These iconic songs don’t mean what you think
Often, we’ll find ourselves relating to a song written by someone who’s lived completely different experiences than us. After all, music has the amazing ability to bring people together. But how do you react when you find out your favorite song is not about what you thought it was? Only one way to find out …
‘Poker Face’ by Lady Gaga
A “poker face” is a term to describe keeping your thoughts and feelings hidden behind a stoic demeanor. In Lady Gaga’s case, she kept the true meaning camouflaged within the chorus of this song.
Gaga has admitted that the song references her own bisexuality — it’s really about being with a man while thinking about a woman, and her poker face hides these thoughts from her partner. In the chorus, Lady Gaga sings, “No, he can’t read my poker face,” and a voice in the background sings, “She’s got me like nobody.” It’s easy to miss, especially since that last line is sung by a male voice.
‘Harder to Breathe’ by Maroon 5
Everyone knows that this song is about some kind of failing relationship with a significant other or friend. It seems pretty obvious from the lyrics: “You should know better, you never listened to a word I said/ Clutching your pillow and writhing in a naked sweat.” Wrong!
This song is actually about their record label! The executives demanded more songs for Maroon 5’s debut album Songs About Jane. Furious, Adam Levine turned his rage into song lyrics: “Is it painful to learn/ That it’s me that has all the control.” Well, Levine should buy those execs a bottle of wine! “Harder to Breathe” was well-received by critics, reached No. 18 on Billboard’s Hot 100, and catapulted Maroon 5 to international fame.
‘Every Breath You Take’ by The Police
If you’ve ever listened closely to the lyrics of “Every Breath You Take” by The Police — a favorite at weddings everywhere — you may have noticed it’s a little … creepy. That’s by design.
“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,” Sting explained. It’s written from the perspective of an obsessive ex-lover who won’t let go. The lyric “I’ll be watching you,” becomes a bit disturbing with that in mind. Think about that the next time you’re in a karaoke bar.
‘Paper Planes’ by M.I.A.
Because of the gunshot and cash register sound effects, many people were convinced the lyrics in this song were just bragging about committing crimes. Really, it’s meant to be a satire of harmful immigrant stereotypes. M.I.A. herself was denied an entry visa to the U.S. in 2006.
The sound effects remind the listener of a robbery — but in this case, the song is meant to critique the military-industrial complex for supplying arms to developing nations while profiting off the bloodshed. Who says pop music can’t have a message?
‘Iron Man’ by Black Sabbath
Even though the Marvel character first appeared seven years before Black Sabbath blessed us with this crushing jam, Ozzy and co. insist it’s not about the superhero. If you listen closely, it’s a sci-fi story about a man who sees the future. Geezer Butler, Sabbath’s bassist and the man who wrote the lyrics, breaks it down.
“I wrote it about a guy who is blasted off into space and sees the future of the world, which isn’t very good,” Butler explained. “Then he goes through a magnetic storm on the way back and is turned into iron. He’s trying to warn everybody about the future of the world but he can’t speak, so everyone is taking the mickey out of him all the time, and he just doesn’t care in the end.” Sorry, Tony Stark.
‘MMMBop’ by Hanson
Myth: “MMMBop” isn’t really about anything. The song is just a vehicle for getting a ridiculously infectious hook stuck in your head.
Reality: “MMMBop” is about the fleeting nature of friendship, material possessions, and even life itself. Don’t believe me? Take it from Zac Hanson.
“MMMbop represents a frame of time or the futility of life,” Hanson told Songfacts. “Things are going to be gone … all that’s going to be left are the people you’ve nurtured and have really built to be your backbone and your support system.” There’s plenty of evidence in the lyrics. Check it out: “You have so many relationships in this life/ Only one or two will last/ You go through all the pain and strife/ Then you turn your back and they’re gone so fast.” Pretty sage coming from some kids who weren’t even in high school yet!
‘Born in the U.S.A.’ by Bruce Springsteen
“The Boss” has never been afraid to give his opinion. “Born in the U.S.A.” may sound like your standard patriotic jam to wave a flag to, but the words are actually critical of Springsteen’s home country — namely because of the Vietnam War and the way veterans are treated when they return home.
