Rachel M. Johnson is a lover of all things pop culture. She's been writing about music and entertainment online for years.
Sometimes the meaning behind a hit song's lyrics can get lost in translation, and tunes you believed to be innocent and loving are actually the opposite. By looking a little closer at the content, we can learn the true intent of the artist. Here is a list of songs whose meanings we completely got wrong, either because we didn't fully grasp the lyrics, or because we took the song at face value.
Songs That Don't Mean What You Think
- The Police, "Every Breath You Take"
- Little Richard, "Tutti Frutti"
- Bruce Springsteen, "Born in the USA"
- Madonna, "Like a Virgin"
- The Knack, "My Sharona"
- Semisonic, "Closing Time"
- Third Eye Blind, "Semi-Charmed Life"
- Los Del Rio, "Macarena"
- Goo Goo Dolls, "Slide"
- Eagles, "Hotel California"
- John Lennon, "Imagine"
- Queen, "Bohemian Rhapsody"
1. The Police, "Every Breath You Take"
It was Sting's deep and powerful crooning that makes so many believe this song to be romantic, but that is definitely not the case. The gentle tenderness of the tune is very misleading, and masks the sinister lyrics of The Police's 1983 smash hit "Every Breath You Take." The song is not about the joys of love, but about a possessive lover who demands to be in control of their partner. It was written by Sting in 1982, following his separation from France Tomelty and the beginning of his relationship with Trudie Styler.
Sting's affair with Styler was highly-controversial and condemned, so the musician retreated to the Caribbean and wrote the hit song. Of the writing process, he had said, "The tune itself is generic, an aggregate of hundreds of others, but the words are interesting. It sounds like a comforting love song. I didn't realize at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance, and control." Sting actually was disconcerted by how many people think it is a love song, because it is the exact opposite.
2. Little Richard, "Tutti Frutti"
The 1955 song, "Tutti Frutti," by Little Richard, became an extremely influential rock and roll single. It also introduced several of rock music's characteristics, including loud volume and vocal emphasizing power. However, while the rock song is sure to get people on the dance floor, it's actually quite sexual. Little Richard co-wrote "Tutti Frutti" with Dorothy LaBostrie, and Richard's lively performance of the jam helped propel it into the spotlight. Although, it needed to be revised for lyrical purity.
The original lyrics initially were far more sexual:
Tutti Frutti, good booty
If it don't fit, don't force it
You can grease it, make it easy.
They were subsequently replaced with:
Tutt Frutti, aw rooty
Tutti Frutti, aw rooty.
At the time, "aw rooty" was slang for "All right." On top of that, the song also focused on a guy trying to get with multiple girls (Sue and Daisy), because they both "know what to do" (they're experienced), and they drive him crazy.
3. Bruce Springsteen, "Born in the USA"
Only someone as talented and influential as The Boss could make an anti-war song sound like a pro-American anthem. Often regarded as one of the greatest songs of all time, Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" addresses the harmful effects the Vietnam War had on Americans and the treatment of the Vietnam veterans upon returning home. While average listeners might believe the tune to be a flag-waving American anthem, it actually focuses on the hypocrisy of patriotism.
The premise of the song follows a working-class American who gets into trouble and decides to fight in the Vietnam war. When he returns from his duty, he is unable to find work and is shunned by the community. The song protests the hardships Vietnam veterans faced upon coming home, and was so cleverly masked that many had no idea what its true meaning was.
4. Madonna, "Like a Virgin"
Many people think that Madonna's hit song "Like a Virgin" is simply about a girl wanting to lose her virginity. However, the song isn't actually about a girl at all. Though the "Queen of Pop" took the song and turned it into an iconic '80s hit, she didn't write the lyrics. The song was written by Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg, and was chosen by Michael Ostin of Warner Bros. Records to be on her 1984 album of the same name. Steinberg explained in an interview with the Los Angeles Times that the song was not written for Madonna or any female singer, but was actually inspired by his own personal experiences.
The writer said, "I was saying . . . that I may not really be a virgin—I've been battered romantically and emotionally like many people—but I'm 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..." He had gone through emotional turmoil in the past and was beginning a fresh, new relationship with someone else. The lyrics reflect how he felt new and like he'd never been hurt, "Like a Virgin."
5. The Knack, "My Sharona"
While it's quite clear The Knack's 1979 hit "My Sharona" is about sex, did you know it goes a little deeper than that? The song is actually about sex with an underage girl. It is about a man's intense lust for a girl several years his junior. Lead singer Doug Fieger and lead guitarist Berton Averre wrote the song together, and were inspired by Fieger's relationship with 17-year-old Sharona Alperin. Fieger was 25 at the time, and their romance inspired a two-month-long run of songwriting for the singer.
