Songs That Don’t Mean What You Think They Mean
1 “Every Breath You Take” – The Police
- What it sounds like: A comforting love song
- What it’s really about: An obsessive stalker
According to SongFacts, Sting wrote “Every Breath You Take” after separating from his first wife, Frances Tomelty. He explained the inspiration for the song during an interview with New Musical Express. “I think it’s a nasty little song, really rather evil. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership,” Sting said.
2 “Like A Virgin” – Madonna
- What it sounds like: A song about the power in female sexuality
- What it’s really about: Starting a new relationship
Madonna shocked the world with the song “Like A Virgin,” but the songwriter, Billy Steinburg, told SongFacts he wrote the lyrics about making it through a painful breakup. “I had been involved in a very emotionally difficult relationship that had finally ended and I had met somebody new,” he said. “I remember writing that lyric about feeling shiny and new—I made it through the wilderness, somehow I made it through—I made it through this very difficult time.”
3 “Born In The U.S.A.” – Bruce Springsteen
- What it sounds like: A song about being proud to be an American
- What it’s really about: A struggling Vietnam War veteran
The lyrics of the song “Born In The USA” aren’t as patriotic as they seem. “Sent me off to a foreign land/To go and kill the yellow man.” Springsteen sang later in the song, “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the gas fires of the refinery/I’m ten years burning down the road/I’ve got nowhere to run and nowhere to go”
4 “Total Eclipse Of The Heart” – Bonnie Tyler
- What it sounds like: A love song
- What’s really about: A vampire love song
According to Country Daily, the song’s writer, Jim Steinman, wrote “Total Eclipse of the Heart” as a musical version of Nosferatu. “If anyone listens to the lyrics, they’re really like vampire lines. It’s all about the darkness, the power of darkness and love’s place in the dark,” Steinman said.
5 “Sister Christian” – Night Ranger
- What it sounds like: A song about a rebellious nun
- What it’s really about: A girl about to graduate from high school
The lead singer and bassist Jack Blades told Fox News, “Kelly’s sister’s name is Christy and so he was writing a song about his little sister growing up in a small town in Oregon and cruising up and down the street on a Friday, Saturday night, you know, motoring, everything like that, but it was sister Christy. He’s singing ‘sister Christy oh the,’ and we all thought it was Christian.”
6 “Barracuda” – Heart
- What it sounds like: A song about a bad boyfriend
- What it’s about: A creepy comment made by a journalist
Nancy Wilson told American Songwriter that a journalist asked an inappropriate question about a photo of her standing bare shoulder-to-shoulder with her sister and fellow bandmate, Ann Wilson. “So, the insinuation that we were lovers was, of course, not anywhere near true and really sleazy and inappropriate,” Wilson said. “We were just young enough, just idealistic enough to take it pretty badly and have a lot of anger around it, insult around it.”
7 “One” – U2
- What it sounds like: A romantic love song
- What it’s really about: Breaking up
Bono explained the meaning of “One” in Neil McCormick’s documentary, U2 By U2, “The song is a bit twisted, which is why I could never figure out why people want it at their weddings,” Bono said.” 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!’”
8 “Take Me Home” – Phil Collins
- What it sounds like: A song about a man returning home
- What it’s really about: A patient in a mental institution
According to SongFacts, Collins said on VH1 Storytellers that the song’s lyrics refer to a patient in a mental institution and that he was inspired by the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
9 “Jump” – Van Halen
- What it sounds like: A party anthem
- What it’s really about: A man threatening to jump off a bridge
According to Van Halen News Desk, David Lee Roth wrote the lyrics to “Jump” after watching the news and seeing a man on top of Arco Tower, threatening to jump. He thought that there’s always at least one person in the crowd telling the guy to “Go ahead and jump.”
10 “Pretty In Pink” – Psychedelic Furs
- What it sounds like: A song about a charming girl
- What it’s really about: Being naked
Lead singer Richard Butler told The Quietus about “Pretty In Pink,” “The idea of the song was, ‘Pretty In Pink’ as a metaphor for being naked. The song, to me, was actually about a girl who sleeps around a lot and thinks that she’s wanted and in demand and clever and beautiful, but people are talking about her behind her back. That was the idea of the song.”
