25 Famous Songs With Misunderstood Meanings
By Erik van Rheenen, Scott Beggs
In the history of the music industry, there are some songs that are pretty straightforward—think Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up,” for example (hey, we didn’t say they had to be good songs). And then you have something like The Beatles’s “I Am the Walrus.” So it’s hardly surprising that once you get beyond the title, there are some song lyrics that are either open to interpretation or just downright confusing.
Here’s a look at 25 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, John 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 is Smith’s explanation for the love song’s cryptically esoteric poetry. In a 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.”
6. “Harder to Breathe” // Maroon 5
At first blush, the single off Maroon 5’s 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.
“That song comes sheerly from wanting to throw something,” Levine said in a 2002 interview with MTV. “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’s 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 Georgia natives R.E.M. unleashed their first Top 10 single in concert, the band’s guitar-slinger Peter Buck felt baffled by audiences’ romantic reactions. “I’d look into the audience and there would be couples kissing,” Buck said. “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 died by suicide. 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 shot down the misunderstanding on numerous occasions.
In the book Conversations With Tom Petty, the lead Heartbreaker was 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’s 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’s 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 coming up to me and say[ing], ‘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 statement 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.” Jones joked 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 choice for the best prom song, 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” out of frustration with the breakup.
Not that the misinterpretation of the ballad as a high school slow dance number fazes Armstrong. As he told VH1’s Behind the Music, “I sort of enjoy the fact that I'm misunderstood most of the time. That’s fine.”
15. “Born in the U.S.A.” // 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 said. “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 U.S.A.” 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.”
16. “Who Let the Dogs Out?” // Baha Men
Another song whose meaning was obscured by its party anthem vibes, this Calypso-lite tune featured a delightful (and then annoyingly ubiquitous) call-and-response question that never got answered. Asking who let the dogs out became low-hanging comedy fruit after the song’s release in 2000, which meant most people missed that it was “a man-bashing song.” Songwriter Anslem Douglas said in an interview with Rock Cellar Magazine that it’s a song about a good time being ruined by men catcalling and harassing women. Everyone’s having a great time (Yippie-Yi-Yo), and then jerks start treating women like objects, and it ruins everything (woof, woof, woof). The video for Baha Men’s cover of Douglas’s song featured a ton of literal dogs escaping past a guard at a doggie daycare, further obfuscating its feminist roots.
17. “Slide” // Goo Goo Dolls
The surface-level reading of the flighty pop song is pretty standard: Forbidden young love, the thrills of disappointing your parents, and a boyfriend imploring you to run away with him. Yet, as songwriter/lead singer Johnny Rzeznik explained during the band’s VH1 Storytellers session, there's an even deeper cause to the couple’s angst. “The song is actually about these two teenage kids, and the girlfriend gets pregnant, and they’re trying to decide whether she should get an abortion, or they should get married, or what should go on,” he said. So it’s not exactly Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” The explanation brings lyrics about loving “the life you killed,” and the priest being on the phone into sharper clarity.
18. “Macarena” // Los del Rio
There’s an entire subgenre of music whose lyrics are ignored because the instrumentals are so fun, and “Macarena” may be its queen. Not understanding Spanish also gave listeners another reason to gleefully swing their hips while the duo sang about a young woman who cheats on her boyfriend with two of his friends while he’s enlisting in the Army. Not great, Macarena!
19. “One Way or Another” // Blondie
It’s that moment in every rom-com when the budding architect or bakery owner faces some initial rejection from her/his object of affection. Cue Blondie and a montage of personal improvement projects and/or cheeky conspiracy theory hobby board-level planning to win them over. Sadly, our well-meaning soul mate is preparing their romantic overtures to a song about a stalker. Songwriter/lead singer Debbie Harry told EW, “I was actually stalked by a nutjob, so it came out of a not-so-friendly personal event. But I tried to inject a little bit of levity into it to make it more lighthearted. I think in a way that’s a normal kind of survival mechanism.”
20. “Gangnam Style” // Psy
Psy’s crowning earworm with its invisible horse dance was Korea’s first massive global musical export, and it came with its very own goofy music video where the elements of Psy’s big-money lifestyle are revealed to be something absurdly pathetic. Without knowing Psy or Korean culture, it’s easy to think he’s simply making fun of himself, but the song and the video are both mocking a specific lifestyle of chasing the appearance of wealth without taking care of your core needs. The hollow commercial attitude is typified in the song by the Gangnam district (think Beverly Hills) where trust-funders eat cheap food in order to afford expensive coffee that they conspicuously down in one sip (instead of savoring). As the song satirizing the pointless pursuit of material reached unseen YouTube success, Psy told The Atlantic, “Human society is so hollow, and even while filming [the music video] I felt pathetic.”
21. “Angel” // Sarah McLachlan
You just donated to your local pet shelter. We get it. It’s an uplifting song about finding solace at your lowest point through the comforting arms of an angel, a sweet message carried by McLachlan’s heavenly voice and soothing piano tones. As it turns out, the “angel” is heroin. To be specific, anything someone might use it to escape themselves at low points. McLachlan wrote the song following a brutal two-year stint of touring and recording. She read a Rolling Stone article about Smashing Pumpkins touring keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin overdosing on heroin and felt moved by his struggles with drug addiction.
22. “Hey Ya” // Outkast
Andre 3000 was right when he sang “Y’all don’t wanna hear me/ you just wanna dance” near the end of an incredibly joyful jam with deeply depressing lyrics about the state of modern relationships. His baby loves him! Or maybe she’s just afraid of being alone! Separate’s always better! Why would love be any different if nothing lasts forever? In May 2021, Outkast tweeted a meme with Andre 3000’s face from the music video, labeling a very small portion as “A bop” and a huge portion as “The saddest song ever written.”
23. “You’re Beautiful” // James Blunt
For everyone who has made this their first dance at their wedding, James Blunt thinks you’re “f***ed up.” It's a saccharine-sweet ballad, sure, but it’s also extremely clear from the lyrics that it’s about a creepy dude, high on drugs, reveling in the beauty of a stranger who is with another man, and then despairing that he will never, ever, ever get together with her. Blunt has explained that the stalker dies by suicide in his vision for the song, and the music video even reinforces that subtext: showing Blunt removing his shoes and clothing before jumping off a cliff.
24. “Margaritaville” // Jimmy Buffett
Not only do people turn on Jimmy Buffett’s classic tune to chill, but the singer/songwriter has also built an entire lifestyle brand around the vibe, complete with restaurants and, naturally, his own tequila. Once again, it’s an incredibly breezy song, tailor-made for sipping and lounging as long as you don’t think about the lyrics too much. The narrator of the song is constantly blackout drunk, getting tattoos he can’t remember, and grappling with who’s responsible for his downfall (a woman ... maybe him ... definitely him) while “wasting away” so badly he can’t even find the salt, salt, salt.
25. “99 Luftballons” // Nena
Whether in its original German language or in English, the happy-pop New Wave jam is easily the most danceable song about a nuclear holocaust caused by balloons. Guitarist Carlo Karges initially got the idea for the song when Mick Jagger released thousands of balloons into the sky at the end of a 1982 Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin. It got him wondering what would happen if the balloons crossed into Soviet airspace, were mistaken for UFOS, and set off a chain reaction of nukes flying around the world. As added depression fuel, the song ends with the narrator finding a single balloon in the ruins of the world, thinking of the listener, and letting it go. Dance on!
A version of this story ran in 2016; it has been updated for 2023.