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15 Famous 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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Pop Culture
How Jimmy Buffett Turned 'Margaritaville' Into a Way of Life
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Few songs have proven as lucrative as “Margaritaville,” a modest 1977 hit by singer and songwriter Jimmy Buffett that became an anthem for an entire life philosophy. The track was the springboard for Buffett’s business empire—restaurants, apparel, kitchen appliances, and more—marketing the taking-it-easy message of its tropical print lyrics.

After just a few years of expanding that notion into other ventures, the “Parrot Heads” of Buffett’s fandom began to account for $40 million in annual revenue—and that was before the vacation resorts began popping up.

Jimmy Buffett performs for a crowd
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“Margaritaville,” which turned 40 this year, was never intended to inspire this kind of devotion. It was written after Buffett, as an aspiring musician toiling in Nashville, found himself in Key West, Florida, following a cancelled booking in Miami and marveling at the sea of tourists clogging the beaches.

Like the other songs on his album, Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes, it didn’t receive a lot of radio play. Instead, Buffett began to develop his following by opening up for The Eagles. Even at 30, Buffett was something less than hip—a flip-flopped performer with a genial stage presence that seemed to invite an easygoing vibe among crowds. “Margaritaville,” an anthem to that kind of breezy attitude, peaked at number eight on the Billboard charts in 1977. While that’s impressive for any single, its legacy would quickly evolve beyond the music industry's method for gauging success.

What Buffett realized as he continued to perform and tour throughout the early 1980s is that “Margaritaville” had the ability to sedate audiences. Like a hypnotist, the singer could immediately conjure a specific time and place that listeners wanted to revisit. The lyrics painted a scene of serenity that became a kind of existential vacation for Buffett's fans:

Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin' the sun bake;
All of those tourists covered with oil.
Strummin' my six string on my front porch swing.
Smell those shrimp —
They're beginnin' to boil.

By 1985, Buffett was ready to capitalize on that goodwill. In Key West, he opened a Margaritaville store, which sold hats, shirts, and other ephemera to residents and tourists looking to broadcast their allegiance to his sand-in-toes fantasy. (A portion of the proceeds went to Save the Manatees, a nonprofit organization devoted to animal conservation.) The store also sold the Coconut Telegraph, a kind of propaganda newsletter about all things Buffett and his chill perspective.

When Buffett realized patrons were coming in expecting a bar or food—the song was named after a mixed drink, after all—he opened a cafe adjacent to the store in late 1987. The configuration was ideal, and through the 1990s, Buffett and business partner John Cohlan began erecting Margaritaville locations in Florida, New Orleans, and eventually Las Vegas and New York. All told, more than 21 million people visit a Buffett-inspired hospitality destination every year.

A parrot at Margaritaville welcomes guests
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Margaritaville-branded tequila followed. So, too, did a line of retail foods like hummus, a book of short stories, massive resorts, a Sirius radio channel, and drink blenders. Buffett even wrote a 242-page script for a Margaritaville movie that he had hoped to film in the 1980s. It’s one of the very few Margaritaville projects that has yet to have come to fruition, but it might be hard for Buffett to complain much. In 2015, his entire empire took in $1.5 billion in sales.

As of late, Buffett has signed off on an Orlando resort due to open in 2018, offering “casual luxury” near the boundaries of Walt Disney World. (One in Hollywood, Florida, is already a hit, boasting a 93 percent occupancy rate.) Even for guests that aren’t particularly familiar with his music, “Jimmy Buffett” has become synonymous with comfort and relaxation just as surely as Walt Disney has with family entertainment. The association bodes well for a business that will eventually have to move beyond Buffett’s concert-going loyalists.

Not that he's looking to leave them behind. The 70-year-old Buffett is planning on a series of Margaritaville-themed retirement communities, with the first due to open in Daytona Beach in 2018. More than 10,000 Parrot Heads have already registered, eager to watch the sun set while idling in a frame of mind that Buffett has slowly but surely turned into a reality.

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#TBT
The Time Freddy Krueger Became a Nightmare for Will Smith
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Fans of Will Smith’s music career may think they’ve heard every album and seen every music video from the actor’s days as one half of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Thanks to one ill-timed and poorly conceived effort, however, there’s one performance that aired only a handful of times before being permanently pulled. It has never resurfaced on compilations, on MTV, or even on YouTube. And the fault lies solely with Freddy Krueger, who used something even more dangerous than his razor-fingered glove: a small army of lawyers.

