots
The lyrics of "The Seed" tells the story from the perspective of a man. He is unfaithful to his wife or girlfriend in order to "plant his seed" in as many women as possible.
He's shameless about it, as he sees it as keeping his legacy alive.
"You Are My Sunshine" by Jimmie Davis
"You Are My Sunshine" has been covered so my times; it's perhaps one of the most commercial songs in American culture. As for the song's meaning, it's commonly misunderstood. The reason behind this is that people usually only know the lyrics to the chorus.
But the lines in the verses are much more pessimistic. The tune has a much grimmer reality in which the singer is begging their partner not to leave them, despite the fact that they clearly don't want to be with them.
"The Lion Sleeps Tonight" by The Tokens
You may not think you know it, but "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," also known as "Awimbawe," is a pretty infamous song. The tune has been covered many times over the years and has become an important part of pop culture. It seems like an innocent and catchy song, but what is it actually about? Most people think it's about lions sleeping when really, it's about Shaka kaSenzangakhona.
Shaka was one of the most influential rulers of the Zulu kingdom who fought against European colonizers. The song is about how the monarch is sleeping, another way of saying he isn't truly dead and will one day rise to free his oppressed people.
“White Riot” by The Clash
The Clash's debut single was supposed to be a song calling all people to unify together and try and fight for a better life, but many listeners who weren't paying attention to the lyrics got a different impression.
Instead of hearing it as a peaceful song, many thought it was a call to fight with each other, which they did. But, the true meaning behind the songs is protesting insufficient education, which causes violence in the first place. Sadly for The Clash, they got the opposite of what they intended.
"Alison" by Elvis Costello
This ballad was interpreted as a lot creepier than what Costello intended it to be. He wrote it as a simple song about unrequited love, but listeners thought it was more sinister than that because of lines like “Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking.”
Elvis said his aim was simply to describe what it feels like to love someone and not have that love reciprocated. As for what sparked the idea in his mind, he hid the truth for decades but ended up saying it was actually about a checkout girl he saw. She seemed incredibly sad, and that's what made him write this touching ballad.
“I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” by Hall & Oates
With lines like “ I’ll do almost anything that you want me to,” people assumed this Hall and Oats song is about loving someone so much you would do anything for them. While this is a fair assumption considering the lyrics, the song is about something else entirely.
Oates stated that this 1981 number is actually an account of what it feels like to work in the music industry, feeling pressure to do what labels and managers want you to do and not getting enough independence to write what you want to write.
“Blister in the Sun” by Violent Femmes
This folk-punk hit was first released in 1983. It sounded like it was a coming-of-age song about a lonely boy who's growing up.
But the singer and writer Gordon Gano was shocked anyone could have this reading of the song, which he actually wrote about how substance abuse affected his relationships. The line “big hands, I know you’re the one” was written as Gano was picturing his ex dating a football player with big hands.
"Sunday Bloody Sunday" by U2
When a tune is named "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and is dropped as a part of an album called "War," it makes sense that many people would assume this was a rebellious song. The track was so misunderstood that Bono had to comment and clarify what the song was actually about.
The idea behind the song was to reject any type of violence altogether. On top of it being a song about peace, it was also the band's first song to ever have Irish folk elements incorporated into it.
"Cloud Nine" by The Temptations
Both The Temptations themselves and their producer, Norman Whitfield, dismissed any connections between "Cloud Nine" and the use of illegal substances.
According to them, the song is simply about a sublime state of mind, which could come from any number of reasons, like being in love or having faith in god. While the Temptations have made it clear where they stand, many still think the track is a lot more ominous than what the band would have us believe.
"Ronnie, Talk To Russia" by Prince
Well, "Ronnie, Talk To Russia" was on an album Prince titled "Controversy," so it makes sense the track became controversial. American listeners thought that there was a chance Prince is pulling a joke on them, making this one of the most misunderstood political songs of all time.
While the song itself is a bop, many thought it was laughing at Americans who were worried about the cold war. But, Prince cleared the air saying that it wasn't laughing at anyone but expressing true concern for the world.
"American Woman" by The Guess Who
Canadian rock band The Guess Who is responsible for the iconic 1970s song "American Woman." The name is promising, but the Canadian singers used the song to poke fun at America and list all the things they don't like about it.
While when the track first came out, people understood it for what it is, in later years, it was mistaken for a feminist song that seeks to empower women. But, all The Guess Who wanted was just to tarnish Uncle Sam.
"Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends" by Phil Ochs
1967's "Outside Of A Small Circle Of Friends" got a lot of radio plays despite being a song entirely devoted to the consumption of a certain green herb.
