Musical meanings and misunderstandings?

by Doctor RJ –


attribution: Ernst Vikne/Wikimedia Commons


There is an argument that we are presently in a cultural “Golden Age.” At no other point in human history has the same amount of information and art been available to as many people. On the very same computer, tablet or whatever that you’re using to read this sentence, almost every painting, sculpture, book, film, TV show, song, symphony and bit of information that has ever existed might be just a click away. And the NSA will watch along as we read and watch it.

Of course, along with all the material comes opinions from everyone and their brother about what it all means.

With music, people can sometimes miss the deeper subtext of a song or totally misinterpret the meaning of the lyrics. Have you ever been at a wedding where you hear a song played during the reception, and it’s like “Why in God’s name would you play this?!?” I’ve occasionally heard Nick Gilder’s Hot Child in the City on the public address system at malls and department stores as background music. Because a song about child prostitution is perfect for when the family is out shopping for drapes at Bed Bath & Beyond. This sort of thing also applies to the use of music in commercials, especially political commercials. There have been more than a few occasions in which a campaign has been embarrassed by using a campaign song whose lyrics didn’t exactly mean what they thought it meant.

So … what are the most interesting song meanings, misinterpretations or subtexts?

Last week, Alanis Morissette wrote a campaign theme song for Marianne Williamson, who’s running for Rep. Henry Waxman’s seat in California’s 33rd district. Morissette said in a statement that the song, Today, is meant to capture Williamson’s qualities and the state of America.

However, not every political campaign is savvy enough to either get the support of the artist or even pick a song that’s thematically appropriate. President Reagan’s 1984 campaign famously wanted to use Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. because of the patriotic qualities of the title, totally overlooking the lyrics—which are about the struggles of a Vietnam vet who’s lost in society. Another one of Springsteen’s songs that people misunderstand is Glory Days. A lot of people think of it as an upbeat, happy song, but if you listen to the lyrics, it’s a song in which a middle-aged guy is basically talking about how much life sucks compared to the “glory days” of high-school.

Heart’s Barracuda made news in the 2008 presidential campaign when Sarah Palin used it for campaign events without getting permission, pissing off the Wilson sisters something awful. There have been some interesting interpretations as to what the song means, including the idea that it’s about oral sex (“You’d have me down down down down on my knees. Now wouldn’t you, barracuda?”) However, the song is actually a response to the scumbags at Heart’s record label of the time, which ran ads claiming Ann and Nancy Wilson were involved in an incestuous relationship as a way of promoting the band.

So here are songs where the intended meaning might be different than what popular consensus assumes.

► R.E.M.  – “This one goes out to the one I love … This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind … A simple prop to occupy my time”

R.E.M. has two songs that people totally misinterpret. Even though the video for Losing My Religion plays with religious symbols, the song is not about religion or spirituality. Michael Stipe has said in interviews that it’s actually about unrequited love that borders on obsession.

However, the band’s very first hit is also not quite understood. The One I Love is a song in which people look at the title, listen to the first two lines and think it’s a love song. But Stipe has called it an “incredibly violent” song, with a theme of playing on emotions and using someone over and over again.

► The Village People  – “It’s fun to stay at the Y.M.C.A. … They have everything for young men to enjoy … You can hang out with all the boys”

As a form of protest, gay rights activists suggested using The Village People’s Y.M.C.A. during the opening ceremonies of the Sochi Olympics for the introduction of the United States team. However, the group’s former lead singer, Victor Willis, who wrote the lyrics for the song, let it be known that “Y.M.C.A.” is not veiled lyrics about being gay. According to Willis, the song is about … well, the fun of staying at the Y.M.C.A. Whether that’s believable, I’ll let you decide.

For this particular song, it’s a situation where the people in the group don’t always agree with the intention of the group’s creators. The Village People was created by French composer Jacques Morali and music producer Henri Belolo. Their intention was to target gay disco fans and the group is composed of gay male stereotypes/fantasies. And there is some record that Morali, who was gay, wanted to mainstream images of gay men through double entendre with The Village People. However, performers in The Village People have denied that intention, and Willis has complained the performers were typecast as a gay group.

