Did you know that Maroon 5’s debut single, "Harder To Breathe", was not intended as a jab at frontman Adam Levine’s ex-girlfriend? It was in fact written as a slam against the band’s record label. Apparently frustrations were so high that Maroon 5 decided to turn their angst into a song before their collective emotions reached a boiling point. I think it’s safe to say that everything turned out peachy in the end.
The music we listen to is rarely ever direct or clear cut. Writing a song is an art form and as such, lyrics are made to not only sound poetic, but also convey the songwriter’s message in a creative and memorable way. However, in the process of turning words into poetry, sometimes a writer’s true message gets lost in translation and billions of listeners end up assuming a song is about something else entirely. It’s no surprise then that "Every Breath You Take" by The Police is so popular at weddings, even though the song is obviously about an obsessive and controlling stalker, as confirmed by Sting himself.
Joining the ranks of "Harder To Breathe" and "Every Breath You Take" are the 15 songs below, all of which have deeper meanings than they let on, and some are even largely misunderstood to this day. Be warned, you’ll never listen to these songs the same way again.
15 "Give It Away" - Red Hot Chili Peppers
This song is definitely about sex, right? It’s basically a loop about how we should all “give it away”, with “it” referring to our bodies and our restrictions towards sex…right? Well, not exactly. In his memoir Scar Tissue, lead singer Anthony Kiedis explains that the song is literally about the act of giving, with the spiritual belief that it will create a more fulfilling life around us.
14 "Born In The USA" – Bruce Springsteen
It doesn’t matter if you’re American or not, listening to The Boss’ thunderous ode to the great American dream is bound to get you feeling patriotic. That is, until you realize it isn’t a song about how awesome America is. Quite the contrary, Bruce Springsteen wrote "Born In The USA" as an open letter against the Vietnam war and the poor treatment of war veterans. If you listen to the lyrics, you’ll realize he’s also talking about friends who never came back from the battlefield. "I had a brother at Khe Sahn, Fighting off the Viet Cong, They're still there, he's all gone."
13 "Losing My Religion" – R.E.M
The title is pretty self-explanatory, so this must be a song about distancing oneself from religious beliefs, right? Nope. In an interview with The New York Times, R.E.M singer Michael Stipe explained that the song is about “romantic expression.” Apparently the title, "Losing My Religion", is an old Southern expression meaning “being at the end of one’s rope.”
12 "Gangnam Style" – Psy
There are two kinds of people; those who love "Gangnam Style" yet fail spectacularly at mimicking Psy’s goofy dance moves, and those who wish they never have to hear another replay of 2013’s song of the year. Regardless, there’s only one meaning to this insanely-popular earworm, and it’s a lot more cynical than you think. Gangnam is a small district in Seoul, South Korea, that is considered exclusive to an elite class of people.
11 "Poker Face" – Lady Gaga
Poker Face is actually about Lady Gaga’s fling with bisexuality. The eccentric pop sensation explained that she fantasized about being intimate with a woman while still in bed with her (ex) boyfriend, hence the line “No he can't read my poker face (she's got me like nobody).”
10 "Like A Virgin" – Madonna
Regarded as one of the most popular musical icons of all time, "Queen of Pop" Madonna is infamous for sprinkling sexual innuendo all over her songs. However "Like A Virgin", possibly the most telling title she has come up with, isn’t really about losing one’s virginity or feeling reinvigorated during sex. According to songwriter Billy Steinberg, the song is about finding wholeness again in a new relationship.
9 "Imagine" – John Lennon
It feels like every time something catastrophic happens, someone’s always ready on deck to belt out a rendition of this evergreen wonder by John Lennon, and with good reason. The song is a moving reminder of love, peace, and compassion during turbulent times, and its powerful composition makes it an uplifting anthem to those listening. But was that really John Lennon’s intention? In the book Lennon Legend: An Illustrated Life of John Lennon, the Beatles singer calls the song “virtually the communist manifesto.” He says, "Because it's sugarcoated it's accepted. Now I understand what you have to do—put your message across with a little honey."
8 "I Can’t Feel My Face" – The Weeknd
Apart from having a head of hair that could house a small family of birds, The Weeknd is also famous for this bass-heavy chart topper. Despite sounding like it’s very much about a woman, The Weeknd is actually singing about, you guessed it, drugs. Or doing drugs with a woman. More specifically, he’s referring to the effects of cocaine. You’re probably shrugging this off like it doesn’t make sense, but substitute the seductive woman he’s singing about with substance abuse, and suddenly lines like “And I know she'll be the death of me, at least we'll both be numb” make all the sense in the world.
7 "Higher" - Creed
You can’t deny that Creed’s most popular track "Higher" sounds super religious. It’s largely considered to be about Christ’s ascension to Heaven, hence the title "Higher". But according to frontman Scott Stapp, the song is actually about him experimenting with lucid dreaming. "You're physically asleep, but you're awake in your mind," he explained.
6 "Chandelier" - Sia
If you’re looking for ambiguity and tiramisu-style layers in your music, look no further than songwriter-to-the-stars, Sia. Her single "Chandelier" is a strong piece with vocals so unorthodoxly arranged that it serves as a testament to Sia’s incredible vocal range. At a glance, it seems like an uplifting ballad that encourages the listener to take chances in life. Upon further listening, it becomes a melancholic song about a girl who loves to party, only to regret it the morning after. The real undertone to this song is a lot darker, though.
5 "Total Eclipse Of The Heart" – Bonnie Tyler
It’s about vampires. No, really. According to songwriter Jim Steinman, the emotionally-exhausting power ballad was originally titled “Vampires In Love”. After his Broadway musical "Dance of the Vampires" bled (no pun intended) money, Steinman revealed the true origins of the song in an interview with Playbill magazine.
4 "Possession" - Sarah McLachlan
A lot of teenagers in the '90s thought this song was about being intensely romantic in a relationship, and although it could still be interpreted that way, the origin of the song is a lot creepier than you’d expect.
Sarah came up with this track after receiving several love letters from an obsessed fan. In fact, the lyrics are so close to the creepy letters that the fan decided to sue her for songwriting credit in 1994. So for those of you planning to play this classic at your wedding, it’s best to switch tracks to something more modern and straightforward, like Daft Punk’s "Get Lucky".
3 "Get Lucky" – Daft Punk feat. Pharrell and Nile Rodgers
Okay, breathe a sigh of relief because "Get Lucky" doesn’t come from a dark place at all. Finally, some good news! Although it’s easy to mistake the funk-fueled single from Random Access Memories as a song about simply getting laid, it’s actually a lot more meaningful than that. In a mini-documentary chronicling the making of the album, Pharrell Williams explains that it’s really about finding that special bond with someone upon first meeting them.
2 "Pretty In Pink" - The Psychedelic Furs
1 "Hotel California" – Eagles
You couldn’t go two days without someone playing this on their acoustic guitar back in the '90s. It’s a song that has endured the winds of change and is considered one of the most popular slow rock ballads of all time. Obviously, it isn’t about a hotel or being stuck in one. The whole piece is one big metaphor about self-destruction and greed within the music industry. Yay.
Eagles vocalist Don Henley says it’s a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream. While obviously a lot more melancholic, I think the Eagles and Bruce Springsteen should collaborate on a duet to see if it’ll become the most misunderstood song ever written.
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