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15 Songs With Misunderstood Meanings

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Here's a look at some songs that got their meanings twisted and misconstrued—and the original intentions put forth by the artists who wrote them.

1. "Closing Time" // Semisonic

Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson predicted the second life of the band's only big hit; in 2010, Wilson told The Hollywood Reporter, "I really thought that that was the greatest destiny for 'Closing Time,' that it would be used by all the bartenders." But when Wilson penned lyrics like "Time for you to go out to the places you will be from," the song's focus was more an emphasis on the miracle of childbirth than an ode to kicking late-night barflies to the curb.

In 2010, Wilson admitted to American Songwriter that he had babies on his mind partway through writing Semisonic's gangbuster breakout hit, stating, "My wife and I were expecting our first kid very soon after I wrote that song. I had birth on the brain, I was struck by what a funny pun it was to be bounced from the womb."

2. "Imagine" // John Lennon

When Rolling Stone named the former Beatle's ubiquitous hit the third greatest song of all time, Lennon's hallmark lyrics were described as "22 lines of graceful, plain-spoken faith in the power of a world, united in purpose, to repair and change itself." But the feel-good sentiments behind the song Jimmy Carter once said was "used almost equally with national anthems" have some serious Communist underpinnings.

Lennon called the song "virtually the Communist manifesto," and once the song became a hit, went on record saying, "Because it's sugarcoated it's accepted. Now I understand what you have to do—put your message across with a little honey."

3. "Total Eclipse of the Heart" // Bonnie Tyler

"Total Eclipse of the Heart" is the kind of big, bombastic power ballad that could only flow from the pen of frequent Meat Loaf collaborator Jim Steinman; he called the number a "Wagnerian-like onslaught of sound and emotion" in an interview with People, and American Songwriter's Jim Beviglia christened it a "garment-rending, chest-beating, emotionally exhausting ballad." It's also a vampire love song.

When Steinman featured "Total Eclipse" in his Broadway musical Dance of the Vampires—a flop that lost $12 million—in 2002, he opened up about the song to Playbill, stating, "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. "Just Like Heaven" // The Cure

Entertainment Weekly recognized The Cure's synth-slathered love song as the 25th Greatest Love Song of All Time, but also questioned, "Just what is this scream/laugh/hug inducing trick?" Turns out, the lyric that threw most fans of The Cure for a loop just refers to a sudden shortness of breath.

The only thing that might be more oblique than the lyrics to what Smith told Blender is "the best pop song The Cure have ever done" is Smith's explanation for the love song's cryptically esoteric poetry. In the same 2003 interview with Blender, Smith said "Just Like Heaven," inspired by a trip with his girlfriend to Beachy Head in southern England, was "about hyperventilating—kissing and falling to the floor."

Smith's dissection of the song's opening lines ("Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick") is less obvious. According to the singer, the line is equal parts a reference to his affinity for performing magic tricks in his youth and "about a seduction trick, from much later in my life." 

5. "Like a Virgin" // Madonna

Turns out Mr. Brown (who thinks "Like a Virgin" is "a metaphor for big d**ks") and Mr. Blonde ("It's about a girl who is very vulnerable") both misinterpreted Madonna's smash hit in the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs. Even though Madonna famously settled the fictional debate by autographing a CD for Quentin Tarantino—"Quentin, it's about love, not d**k"—"Like a Virgin" is only autobiographical for songwriter Billy Steinberg.

Not originally meant for a female performer, the lyrics Steinberg penned for "Like a Virgin" tackle his own relationship woes. He explained in depth to the Los Angeles Times:  "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."

See Also: 11 Obscure References in Classic Songs—Explained!

6. "Harder to Breathe" // Maroon 5

At first blush, the single off Maroon 5 debut album Songs About Jane seems to be, well, just another song about Jane, the name of a girlfriend with whom lead singer Adam Levine shared a rocky relationship. But though the album's lead-off single sounds like a racy nod to the jilted lover Levine claimed to be his muse, "Harder to Breathe" stemmed from a different kind of suffocating relationship. The song serves as a bitter indictment of music industry pressures.