Radio listeners and fans thought the song praised other issues, but they completely missed what Phil Ochs was trying to communicate. Phil decided to poke fun at his fan base and criticized those who use the substance, saying that they become apathetic.
"Chandelier" by Sia
Sia blew up and rose to fame when she released "Chandelier" in 2014. Since the song is catchy, many thought it was just a party song, but Sia actually meant the exact opposite.
Sia wanted to talk about what happens to party girls when the party is over. Inspired by her own experience, Chandelier tries to give an honest view of what happens when someone parties and drinks too much. That's just something most pop songs don't talk about.
"Firework" by Katy Perry
Katy Perry knows how to produce a fun bop, and firework is no different. The song's message seems to be very clear, we all have something beautiful to give the world, just like fireworks. But the happy tune has a disbursing back story. Apparently, Katy was inspired by something she thinks about a lot - her own mortality.
When she thinks about no longer being in the world, she thinks about wanting to be a firework. This is what gave Perry the initial idea for this bop. Luckily she left the part about dying out of it.
"A Little Bit Longer" by the Jonas Brothers
Kevin, Nick, and Joe, also known as The Jonas Brothers, became teen idols in the late 2000s. There wasn't a single teenage girl who didn't know who they were. Most of their hits are about love, and fans assumed the tune "A Little Bit Longer" was just another breakup song.
To everyone's shock, Nick Jonas came out and said the song is actually about his struggle with a health condition he suffers from. Knowing this, lyrics like "Waiting on a cure, but none of them are sure" make a lot more sense.
"Can't Feel My Face" by The Weeknd
This 2015 song has what we would call a peculiar yet creative name, which already sets the ground for confusion about the song's meaning.
When they first listened to the song, The Weeknd's fans thought it was about the excitement of a new romantic relationship. In a "New York Times" interview, the Canadian singer set the record straight and told everyone that "Can't Feel My Face" is actually about his struggle with illegal substances.
"Wolves" by Selena Gomez
Gomez, who started out as a Disney Channel kid, has built a musical career on her own right in the past decade. But, every time Selena drops a new single, fans try to decipher what it is about. Many of her songs in the past 10 years are believed to be about Justin Bieber.
While Gomez did say that this song is incredibly personal to her, she has never explained what it's about, which has led some fans to theorize it's about a health condition Selena suffers from. Others are still convinced it's about her famous ex.
"Today" by The Smashing Pumpkins
As a 90's grunge band, The Smashing Pumpkins aren't known for many cheerful tunes, which is exactly what makes "Today" stand out. It sounds like a simple song about having the best day of your life.
The meaning behind it is a little bit darker. Lead singer Billy Corgan wrote the track from a place of despair, saying you should try and enjoy today as much as possible because you can't know what the next thing that's gonna hit you is.
"Sabotage" by The Beastie Boys
For many years, fans had no idea what this song was about. Only 24 years after it first saw the light of day, the Beastie Boys decided to let everyone know what the true story behind it was.
While it started out as just another song, the band's producer, Mario, kept trying to push them to finish numbers, even when they felt they needed more time. They ended up writing this song about him, gently implying that by pressuring them so hard, he was sabotaging their work.
"Blank Space" by Taylor Swift
When it comes to Taylor Swift, people are always trying to figure out which boyfriend or ex she wrote each and every song about. While at first, it sounds like "Blank Space" is an honest telling of her complicated relationships with men and dating, it is actually a parody of how the media portrays her.
Swift says she was inspired by how she was characterized as boy-crazy. She wrote this bop from the perspective of the character we all imagine her to be. But not everyone got the subtle message; Swift said that some thought she finally owned up to being a crazy, difficult girl to date.
"Barbie Girl" by Aqua
"Barbie Girl" was a massive hit when it came out, and many still remember the song and its music video very fondly. Listeners who most likely first heard the song on the radio or on MTV took it literally, thinking it was about Mattel's most popular toy.
But the song tries to make a point about how our society views women as if they are barbies. While Aqua tried to criticize the phenomenon, it seemed most people took it to be a fun song about everybody's favorite doll.
"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" by The Beatles
Many of the songs of this musical sensation have been misunderstood, but one of the most misinterpreted ones is “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” While many believe, that like other Beatles songs, it was written under the influence of illegal substances, John Lennon swears it isn't the case at all.
So what actually inspired the song? According to Lennon, it was a drawing that his then 3-year-old son made, which he titled "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds." Still, some people think John isn't fully honest here.
“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen
There isn't a single person on the planet who doesn't know and love Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Not everyone knows that it was first released in 1984 as a part of an album that went unnoticed at the time.
