The ethereal magic of music has the power to transport you not only to new worlds, but into inexperienced emotions. We tune into the radio or, more likely Spotify, as a means of channeling someone else’s experience. When we’re sad, music can bring us up, and when we’re happy, a song can pull us down. Music has the power to unite and divide us, it is perhaps the most influential art on our daily lives.
Popular music, more so than even television and movies, has a way of bringing us into the zeitgeist. Not all your friend’s have seen Minions or Captain America: Civil War, but chances are they’ve all heard Rihanna’s ‘Work’ or Pharrell’s ‘Happy’. The omnipresence of music in our lives means that we don’t find it all that unusual when movies have pop soundtracks because it channels our own musical experience. To completely avoid music would mean locking yourself in a cabin in the woods, or else losing your hearing entirely. For all that, many of us actually spend very little time actually listening to what is happening in the songs we’re listening to. We hear the chorus, we feel the beat and that’s it. How often does it happen that you really listen to a song you’ve maybe heard a hundred times before? How often are you surprised by how little of it you understood, or how you never really paid attention to the lyrics?
This list is here to force you to listen by pointing out the hidden dark meanings in some of your favorite songs. Some of these might be obvious to you, but chances are, they aren’t to a lot of people. What other songs should we have included? What song has the darkest meaning?
15. I Shot The Sheriff, By Bob Marley
The alleged meaning behind this song comes from one of Bob Marley‘s ex-girlfriends. According to Esther Anderson, the song is not about the Sheriff or law enforcement at all. Rather, it’s about birth control, which Bob Marley strongly opposed! At the time that Anderson and Marley were dating, she had been prescribed birth control by a doctor, which Marley felt was murder. Marley really wanted his girlfriend to have his child, believing it a sin that she was killing his sperm, and ruining their beautiful, perfect love. This sheds new light on some of the lyrics, such as “Every time I plant a seed/He said kill it before it grow.” Who would have thought?
14. Closing Time, By Semisonic
The official anthem of closing out the club, Closing Time is not quite what it seems. In spite of references to drinking and the club, according to the lyricist, the song has very little to do with the bar scene. The lead singer, whose wife was pregnant at the time the song was written, has since admitted that the song is really about childbirth. This wasn’t the writer, Dan Wilson’s, original intention: it was only while writing the song that he became aware that it was being born, rather than the closing of a bar. In an interview with American songwriter, Wilson said, “Part way into the writing of the song, I realized it was also about being born.” This revelation makes us feel ever so icky about belting this after some whiskey tonics and heading home with a Tinder date. There is some truly horrific irony if an accidental pregnancy comes out of that experience.
13. Hotel California, By The Eagles
The best worst song ever written, Hotel California is as infectious as the seemingly magical hotel that those who enter seemingly can never leave. Everyone knows this song, and most accept the song at face value. Maybe your most cerebral friend has a theory about how the song is about the futility of modern life, and how we are all doomed to loneliness. It’s not that they’re wrong, it’s just that they’re missing the bigger picture. According to band members, the song is about the dissolution of the American Dream and more specifically, the greed and perversion of the music industry. This puts an especially bitter edge on the beloved song, which already feels melancholic. The song plays on the idealism of California and the ultimately false illusion of the entertainment industry.
12. Semi-Charmed Life, By Third Eye Blind
Semi-Charmed Life is one of the very catchiest songs of the 1990s. For lack of a better word, the song has “bounce”, a sort of upbeat rhythm that quickens and paces. It’s so easy to get lost in the “doo doo doo doos” and hard to really catch all the quickly sung lyrics. Chances are, you had no idea the song was about a meth binge. That’s right, the upbeat notes, desperate energy, and plea to find, “something else, to get me through this Semi-charmed kinda life” is a lot darker than maybe you originally thought. This revelation similarly brings to light the drug allusions of some of the lyrics like, “I was taking sips of it through my nose.” The drug references were not lost on some radio stations who edited some of the drug references out when they played it.