Fieger claimed that "My Sharona" was written in 15 minutes, and wanted the title to be a direct expression of his feelings for the girl. Of the relationship and song-writing process, the frontman had said, "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." Alperin would pose for the single's cover, and the couple would date for four years before parting ways.
6. Semisonic, "Closing Time"
Many people associate this memorable '90s song with closing time at a bar. Surprisingly, it's not just about a last call. According to Semisonic's lead singer, Dan Wilson, the 1998 hit was also inspired by birth and the anticipation of fatherhood. Wilson's girlfriend was pregnant at the time, and he subconsciously wrote the song about birth and "being sent forth from the womb, as if by a bouncer clearing out a bar." The singer also expressed his realization of this fact, saying, "Part way into the writing of the song, I realized it was also about being born."
With that new fact in mind, it makes the lyric, "This room won't be open 'til your brothers or your sisters come" even more obvious.
7. Third Eye Blind, "Semi-Charmed Life"
Third Eye Blind's 1997 debut single "Semi-Charmed Life" became a massive hit in the 1990s, and was reportedly written in response to Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," but from a San Franciscan's perspective. While it sounds like an easygoing pop song, the lyrics of the song are much deeper and darker than many realize. According to lead singer Stephan Jenkins, "It's about a time in my life when it seemed like all of my friends just sort of tapped out on speed" and added that it's "bright and shiny on the surface, and then it just pulls you down in this lockjawed mess."
Jenkins wanted the lyrics and sound to be intentionally misleading, starting out light and fun, then turning into something edgier. He further elaborated, "It's intended to be what the seductiveness of speed is like, represented in music."
8. Los Del Rio, "Macarena"
A staple at parties, family reunions, and gatherings alike, "Macarena," by Los Del Rio, was released in the United States in 1995 and became an overnight sensation. While many people believe it to be a fun and goofy song to dance to, that's not exactly the case. When the lyrics are translated from Spanish to English, it's quite clear the song isn't as innocent as many first thought.
With verses like:
Give your body joy, Macarena
Because your body is meant to be given joy and good things
Give your body joy, 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.
Not so feel-good lyrics upon closer look! That essentially is saying a girl named Macarena cheats on her boyfriend with two friends while he's away in the army. That's quite a different meaning than what you first believed!
9. Goo Goo Dolls, "Slide"
While the Goo Good Dolls had numerous hits in the '90s, "Slide" was a very popular song that captured hearts everywhere. The slow ballad seemed like a romantic declaration by the band, but that's not exactly the case. In fact, the lyrical content is quite heavy and far deeper than many realize. It discusses abortion in the Catholic community.
In a 2002 performance on VH1 Storytellers, lead singer, John Rzeznik, explained that the song is actually about a teenage girl living under a strict Catholic government who becomes pregnant. It describes the debate she and her boyfriend have between getting an abortion or getting married. Surprisingly, it was exactly Rzeznik's intent for the listener to think that the song is a romantic ballad.
10. Eagles, "Hotel California"
Written by Don Felder, Don Henley and Glenn Frey, the Eagles' "Hotel California" is widely considered to be the most famous recording by the band. There have been many interpretations of the song, and the band themselves have offered numerous explanations. However, the song primarily focuses on the high life in Hollywood as well as the corruption within America.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Henley had said, "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." He would also further elaborate, expressing, "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."
11. John Lennon, "Imagine"
Beloved singer/songwriter, peace activist, and co-founder of the Beatles, John Lennon's 1971 song "Imagine" became the singer's best-selling single of his solo career. Though the lyrics are deep and uplifting, Lennon once said the song was "virtually a Communist manifesto." He would further elaborate that "Imagine" was so widely accepted due to the sugar-coating of the words. "Now I understand what you have to do: put your political message across with a little honey."
The song encourages the listener to imagine a world at peace without divisions of religion and nationality, and to imagine a humanity that isn't attached to material possessions. Lennon essentially was able to use "Imagine" as a platform to express his own political message.
12. Queen, "Bohemian Rhapsody"
Perhaps one of the greatest songs of all time, Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" is a rock opera that is extremely strange and inspiring (and is often hard to understand). The late Freddie Mercury wrote the song and refused to fully explain the composition, except that it was about relationships. Many analysts believe it was Mercury's way of coming out, and expressing his thoughts on the sodomy laws at the time.
Guitarist Brian May had expressed that the song contained veiled references to Mercury's personal traumas. May had said, "Freddie was a very complex person: flippant and funny on the surface, but he concealed insecurities and problems in squaring up his life with his childhood. He never explained the lyrics, but I think he put a lot of himself into that song." While the true meaning may never be confirmed, fans continue to debate and analyze the iconic lyrics.
© 2018 Rachel M Johnson