It's a common belief that “Hallelujah” is a prayer song, and with such a title, we can't really blame anyone who thinks so. But the song is actually about relationships and desire. Cohen used Biblical imagery to get his point across, mentioning King David's longing for Bathsheba.
“Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People
If you've only heard this song once, you might think it's about nothing more than a teenager that has some new sneaks. The tune is pretty peppy, but a closer listen to the lyrics tells us that this is not the case at all. Lead singer Mark Foster has said that the song is trying to raise awareness for mental illness and gun violence.
There had been a highly-publicized shooting, and Foster didn't see the things that led to the shooting as improving. That was the impetus for the song, and then it just popped out, ready to confuse people.
“S&M” by Rihanna
One might be forgiven for thinking that “S&M” by Rihanna was about a relationship that went a little farther than many of the others, but it's actually about how Rihanna and the media get along. She wrote so that it could be taken literally if one wanted, but it's also metaphorical.
To her, it's about how the pain of having to work with the media can also be pleasurable. The two entities – no matter which star we're talking about – feed off of each other. It was a personal message to Rihanna, but one that is hidden inside something a little confusing.
“Hey Ya” by Outkast
This song is going to get everybody dancing, but it turns out the tune is actually pretty depressing when you get right down to it. The music itself is joyful and energetic, but the depressing lyrics have to do with the state of modern relationships. Is Andre 3000's girlfriend with him because she really loves him, or is she just afraid of being alone? Maybe it's just better to not be in a relationship?
Love doesn't last forever – nothing else does, that's for sure. Just like the lyrics say, most people ignore the message of the song and just dance.
“You're Beautiful” by James Blunt
So many people think that this song is a love song — it's not. For the record, people who think that way are crazy. James Blunt himself has said that the song is about a creepy dude who's high on illegal medication, enjoying the beauty of a stranger that is with another man.
He's never, ever going to get to enjoy that woman's beauty any more than he already is, and it's sending him to the brink of despair. It even has the subtext that the addict takes his life at the end of the song.
“Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffett
If you want to be swept away to a land of sand and surf, then the late Jimmy Buffett is someone you might often turn to. He's built an entire brand around the feeling that his songs put off, including restaurants and his own line of tequila.
His most famous tune, “Margaritaville,” does it all – despite it being about a guy who gets black-out drunk all the time. He's getting tattoos that he doesn't remember, and he's trying to find the person who is responsible for ruining his life, completely unaware that it's been him this whole time.
“99 Luftballons” by Nena
Yeah, this poppy, danceable New Wave song from Germany is actually by the band “Nena.” it's got a fun beat, but what is it really about? A simple search will tell you that it's all about...a nuclear disaster. Yeah, those 99 red balloons that someone lets into the air start a war, and the war gets worse and worse, and the last segment of the song has the narrator talking about how everything has been destroyed. Fun!
The band released a version of the song with the German lyrics translated into English, and the song didn't do as well. We're not really shocked about that.
“Mother and Child Reunion” by Paul Simon
The title tries to tell us what this song is about and the idea of a mother and her child coming back together sounds like a great idea for a tune. However, that's not why Paul Simon wrote the song. While he was talking to “Rolling Stone” in 1972, he said that he wrote the title after going to a Chinese restaurant and seeing a dish with the same name.
For the record, the dish had chicken and egg. That's the kind of humor we like to see in our Chinese restaurants.
“Reputation” by Joan Jett
This song seems like the perfect rebel anthem ever since it came out in 1981, but the actual meaning behind the song is a lot more personal. She's gone on record saying it was all about the rejection that she experienced both personally and during her time in the music business.
A lot of the inspiration for the lyrics of the song came from comments that Jett received before she was a big name in the biz. In fact, there were a lot of people that told Jett variations of the comment “you'll never make it”. You know, right before she made it.
“Rockin' in the Free World” by Neil Young
While many might see this tune as a way to celebrate the western world, or America, or whatever, Neil Young certainly doesn't think that way. It's far less a rallying cry and far more a eulogy of ethics in America – crime, child abandonment, homelessness, and war.
Whatever poor decisions you want it to mean, it can mean that. Young wanted it to be a warning sign, but there are very few people who see it that way. Young even included two versions of the song on his album to try and drive his point home.
“My Sharona” by The Knack
If you've read enough of this article, you're probably thinking that “My Sharona” is all about the singer's car, or his newborn daughter, or the Milky Way galaxy, or something like that, but no, the song is actually about a girl that the singer fell in love with. Like, it's a normal love song.
Lead singer and songwriter Doug Fieger went into a clothing store and immediately fell in love with the girl working behind the counter, but there's a bit of a black spot in the song's history: the girl was only seventeen.
