The Strange Origins of 25 Popular Songs

Musicians have found inspiration in some weird places, from the end of jobs to movies to the deaths of strangers.
Smokey Robinson, Dolly Parton, and Bruce Springsteen.
Smokey Robinson, Dolly Parton, and Bruce Springsteen. / Paul Natkin/WireImage (Robinson), Michael Putland/Getty Images (Parton), Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images (Springsteen)

You’ve hummed along to them in the car, belted them out in the shower, performed them on karaoke night, and possibly even danced with your grandparents to one of them at your second cousin’s wedding.

But do you really know the dark origins behind Van Halen’s “Jump” or the existential conversation that is Hanson’s “MMMbop”? The answers may not be as obvious—or innocent—as you might have thought. Here are the surprising origin stories behind 25 popular tunes.

1. “MMMBop” // Hanson

Yes, Hanson’s 1997 hit “MMMBop” contains such lyrics as “Mmm bop, ba duba dop ba du bop, ba duba dop ba du bop, ba duba dop ba du.” And it was written and performed by a trio of young brothers ranging from 11 to 16 years old at the time. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t deep. “It’s the most misunderstood successful song of all time,” Zac Hanson told Entertainment Weekly in 2017. “Even at the height of 1997, it’s a song nobody understood. [Ninety-nine] percent of the people who have any reference from it don’t understand it.” One month later, Zac gave an even more explicit answer about the meaning behind the song while appearing on the Kyle and Jackie O. Show, stating:

“‘MMMbop’ represents a frame of time: ‘In an MMMbop they’re gone’ it says in the lyrics of the song. The whole song’s about the fact that almost everything in your life will come and go very quickly. You’ve got to figure out what matters and you've got to grab onto those things.”

2. “The Way” // Fastball

Don’t let the catchy beat fool you: Listen to the lyrics of Fastball’s 1998 hit “The Way” and you might just notice that the tune is coming from a pretty dark place. While lines like “And it’s always summer, they’ll never get cold / They’ll never get hungry / They’ll never get old and gray” could be mistaken for describing a kind of utopia where one would want for nothing, the song in question is about the disappearance of Raymond and Lela Howard, an elderly Texas couple who headed out one night to attend a local fiddling festival and never came home.

The couple was found dead in their car two weeks later near Hot Springs, Arkansas, several hundred miles from their home. Police concluded that the Howards had gotten lost on their way to the event, became disoriented, and accidentally drove off the road. (Raymond had recently suffered a stroke and Lela had been exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s disease.)

The victims’ family members were touched by what they considered a tribute to their parents. One of Lela’s grandsons told KVUE, “I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe somebody would do something like that for my grandma. Powerful, very powerful.”

3. “Ticket to Ride” // The Beatles

There’s some contested history between John Lennon and Paul McCartney about what “Ticket to Ride” was referring to, even though the song’s lyrics were credited to both of them. In McCartney’s version, the ticket in question is just that: a British Railways ticket to Ryde, a seaside town on the northeastern coast of the Isle of Wight, where McCartney’s cousin owned a pub (he and Lennon once hitchhiked their way there). Lennon, however, had a different—and saucier—explanation.

According to journalist Don Short, who logged a lot of time traveling with the band back in the day: “The girls who worked the streets in Hamburg had to have a clean bill of health and so the medical authorities would give them a card saying that they didn’t have a dose of anything. I was with The Beatles when they went back to Hamburg in June 1966 and it was then that John told me that he had coined the phrase ‘a ticket to ride’ to describe these cards. He could have been joking—you always had to be careful with John like that—but I certainly remember him telling me that.”

4. “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” // Beastie Boys

In 1986, the Beastie Boys gifted teens across American with a legendary party anthem in “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!).” There was just one issue: The song was written specifically as a mockery of party anthems. “There were tons of guys singing along to ‘Fight for Your Right to Party’ who were oblivious to the fact that it was a total goof on them,” band member Michael “Mike D” Diamond said. “Irony is oft missed.”

5. “I Will Always Love You” // Dolly Parton

Thanks in large part to Whitney Houston’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You” in the hit 1992 movie , the Dolly Parton tune became a battle cry for deeply in-love couples who for, whatever reason, could not be together. But Parton’s song wasn’t about a romance—failed or otherwise—at all.

In 1967, country music star program Porter Wagoner invited Parton, then an up-and-coming singer, to be a regular performer on his weekly TV show, The Porter Wagoner Show, as well as to join him on the road. Five years later, Parton was itching to move on from the show but Wagoner didn’t want to see that happen. Parton knew that she owed a huge debut to Wagoner and, as she explained to the Tennessean in 2015, wondered: “How am I gonna make him understand how much I appreciate everything, but that I have to go? So I went home and I thought, ‘Well, what do you do best? You write songs.’ So I sat down and I wrote this song.”

When Parton performed the song for him, he said it was “the prettiest song [he’d] ever heard,” and told her that she could leave, as long as she let him produce the record, which she did.

