If you’re truly a music lover, you’ve probably heard the lyrics of certain songs in passing without realizing what they really mean. Many popular songs that fans easily misinterpret are pretty catchy, so it’s easy to get distracted from the actual intention of those songs.
Because the music industry is quite vast, you can find a combination of songs with straightforward meanings and others with lyrics that need you to dig deeper. Without wasting any time, let’s unravel the true meaning of some famous songs in the music scene.
“Blank Space” Is Taylor Swift’s Response to the Media
The pop song “Blank Space” was released in 1989 and soon became one of singer-songwriter Taylor Swift’s biggest recorded singles. In an interview with the NME music blog, Taylor said the single gave the media the impression that she dated too many people.
But “Blank Space” was actually Taylor Swift’s response to all the negative remarks by the media. On top of that, a commonly misheard lyric from the song was “Got a long list of ex-lovers.” But some fans and a coffee ad thought it was “All the lonely Starbucks lovers.”
Baha Men’s Famous Song “Who Let the Dogs Out” Is about Catcalling
Are you one of those folks who thought the popular upbeat song “Who Let the Dogs Out” was about our furry, four-legged friends? Well, you thought wrong. The song was originally composed by Trinidadian artist Anslem Douglas before Baha Men released the song in 2000.
As shocking as it may seem, the initial title of the song was “Doggie,” and it talks about men who engage in catcalling. The men start the disrespectful name-calling, the girls respond to the calls, and a woman shouts out, “Who Let the Dogs Out?”
Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” Is Not a Love Song
The queen of country music, Dolly Parton, is well-known for classic hit songs such as “9 to 5,” “Jolene,” and many others that have taken the world by storm. However, one song that remains an all-time favorite for many fans is “I Will Always Love You.”
At a glance, it is easy for anyone to believe that Dolly Parton wrote a love song, but that was not the case. She actually wrote the song for her business partner, Porter Wagoner, in appreciation for his support throughout their seven years of working together in the music industry.
Popular Spanish Song “Macarena” by Los Del Río and Infidelity
We may not have known all the lyrics of the famous song “Macarena,” but we can never forget the iconic dance choreography. “Macarena” is a popular Spanish cult tune that everyone loved in the ’90s. The meaning, however, is totally different from what we thought back then.
This super-popular hit song tells the story of a lady who cheats on her boyfriend with his two friends! The sad and twisted part of the story is that she chose to cheat when her boyfriend was on his way to join the Army.
Blondie’s “One Way or Another” Addresses a Stalker
Debbie Harry, cofounder of the band Blondie and creator of the 1978 rock classic “One Way or Another,” wrote the song from her personal, negative experience. According to her, “One Way or Another” may sound like a fun game of hide and seek between two lovebirds, but the real meaning of the song is actually very frightening.
In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Debbie Harry explained, “I was actually stalked by a nutjob so it came out of a not-so-friendly personal event.” She wanted people to learn how to shake off negative experiences and instead focus on getting on with their life.
“S&M” by Rihanna Is Not All about Sex
Anyone who has listened to Rihanna’s 2010 hit song “S&M” would immediately take the song literally and assume it was about getting under the sheets. Surprisingly, the lyrics talk about Rihanna’s relationship with the media as a bittersweet experience full of pain and pleasure.
In 2011, Rihanna explained that the song is about her love-hate relationship with the media. She took advantage of the media’s strange mixture of negativity and positivity about her life by writing “S&M.” RiRi, as she is called, told Vogue magazine, “sometimes the pain is pleasurable.” Other times the news is just hard to handle.
Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” Is Really a Breakup Song
Remember those times in middle school when you happily sang the chorus of “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” while having a good time at a sleepover with your friends? Sadly, many people misinterpreted the meaning of the lyrics “I hope you had the time of your life.”
In 2005, Billie Joe Armstrong, lead vocalist of Green Day, told Guitar Legends magazine that he wrote the song while going through a bad breakup with his girlfriend who was moving to Ecuador. According to him, he was trying his very best not to be bitter about the whole situation.
“Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen Is Not about Celebrating America
Almost every American remembers the catchy chorus of Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 hit song “Born in the U.S.A.” It was easy to simply groove to the happy rock song and overlook the actual meaning. But the lyrics were actually a critique of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.
The war lasted from November 1955 to April 1975. The song was Springsteen’s way of making Americans feel good about the USA despite what had happened. In an interview with Rolling Stone, the singer made it clear that America’s involvement was manipulative and led to exploitation.
Maroon 5’s “Harder to Breathe” Speaks of Stress
Maroon 5’s breakout album Songs about Jane is full of thrilling love songs, but “Harder to Breathe” is a song on that album that does not fall into that category. Contrary to what most people think, the song is about a pressure-filled relationship with the group’s record label.
In a 2002 interview with MTV News, lead singer Adam Levine revealed that the song “comes sheerly from wanting to throw something.” The band was in the last minutes of attempting to make a record, and because the label needed more songs, it was applying a lot of pressure.
“Gangnam Style” by Korean Rapper Psy Is a Social Satire
In December 2012, the infectious song “Gangnam Style” became one of the earliest viral sensations, receiving 1 billion views on YouTube. But behind South Korean rapper Psy’s lyrics was a hidden, subtle mockery of the glamorous lifestyle of the super-rich residents of Gangnam.
Gangnam is a neighborhood in Seoul, South Korea, popularly known as the Beverly Hills of Korea. In the song’s viral music video, Psy made fun of the excessively glamorous lifestyle of the wealthy. However, he stated in an interview with The Atlantic that while filming the video, he felt pathetic.
The Clash’s “London Calling” Isn’t about Politics
In the late 1970s, “London Calling” was popularly known as a politically focused punk-rock song. However, the lyrics speak more about climate change and how it will affect people’s lives. The inspiration to write the unique song came after the popular British band read a scary 1979 London Evening Standard article about how the Thames River will flood the streets of London.
While composing the song, frontman Joe Strummer initially focused his lyrics on drowning but then expanded his focus to include a lot of other adverse situations. The chorus clearly explains the intention of the songwriter: “The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in / Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin / Engines stop running, but I have no fear / ‘Cause London is drowning / I live by the river.”
“The A Team” Charity Song by Ed Sheeran
“The A-Team” tells the story of a sex worker who is addicted to cocaine. Ed Sheeran was inspired to write the song after visiting a homeless shelter and hearing stories of what the people did to survive every day.
Sheeran was so deeply touched by their stories that when he went back home, he wrote the lyrics of the song in a matter of minutes. He performed the song at a charity concert for Crisis, a foundation that assists homeless individuals in the United Kingdom.
“Poker Face” by Lady Gaga Supports the LGBTQ Community
Lady Gaga has been a significant advocate for the LGBTQ+ community since she stepped into the entertainment scene in 2008. “Poker Face” is one of the top songs in her debut album The Fame. The singer fully showcases her bisexuality through the lyrics.
In an interview with NBC, Lady Gaga said that the song is about being in a relationship with a man but having fantasies about a woman. Because of her double-sided preference, the man has to read her poker face to learn what she truly wants.
“Imagine” by John Lennon
The graceful and plain-spoken lines that glide through John Lennon’s song “Imagine” go beyond faith in the power of a united world or the result of togetherness. According to former US President Jimmy Carter, the song has some major Communist underpinnings in the smooth lines of the song.
John Lennon regarded the song as the Communist Manifesto, which favors a classless society. Once the song became a hit, Lennon went on record again. He explained that for anything to be accepted globally, it has to be sugarcoated. You have to “put your political message across with a little honey.”
“Alive” by Pearl Jam
When Pearl Jam’s lead singer Eddie Vedder first sang “Alive” in 1991, he didn’t expect people to give any meaning to the song. A line from the chorus, “Oh, I, oh I’m still alive,” may sound encouraging, but Vedder made it clear that there was more to those words.
