When a songwriter puts a song out into the world, there’s always the risk the listener just doesn’t get what it’s really about. Of course, some would argue that song lyrics, like poetry, are always open to interpretation and that the beauty of a great song is that each listener can attach their own meaning to it. But, for the purists out there, let’s set the record straight on some of the most commonly misunderstood songs.
In most cases with these tunes, what people think they mean and what they actually mean are worlds apart.
‘Imagine’ by John Lennon
Perhaps John Lennon’s most famous song, “Imagine” is more revolutionary than many would think. Rolling Stone described it as “22 lines of graceful, plain-spoken faith in the power of a world, united in purpose, to repair and change itself.” But Lennon himself called the song “virtually the Communist manifesto,” commenting that “Because it’s sugarcoated it’s accepted. Now I understand what you have to do — put your message across with a little honey.”
‘Like a Virgin’ by Madonna
Madonna’s hit, “Like a Virgin,” was the subject of debate in the opening scene of the Quentin Tarantino movie, “Reservoir Dogs” — and both Mr. Brown and Mr. Blonde got it wrong. It’s not about a girl who’s very vulnerable, nor is it a metaphor for well-endowed men. Nor was it about Madonna.
Songwriter Billy Steinberg said the song was strictly autobiographical.
“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,” he explained.
‘Harder to Breathe’ by Maroon 5
On the surface, Maroon 5’s “Harder to Breathe” seems to be yet another song about Jane, whom frontman Adam Levine had a tumultuous relationship with (it was the first hit single from the album “Songs About Jane,” which appears to be a massive clue right there). In fact, the song was a commentary on the pressures of the music industry.
Levine told MTV in 2002, “That song comes sheerly from wanting to throw something. It was the 11th hour, and the label wanted more songs. It was the last crack. I was just pissed.”
‘Summer of ’69’ by Bryan Adams
Taken literally, Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ‘69” is a celebration of the final year of the decade that gave the world hippies, political unrest and the first man on the moon. But its true meaning is a lot more … um, adult.
“A lot of people think it’s about the year, but actually, it’s more about making love in the summertime,” Adams told “The Early Show” in 2008. “It’s using ‘69 as a sexual reference.” Bet you’ll never hear that one the same way again!
‘Poker Face’ by Lady Gaga
When it comes to the meaning of “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga’s 2008 hit, it’s anyone’s guess. The singer has been asked several times what the song means and has given different answers.
In an interview with the UK newspaper Daily Star, Gaga said, “It’s about a lot of different things. I gamble but I’ve also dated a lot of guys who are really into sex and booze and gambling, so I wanted to write a record my boyfriends would like, too.”
However, during her Fame Ball Tour in 2009, Gaga suggested that the song dealt with her personal experience with bisexuality — when she’s with a man but fantasizing about a woman, the man needs to read her “Poker Face” to understand what she’s thinking.
‘The One I Love’ by R.E.M.
The members of R.E.M. were as surprised as anyone at the public’s reaction to “The One I Love.” Far from the romantic song everyone seemed to interpret it as, it was actually “really violent and awful,” as lead singer Michael Stipe said in a 1992 interview with Q magazine. After all, the lyric clearly calls the person he’s singing about, “a simple prop to occupy my time.”
Stipe admitted that he almost didn’t even record the song, which he also described as “too brutal.” However, after years of couples claiming “The One I Love” as “their song,” Stipe conceded that “It’s probably better that they think it’s a love song at this point.”
‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ by Bonnie Tyler
Bonnie Tyler’s power ballad — a favorite for lunar eclipses, solar eclipses and karaoke sessions — may be totally relatable for humans in love, but it was actually written with vampires in mind. All the proof is in the original title: “Vampires in Love.”
Songwriter Jim Steinman told Playbill in 2002, “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.” Maybe this one should also now become a Halloween anthem.
‘Semi-Charmed Life’ by Third Eye Blind
You can blame radio stations for the misinterpretation of the meaning of Third Eye Blind’s ’90s classic, “Semi-Charmed Life.” The song is about a couple on a drug binge, but the crucial line, “doing crystal meth will lift you up until you break,” was censored to make it radio-friendly.