11 “Walk This Way” – Aerosmith
- What it sounds like: An octane-charged song
- What it’s really about: Inspired by a line from the movie Young Frankenstein
According to the Wall Street Journal, Aerosmith took a break from recording to see the movie Young Frankenstein. When they went back to the studio, Steven Tyler had a hard time finishing the lyrics to the song. Producer Jack Douglas suggested they call it “Walk This Way” from a line said by Igor in the film.
12 “Macarena” – Los del Río
- What it sounds like: A song about a fun dance
- What it’s really about: A woman who cheats on her boyfriend when he’s drafted into the army
The folks over at the Huffington Post translated the lyrics sung by Los del Río and revealed the scandalous content. “Hey Macarena!/Macarena has a boyfriend who is named/Who is named with the last name Vitorino/And while he was being sworn in as a conscript/She’s giving it to two friends.” Yikes!
13 “In The Air Tonight” – Phil Collins
- What it sounds like: A person witnessing someone drowning
- What it’s really about: Divorce
Phil Collins opened up to Jimmy Fallon about what motivated him to write “In The Air Tonight,” “Well, you go through a divorce,” Collins said. “And sometimes it’s like, ‘I love you. Don’t hang up.’ And sometimes it’s like, ‘Well, f–k you.’ And that’s where a song like [that] comes in. There’s obviously a lot of anger in there.”
14 “Wonderful Tonight” – Eric Clapton
- What it sounds like: A love ballad
- What it’s about: A man annoyed with a woman getting dressed
This song may sound romantic, but according to Songfacts, Clapton wrote the tune while waiting for his girlfriend, Pattie, to get ready for a Buddy Holly tribute in 1976. He grew so impatient as she tried out on different outfits that he grabbed pen and paper to write the lyrics to what would become a fixture at weddings. It’s still a sweet song, despite the unexpected inspiration behind the words.
15 “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds”- The Beatles
- What you think it’s about: A song about a woman tripping on mind-altering substances
- What it’s actually about: A picture drawn by John Lennon’s son
According to ILoveClassicRock, Lennon said during an interview on the Dick Cavett Show, “My son came home with a drawing of a strange-looking woman flying around. He said, ‘It’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds.’ I thought, ‘That’s beautiful.’ I immediately wrote the song about it.”
16 “You’re Beautiful” – James Blunt
- What it seems like: A romantic song
- What it’s really about: A man stalking his ex-girlfriend
James Blunt told Time that he wrote “You’re Beautiful” after seeing his ex-girlfriend with another man on the Underground in London and never saw her again. “It’s about this guy who’s high as a kite stalking someone else’s girlfriend—and should be locked up and put in prison. But people think, ‘Ah, he’s a sweet romantic.’ If you think that’s what romance is, then I think you’re pretty weird,” Blunt said.
17 “MMMBop” – Hanson
- What it sounds like: A mindless pop song
- What it’s really about: Cherishing life’s fleeting moments
Zac Hanson revealed the meaning of the hit song “MMMBop” to E! News. “It represents the fact that time passes very quickly… And so in a story about reaching for what’s important and kind of driving towards the impossible dream, MMMBop is telling you go now, go now, go now, because in a moment, in an MMMBop, life will be over and have passed you by,” Hanson said.
18 “Summer Of ’69” – Bryan Adams
- What it sounds like: A song about childhood innocence
- What it’s really about: Gettin’ busy
Bryan Adams told Louder Sound about the origins of “Summer of ‘69,” “The song is a bit autobiographical,” Adams explained, “but it’s really about summer love and, in my case, being a musician. I love the song >Night Moves by Bob Seger, which is about getting laid in the summer, and I always wanted to write an answer to that.”
19 “Waterfalls” – TLC
- What it sounds like: A catchy song about waterfalls
- What it’s really about: AIDS awareness
TLC’s “Waterfalls” deals with a number of issues, including AIDS. The evidence is directly in the lyrics. “One day he goes and takes a glimpse in the mirror/But he doesn’t recognize his own face/His health is fading and he doesn’t know why/Three letters took him to his final resting place/Y’all don’t hear me”
20 “London Calling” – The Clash
- What it sounds like: A punk rock anthem
- What it’s really about: The threat of London flooding
Lead singer Joe Strummer told Uncut that “London Calling” originated in a taxi ride with his fiancée, Gaby Salter. “There was a lot of Cold War nonsense going on, and we knew that London was susceptible to flooding,” Strummer said. “She told me to write something about that.” The rest is rock-and-roll history.