As uplifting as the chorus may seem, “Alive” is actually about how sad Vedder felt as a teenager after discovering that his father was actually his stepfather, and his real father was dead. Although Vedder was trying to heal from learning about the loss of his father, all he knew was that he is still alive.
“Closing Time” by Semisonic Is Not about the Last Call in a Bar
American rock band Semisonic released its lead single “Closing Time” in 1998, and it became an instant hit! Many bars in the US play “Closing Time” as the last song of the night, but that doesn’t mean the song was about the last call.
Dan Wilson, who wrote and sang the song, had to explain that “Closing Time” is about the birth of his daughter. Rather than write another cliché song full of lyrics that rightly talk about his child’s birth, Wilson decided to hide the song’s true meaning. Millions of people thought the song was about being bounced from a bar, but it’s really about being bounced from the womb.
“Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind Is about Drug Addiction
One of the most-loved karaoke songs of all time is “Semi-Charmed Life.” The hurried tempo of the song can leave you almost breathless as you attempt to keep up with the lyrics. It may surprise you to also know that the song’s pace was intended to reflect the highs and lows associated with drug abuse.
Though Third Eye Blind singer Stephan Jenkins said he advocates a clean lifestyle, the song’s lyrics showcase a dirty lifestyle full of drugs and sex. Jenkins is content with the fact that people interpret the song as a happy summertime jam.
Don McLean’s Classic Campfire Song “American Pie” Is More Depressing Than It Sounds
“American Pie,” released in 1971, was undoubtedly an iconic and catchy song that infiltrated group sing-alongs at camp bonfires and karaoke bars. Sadly, the lyrics tell a rather dark story about the state of the American society at the time. In a 2015 interview, McLean did not deny that his lyrics were ambiguous.
Generally, people remember the rhyming chorus of “American Pie” that bids a sad farewell to Miss American Pie. The line “the day the music died” explicitly referenced the 1959 plane crash that killed three music icons—Buddy Holly, J. P. Richardson (the Big Bopper), and Ritchie Valens.
The 1979 Ban on Music in Iran Created the Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”
The lyrics “By order of the Prophet / We ban that boogie sound” are clear indicators that the Clash band wrote “Rock the Basbah” in reaction to the 1979 music ban in Iran. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini was the religious-political leader at the time who declared the broadcast ban on Western music.
The radical leader felt that music had corrupted Iranian youth and deprived them of their strength and resourcefulness. In a 1991 interview, Joe Strummer, the late frontman of the Clash, revealed that he wrote the song after the band’s manager pleaded with them to write shorter songs.
The ’80s Classic “Every Breath You Take” by the Police Is Not So Gentle
The Police released a classic hit song in 1983 called “Every Breath You Take.” The song quickly became a song people loved to sing or listen to when they remembered the people they loved. Now here’s something mind-boggling: the song was not exactly a love song.
When you take a close look at the lyrics, you will see the reference to an obsessive individual who ends up becoming a stalker. Sting, the song’s writer and the band’s lead vocalist and bass guitarist, explained that the song is ugly although people have misinterpreted it as a gentle love song.
“Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan Is Not an Autobiography
“Mr. Tambourine Man” was indeed one of Bob Dylan’s best works and has become one of the most popular songs in the history of music. SincDylan wrote the classic song, many musicians have recorded their own versions of it, but did they really understand its meaning?
Many people assumed that the song was about Bob Dylan and how he found his artistic inspiration from drug abuse. Be that as it may, Dylan wrote the song as a sonnet to a touring musician named Bruce Langhorne. They sometimes performed together. Langhorne was known for his large Turkish frame drum with bells around the outside that made it sound like a tambourine.