As for the track’s upbeat rhythm — not what most people would associate with hardcore substance abuse — lead singer Stephen Jenkins told Billboard that the music reflected “the bright, shiny feeling you get on speed.” My childhood is now ruined.
‘American Girl’ by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Fans of Tom Petty’s “American Girl” decided that the song was inspired by a University of Florida student who died by suicide after leaping from a balcony, but Petty has always refuted this. In the book, “Conversations with Tom Petty,” he’s quoted as saying, “It’s become a huge urban myth down in Florida. That’s just not at all true. The song has nothing to do with that.”
His fellow band member, guitarist Mike Campbell, told Songfacts, “To me, it’s just a really beautiful love song.”
‘Closing Time’ by Semisonic
Semisonic’s only big hit, “Closing Time,” might have become an unofficial anthem for bartenders keen to wrap up their shift at the end of the night, but it was inspired by something quite different. In 2010, frontman Dan Wilson told American Songwriter that the song was partly about being born.
“My wife and I were expecting our first kid very soon after I wrote that song,” he said.”I had birth on the brain, I was struck by what a funny pun it was to be bounced from the womb.” Alright, kid, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.
‘In the Air Tonight’ by Phil Collins
According to urban legend, Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” was inspired by the singer’s encounter with a man who refused to save a drowning person’s life. In fact, Collins himself admitted that he didn’t even know what the song was about.
“When I was writing this I was going through a divorce. And the only thing I can say about it is that it’s obviously written in anger,” he told the BBC. He shut down the rumors, saying, “What makes it an even more comic album is when I hear these stories which started many years ago, particularly in America, of someone come up to me and say, ‘Did you really see someone drowning?’ I said, ‘No, wrong.’”
‘London Calling’ by The Clash
Long considered a passionate political anthem, “London Calling” by The Clash is actually about singer Joe Strummer’s personal fear of drowning. In an analysis of the song in The Wall Street Journal, Mick Jones revealed that the band “flipped” in 1979 when they learned that the River Thames was at risk of overflowing and flooding London. The first few drafts of lyrics were entirely based on Strummer’s fear of drowning; however, after Jones got involved “the song became this warning about the doom of everyday life.”
‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ by The Beatles
There’s some serious competition for the most misunderstood Beatles song, but “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is arguably the frontrunner — or at least the most debated. It’s tempting to interpret it as a song about LSD, given the initials of the title, but John Lennon insisted it was inspired by a painting his 3-year-old son, Julian, did with the same title.
“I swear to God, or swear to Mao, or to anybody you like, I had no idea it spelt LSD,” John Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970.
‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)’ by Green Day
When Green Day’s frontman Billie Joe Armstrong wrote “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” he didn’t intend it to be a sentimental, romantic anthem for weddings and funerals. Rather, it was written out of anger and frustration at the end of his relationship with a girlfriend who was moving away to Ecuador. The misunderstanding wasn’t helped by the fact that radio broadcasters routinely referred to it simply as “Time Of Your Life.”
Without the “Good Riddance” part, it kind of loses its edge.
‘Born in the USA’ by Bruce Springsteen
Far from being a patriotic anthem about American pride, Bruce Springsteen’s smash hit, “Born in the USA,” was intended to be almost the opposite. Songfacts points out that the song “actually cast a shameful eye on how America treated its Vietnam veterans.” Springsteen himself describes the protagonist as being “isolated from the government, isolated from his family, to the point where nothing makes sense.”
The Boss famously shut down President Ronald Reagan’s attempt to use the song during a re-election bid in 1984, showing that the politician missed the point of the song entirely.
‘Slide’ by Goo Goo Dolls
The hit single “Slide” by Goo Goo Dolls is another song widely assumed to be about love, but the reality is it has a much darker meaning. Lead singer Johnny Rzeznik explained in 2002 that “Slide” is about two Catholic teenagers who are faced with a life-changing decision: keep the baby, or have an abortion?