A promotional image of Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger
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Back in early 1988, Smith and his musical partner Jazzy Jeff (a.k.a. Jeffrey Allen Townes) released their second album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. It would eventually go platinum, selling 2.5 million copies through 1989 and spinning off the duo’s most successful single, “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

In late 1987, Townes composed another single, “Nightmare on My Street,” that played with the premise established by the A Nightmare on Elm Street series. In the song, Smith’s dreams are haunted by a scarred bogeyman named “Fred”; a voice modulator mimics the raspy delivery of actor Robert Englund, who portrayed slasher movie icon Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films. After his run-in, Smith tries calling Jeff to warn him of the threat but it was too late: The killer has gotten to his partner.

Zomba, the parent company behind the album's label, decided the song might be of interest to New Line Cinema, the studio behind the Nightmare film franchise. With the fourth installment, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, due to hit theaters in August 1988, Zomba executive Barry Weiss approached New Line with the possibility of collaborating and forwarded a tape of the song.

Weiss’s timing was spot-on. New Line had recently conducted research that indicated that 40 percent of A Nightmare of Elm Street's audience was black, and they felt that tying Krueger into the burgeoning rap and hip-hop industry would help cement his appeal to the demographic. But New Line and Weiss couldn’t come to a financial agreement. Instead, the studio went with The Fat Boys and granted permission for the song “Are You Ready for Freddy?” The video, complete with an appearance by Englund (in character), was released just a few months prior to A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 to raise awareness of the sequel.

Although New Line found their collaborators, Zomba didn’t appear willing to give up on the idea of a Freddy takeoff. “Nightmare on My Street” remained on the album, and Smith and Townes recorded a video intended for distribution on MTV. In it, Smith is stalked by a Freddy-like character who appears in a trench coat and has a wrinkled face. Smith’s lyrics make overt reference to a Krueger-esque appearance. (Fred is “burnt like a weenie.”) The eerie house Smith calls home even bears a passing resemblance to the house in the original Nightmare film.

If Zomba thought they could declare the song and video a parody and be safe from legal action, they were mistaken. Almost immediately, New Line's legal team sent a stern letter demanding the music label recall all copies of the song. When that didn't happen, the studio next sought a preliminary injunction to prevent “Nightmare on My Street” from being aired on MTV or elsewhere, citing copyright infringement and a concern that the video would detract from their collaboration with The Fat Boys.

"We own both a character, Freddy Krueger, and the theme music from Nightmare on Elm Street, both of which are protected under the copyright laws," Seth Willenson, New Line's senior vice president of telecommunications, told the Los Angeles Times in August 1988. “By using Freddy in the Jazzy Jeff song, they've infringed our copyright. We're protecting our rights the same way that George Lucas does, because as far as we're concerned, Freddy Krueger is the Star Wars of New Line Cinema."

Weeks before the release of the film, a judge in New York’s United States District Court would have to decide whether Zomba was entitled to a fair use exemption over a fictional child murderer.

Will Smith appears at the Grammy Awards
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To Zomba’s dismay, judge Robert Ward didn’t buy their argument that “Nightmare on My Street” was nothing more than a Weird Al-style satire. Screening the entire first installment of the film series and the music video, Ward noted that the latter drew considerable influence in tone, mood, and characteristics from the feature. Fred’s voice was scratchy like Englund’s; his glove, though it featured phonograph needles instead of razors, was obviously meant to invoke Krueger’s weapon of choice. Where Zomba saw parody, Ward saw little more than a derivative work of a copyrighted property.

“It is in this month that many individuals will make their decision whether Nightmare IV is a film that they are interested in viewing,” wrote Ward in his decision. “Thus, the telecast of the lower quality DJ Jazzy Jeff video with the somewhat silly and less frightening Freddy could dissuade an unspecified number of individuals from seeing the film.” The injunction was granted, with a full hearing to be held at a later date.

That didn’t happen—both parties settled out of court. While the song remained on the record, it began to ship with a disclaimer that it wasn’t associated with New Line; the video, which had aired only briefly on MTV, was pulled, and the court ordered that all copies be destroyed. Whether or not that happened is hard to substantiate, but if the video is lurking in storage somewhere, it has never been excavated. “Nightmare on My Street” has never resurfaced.

If Smith and Townes were bothered by the outcome, they didn’t voice it publicly. Smith even dressed up as Krueger in a 1990 episode of his sitcom, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. But there is one additional bit of film trivia to come out of the case: In seeking to resolve the issue, New Line offered DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince a two-film option. If they accepted the roles, their salaries would be deducted from the settlement payout. One of those projects was 1990’s House Party, which the two declined. The roles eventually went to Kid ‘n Play.

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