TLC’s “Waterfalls” Points to Social Vices That Kill
If you were alive in the 1990s, you’ve probably heard of the famous all-girl pop trio TLC. This fantastic group broke records in 1995 with their smash hit “Waterfalls.” Many listeners thought it was about taking life easy and not making hasty decisions. In reality, the lyrics talk about much more complex issues.
“Waterfalls” pointed to serious social issues that had become rampant in the mid-1990s. Issues such as HIV/AIDS, poverty, crime, and many other social problems were the order of the day. It’s safe to say that “Waterfalls” is literally one of the most misunderstood songs of all time.
“Always” by Bon Jovi Is Actually a Very Twisted Song
Do you remember songs such as “It’s My Life” and “I’ll Be There For You?” If you do, then definitely you know that Bon Jovi was one of the hottest bands that thrilled fans with many hit songs back in the 1990s. One of the band’s greatest hits was “Always.”
The song’s title and lyrics may paint a picture of a profoundly romantic love story, but the real meaning is quite disturbing. The songwriter, Jon Bon Jovi, explained that the song is about a sick human being who stalks his girlfriend who left him after he cheated on her.
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler and the Vampire Love Story
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” reached the top of the US singles chart in 1983 and became the biggest hit of Bonnie Tyler’s career. Although it may be pretty challenging to find someone who doesn’t know this 1980s classic, people probably have never known the song’s actual meaning.
The song’s writer and producer, Jim Steinman, had been working on a musical called Dance of the Vampires. The song’s original title was “Vampires in Love.” Steinman spent time making several adjustments to the song until he and Bonnie Tyler were satisfied with how the music eventually turned out.
Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day” and a Different Kind of Love
The song “Perfect Day” was a 1972 classic that has since been used for many cheerful and lively commercials. It has been used for PlayStation 4 ads and in the popular American sitcom Friends. Irony definitely comes into play here because critics linked the song’s lyrics to Reed’s battle with drug addiction.
Over the years, many listeners believed the song was about love and how it was powerful enough to make anyone’s day perfect. However, what made Reed’s day perfect was the warm, fuzzy feeling he felt from the substance he had just consumed.
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana Really Had No Meaning
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” is one of Nirvana’s most significant achievements that made the band famous and influenced many youths back in the 1990s. The title of the song was derived from lead singer Kurt Cobain’s deodorant, Teen Spirit, and no one really knows the song’s actual meaning.
Supposedly, the name came from a comment made by Bikini Kill band member Kathleen Hanna. She wrote on Cobain’s hotel room wall, “Kurt smells like Teen Spirit.” Cobain was not aware that her comment meant he smelled like his deodorant. He interpreted the phrase as revolutionary and named the song “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”
Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” Has a Disturbing Back Story
Even though Phil Collins’ song “In the Air Tonight” had an alleged dark back story, it became a big hit when it was released in 1981. News spread far and wide that the song was about how a man who watched another man drown and didn’t make any effort to help.
What’s more, Phil Collins was a witness to the entire event and then decided to write a song about it. The story later became so popular on the Internet that famous rapper Eminem wrote some lines about it in his hit song “Stan.” Later, Collins explained that the whole story was a fake and then generally referenced how sad he felt after his divorce.
Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” Was More of a Tribute Than a Political Satire
Green Day’s hit song “Wake Me Up When September Ends” stole the show in 2005. However, many people did not understand exactly what the song meant. The song, from the band’s American Idiot album, made a lot of references to the September 11, 2001, attacks. People automatically believed the song was political.
In addition, the central idea of the music video was the Iraq War. But would you believe that the song in no way related to anything political? It was actually a tribute to lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong’s father, who passed when Billie Joe was only ten years old.
The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” and Its Connection to Magic
The English alternative rock band the Cure made listening to music in the 1980s something truly special. So it’s no news that “Just Like Heaven,” released in 1987, became one of the band’s most famous songs. However, you may not know what this beautiful love song is really about.