“I don’t think a lot of people got that; it’s actually kind of heavy,” he said on VH1’s “Storytellers.”
‘American Pie’ by Don McLean
The all-time classic song “American Pie” is more than a favorite campfire sing-along. It’s undeniably catchy, but the lyrics themselves are pretty gloomy, rather than just being a track about warm nostalgia. They reference Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J. P. Richardson’s death in a plane crash in 1959 as “the day the music died.” In an interview with The Guardian, Don McLean said he left the lyrics open to ambiguity, but that they were to do with “the state of society at the time.”
‘I Will Always Love You’ by Dolly Parton
Dolly Parton’s epic ballad, “I Will Always Love You,” is about a breakup, but not the sort most people assume. Parton wrote the song, not with a past lover in mind, but her long-time mentor and duet partner, Porter Wagoner.
The country music icon wanted to let Wagoner know how much he meant to her, and it was a message she gave him until he died. In 2007, months before Wagoner died of lung cancer, Parton serenaded him with the song at the celebration of his 50th anniversary with the Grand Ole Opry.
‘You’re Beautiful’ by James Blunt
If there was one song guaranteed to be featured on a romantic playlist in the mid-2000s, it would be James Blunt’s “You’re Beautiful.” But it’s not about a loving, supportive relationship. In 2017, Blunt told The Huffington Post that “it’s about a guy who’s high as a f—ing kite on drugs in the subway stalking someone else’s girlfriend.”
‘Angel’ by Sarah McLachlan
It’s easy to assume that Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” is about a personal loss — especially when it’s paired with those devastating ASPCA ads — but it was inspired by the death of Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin from a heroin overdose. McLachlan never knew Melvoin but was moved upon hearing the news of his passing.
“I went to a cottage north of Montreal to relax and write,” McLachlan wrote on Quora in 2014. “I read on arrival in Rolling Stone about the Smashing Pumpkins keyboard player who had OD’ed in a hotel room. The story shook me because though I have never done hard drugs like that, I felt a flood of empathy for him and that feeling of being lost, lonely and desperately searching for some kind of release.”
‘Mother and Child Reunion’ by Paul Simon
The bond between a mother and her child is a great subject for a thought-provoking song, but that’s not what inspired Paul Simon’s “Mother and Child Reunion,” despite the glaring title. In fact, Simon told Rolling Stone in 1972 that he wrote the song after seeing a dish of the same name on a Chinese restaurant menu. It was chicken and eggs, in case you’re wondering.
‘Reputation’ by Joan Jett
Joan Jett’s “Reputation” has been a leader in the “rebel anthem” category since it was released in 1981. In fact, it was a very personal statement by Jett on the nature of rejection. “A lot of ‘Bad Reputation’ came from comments that people said in the early days of ‘She’ll never make it,’” Jett revealed in a Reddit AMA in 2013.
‘S&M’ by Rihanna
Rihanna’s “S&M” isn’t actually about sex. In an interview with Vogue in 2011, the pop star acknowledged that the song could be taken very literally, but explained that it was about “the love-hate relationship with the media and how sometimes the pain is pleasurable.” She confirmed that it was based on her personal experience: “We feed off it — or I do.”
‘Every Breath You Take’ by The Police
“Every Breath You Take” by The Police has been mistaken for a tender, romantic song since it hit the charts in the ’80s. But it was written by Sting following his separation from Frances Tomelty, and during the beginning of his relationship with Trudie Styler.
According to The Independent, Tomelty was Styler’s best friend, and the affair “was widely condemned.” Sting said in an interview in 1993 that he “didn’t realise at the time how sinister it is. I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control.”
‘Hotel California’ by Eagles
Possibly the Eagles’ most well-known song, “Hotel California” has been the subject of great debate, with listeners taking its words (describing a traveler who’s lured into a “lovely place” filled with monstrous characters and then is unable to get away) literally.
But the band members have explained that it was intended to be a commentary on the debauchery and hedonism prevalent in the United States. “It’s basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about,” singer Don Henley said in a 2002 interview with “60 Minutes.”