These lyrics spell it out plainly: “Went down to see my V.A. man/ He said ‘Son, don’t you understand’/ I had a brother at Khe Sanh fighting off the Viet Cong/ They’re still there, he’s all gone.” It’s not exactly the song you’d want playing at your campaign rally.
‘Blackbird’ by The Beatles
You probably suspected that “Blackbird” isn’t about a bird. But the song’s meaning is even deeper than you might think. Would you believe it’s really about an African American girl growing up in the Deep South in the ’60s and dealing with racial violence and Jim Crow laws?
With that in mind, “Take these broken wings and learn to fly,” takes on a whole new level of poignancy. Think about that next time someone pulls out an acoustic guitar and begins plucking the familiar melody.
‘You’re Beautiful’ by James Blunt
Sorry if this spoils your wedding song. Just like The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” this is another “romantic” song that’s actually pretty creepy when you break it down. “She was with another man/ But I won’t lose no sleep on that/ ’Cause I’ve got a plan,” is all well and good, unless you consider the perspective of the guy she was with.
James Blunt himself isn’t rushing to defend the narrator of the song, either. According to him, it’s about an inebriated man stalking a woman on the subway. “He should be locked up or put in prison for being some kind of perv,” Blunt told TheHuffington Post. Ouch.
‘Turning Japanese’ by The Vapors
Get your mind out of the gutter! No, this song isn’t about, uh, rigorous self-care. According to singer David Fenton, the song is about going crazy after a breakup and feeling like you’re turning into someone else.
But why Japanese? According to Fenton, why not? “It could have been Portuguese, Lebanese, anything that fit with that phrase. It had nothing to do with the Japanese.” Unfortunately, this song is considered the Vapors’ only real hit. Nonetheless, they do retain a passionate fan base that enables them to tour the world nearly four decades after “Turning Japanese” was released. Their 1980 album New Clear Days is considered a power-pop and new-wave classic.
‘Closing Time’ by Semisonic
This song isn’t really about a bar closing. Contrary to what Stanley from The Office will tell you, it isn’t about Dunder Mifflin closing up for the day, either. Really, it was about the birth of singer Dan Wilson’s daughter. Don’t believe me? Maybe you’ll believe the frontman himself …
“When I was halfway done, I started realizing the whole thing was a pun about being born, so I just made sure that the rest of the thing could ride with that double meaning, but nobody got the joke and I didn’t bother to explain,” he told Billboard.
‘One’ by U2
What a sweet romantic song to enjoy with your significant other. The words, “We’re one, but we’re not the same/ We get to carry each other,” are enough to bring a tear to your eye. Well, Bono did intend to make you cry — just for another reason.
“I could never figure out why people want it at their weddings,” Bono told journalist Neil McCormick. “I have certainly met a hundred people who’ve had it at their weddings. I tell them, ‘Are you mad? It’s about splitting up!’”
‘Gangnam Style’ by PSY
Unless you speak Korean, you probably have no idea what PSY is singing about in “Gangnam Style.” But that didn’t stop the catchy song and ridiculous video from spreading like a wildfire — the song has over 3.5 billion views on YouTube as of February 2020. So what’s it about?
First, for context — Gangnam is a famously well-off district in Seoul. The silly video and song is a satire about the way people live outside their means in order to appear wealthy to others. In the video, PSY is always shown in glamorous situations, which are eventually revealed to be much less luxurious than they seem. “Human society is so hollow, and even while filming I felt pathetic,” PSY commented in a behind-the-scenes interview. “Each frame by frame was hollow.”
‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ by Bonnie Tyler
Turns out the lyrics, “Now there’s only love in the dark,” isn’t a metaphor at all — this song is about vampires. Yes, vampires. After hearing Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell,” Tyler approached songwriter Jim Steinman, who happened to be writing a musical version of Nosferatu at the time.
The spooky themes crept their way into Tyler’s song. In fact, the original song title was “Vampires in Love,” which is, admittedly, a little too on the nose. Check out the Gothic vibes in the music video.
‘Like a Virgin’ by Madonna
This song is not about losing your virginity. Nor is it as salacious as Quentin Tarantino’s character asserts in Reservoir Dogs.
According to songwriter Billy Steinberg, the song is about leaving a bad relationship and beginning a new, positive romance.