Said Levine in a 2002 interview with MTV: “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. I wanted to make a record and the label was applying a lot of pressure, but I’m glad they did.”

7. "Summer of '69" // Bryan Adams

Born in the winter of 1959, Bryan Adams would've only been 10 during the eponymous summer of one of his best-known hits, released in 1985. But "Summer of '69" isn't so much Adams waxing nostalgic over the dog days of 1969 as much as it is a reference to the sexual position of the same name. In 2008, Adams told CBS News that "a lot of people think it's about the year, but actually it's more about making love in the summertime. It's using '69 as a sexual reference."

Parts of the song are still steeped in hints of truth, though: Adams has gone on record saying that he picked up his second-ever electric guitar at a pawn shop, and that his fingers indeed bled while he was "totally submersed in practicing." Other facts are indisputably wrong; Adams' first band, Shock, formed when the singer was 16, and "Summer of '69" co-writer Jim Vallance stands by the song as a wistful trip in the wayback machine.

8. "The One I Love" // R.E.M.

When the Georgia natives unleashed their first Top-10 single in concert, R.E.M. guitar-slinger Peter Buck felt baffled by audiences' romantic reactions. Said Buck: "I'd look into the audience and there would be couples kissing. Yet the verse is ... savagely anti-love ... People told me that was 'their song.' That was your song?"

Singer Michael Stipe echoed Buck's emotions in a 1992 interview with Q magazine, admitting that he almost didn't even record the song, calling it "too brutal" and "really violent and awful." After five years of "The One I Love" going out to loved ones as dedications over the radio waves, Stipe took a complacent stance on his song's misconstrued fate, saying, "It's probably better that they think it's a love song at this point."

9. "Semi-Charmed Life" // Third Eye Blind

Radio purists of the '90s probably missed out on the fact that the upbeat Third Eye Blind anthem is about a couple on a crystal meth binge—the two censor-triggering words in the line "doing crystal meth will lift you up until you break" would get backmasked in an edited version of the song played by radio stations.

Why make a song about such a serious topic so light and bouncy? Lead singer Stephen Jenkins explained that the musical and lyrical juxtapositions were completely intentional: The music reflects "the bright, shiny feeling you get on speed," he told Billboard.

10. "American Girl" // Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Sorry, urban legend enthusiasts. Tom Petty's 1977 standard wasn't inspired by a University of Florida girl who committed suicide by jumping from a Beaty Towers balcony. Though the song's second verse references both a girl standing "alone on her balcony" and "could hear the cars roll by out on 441" (a highway that runs near the Gainesville campus), Petty has shot down the misunderstanding on numerous occasions.

In the book Conversations With Tom Petty, the lead Heartbreaker is 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. But that story really gets around." Heartbreakers' guitarist Mike Campbell has backed Petty up, stating that some interpretations of the song took the lyrics at face value: "Some people take it literally and out of context. To me it's just a really beautiful love song."

11. "In the Air Tonight" // Phil Collins

In Round Two of Song Meanings Getting Twisted By Urban Legends, Phil Collins' first solo single wasn't written about the singer's brush with a man who refused point-blank to save a drowning swimmer. And, according to Collins himself, he most definitely didn't invite the man to stand front row in the concert to be verbally berated by "In the Air Tonight."

Instead, the song is simply a tense, introspective look at Collins' divorce from his first wife. Collins swears by the story that he pulled together the lyrics in a snap during a studio recording session, and laughs off the rumors swirling around the origins of "In the Air Tonight." He admitted to the BBC that he doesn't know what the heck the song is actually about, saying, "What makes it even more comical 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’ ... This is one song out of all the songs probably that I’ve ever written that I really don’t know what it’s about...”

