One of the most amazing things about music is its endless interpretations. A song can have entirely different meanings to different people, which is why music becomes such a personal form of art. Some songs have purposely hidden meanings, and others are just extremely personal accounts of the songwriters own experiences.
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 an 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 the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
"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. Which 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, radios and virtually everywhere around the world. Now, while it is immediately clear that the song is full of sexual 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 to 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 been constantly 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 singer, 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 the Iraq 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 in 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
Contrarily to what many people might thing, "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' sexual 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 about 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 committed suicide by jumping from a building at the University of Florida, which is located in Gainesville -Tom Petty's hometown. 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 explained 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 a drug 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. 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 o 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 prostitutes 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 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 wedding. 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 famer, 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 though 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?”.