11. Like a Virgin, By Madonna
In the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino‘s Reservoir Dogs, the titular characters debate the true meaning of Like a Virgin by Madonna. According to Tarantino, it’s about a “well-travelled” woman who rediscovers her sexual bliss after being with a particularly well-endowed man. This is a pretty hilarious interpretation, and honestly, it does kinda fit. This is not really the truth, though. Not even originally written for a woman, the song is about falling in love and feeling like a virgin again. The song is about channeling that youthful affection and almost obsessive adoration that comes with young love. Love is a difficult terrain, and those among us who have been around the block a few times have been hurt before… and then you meet someone who makes love seem fresh and new.
10. Chandelier, By Sia
Few people are aware of Sia‘s incredible influence within the music industry. Long before she started producing her own music she was working behind the scenes writing some of the best songs you’d hear on the radio from Rihanna‘s Diamonds to Beyonce‘s Pretty Hurts. Sia’s own career has been plagued by personal tragedy, addiction, and depression. It’s so easy to get lost in Chandelier’s trembling beats, which makes you want to let out all your darkest feelings. About Sia’s battle with alcoholism, that might come through emotionally, but is not immediately obvious unless you’re paying attention. Her singing, “keep my glass full until morning light, ‘Cause I’m just holding on for tonight,” ends up taking on a far more sinister note knowing the true story behind the lyrics.
9. Paper Planes, By M.I.A.
Never satisfied to just sit back while there is injustice in the world, M.I.A’s music has always had a political slant. Paper Planes, her best-known song, clearly has an aggressive edge. While you can gather some hints to the fact that the song is affected by criminal youth, the true story behind the lyrics tells an even more revolutionary song. M.IA.’s Paper Planes is really an anti-government rally, discussing the paranoia and surveillance of the American government. The song embodies what the government fears most about the world’s youth, in particular, those who don’t fit into the mold of white suburban middle class.
8. Born In The USA, By Bruce Springsteen
Claimed by some Americans as the ultimate nationalist anthem, the true meaning behind Springsteen‘s song is something a little bit more critical than it seems. This is a classic case of people listening to the chorus only, ignoring the much darker lyrics that surround it. Wrapping his message in a catchy power ballad, he is actually criticizing the American response to Vietnam – in particular, the treatment of Veterans after the war. A song about and ultimately for the working class, it tackles the destabilized economic conditions after the war and the fractured identity of American citizens who no longer feel at home in the country. The Boss has always had a political edge, no doubt something that has contributed to his enduring appeal. His music speaks to the people and is apprehensive about the false illusions perpetuated by those in power.
7. Waterfalls, By TLC
Not actually about waterfalls, TLC’s ballad is about the consequences of drug-related violence and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It’s not easy to capture the meaning if you just focus on the repeated chorus, “Don’t go chasing waterfalls”. There are a lot of clues to lead you to hear the true meaning behind the soft r&b tune, though. Samples of gunshots are used in the background, and the lyrics themselves are pretty transparent of the much darker implications of the song. Just take a look at these lines from the 4th verse: “His health is fading and he doesn’t know why/Three letters took him to his final resting place.” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess what three letters they might be referring to, especially in the song’s greater context, which talks about a man’s fading health and imminent death. The song was meant to shed light on a devastating issue affecting the population that the government and people were turning their backs on. Knowing that puts a different spin on the song’s inclusion in The Other Guys, that’s for sure.
6. Bad Blood, By Taylor Swift
While most of Taylor Swift‘s songs are about breakups, Bad Blood is something else. While on the surface it might just be another ex-revenge song like We Are Never Getting Back Together, Bad Blood is a different kind of falling out. The song is about Swift’s rivalry with Katy Perry. Perry and Swift have had a rough ride – Swift was never quite sure if she was considered a friend or enemy of the Teenage Dream singer, and when Perry stole a bunch of her background dancers that nearly ruined her upcoming tour, that seemed to take the cake for Taylor. It doesn’t help that after Taylor Swift’s reportedly difficult break up with John Mayer, John ends up hooking up with Katy Perry for a while. It’s pretty clear from all this, you don’t cross Taylor Swift or her Squad.