► U2 – “Is it getting better? Or do you feel the same? Will it make it easier on you now? You got someone to blame”

One is the third track on 1991’s Achtung Baby. The song has a habit of showing up at wedding receptions, with the lyrics of “one love, one blood, one life” being a favorite of couples entering eternal union.

Bono has said the song is about relationships. But there are many differing interpretations of the song, with explanations anywhere between a girl, an AIDS victim or struggles within U2 itself. Also, the lyrics are not exactly about the union of people in “one love.” There’s much more melancholy to it, with the lyrics coming from the perspective of someone who feels wronged in a relationship begging the other person to come to their senses and function in a relationship.

► Queen – “Mama, just killed a man … Put a gun against his head … Pulled my trigger, now he’s dead … Mama, life had just begun … But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away”

Written by Freddie Mercury for Queen’s 1975 album A Night at the Opera, Bohemian Rhapsody is one of the band’s most famous and elaborate tracks. It is also one for which there is no definitive meaning as to what the lyrics are supposed to represent. Mercury refused to divulge the song’s meaning and even suggested it was just “random rhyming nonsense,” and the living members of Queen have remained tight-lipped about it as well.

Freddie Mercury: “It’s one of those songs which has such a fantasy feel about it. I think people should just listen to it, think about it, and then make up their own minds as to what it says to them.”

However, that hasn’t kept people from speculating. One interpretation of the song is that it’s about a man who accidentally killed someone and sold his soul to the devil. He calls out to God before his execution (i.e. “Bismillah!“) and is saved.

Another theory is that it’s about troubles in Freddie Mercury’s childhood, or it’s about Mercury’s sexuality, since the song came around the same time his relationship with girlfriend Mary Austin was falling apart, and he acknowledged his bisexuality.

► The Vapors – “No sex, no drugs, no wine, no women … No fun, no sin, no you, no wonder it’s dark”

1980’s Turning Japanese has always been rumored to be a song about masturbation, with the “turning Japanese” being a politically incorrect euphemism for the look a man has when he climaxes.

However, the band denies it, and has said the song is about a guy who lost his girlfriend and is going so crazy that he’s turning Japanese.

► Billy Idol – “When there’s no-one else in sight… In the crowded lonely night… Well I wait so long… For my love vibration… And I’m dancing with myself”

Interestingly, “Turning Japanese” is not the only Japanese-themed song rumored to be about masturbation. Billy Idol swears Dancing With Myself is NOT about masturbation either. Instead, he claims it was inspired by being in a Japanese club that was lined with mirrors, and seeing people dancing by themselves.

► Percy Sledge – “When a man loves a woman, he can’t keep his mind on nothing else … He’ll trade the world for the good thing he’s found … If she is bad, he can’t see it, she can do no wrong … Turn his back on his best friend if he put her down”

Percy Sledge’s 1966 hit, When a Man Loves a Woman, is considered a classic love song, and it was a Number 1 hit for Michael Bolton in 1991 as well.

But if you listen to the lyrics, it’s NOT a love story. The song tells the tale of a man who’s used as a doormat, trying to hold on to “heartless love” and begging the woman he loves not to treat him bad.

► The Rolling Stones – “Brown sugar how come you taste so good? Brown sugar just like a young girl should”

Brown Sugar is the opening track and lead single from the Stones’ 1971 album Sticky Fingers. The song was originally titled by Mick Jagger as “Brown Pussy” and was first performed live at the infamous Altamont concert where the Hells Angels security stabbed a man to death. Most people think of the song as being Jagger’s ode to having sex with a black woman. But if you listen to the lyrics, the song tells the story of slaves sold in New Orleans, with the women being the “brown sugar” that are beaten and raped.

However, an alternate interpretation of the song is that it’s about heroin, with the person being “mastered” by brown sugar (aka brown heroin).

Mick Jagger: “I never would write that song now. I would probably censor myself. I’d think, ‘Oh God, I can’t. I’ve got to stop.’ I can’t just write raw like that.”