The words, “I’d been had, I was sad and blue/ But you made me feel … Shiny and new,” are a dead giveaway. “I was in a devastating relationship, and when it finally ended and I met someone new … All of the lyrics just poured out,” Steinberg explained.
‘Slide’ by the Goo Goo Dolls
Based on the most recognizable lyric in this song: “I wanna wake up where you are,” you might’ve been fooled into thinking this is just your standard love song. But there’s a specific (and somewhat tragic) story told through the words.
The song is about a teenage couple growing up in strict religious households. When the girl gets pregnant, they have to decide what to do. These lyrics make the choices plain: “Do you wanna get married or run away?”
‘Barracuda’ by Heart
In addition to a badass galloping guitar riff, “Barracuda” has some scathing lyrics to match. The words, “So this ain’t the end, I saw you again, today/ I had to turn my heart away,” might’ve tricked you into thinking this song was about an ex-lover (and no, it’s not about a fish, either). OK, so what is it about?
It’s actually about Heart’s old record label, who were spreading some truly disgusting and untrue rumors about sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, the two core members of Heart.
Check it out: “Whisper game/ And if the real thing don’t do the trick/ You better make up something quick.” Since the label couldn’t stop Heart from being successful, they had to “make up something” to try and ruin the band.
‘Take Me Home’ by Phil Collins
Based on the song title, you might think this song is about a man feeling homesick. However, according to an interview with Phil Collins on the show VH1Storytellers, the song has a darker meaning. Evidently, the lyrics, “There’s no point escaping,” are meant more literally than you might think …
Collins said he wrote the song about someone in a mental institution; the lyrics are heavily inspired by Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Coming up later: The real meaning of Collins’ megahit, “In the Air Tonight.”
‘Waterfalls’ by TLC
If you failed to grasp the meaning of this R&B megahit, don’t worry — according to Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas (one-third of TLC), almost nobody did, until the video dropped. “When it first went to radio, nobody got it,” she told The Guardian. “They didn’t understand what we were talking about.”
The song and music video portray deep issues like violence in the illegal drug trade and unprotected sex leading to HIV/AIDS, but you might not notice if you’re not paying close attention. “His health is fading and he doesn’t know why/ Three letters took him to his final resting place.”
‘Summer of ‘69’ by Bryan Adams
This song’s pretty straightforward, right? It’s about being a kid, starting a band, and falling in love — all in the summer of 1969. Well, that’s only partly true. Take it from Adams himself.
“Yes, I did get my first guitar that summer at the Five and Dime, and it’s true that I played it until my fingers bled,” Adams told Rolling Stone. But as for the rest of the song, Adams was only 10 years old in 1969 — it’s doubtful he’d have a job working at the drive-in. So what gives? “If I’m really coming clean, I should admit that my buddy Brodie bet me I couldn’t write a hit song with ‘69’ in the title. Had to prove that hoser wrong, you know what I mean?” Real mature.
‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ by The Beatles
People have long asserted that “Lucy” is about Lennon’s experiences with psychedelic substances — take the first letter from “Lucy,” “Sky,” and “Diamonds,” and you’ll see why so many people were fooled. But according to John Lennon, the real meaning is much more innocent.
Lennon’s son Julian brought home a drawing he’d done at school. It was a picture of his friend Lucy — in the sky with diamonds. This statement has been confirmed by the other Beatles and Julian’s classmate Lucy herself.
‘Rich Girl’ by Hall and Oates
And the guy in question’s name is Victor Walker. Walker is the ex-boyfriend of Daryl Hall’s girlfriend at the time, Sara Allen. Walker’s dad owned several restaurants, and Victor was happy to party with his dad’s money, until one day it caught up to him.
Walker showed up at Hall’s door one day, burned out from all that living in excess. Feeling inspired (and perhaps a bit of schadenfreude), Daryl penned the lyrics. When singing it, the words “rich boy” just didn’t sound right, so they swapped the sex. And that’s how a No. 1 hit was born.
‘Hotel California’ by the Eagles
Contrary to what you may believe, this song isn’t really about a road trip gone wrong. Singer/songwriter Don Henley said the band wrote this song about their experiences in the record industry and the materialism and greed prevalent in modern society.