12. "London Calling" // The Clash

At its heart, one of The Clash's most scathing political statements is less a song about the state of British politics and more a song about Joe Strummer's personal fear of drowning. In a dissection of "London Calling" published by the Wall Street Journal, Mick Jones mentioned the band's nervousness regarding a 1979 London Evening Standard headline about the possibility of the Thames River overflowing and flooding London. How did The Clash react to the news? According to Jones, "We flipped."

That nagging fear of drowning propelled Strummer's first few drafts of the song's lyrics, at least until Jones stepped in to broaden the scope until "the song became this warning about the doom of everyday life." Joked Jones about the band's sink-or-swim anxiety: "We were a bit ahead of the global warming thing, weren't we?"

13. "Blackbird" // The Beatles

Paul McCartney told Santa Monica radio station KCRW that "It's not really about a blackbird whose wings are broken, you know, it's a bit more symbolic."

A highlight from the McCartney songbook (and written at his kitchen table in Scotland), Sir Paul penned "Blackbird" about the American Civil Rights Movement, drawing inspiration from the racial desegregation of the Little Rock, Arkansas school system. Put succinctly by USA Today, "Paul McCartney penned Blackbird about the black struggle."

In a 2008 interview with Mojo, McCartney elaborated on just how enamored The Beatles were with the Civil Rights Movement happening across the pond. "I got the idea of using a blackbird as a symbol for a black person. It wasn't necessarily a black 'bird', but it works that way, as much as then you called girls 'birds' ... it wasn't exactly an ornithology ditty; it was purely symbolic."

14. "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" // Green Day

A perennial topper of Best Prom Songs lists, Green Day's acoustic ballad was originally meant to be anything but a romantic affair. Brooding frontman Billie Joe Armstrong wrote the number about a girlfriend who was moving away to Ecuador, and titled the song "Good Riddance" in his frustration with the breakup.

Not that the misinterpretation of the ballad as a high school slow dance number fazes Armstrong. As he told VHI's Behind the Music, "I sort of enjoy the fact that I'm misunderstood most of the time. That's fine."

See Also: 11 Hit Songs Originally Intended for Other Artists

15. "Born in the USA" // Bruce Springsteen

No list of misunderstood songs is complete without "Born in the U.S.A." Music critic Greil Marcus believes the use of The Boss's hit as a rah-rah political anthem fuels its legacy: "Clearly the key to Bruce's popularity is in a misunderstanding. He is a tribute to the fact that people hear what they want to hear."

As Songfacts points out, "Most people thought it was a patriotic song about American pride, when it actually cast a shameful eye on how America treated its Vietnam veterans ... with the rollicking rhythm, enthusiastic chorus, and patriotic album cover, it is easy to think this has more to do with American pride than Vietnam shame."

"Born in the USA" is the antithesis of the American Dream-chasing optimism that listeners construe the rock number as; the song captures the desperate feelings of a working-class citizen in post-Vietnam America. Springsteen explains that the song's protagonist is "isolated from the government, isolated from his family, to the point where nothing makes sense."

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10 Surprising Facts About The Babadook
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In 2014, The Babadook came out of nowhere and scared audiences across the globe. Written and directed by Aussie Jennifer Kent, and based on her short film Monster, The Babadook is about a widow named Amelia (played by Kent’s drama schoolmate Essie Davis) who has trouble controlling her young son Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who thinks there’s a monster living in their house. Amelia reads Samuel a pop-up book, Mister Babadook, and Samuel manifests the creature into a real-life monster. The Babadook may be the villain, but the film explores the pitfalls of parenting and grief in an emotional way. 

“I never approached this as a straight horror film,” Kent told Complex. “I always was drawn to the idea of grief, and the suppression of that grief, and the question of, how would that affect a person? ... But at the core of it, it’s about the mother and child, and their relationship.”

Shot on a $2 million budget, the film grossed more than $10.3 million worldwide and gained an even wider audience via streaming networks. Instead of creating Babadook out of CGI, a team generated the images in-camera, inspired by the silent films of Georges Méliès and Lon Chaney. Here are 10 things you might not have known about The Babadook (dook, dook).

