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.
He recalls how an ex-girlfriend once gave Kiedis her jacket because she believed giving made her life better. Kiedis notes, “It was such an epiphany that someone would want to give me her favorite thing. That stuck with me forever. Every time I’d be thinking I have to keep, I’d remember ‘No, you gotta give away instead.’ Every time you empty your vessel of that energy, fresh new energy comes flooding in.”
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.”
Regarded as one of the most misunderstood songs in modern history, “Born In The USA” can be heard blaring at full volume during political campaigns and rallies, which is funny because at the core, the song is actually a powerful anthem for rebellion.
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.”
But what about the music video and all its religious iconography and symbolism? Well unless this is your first music video, you should know that directors don’t always visualize what the artiste is really thinking, which is why music videos shouldn’t be taken as definitions of the song but rather one man’s interpretation.
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.
The song basically pokes fun at the folk who try too hard to replicate the “Gangnam style” by living large on the exterior, while still struggling to make ends meet behind closed doors. Park Jae-sang (PSY) explains, “People who are actually from Gangnam never proclaim that they are—it’s only the posers and wannabes that put on these airs and say that they are ‘Gangnam Style’—so this song is actually poking fun at those kinds of people who are trying so hard to be something that they’re not.”
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).”
But the bigger riddle here has always been the dodgy lyrics that seem to say “f*ck her face” instead of “poker face” during the song’s bridge. Gaga was asked about this during an interview on KIIS FM in which she seemingly averted the question, only to admit during a concert that KIIS FM was right on calling her out! I guess there’s nothing some good old-fashioned enunciation and audio effects can’t get away with.
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.
In his own words, “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, because it’s so much deeper and more profound than anything I’ve ever felt.” So the next time this track comes on and you think about taking a cold shower, just picture Billy Steinberg instead; a 66-year-old man who, on the inside, feels like he’s never had sex before, ever.
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.”
Does that mean “Imagine” is a bad song? No, of course not, so dry those tears and turn that frown upside down! It still carries the same messages of hope and change, and since music is meant to be subjective to the listener, “Imagine” can be whatever you imagine it to be.
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.
The main giveaway is in the title itself, because just like The 1975’s Matthew Healy uses the numbing effects of cocaine on one’s gums to describe his addiction in the song “UGH!”, The Weeknd relates the high to not being able to feel his face.
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.
After reading about Hindu monks who perfected the technique, Stapp decided to use lucid dreaming to rid himself of a recurring nightmare, and apparently it worked because after writing “Higher”, he never had the nightmare again. The rest of the lyrics basically speak about Scott’s desire to create “heaven on earth,” which in retrospect he calls “very narrow, very naïve, and very wrapped up in ego and self-fulfillment”.
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.
“Chandelier” is based off Sia’s own struggles with alcoholism and eventual drug abuse, specifically Oxycodone and Vicodin. The song also chronicles the duality of being hooked; walking a thin line between euphoric celebration and self-destruction. And when you watch the accompanying music video starring young Maddie Ziegler, it becomes abundantly clear that “Chandelier” is an ode to Sia’s darkest times of feeling manipulated and owned by her own addictions. The good news is Sia has been clean for years and her career has since prospered. Phew!
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.
“With ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart,’ I was trying to come up with a love song and I remembered I actually wrote that to be a vampire love song. Its original title was ‘Vampires in Love’ because I was working on a musical of Nosferatu, the other great vampire story. 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 dark.”
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.
“It reminded me of some kind of exotic island, not sure if it was on this planet or not but, it just felt like a place where it was forever four in the morning, because you’re on an island you can sorta see the sun rising in the sky you know, like that peachy color … Getting lucky is not just sleeping with her, but meeting with someone the first time and it just clicking. There’s no better fortune in this existence, to me.”
2. “Pretty In Pink” – The Psychedelic Furs
Director John Hughes may have taken the song at face value and titled his feature length film after it, but The Psychedelic Furs claim that the phrase “pretty in pink” is actually slang for “being naked.” It’s basically a song about a girl who mistakes sex for love and gives herself up multiple times just do fit in. In Richard Butler’s own words, “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.”
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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