“Rock the Casbah” by The Clash
This groovy tune that is so much fun to sing came from two different directions. The first is that the band's manager begged the band to write shorter, more marketable, and more radio-friendly songs. The second is that Iran's leader had just issued a ban on western music, saying that it was corrupting the youth of his nation.
Meghan Trainor wasn't even born yet, though. Iran's leader thought that the music was depriving the youth of their strength and resourcefulness, and The Clash wrote this song in response.
“MMMBop” by Hanson
Yes, obviously MMMBop is a nonsense word that the precocious kids made up in order to fit into the song...but it turns out that it does actually have a meaning. The word is supposed to be a period of time. The boys – who are still making music and doing it pretty well, all things considered – say that the song is about how everything in your life will come and go quickly. “In an MMMBop they're gone.”
Ask a hundred people and we bet you'll get a hundred people who think it means nothing at all, but even this simple song has some meaning.
“Less Than Zero” by Elvis Costello
As one of the less well-known songs on this list, you might have to listen to this tune first. The song has a uniquely English background, and it all comes from the appearance of a man named Oswald Mosley on British television.
Mosley was a British fascist leader, and Costello was upset that someone that held such dangerous views could do so much as to get on public television. Listeners from the United States would have no idea about the reference. The outrage that Costello felt seeing Mosley on television gave the song its nihilistic feel.
“Last Train to Clarksville” by The Monkees
There were a lot of political songs during the sixties and seventies, but this one probably flew under a lot of radars. While it's now obviously about a soldier shipping out to Vietnam, it wasn't as clear to a lot of people in the era.
Most of the fans of the band thought that the singer's girlfriend was coming to Clarkesville to stay the night on the last train. This changes the line “I don't know if I'm ever coming home” from a romantic statement to something that is a lot more sobering.
“Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
This is one of the more legendary anti-Vietnam songs that came out around the time of the war, and it's pretty well-recognized, but a lot of people still get it wrong. While this tune is pretty much the theme song to the Vietnam war, it wasn't really about the war itself, but about the draft.
Writer John Fogerty was a veteran himself, and he thought that the deferential treatment some people got – such as Eisenhower's grandson, who married into the Nixon family and got to ignore the draft. The song is more about the class divide than anything else.
“Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen
After taking a classic Richard Berry song and covering it in garage rock grime, The Kingsmen were suddenly in trouble with the law. If you've heard this song, you might ask yourself: why? They're just singing random nonsense, but the Federal Bureau of Investigation thought that they might have been hiding obscenities in the song.
That was a big deal at the time. The FBI even tried to collect enough evidence to bring them to court, but there was nothing there. Evidently, though, this kind of attention was great for The Kingsmen, and the song went all the way to number two on the charts.
“I Want Candy” by The Strangeloves
Whether you're enjoying this version of the song or the version from dear, departed Aaron Carter, it's hard not to sing along to this song. And, obviously, the song is about a certain someone that the singer really has his or her eye on...but you're reading this article, which means you can guess that it means something a little different. Well, it turns out that it's pretty close.
The “Candy” mentioned in the song is something that is pretty sweet for a lot of people, but you couldn't be out and out about it back when the song came out. “Candy in a sweater” indeed.
“...Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears
At first blush, it seems like this song is encouraging violence in a relationship, but a casual listen will let you know that isn't the case. Maybe it means relationships are often painful and trying, but beloved Britney is ready to be hurt again? Well, it turns out that isn't exactly the answer either.
This famous phrase comes from the fact that songwriter Max Martin is from Sweden, and he thought “hit” was synonymous with “call” as in “hit me up.” It's not the worst phrase ever, but Britney's outfit in the music video probably helped more.
“Rich Girl” by Hall & Oates
While pretty much everybody has the meaning behind this song down – it isn't that hard to figure out – the backstory is a little more interesting. The song was originally written about a guy that Hall's girlfriend used to date.
The guy was a fast food heir, and all the details about the rich girl applied to him, too. However, after putting the first draft of the song down, this dynamic duo decided that the gender-flipped option sounded a little better when sung, so they changed it to a female character.
“I Shot the Sheriff” by Bob Marley
Maybe you don't know a lot about Bob Marley. Here's a fact: the guy had eleven children with a number of different women. He clearly loved his kids, and he was upset when a doctor prescribed a girlfriend birth control pills.
That's where we get lines such as “Sheriff John Brown Always hated me, for what I don't know/Every time I plant a seed, he said 'kill it before it grows.” Clearly, Marley disapproved of birth control pills being used, at least in his own relationships. Some people just really want to be parents.