No matter how popular a song is, its lyrics can be — and often are — misheard or misinterpreted, often to hilarious effect. Most of us won’t let the fact that we’re not quite certain of the lyrics to a song stop us from singing along with gusto, potentially butchering the songwriter’s intended message. Commonly misheard lyrics include samples from such well-known songs as Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze and Dancing Queen by ABBA (the reportedly misheard lyrics; “excuse me while I kiss this guy” and “kicking the dancing queen”. The actual lyrics: “excuse me while I kiss the sky” and “digging the dancing queen” respectively). Country and folk singer John Prine was left somewhat taken aback at a gig when a fan requested the song about “a tiny enchilada”, the lyrics to which are in fact “it’s a half an inch of water and you think you’re gonna drown” — an understandable mistake?
Even more interesting are those songs that we know and love, songs which evoke nostalgia and a range of other intimate emotions – but which turn out to be anything but what they seem. Songs about heartbreak turn out to be about heartbreakers, songs about love turn out to be songs about sex, songs about the youth of today turn out to be about post-apocalyptic worlds — all of these and more are compiled in this list of ten of the most frequently misinterpreted songs.
10. Summer of ’69 — Bryan Adams
Summer of ’69 is the classic summertime anthem to which most of us blithely sing along, visualizing teenagers spending their summer months playing in bands and meeting girls at the drive-in, in a retro American fashion. However, this song is one of those rare examples of an aspect of popular culture not widely perceived as smutty when it actually ought to be — Bryan Adams revealed in an interview that he intended the ’69 to refer not to the year, but to the sex position, saying that “one thing people never got was that the song isn’t about the year 1969. It’s about making love, a la ’69!” This of course makes sense when you consider that he was only nine years old in the year 1969, but knowledge of this will guarantee a very different listening experience.
9. Happy Together — The Turtles
Happy Together was released on an album of the same name in the late ’60s, and is well-known as an example of cheery ’60s pop. The opening line of the chorus, “I can’t see me loving nobody but you, for all my life”, is the part of the song that seems to sum up its message — someone is in love, and they’re very happy about it. The song’s real meaning is considerably more melancholy; according to one of the songwriters, the song is in fact about unrequited love, with conditionals such as “imagine” and “if” making the entire song a hypothesis. In a similarly unhappy vein, the fade-out line of “how is the weather?” signifies the singer realising he will never be with the girl in question and resorting back to small talk to distract him from his misery. A deceivingly upbeat song with a tragic backstory; we imagine anyone who used this as their wedding song will be less than amused to learn this.
8. Golden Brown — The Stranglers
Known for its having featured in the film Snatch, the song Golden Brown is a multi-layered one in terms of meaning. While the song was written about a girl, it can also be understood as a song about drug use — namely heroin. With lyrics like “golden brown, texture like sun/Lays me down, with my mind she runs/Throughout the night, no need to fight,/Never a frown with golden brown”, it seems incredible that for a time singer Hugh Cornwell denied that the song referred at all to drug use. He finally admitting to it in 2001, saying that he had denied the claims for so long as he didn’t want it reduced to ‘a drug song’ in the eyes (or ears) of the public.
7. Homecoming — Kanye West ft. Chris Martin
Although in recent years far fewer songs have been commonly misinterpreted (perhaps due to the widespread access to printed lyrics and interviews with artists) a few still manage to slip through the net. One such song is the 2008 Kanye West and Chris Martin collaboration Homecoming, which personifies the city of Chicago as a girl. Kanye seems to be deliberately trying to confuse the listener, with lines such as “I met this girl when I was three years old” and “my name is Windy and I like to blow trees”, ‘Windy’ being both an allusion to Chicago, the Windy City, and at the same time deliberately slurred so as to sound very like ‘Wendy’.
6. Downtown —Petula Clark
Downtown was Petula Clark’s first hit in the US, and like numerous songs on this list is a superficially happy tune. However, although most people don’t think of the song as anything beyond the detailing of a blithe trip into town, Petula Clark herself has delved into its darker layers. She wonders what will happen when the trip downtown is over and the girl has to return to the monotony of everyday life, saying in an interview that she’s “always thought there was this loneliness and there’s even a slight feeling of desperation in [the song].”
5. All the Young Dudes — Mott the Hoople
All the Young Dudes was written by David Bowie, and was performed by the ridiculously-named Mott the Hoople. The song is generally taken as an anthem for the new generation of the early ’70s, which is when the song was released. Nobody could have predicted the apparent real meaning behind the song: Bowie claims that it depicts the post-apocalyptic world of Ziggy Stardust in which the earth is dying, but there are no telephones to transmit the news, so it is spread by Ziggy’s songs — hence “all the young dudes carry the news”.
4. I Will Always Love You — Dolly Parton
Although Whitney Houston‘s power ballad cover enjoyed far better commercial success, I Will Always Love You was originally written as a country song by Dolly Parton. Thanks to Whitney’s emotive rendition, the song is generally perceived as the song of somebody jilted, heartbroken but claiming that they’ll never stop loving the heartbreaker. The song in fact had a very different meaning behind it: Parton allegedly wrote it as a tribute to her professional parting from her partner and long-term mentor Porter Wagoner. As such, the song is from the point of view of the one leaving, as opposed to the one left behind: “If I should stay,/I would only be in your way,/So I’ll go, but I know/I’ll think of you each step of the way”.
3. Every Breath You Take — The Police
The classic misinterpreted song, Every Breath You Take is commonly believed to be a song of true — if intense — love and affection for its subject. However, giving the lyrics any sort of attention shows its undeniable creepiness. Reading anything into the song will reveal that the song is quite clearly about an obsessive stalker, but lyrics like “oh can’t you see you belong to me” and “every single day, every word you say,/every game you play, every night you stay, I’ll be watching you” are two especially good examples. Sting said of the song in an interview that he thinks it’s “a nasty little song, really rather evil. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership.”
2. God Only Knows — The Beach Boys
The beautifully-harmonised Beach Boys’ classic God Only Knows is the subject of some consternation in terms of its subject matter. While the song sounds lyrically very much like a love song, with lines such as “but as long as there are stars above you/you never need to doubt it/I’ll make you so sure about it”, the fact remains that the song was written and meant to be performed by Brian Wilson, who ultimately sacrificed the lead vocal to his brother Carl. This has led to speculation that he may have written it with Carl in mind, which gives a brand new spin to the song.
1. Hallelujah — Leonard Cohen
Hallelujah has been covered by a wide variety of artists over the years, including Rufus Wainwright and perhaps most famously Jeff Buckley. It is generally viewed as a song of love gone wrong, with a lot of wistful memories and bitter reflections evident throughout the song — “All I ever learned from love/Was how to shoot at someone who outdrew you”. More interestingly, though, there are numerous covertly sexual references throughout the song, including lines such as “from your lips she drew the hallelujah” and “and every breath we drew was hallelujah”, which both allegedly refer to orgasm.