1. THE NAME “BABADOOK” WAS EASY FOR A CHILD TO INVENT.

Jennifer Kent told Complex that some people thought the creature’s name sounded “silly,” which she agreed with. “I wanted it to be like something a child could make up, like ‘jabberwocky’ or some other nonsensical name,” she explained. “I wanted to create a new myth that was just solely of this film and didn’t exist anywhere else.”

2. JENNIFER KENT WAS WORRIED PEOPLE WOULD JUDGE THE MOTHER.

Amelia isn’t the best mother in the world—but that’s the point. “I’m not a parent,” Kent told Rolling Stone, “but I’m surrounded by friends and family who are, and I see it from the outside … how parenting seems hard and never-ending.” She thought Amelia would receive “a lot of flak” for her flawed parenting, but the opposite happened. “I think it’s given a lot of women a sense of reassurance to see a real human being up there,” Kent said. “We don’t get to see characters like her that often.”

3. KENT AND ESSIE DAVIS TONED DOWN THE CONTENT FOR THE KID.

Noah Wiseman was six years old when he played Samuel. Kent and Davis made sure he wasn’t present for the more horrific scenes, like when Amelia tells Samuel she wishes he was the one who died, not her husband. “During the reverse shots, where Amelia was abusing Sam verbally, we had Essie yell at an adult stand-in on his knees,” Kent told Film Journal. “I didn’t want to destroy a childhood to make this film—that wouldn’t be fair.”

Kent explained a “kiddie version” of the plot to Wiseman. “I said, ‘Basically, Sam is trying to save his mother and it’s a film about the power of love.’”

4. THE FILM IS ALSO ABOUT “FACING OUR SHADOW SIDE.”

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Kent told Film Journal that “The Babadook is a film about a woman waking up from a long, metaphorical sleep and finding that she has the power to protect herself and her son.” She noted that everybody has darkness to face. “Beyond genre and beyond being scary, that’s the most important thing in the film—facing our shadow side.”

5. THE FILM SCARED THE HELL OUT OF THE DIRECTOR OF THE EXORCIST.

In an interview with Uproxx, William Friedkin—director of The Exorcist—said The Babadook was one of the best and scariest horror films he’d ever seen. He especially liked the emotional aspect of the film. “It’s not only the simplicity of the filmmaking and the excellence of the acting not only by the two leads, but it’s the way the film works slowly but inevitably on your emotions,” he said.

6. AN ART DEPARTMENT ASSISTANT SCORED THE ROLE AS THE BABADOOK.

Tim Purcell worked in the film’s art department but then got talked into playing the titular character after he acted as the creature for some camera tests. “They realized they could save some money, and have me just be the Babadook, and hence I became the Babadook,” Purcell told New York Magazine. “In terms of direction, it was ‘be still a lot,’” he said.

7. THE MOVIE BOMBED IN ITS NATIVE AUSTRALIA.

Even though Kent shot the film in Adelaide, Australians didn’t flock to the theaters; it grossed just $258,000 in its native country. “Australians have this [built-in] aversion to seeing Australian films,” Kent told The Cut. “They hardly ever get excited about their own stuff. We only tend to love things once everyone else confirms they’re good … Australian creatives have always had to go overseas to get recognition. I hope one day we can make a film or work of art and Australians can think it’s good regardless of what the rest of the world thinks.”

8. YOU CAN OWN A MISTER BABADOOK BOOK (BUT IT WILL COST YOU). 

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In 2015, Insight Editions published 6200 pop-up books of Mister Babadook. Kent worked with the film’s illustrator, Alexander Juhasz, who created the book for the movie. He and paper engineer Simon Arizpe brought the pages to life for the published version. All copies sold out but you can find some Kent-signed ones on eBay, going for as much as $500.