21 “99 Luftballoons” – NENA
- What it sounds like: An upbeat song about balloons
- What it’s really about: A UFO sighting starting a nuclear war
Uwe Fahrenkrog-Petersen wrote on his website that the idea for “99 Red Balloons” came to them at a Rolling Stones concert in Berlin, where balloons were released into the sky. Carlos asked, “Would Russian radar control be smart enough to spot the difference between a bunch of harmless balloons and a swarm of short-range nuclear missiles? Or would they press the red button, launch a counter-attack, and accidentally bring about worldwide nuclear annihilation?”
22 “Losing My Religion” – R.E.M
- What it sounds like: A song about questioning faith
- What it’s really about: Unrequited love
Lead singer Micheal Stipe told Top 2000 a gogo about the inspiration behind “Losing My Religion,” “I love the idea of writing a song about unrequited love,” he said. “About holding back, reaching forward, and then pulling back again. The thing for me that is most thrilling is you don’t know if the person I’m reaching out for is aware of me. If they even know I exist. It’s this really tearful, heartfelt thing that found its way into one of the best pieces of music the band ever gave me.”
23 “All Star” – Smash Mouth
- What it sounds like: A song about a lovable green ogre named Shrek
- What it’s about: Climate change
People may associate “All Star” with the movie Shrek, but the song actually has a more political meaning. The lyrics seem filled with tongue-in-cheek self-affirmations, but it actually touches on the threat of climate change. The band’s guitarist, Greg Camp, told Vice magazine, “It’s not completely about climate change but it has elements, or a few lines in the lyrics, addressing a ‘hole’ in the ozone layer and global warming.”
24 “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” – Green Day
- What it sounds like: A reflection of past glories
- What it means: A bitter goodbye
Chances are that you’ve heard this song at graduations and funerals over the years. Everyone thinks it’s an uplifting tune, but Billie Joe Armstrong told Guitar World, “It’s about an ex-girlfriend who had moved to Ecuador,” the singer said. “In the song, I tried to be level-headed about her leaving, even though I was completely p*ssed off. So I named it ‘Good Riddance’ just to express my anger.”
25 “Chandelier” – Sia
- What it sounds like: A song about letting go of inhibitions
- What it’s about: Substance addiction
This song may sound like it’s about a girl that likes to have fun, but the meaning behind it has a much darker theme. Sia spoke with American Songwriter about the inspiration behind the song that put her on the map. “When I saw a chandelier, I thought I could write a song about swinging from the chandelier. A party anthem of some sort. But as I was writing it, it turned into a song about my battles with addiction, inadvertently.”
26 “Firework” – Katy Perry
- What it sounds like: An empowering anthem
- What it’s about: Perry’s morbid thoughts on death
It’s shocking that Katy Perry was inspired by her fascination with death when she wrote “Firework”. “I want to be a firework, both living and dead,” she told Billboard magazine. “My boyfriend showed me a paragraph out of Jack Kerouac’s book On the Road, about people that are buzzing and fizzing and full of life and never say a commonplace thing. They shoot across the sky like a firework and make people go, ‘Ahhh.’ I guess that making people go ‘ahhh’ is kind of like my motto.”
27 “Closing Time” – Semisonic
- What it sounds like: A bar at closing time
- What it’s about: The birth of Dan Wilson’s baby girl
Semisonic’s lead singer, Dan Wilson, revealed to Billboard that “Closing Time” was inspired by the birth of his daughter. “We had spent seven years of our lives at that point, four nights a week entertaining people. That was our life.” Wilson continued. “Some bouncers yelling things, closing time coming, all that imagery, literally, that’s how the song started and then 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. I thought everyone would get it.”
28 “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party)” – Beastie Boys
- What it sounds like: A party anthem
- What it’s really about: A spoof on a party anthem
Mike D revealed they wrote the song to make fun of popular party anthems like “Smoking in the Boys Room”. “The only thing that upsets me is that we might have reinforced certain values of some people in our audience when our own values were actually totally different,” Diamond said. “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.”
29 “Hey Ya!” – Outkast
- What it sounds like: A catchy song you can dance to
- What it’s about: Being stuck in an unhappy relationship
Andre 3000 opened up to MTV about the meaning behind their hit song “Hey Ya”, saying, “It’s about some people who stay together in relationships because of tradition because somebody told them, ‘You guys are supposed to stay together.’ But you pretty much end up being unhappy for the rest of your life.”