“It was really about the excesses of American culture and certain girls we knew,” Henley told the Daily Mail. “But it was also about the uneasy balance between art and commerce.” “Hotel California” represents the Los Angeles high life that was foreign to Henley and co., who were all from the Midwest.
‘Le Freak’ by Chic
This song seems like a pretty straightforward ditty about dancing at a disco club. But there is actually a specific event that inspired this song — it does involve the legendary Studio 54 club, but absolutely no dancing!
On New Year’s Eve, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic were invited to Studio 54 by none other than Grace Jones. However, the bouncers hadn’t gotten the updated guest list and refused the pair at the door. Their chagrin inspired the duo to go home and write a song about the experience: The chorus originally went, “Aahh f*** off!” But the groove was too infectious to waste on a song that couldn’t get played on the radio, so they changed it to “Freak Out.”
‘In the Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins
This song is probably most famous for its epic drum fill, but the mysterious words have puzzled listeners for decades. In particular, the line, “Well if you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand,” raised a few eyebrows. Some have asserted the song is literally about watching someone drown (seems a bit literal, don’t you think?).
Collins has tried to set the record straight, without much luck. Though he admits that even he doesn’t know exactly what the song is about, he wrote it while separating with his wife. “The only thing I can say about it is that it’s obviously in anger. It’s the angry side or the bitter side of a separation.”
‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ by Green Day
American Idiot is a political rock opera penned by Billie Joe Armstrong and co. Based on the music video and the themes shown throughout the rest of the record, you might have assumed that this was an anti-war song.
However, Armstrong says he actually wrote this song about his father who died of cancer when Armstrong was only 10 years old. The song took on another meaning after a blogger paired the song with footage of the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Green Day performed the song with The Edge of U2 during the halftime show of the first football game played at the Superdome following Katrina.
‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)’ by the Beastie Boys
This song sounds like it’s all about partying — and it is — only it’s meant to be a parody of other testosterone-charged party anthems. Ironically, the song is poking fun at the audience that wound up enthusiastically embracing it.
“There were tons of guys singing along to ‘Fight for Your Right’ who were oblivious to the fact it was a total goof on them,” said Mike D. In any case, the song shot to No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, and remains a staple on rock ’n’ roll radio stations and in frat houses around the world.
‘Hey Ya!’ by OutKast
It’s hard to hear this cheery melody and not crack a smile — and who can resist “shaking it like a Polaroid picture” during the song’s memorable breakdown? But listen closely to the lyrics next time the song comes on, and your smile will quickly fade.
According to André 3000, the song is about a couple stuck in a bad relationship that stays together and remains miserable because they think it’s what they’re supposed to do. Take these lyrics, for example: “Know what they say — it’s/ Nothing lasts forever … Then what makes love the exception?… Why, oh, why, oh, why, oh/ Are we still in denial when we know we’re not happy here?” Wow, now that’s “ice cold.”
‘Human’ by The Killers
Many fans were puzzled by the end of this song’s memorable refrain: “Are we human, or are we dancer,” isn’t grammatically correct. Some have even argued that singer Brandon Flowers really says “denser,” which Flowers vehemently denies. “‘Denser’? I hadn’t heard that one. I don’t like ‘denser,’” he told MTV News.
The “dancer” line draws inspiration from a particular Hunter S. Thompson quote about American youth becoming too soft: “We’re raising a generation of dancers,” Thompson writes. The verses allude to society’s moral decay. Here’s an example: “Pay my respects to grace and virtue/ Send my condolences to good.” “I am very old-fashioned, I guess,” Flowers explained. “And the older I get, the worse it is. But I dunno if that’s what people want to hear!”
‘Losing My Religion’ by R.E.M.
Contrary to what you might think, “Losing My Religion” is not about having a crisis of faith. The phrase is often used in the South to describe being at your wits’ end. R.E.M.’s singer Michael Stipe explained the song in an interview with Rolling Stone.
“I hate to make this comparison, but ‘Religion’ is similar in theme to ‘Every Breath You Take,’ by the Police,” he said. “It’s just a classic obsession pop song. I’ve always felt the best kinds of songs are the ones where anybody can listen to it, put themselves in it and say, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’”