9. THE BABADOOK IS A GAY ICON.

It started at the end of 2016, when a Tumblr user started a jokey thread about how he thought the Babadook was gay. “It started picking up steam within a few weeks,” Ian, the Tumblr user, told New York Magazine, “because individuals who I presume are heterosexual kind of freaked out over the assertion that a horror movie villain would identify as queer—which I think was the actual humor of the post, as opposed to just the outright statement that the Babadook is gay.” In June, the Babadook became a symbol for Gay Pride month. Images of the character appeared everywhere at this year's Gay Pride Parade in Los Angeles.

10. DON'T HOLD YOUR BREATH FOR A SEQUEL.

Kent, who owns the rights to The Babadook, told IGN that, despite the original film's popularity, she's not planning on making any sequels. “The reason for that is I will never allow any sequel to be made, because it’s not that kind of film,” she said. “I don’t care how much I’m offered, it’s just not going to happen.”

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15 Fascinating Facts About Amelia Earhart
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Amelia Earhart was a pioneer, a legend, and a mystery. To celebrate what would be her 120th birthday, we've uncovered 15 things you might not know about the groundbreaking aviator.

1. THE FIRST TIME SHE SAW AN AIRPLANE, SHE WASN'T IMPRESSED.

In Last Flight, a collection of diary entries published posthumously, Earhart recalled feeling unmoved by "a thing of rusty wire and wood" at the Iowa State Fair in 1908. It wasn't until years later that she discovered her passion for aviation, when she worked as a nurse's aide at Toronto's Spadina Military Hospital. She and some friends would spend time at hangars and flying fields, talking to pilots and watching aerial shows. Earhart didn't actually get on a plane herself until 1920, and even then she was just a passenger.

2. SHE WAS A GOOD STUDENT WITH NO PATIENCE FOR SCHOOL.

After working with the Voluntary Aid Detachment in Toronto, Earhart took pre-med classes at Columbia University in 1919. She made good grades, but dropped out after just a year. Earhart re-enrolled at Columbia in 1925 and left school again. She took summer classes at Harvard, but gave up on higher education for good after she didn't get a scholarship to MIT.

3. ANOTHER PIONEERING FEMALE AVIATOR TAUGHT EARHART HOW TO FLY.

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Neta Snook was the first woman to run her own aviation business and commercial airfield. She gave Earhart flying lessons at Kinner Field near Long Beach, California in 1921, reportedly charging $1 in Liberty Bonds for every minute they spent in the air.

4. EARHART BOUGHT HER FIRST PLANE WITHIN SIX MONTHS OF HER FIRST FLYING LESSON.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

She named it The Canary. The used yellow Kinner Airster biplane was the second one ever built. Earhart paid $2000 for it, despite Snook's opinion that it was underpowered, overpriced, and too difficult for a beginner to land.

5. AMY EARHART ENCOURAGED HER DAUGHTER'S PASSION. HER FATHER, ON THE OTHER HAND, WAS AFRAID OF FLYING.

Earhart's mom used some of her inheritance to pay for The Canary. She was a bit of an adventurer herself: the first woman to ever climb Pikes Peak in Colorado.

6. EARHART HAD A LOT OF ODD JOBS.

In addition to volunteering as a nurse's aide, Earhart also worked early jobs as a telephone operator and tutor. Earhart was a social worker at Denison House in Boston when she was invited to fly across the Atlantic for the first time (as a passenger) in 1928. At the height of her career, Earhart spent time making speeches, writing articles, and providing career counseling at Purdue University's Department of Aeronautics. Oh, and flying around the world.

7. SHE WASN'T SURE ABOUT MARRIAGE, BUT SHE DEFINITELY BELIEVED IN PRE-NUPS.

When promoter George Putnam contacted Earhart about flying across the Atlantic Ocean in 1928, it was her first big break ... and the beginning of their love story. The two began a working relationship, which soon turned into attraction. When Putnam's marriage to Dorothy Binney fell apart, he eventually proposed to Earhart. She said yes, albeit reluctantly.

