11 Popular Song Lyrics That Don’t Mean What You Think
What were Bruce Springsteen and The Beatles really trying to say?
“Closing Time” by Semisonic
The lyrics of the ’90s hit seems pretty self-explanatory: The bar is closing, so finish up and leave … right? No, actually. In a reunion tour in 2008, lead singer Dan Wilson admitted he’d purposely hidden the real meaning of the song. “They think it’s about being bounced from a bar, but it’s about being bounced from the womb,” he explained. Um, what? Wilson didn’t want to be that annoying parent who can’t stop talking about his kid, so he hid the meaning behind a more rock star-worthy message. Once you hear it, you can’t unhear it, and some of the other lyrics (“This room won’t be open ’til your brothers or your sisters come”) suddenly make a lot more sense.
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“Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen
At its surface, this 1984 song sounds like the kind of flag-waving tune you’d hear at an election campaign (in fact, Ronald Reagan wanted to use it when running for reelection). Listen to anything more than the chorus, though, and you’ll hear a different story. Lyrics like “I had a brother at Khe Sahn/ Fighting off the Viet Cong/ They’re still there, he’s all gone” reveal a darker story about a veteran struggling after the Vietnam War.
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“Losing My Religion” by R.E.M.
The song’s namesake line is the only overt mention of religion or God or anything similar. Weird, huh? Not when you realize that the line isn’t referring to the singer literally losing his faith. In the American South, to say you’re “losing your religion” is an expression used to say you’re reaching your breaking point—which is exactly what the rest of the lyrics suggest the singer is doing.
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“Blackbird” by The Beatles
For a band that sings about being a walrus and living in a yellow submarine, a folksy song about a bird is one of the few that makes sense at face value. But this was 1968, when the civil rights movement was reaching its peak. The blackbird in the song was supposed to represent an African American woman dealing with racism.
“Rich Girl” by Hall & Oates
The basic gist of the song is exactly what you thought—someone irresponsibly relying on their dad’s bank account—but the gender of this “rich girl” isn’t what it seems. John Oates told TMZ that the song was actually about a man. “Because Daryl [Hall] is really smart, he realized that ‘rich girl’ sounded a lot better than ‘rich guy,’” he explained. Good instinct—the song landed the duo on the Billboard Top 100 in 1977.
“You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt
How sweet to hear a man telling the woman he loves how beautiful she is! Well, until you really listen to the lyrics, that is. The words don’t imply the singer actually knows the woman he’s pining over (“She smiled at me on the subway/ She was with another man”). In fact, he’s high and starts obsessing over a stranger. “He should be locked up or put in prison for being some kind of perv,” Blunt explained (bluntly).
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“Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler
This heart-wrenching love ballad has been the soundtrack of many a heartbreak, but it wasn’t written for mere mortals. Songwriter Jim Steinman actually penned the words when working on a Nosferatu musical and called it “Vampires in Love.” It went to the pop charts instead, but he later recycled it for the musical Dance of the Vampires. “It’s all about the darkness, the power of darkness and love’s place in dark,” Steinman told Playbill in 2002.
“Hotel California” by the Eagles
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out there’s a deeper meaning to “Hotel California” than some traveller getting stuck at a creepy inn. Rumour has it that the song is really about devil worship. That sounds like the type of hedonistic message you’d expect from a rock group, but it wasn’t the band’s intention. “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,” band member Don Henley told 60 Minutes in 2002.
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“Love Song” by Sara Bareilles
Maybe you thought you were clever when you figured out that Sara Bareilles wasn’t singing this to a love interest but to a record company—but you’re still not getting the full story. Bareilles told huffingtonpost.com that her record company never insisted she write some cheesy love song to make the charts. But they did encourage her to collaborate with some other song writers, and she felt like her voice wasn’t being heard. The lyrics that put her on the map were “a love song to my craft. It was a love song to my intention, to my heart and soul,” she explained.
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“One” by U2
Merging two lives into one sounds so romantic, like committing yourself to your better half. But Bono is apparently disappointed that fans don’t see how utterly unromantic the lyrics are. “I have certainly met a hundred people who’ve had it at their weddings. I tell them, ‘Are you mad? It’s about splitting up!’” he said in the book U2 by U2. Ah, now the lines like “We’re one/ But we’re not the same/ We hurt each other/ Then we do it again” fit a little better.
“Human” by The Killers
Fans were not crazy over the lyrics of the leading single on Day & Age, with its incorrect grammar and generally confusing message. But frontman Brandon Flowers was annoyed that people just didn’t get it and explained that he took it from a Hunter S. Thompson quote: “We’re raising a generation of dancers, afraid to take one step out of line.” So no, it wasn’t just pop nonsense. It hits on deeper questions about the meaning of life. Still no word on why he dropped the “S” from dancers though.
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