30 “Pumped Up Kicks” – Foster the People
- What it sounds like: An upbeat song
- What it’s about: Gun violence
Lead singer Mark Foster explained to CNN the inspiration for the song “Pumped up Kicks”, saying, “For me, that song was really an observation about something that’s happening in the youth culture these days. I guess I wanted to reveal that internal dialogue of a kid who doesn’t have anywhere to turn, and I think the song has kind of done its job. I think people are talking about it, and it’s become a point of conversation, which I think is a really healthy thing.
31 “Semi-Charmed Life” – Third Eye Blind
- What it sounds like: A happy song with a catchy hook
- What it’s about: Addiction
According to Reddit, Stephan Jenkins, the singer and songwriter, said “Semi-charmed Life” is a dark song about certain substance abuse. “The music that I wrote for it is not intended to be bright and shiny for bright and shiny’s sake. It’s intended to be what the seductiveness of speed is like, represented in music.” He added that the title “refers to a life that’s all propped up. You know, the beautiful people who lead bright and shiny lives that on the inside are all f*cked up.”.
32 “My Sharona” – The Knack
- What it sounds like: A song about getting it on
- What it’s really about: A man lusting after a girl named Sharona
The Knack wrote the song “My Sharona” when band member Doug Fieger fell in love and dated a younger girl named Sharona. Fieger once revealed, “It was like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat; I fell in love with her instantly. And when that happened, it sparked something and I started writing a lot of songs feverishly in a short amount of time.”
“Hotel California” – The Eagles
- What it sounds like: A song about a freaky hotel in California
- What it’s about: American excess
Don Henley told Rolling Stone what inspired The Eagles to write “Hotel California”. “Lyrically, the song deals with traditional or classical themes of conflict; darkness and light, good and evil, youth and age, the spiritual versus the secular. I guess you could say it’s a song about the loss of innocence,” Henley added. “It’s basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about.”
“The One I Love ” – R.E.M.
- What it sounds like: A love song
- What it’s really about: A song about using people over and over
Lead singer Michael Stipe spoke to Q magazine about the feeling behind “The One I Love”, saying, “It’s probably better that they think it’s a love song at this point. That song just came up from somewhere and I recognized it as being really violent and awful. But it wasn’t directed at any one person. I would never write a song like that.”
35 “Bad Reputation” – Joan Jett
- What it sounds like: A rebellious anthem
- What it’s really about: Sexism in the music industry
Kenny Laguna, co-writer of the song, told SongFacts, “Joan had this bad reputation, no label would sign her—that’s why we own the records. It was so frustrating, we thought we should write a song about it. One day Joan said something, and I said, ‘You shouldn’t do this.’ I was trying to give her the advice of an old man, but she was a teenager at the time, and she says, ‘Look, I don’t care about my bad reputation.’ I said, ‘Whoa, there’s the song.'”
36 “We Built This City” – Starship
- What it sounds like: The 1977 incident when Jefferson Airplane was not allowed to play at a free concert in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park
- What it’s about: Absolutely nothing specific
According to the site Songfacts, “We Built This City” would only be an assemblage between a demo created from the lyrics of Bernie Taupin, Elton John’s songwriting partner, and the music of Martin Page, which was then modified by the group at the request of producers. Starship was then looking for a hit, but unfortunately, the song was ranked among the worst songs in history by Blender magazine, Rolling Stone and GQ.
37 “Iron Man” – Black Sabbath
- What it sounds like: The theme to the Iron Man films
- What it’s really about: A sci-fi story about a man who sees the future
According to History 101, Sabbath’s bassist and songwriter, Geezer Butler, revealed, “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.”
38 “Jack and Diane” – John Mellencamp
- What it sounds like: A love song about a debutant and a football star
- What it’s really about: An interracial couple
John Mellencamp told HuffPost Live, “Originally the line was Jack was not a football star, Jack was an African American,” Mellencamp said. “In 1982, when I turned the song in to the record company, they went, ‘Whoa, can’t you make him something other than that?’” He continued, “So, anyway, through much debate and me being young, I said, ‘Okay, we’ll make him a football star.’”