Earhart wasn't worried about safeguarding financial assets so much as she wanted the two of them to maintain separate identities. Earhart asked Putnam to agree to a trial marriage. If they weren't happy after a year, they'd be free to go their separate ways, no hard feelings. He agreed. They lived happily until her disappearance.

8. SHE WROTE ABOUT FLYING FOR COSMOPOLITAN.

In 1928, Earhart was appointed Cosmopolitan's Aviation Editor. Her 16 published articles—among them "Shall You Let Your Daughter Fly?" and "Why Are Women Afraid to Fly?"—recounted her adventures and encouraged other women to fly, even if they just did so commercially. (Commercial flights date back to 1914, but they wouldn't really take off until after World War II.)

9. FIRST LADY ELEANOR ROOSEVELT WAS SO INSPIRED BY EARHART THAT SHE SIGNED UP FOR FLYING LESSONS.

The two became friends in 1932. Roosevelt got a student permit and a physical examination, but never followed through with her plan.

10. EARHART WAS THE FIRST WOMAN TO GET A PILOT'S LICENSE FROM THE NATIONAL AERONAUTIC ASSOCIATION (NAA).

That was in 1923, when pilots and aircrafts weren't legally required to be licensed. Earhart was the sixteenth woman to get licensed by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), which was required to set flight records. Still, the FAI didn't maintain women's records until 1928.

11. SHE ACCOMPLISHED A LOT OF "FIRSTS."

Earhart eventually became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic as a passenger (1928) and then solo (1932) and nonstop from coast to coast (1932) as a pilot. She also set records, period: Earhart was the first person to ever fly solo from Honolulu to Oakland, Los Angeles to Mexico City, and Mexico City to Newark, all in 1935.

What do John Glenn, George H.W. Bush, and Amelia Earhart have in common? They all earned an Air Force Distinguished Flying Cross. But only Earhart was the first woman—and one of few civilians—to do so.

12. SHE WAS ONE OF THE FIRST CELEBRITIES TO LAUNCH A CLOTHING LINE.

Amelia Earhart Fashions were affordable separates sold exclusively at Macy's and Marshall Field's. The line's dresses, blouses, pants, suits, and hats were made of cotton and parachute silk and featured aviation-inspired details, like propeller-shaped buttons. Earhart studied sewing as a girl and actually made her own samples.

13. THE U.S. GOVERNMENT SPENT $4 MILLION SEARCH FOR EARHART.

At the time, it was the most expensive air and sea search in history. Earhart's plane disappeared July 2, 1937. The official search ended a little over two weeks later on July 19. Putnam then financed a private search, chartering boats to the Phoenix Islands, Christmas Island, Fanning Island, the Gilbert Islands, and the Marshall Islands.

14. THE SEARCH ISN'T OVER.

There are several theories about what happened to Earhart's plane during her last flight. Most people believe she ran out of fuel and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. Others believe she landed on an island and died of thirst, starvation, injury, or at the hands of Japanese soldiers in Saipan. In 1970, one man even claimed that Earhart was alive and well and living a secret life in New Jersey.

The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR) has explored the theory that Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan lived as castaways before dying on Gardner Island, now called Nikumaroro, in the western Pacific. Over the years, they've found a few potential artifacts, including evidence of campfire sites, pieces of Plexiglas, and an empty jar of the brand of freckle cream that Earhart used.

In early July 2017, a photo surfaced that seemed to confirm the theory that Earhart and Noonan crashed and were captured by Japanese soldiers, but that photo was quickly debunked.

15. TODAY, ANOTHER AMELIA EARHART IS MAKING HISTORY.

In 2014, another pilot named Amelia Earhart took to the skies to set a world record. The then-31-year-old California native became the youngest woman to fly 24,300 miles around the world in a single-engine plane. Her namesake never completed the journey, but the younger Earhart landed safely in Oakland on July 11, 2014. We think "Lady Lindy" would be proud.

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