The band’s lead singer, Robert Smith, revealed that the song talks about hyperventilating, kissing, and passing out on the floor. Some of the song’s lyrics also connected to his childhood memories about attempting to learn and master magic tricks as a young boy.
“Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen Is Not a Prayer
One of the most well-known songs of all time and one that is still relevant today is “Hallelujah,” written by Leonard Cohen. Not everyone knows this, but the song was actually released in 1984 as part of an album that didn’t gain much publicity back then.
The title alone can give the impression that it is a prayer song. However, it is really about desire and relationships. In the lyrics, Cohen references the biblical character David and his passion for Bathsheba to get his message across. “Hallelujah” is certainly more than its title.
The Real Meaning of “American Girl” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Contrary to popular belief, Tom Petty’s 1977 hit song “American Girl” wasn’t about a female student at the University of Florida who decided to take her own life. Though the second verse references a female standing alone on her balcony, the song was not about suicide.
Over time, the song became an urban myth in Florida because of how the lyrics were interpreted. So what is “American Girl” really about? It’s actually about embracing every woman in America to enjoy life and take it easy in a world that has so much to offer.
The Beatles’ “Blackbird” and Its Connection to the Civil Rights Movement
In a 2002 interview with Santa Monica radio station KCRW, Paul McCartney of the Beatles explained that the song “Blackbird” isn’t really about a blackbird with broken wings. The blackbird is a symbol for the Black struggle and racial segregation in the Southern United States.
In 2008, McCartney spoke in an interview with Mojo magazine and made it clear that the Beatles were in full support of the Civil Rights Movement taking place across the US. He further said that the blackbird in the song was merely a symbol of a person of color.
“One” by U2 Was More about Disagreement Than Togetherness
“One” happens to be one of U2’s most popular songs since it was released in 1992. Initially, many thought the song encouraged unity and togetherness in all facets of life. But ironically, the song was written when members of the U2 band were in disagreement.
U2 was uncertain about the band’s future, and surprisingly, that uncertainty led to the creation of a beautiful song. Bono, the band’s lead singer, wrote the lyrics and gave a perfect explanation of what the song meant. He said, “‘One’ is not about oneness, it’s about difference.”
“Wolves” by Selena Gomez May Be about Justin Bieber
If you know the popular Disney show Wizards of Waverly Place, you definitely know Selena Gomez. Over the past decade, she has gradually built her musical career, and fans are always curious to know what it means when she drops a new single.
Many believe that all her songs in the past 10 years have been about Justin Bieber. Gomez, however, claims that her 2017 song “Wolves” is very personal, and she is yet to explain what the song really means. Still, fans claim the song is either about Selena’s health condition or her famous ex, Justin Bieber.
The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face” and the Battle with Drug Abuse
The title “Can’t Feel My Face” is more than enough to make anyone confused about this song’s meaning. At first glance, the lyrics of this 2015 hit single will trick you into believing that the songwriters are talking about the excitement of a new romantic relationship.
Be that as it may, Canadian singer the Weeknd shocked everyone in a New York Times interview when he talked about the song’s actual meaning. He explained that “Can’t Feel My Face” is about his major struggle with substance and drug abuse and how he plans to overcome it.
The Shocking Meaning of “A Little Bit Longer” by the Jonas Brothers
Known for their good smashing looks and heavenly voices, Kevin, Nick, and Joe—aka the Jonas Brothers—rose to teen idol status in the late 2000s. Many of their famous songs were about love, so fans also thought “A Little Bit Longer” was probably another breakup song.
Everyone was certainly shocked when Nick Jonas revealed that the song was really about how he was struggling with a health condition, type 1 diabetes. “Waiting on a cure, but none of them are sure,” a line from the song, started to make more sense to people after his explanation.
“Firework” by Katy Perry Has a Troubling Back Story
Katy Perry is a fantastic singer and entertainer who creates fun songs that anyone would love. So the 2010 release of her song “Firework” was expected to be another happy song that encourages everyone to be themselves no matter what. But the cheerful song has a disturbing back story.