► Radiohead – “I don’t care if it hurts … I want to have control … I want a perfect body … I want a perfect soul … I want you to notice when I’m not around … You’re so fucking special … I wish I was special”

Creep was a huge hit  for Radiohead and considered one of the best songs of 1990s. Rumored to be about a girl that lead singer Thom Yorke had a crush on, Yorke has said the track is about being in love with someone, but not feeling you’re good enough. He describes the feeling as, “there’s the beautiful people and then there’s the rest of us.” However, Radiohead has come to hate the song, since given its popularity the band, and particularly Yorke, became identified with it and get asked to perform it over and over again. Yorke dislikes the song so much that he’s said in interviews that Radiohead “sucked Satan’s cock” when they rode it to stardom. In some interviews, Yorke has offered an alternate interpretation of the song. Instead of being a sympathetic perspective, the song is everything that’s wrong about the loaner, slacker sad sack that obsesses over a girl.

This song is also a famous case of plagiarism. A chord progression can’t be copyrighted, but a song’s melody can. “Creep” uses the chord progression from The Hollies’ The Air That I Breathe in its verse and the melody from the song in the bridge following the second chorus of “Creep.” The writers of “The Air That I Breathe,” Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood, noticed and sued Radiohead. Both Hammond and Hazlewood are now credited as co-writers of “Creep” in the liner notes of Pablo Honey.

► The Police – “Every breath you take, and every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you”

Every Breath You Take was among the list of Rolling Stone‘s 500 greatest song of all-time, but it is NOT a love song and should never be played at weddings ever again. Do people even listen to the first line of the song? Sting wrote the song after breaking up with his first wife, Frances Tomelty, and the track is about an obsessive stalker who wants to watch a lost lover out of jealousy.

Sting: “I think it’s a nasty little song, really rather evil. It’s about jealousy and surveillance and ownership … I think the ambiguity is intrinsic in the song however you treat it because the words are so sadistic. On one level, it’s a nice long song with the classic relative minor chords, and underneath there’s this distasteful character talking about watching every move. I enjoy that ambiguity. I watched Andy Gibb singing it with some girl on TV a couple of weeks ago, very loving, and totally misinterpreting it. (Laughter) I could still hear the words, which aren’t about love at all. I pissed myself laughing.”

This isn’t the only song that gets misinterpreted for special occasions. Green Day’s Good Riddance (Time of your life) used to get played at graduations a lot. While it’s true the song’s original meaning is about a change in a person’s life, it’s not in the way most people take it. The song, written by Billie Joe Armstrong, was about a breakup with his girlfriend who was leaving for Ecuador, hence the “good riddance” in the title. The Whitney Houston version of I Will Always Love You also has a habit of showing up at weddings. While it does speak about a love that will always be there, it’s actually a sad song that’s about separation and moving on. The song was written by Dolly Parton for her partner Porter Wagoner, with it being Parton’s swan song to Wagoner and marks the parting of ways.

► Eagles – “On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair … Warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air”

Hotel California was a huge hit for the Eagles and is the title track to their 1976 album of  the same name, which is also one of the best-selling albums of all-time. Over the years, there have been many theories on what the song is actually about. Some think it was based on an actual hotel. Some think the “hotel” of the song is a mental asylum, and the lyrics describe the experience of a disturbed person in involuntary, long-term care. However, the biggest urban legend connected to the song is that it’s about Satanism. Proponents of that interpretation point to the lyrics which talk about wanting to “Kill the beast” and “Stab it with their steely knives,” with Hell being a place where “you can check out anytime you like but you can never leave.”

eagles hotel california


And they also point to a weird-looking, shadowy dude on the inside album cover, with pre-internet, tinfoil hat speculation being that it’s Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan.


However, Don Henley has said the song is about hedonism and greed in the music industry and the country as a whole during the ’70s. Henley has also referred to it as a song about the loss of innocence.

The album has as its underlying theme the corruption of impressionable rock stars by the decadent Los Angeles music industry. The celebrated title track presents California as a gilded prison the artist freely enters only to discover that he cannot later escape.


Reprinted with permission from Daily Kos