39 “Fire and Rain” – James Taylor
- What it sounds like: A song about a woman who died in a plane crash
- What it’s really about: James Taylor’s addiction and lost of a friend
James Taylor said during a 1972 Rolling Stones interview, “The first verse is about my reactions to the death of a friend. The second verse is about my arrival in this country with a monkey on my back, and there Jesus is an expression of my desperation in trying to get through the time when my body was aching and the time was at hand when I had to do it. And the third verse of that song refers to my recuperation in Austin Riggs which lasted about five months.”
40 “Detroit Rock City” – KISS
- What it sounds like: A tribute to the music scene in Detroit
- What it’s really about: A young fan who is killed in a car accident on his way to a Kiss concert
According to Song Facts, Paul Stanley said: “On a previous tour somebody had gotten hit by a car and killed outside the arena. I remember thinking how weird it is that people can be on their way to something that’s really a party and a celebration of being alive, and die in the process of doing it. So that became the basis of the lyric.”
41 “I Will Always Love You” – Dolly Parton
- What it sounds like: A song about the end of a romantic relationship
- What it’s really about: The end of a professional relationship
Dolly Parton told CMT during a 2011 interview that she wrote the song when she decided to leave Porter Wagoner’s show. “There was a lot of grief and heartache there, and he just wasn’t listening to my reasoning for my going,” Dolly explained. “I thought, ‘Well, why don’t you do what you do best? Why don’t you just write this song?’… so I went home and out of a very emotional place in me at that time, I wrote the song, ‘I Will Always Love You.'”
Showbiz Fun Fact
1. Robert Downey Jr.
After a meteoric start to his career, he was out of the spotlight for a while, but the actor has made a strong comeback in the world of American showbiz, so much so that in 2008, Time Magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. From 2013 to 2015, Forbes also named him to its list of Hollywood’s highest-paid actors.
2. Johnny Depp
The actor is one of the most appreciated by the public, and for good reason. No one can deny his talent as an actor; his 10 Golden Globe Awards nominations (including one he won for his role in Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), 3 Academy Awards nominations, and 2 BAFTA Film Awards nominations prove it.
3. Chris Hemsworth
Best known for his role as Thor in 8 Marvel Cinematic Universe films, the actor began his career in an Australian television series called Home and Away. His role as a superhero allowed him to be considered as one of the leading and highest-paid actors in the world.
4. Bradley Cooper
3 times nominated for the Forbes Celebrity 100, named to Times‘ list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2015, and recipient of 2 Grammy Awards and a BAFTA Award, the actor has long been a fixture in Hollywood showbiz.
5. Matt Damon
According to Forbes, the actor is one of the most bankable stars due to the fact that the films he has played in have together earned more than 3.12 billion at the North American box office. That’s what we call being profitable! His talent has also earned him 5 Academy Award nominations, 3 British Academy Film Award nominations, 8 Golden Globe Award nominations, 7 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, and 6 Screen Actors Guild Award nominations!
6. Will Smith
Nominated for 5 Golden Globe Awards and 2 Academy Awards, and winner of 4 Grammy Awards, the actor was named “the most powerful actor in Hollywood” in 2007 by Newsweek. We can thank The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air series for propelling him in the 90s!
7. Leonardo DiCaprio
8 times among the highest-paid actors in the world in the annual ranking, this actor is also one of the most profitable in the industry. In 2019, its films have grossed worldwide 7.2 billion. Winner of 3 Golden Globe Awards, the incredible actor won only one Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Award in 2016 for his role in The Revenant, despite a total of 6 nominations during his prolific career.
8. Dwayne Johnson
It can be said that the former professional wrestler and football player has made his mark in the Hollywood world, especially in terms of profitability. Indeed, his films have grossed more than 3.5 billion in North America and 10.5 billion worldwide, making him one of the highest-grossing actors of all time. In 2016, he was also named the Sexiest Man Alive by People Magazine.
9. Tom Hanks
Winner of 2 Academy Awards, 7 Primetime Emmy Awards, 4 Golden Globe Awards, and 2 Screen Actors Guild Awards, Tom Hanks is one of the world’s best known and loved actors. He is even considered an American cultural icon! His films have grossed over 4.9 billion in North America and 9.96 billion worldwide, making him the fourth-highest-grossing actor in North America.
10. Jennifer Lawrence
The only woman on this list, the 30-year-old actress was the highest-paid actress in the world in 2015 and 2016. Her films have grossed over 6 billion worldwide, Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2013, and she was on the Forbes Celebrity 100 list in 2014 and 2016. Her Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in Silver Linings Playbook made her the 2nd youngest woman in history to win this award.