Apparently, Katy Perry’s inspiration for writing the song was tied to constant thoughts of her own mortality. When the singer pondered the afterlife, she thought about becoming a firework. No one would have thought that was where the initial idea for the upbeat jam came from.
“Paper Planes” by M.I.A and the Immigration Satire
When M.I.A.’s famous song “Paper Planes” was released in 2008, most people believed the song was about a drug dealer. However, the singer later explained that the lyrics talk about the experiences immigrants face when moving to the land of the free.
Songwriter Maya explained that she was aware that many people think immigrants can’t contribute to a country’s culture, but she doesn’t believe that is true. In essence, the song was about educating Americans about how immigrants can add value to the country if they are given the opportunity.
Sia’s “Chandelier” and the After-Party Effect
Sia quickly rose to fame after releasing “Chandelier” in 2014. Many people love the song because it is quite catchy and has a great melody. Even though most people think the song is about how great parties are, it is actually just the opposite when it comes to parties.
Sia’s goal was to talk about what party girls go through after the party is over. She got the inspiration from personal experience and gave her honest opinion on mostly the adverse effects of too much drinking and partying. It’s creative, insightful, and fun all in one song.
“Royals” by Lorde Embraces Royalty
Lorde’s 2013 hit song “Royals” presents the idea of not supporting fame and fortune—royalty. But the song’s actual meaning is different than that. Lorde, the famous pop artist, got her inspiration from a picture of George Brett, a Kansas City Royals baseball player.
It all started when the New Zealand singer was flipping through a 1976 issue of National Geographic and came across a picture of the baseball player surrounded by excited fans begging for his autograph. The word Royals was emblazened in blue on his shirt. “It was just that word,” she said in an interview. “It’s really cool.”
Virgin Is Merely a Symbol in Madonna’s “Like a Virgin”
“Like a Virgin” appears to be a self-explanatory song. It seems like a message to a young lady who experiences what it feels like to have intimate relations for the first time. However, Tom Kelly and Billy Steinberg were the ones who wrote the 1984 hit song.
The song was inspired by how vulnerable Steinberg felt about a new relationship. A couple of years after the song was released, Steinberg spoke with the Los Angeles Times and explained that the word virgin was used to symbolize how good he felt entering a new relationship.
“Love Song” by Sara Bareilles May Have Been Born of Frustration
In 2007, Sara Bareilles’s “Love Song” was quite famous for its beautiful vocal arrangements, sweet melody, unique instrumentation, and obviously engaging title. Anyone would immediately believe that Bareilles wrote this song to a special someone, but the song is quite the opposite of a love song.
She wrote “Love Song” after getting incredibly frustrated and upset with her record label constantly rejecting her songs. But in the end, she stood for what she believed in and became a massive success. One of the song’s lines spoke directly to her label: “I’m not going to write you a love song / ‘Cause you asked for it.”
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by the Tokens Is Not about Sleeping Lions!
Many people are unaware of this, but “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” (or “Awimbawe”) is not a very popular song. However, the song started to gain popularity from the numerous cover versions by people all over the world. The song title may have lion in it, but the song is far from being about lions.
“The Lion Sleeps Tonight” is about one of the most influential rulers of the Zulu kingdom, Shaka kaSenzangakhona, and how he fought against European colonizers. The song is about how the former ruler is sleeping and not dead because he will wake up to set the oppressed people free one day.
Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69” and the Sexual Connection
“Summer of ’69” was not about Bryan Adams’ childhood memories and friendships lost along the way, as many people thought. The song is really about the famous 69 sex position. In the summer of ’69, Bryan was only nine years old, and he joined his first band, Shock, in 1976.
In 2008, Adams spoke about the song in an interview with CBS. He explained that although many people think the song is about the year 1969, the song was really about lovemaking in the summertime. Near the end of the song, reference is made to the 69 sex position.