5. Perfect Day, By Lou Reed
From his first album Transformer, Perfect Day has long been one of Lou Reed‘s most beloved songs. Ostensibly describing the “perfect day” with someone you love, it’s actually about a relationship with heroin. In that context, the sort of dazed energy of the song, between dream and waking and Reed’s trembling voice makes a lot more sense. Kinda about carrying addiction and drug use with you, the music channels the feeling of being high and drifting through life. This false ballad has bittersweet connotations and is darkened by the pleas of “you just keep me hanging on”, suggesting both heroin’s ability to put you into a state of bliss, forgetting who you are, and maybe deciding to actually live when you might otherwise want to die. As we all know, though, heroin has a way of creeping up on you and overdoses are not very uncommon.
4. You Oughta Know, By Alanis Morissette
From Alanis Morissette‘s best loved album Jagged Little Pill, it’s pretty obvious that ‘You Oughta Know’ is something of a raging anthem – the soundtrack for scorned women. What few people know, though, is that the song is directly targeted at one person in particular… and honestly, someone we’d rather not think of as a sexual being. Reportedly about actor/comedian Dave Coulier of Full House fame, the comedian has denied it – but a lot of evidence is working against his claim. While Coulier says he spoke to Morissette directly about whether or not the song was about him, and she said no… he can’t help seeing parallels between their relationship present in the song and the entire album. In an interview with HuffPost Live, he went on to say: “The one that got me was, ‘I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner.’ That was because we had already broken up and she had called—she was living in Canada at the time—she called, and I said, ‘Hey, I’m right in the middle of dinner, can I just call you right back?’ I remember that line when I heard ‘You Oughta Know,’ and I just went…it was like, ‘Uh-oh.'”
3. My Sharona, By The Knack
It’s getting late at the karaoke bar, you’ve maybe had a few drinks too many and you’re looking to belt out one more tune and maybe get the cute girl you’ve been talking to, to come home with you. You won’t be the first one to try My Sharona by The Knack, a fun last ditch effort to get a girl on the fence to like you. Rhythmic, bouncy and sexy, what could go wrong? Well, we all know Sharona is about a girl… what you probably don’t know is that Sharona is underaged. Written for a specific Sharona in mind, she was a teen when lead singer Doug Fieger, was 27. The story gets weirder as Fieger met Sharona when he himself was with his girlfriend, asking her out in front of his then girlfriend. In spite of age difference, Fieger and Sharona ended up dating for years and were even engaged at some point. We guess that makes it okay?
2. Possession, By Sarah McLachlan
Sarah McLachlan is one of those artists that your mom listens to and you don’t want to admit you belt out in the shower. Her brand of soulful music feels a little generic, though she has a beautiful voice. On the surface, the song sounds like a slightly eerier version of one of her ballads, and the title hints maybe that it’s about the feeling of being possessed by love or lust. The song is actually about McLachlan’s unfortunate experience with crazed fans who stalked and threatened her life. If you listen closely the romantic lyrics are actually the dark desires of a disturbed mind. Knowing this puts a completely different spin on some of the more “romantic” lyrics of the song, such as “I would be the one to hold you down, kiss you so hard, I’ll take your breath away.” Having someone take your breath away has never had a more murderous edge than here.
1. Poker Face, By Lady Gaga
Poker Face is the song that introduced the world to Lady Gaga, bringing into our lives the newest pop phenomena who would change the face of contemporary music. What is Poker Face about though? Is it about, gambling? Love? Keeping it together? There are certainly elements of these things. The song reportedly is about Lady Gaga’s bisexual desires and being in a relationship with a straight man with whom she has not disclosed this information. The poker face she is referring to is her current beau’s inability to read her true desires. Straight from Gaga’s mouth, she once said about the song: “You know his song is actually about when I was making love to this guy that I was dating a long time ago, I was thinking about chicks every time we had sex.” Now an icon to the gay community, working for gay rights internationally, Lady Gaga is more open about her sexuality.