6. “Mother and Child Reunion” // Paul Simon

Paul Simon had a major hit on his hands with the 1972 song “Mother and Child Reunion,” a reggae-infused meditation on death that came about from the loss of a family pet. “Last summer we had a dog that was run over and killed, and we loved this dog,” Simon told Rolling Stone in 1972. “It was the first death I had ever experienced personally. Nobody in my family died that I felt that. But I felt this loss—one minute there, next minute gone, and then my first thought was, ‘Oh, man, what if that was [my wife] Peggy? What if somebody like that died? Death, what is it, I can’t get it.’ ”

Though lyrics like “I can’t for the life of me remember a sadder day” made it clear that it wasn’t supposed to be a necessarily happy song, the strangest part of this tale is where the title came from: “I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown,” Simon explained. “There was a dish called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It’s chicken and eggs. And I said, ‘Oh, I love that title. I gotta use that one.’ ”

7. “Blinded by the Light” // Bruce Springsteen

After music producer Clive Davis listened to the as-yet-unreleased first record of a novice rock ‘n’ roller from New Jersey, he had some feedback. There were “no hits,” he told the musician. “Nothing that could be played on the radio.” So Bruce Springsteen rushed home to Asbury Park and churned out two more tracks: “Spirit in the Night,” which he wrote on the beach, and “Blinded by the Light,” which he wrote on his bed with the help of a good old-fashioned rhyming dictionary. Featuring phrases like curly-wurly and brimstone baritone anti-cyclone rolling stone, it’s basically one big, edgy nursery rhyme. Today, there’s even an indie pop band called “Go-Kart Mozart,” after another memorable expression from the song.

The album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., was released by Columbia Records in January 1973, with “Blinded by the Light” as the very first track. And it did become a hit played all over the radio—just not Springsteen’s version. Three years after its debut, London-based rock group Manfred Mann’s Earth Band recorded a cover of the song that catapulted to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1977.

8. “Born in the U.S.A.” // Bruce Springsteen

America experienced a renewed sense of patriotism in 1984, when Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”—the song and the album—dominated the music charts. The Boss’s raspy repeat of the fact that he was “Born in the U.S.A.” made the song seem like an American anthem for the 1980s. Except it was more of a protest song, questioning the country’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

For his part, Springsteen called it “the most misunderstood song since ‘Louie, Louie.’ ” In a 1984 interview with Rolling Stone, Springsteen said: “[W]hen you think about all the young men and women that died in Vietnam, and how many died since they’ve been back—surviving the war and coming back and not surviving—you have to think that, at the time, the country took advantage of their selflessness. There was a moment when they were just really generous with their lives.”

9. “Walk This Way” // Aerosmith

While putting together their iconic 1975 album Toys in the Attic, Aerosmith knew they wanted to play around with a song that would infuse elements of R&B and funk and get people up out of their chairs and dancing. Ultimately, that song would become “Walk This Way.” But the tune was one of those occasions where the music came before the lyrics.

“ ‘Walk This Way’ was this really cool riff and we got this whole thing together but had no idea what we were gonna do on top of it, vocal-wise, melody-wise,” guitarist Brad Whitford told Spin. “And then we watched Young Frankenstein … There was a part where the main character arrives at the train station in Transylvania and he’s met by this classic evil assistant, who takes his suitcase for him and hobbles down the steps and says ‘Walk this way,’ and to humor him he follows him down the steps the same way. So we told Steven [Tyler], you’ve got to call the song ‘Walk This Way.’ Steven was like, ‘You can’t tell me what to call the song, I haven’t even written the lyrics yet!’ But we told him he had to do it. So he did."

Though Tyler did borrow the phrase, he didn’t go so far as to embody the spirit of the spooky, spoofy henchman. “Walk This Way” is rife with thinly-veiled innuendo, and David Johansen of the New York Dolls even said it was “one of the raunchiest songs he ever heard on the radio,” according to Perry (who took it as a compliment).

10. “Dude Looks Like a Lady” // Aerosmith

“Walk This Way” wasn’t the only time Aerosmith turned a joke into a song title. There was also “Dude Looks Like a Lady,” which came about from an experience Steven Tyler had at a bar: As he glanced around the room, he saw what appeared to be a young blonde woman with teased out hair. Upon further inspection, Tyler realized that the “woman” in question was actually Vince Neil from Mötley Crüe. Tyler later showed the tune, which he had renamed “Cruisin’ for the Ladies,” to songwriter Desmond Child.

“I listened to that lyric, and I said, ‘You know what, that’s a very boring title,’ ” Child recalled in 2016. “And they looked at me like, ‘How dare you?’ And then Steven volunteered, sheepishly, and said that when he first wrote the melody he was singing ‘Dude Looks like a Lady.’ ” But the band was concerned that using that as the title could be offensive to the LGBTQ community. “I’m gay, and I’m not insulted,” Child said. “Let’s write this song.” (For the record: Vince Neil learned that the song was about him and, according to Desmond, “He had a good laugh.”)

11. “I Can’t Make You Love Me” // Bonnie Raitt

Bonnie Raitt's “I Can’t Make You Love Me (If You Don’t),” a melancholy ballad about unrequited love, was a major hit in 1991. But the song’s story and refrain came from an even more unfortunate (and violent) real-life love affair. The song was penned by popular Nashville songwriters Mike Reid and Allen Shamblin, and the idea originated with Reid after he read an article about a man who got drunk and shot up his girlfriend’s car. While standing trial for the incident, the judge asked the man if he had learned any lessons, to which he replied: “I learned, Your Honor, that you can’t make a woman love you if she don’t.”

Raitt’s recording of the song went on to become one of her biggest hits: It landed the eighth spot on Mojo Magazine’s 2000 list of the greatest songs, came in 339th in Rolling Stone’s ranking of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2017.

12. “Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” // Green Day

Throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, no graduation ceremony or going away party was complete without someone playing Green Day’s 1997 hit “Good Riddance.” Between the title, its upbeat tune, and the repeated “I hope you had the time of your life” lyric, it had all the makings of the perfect ditty for bidding farewell to a great couple of months, or years, of your life. In reality, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong wrote the song as a bitter farewell to his girlfriend, who was leaving him and moving to Ecuador. “I wrote the song as a kind of bon voyage,” he told Guitar Legends in 2005, where he admitted it took less than 10 minutes to write. “I was trying not to be bitter, but I think it came out a little bit bitter anyway.”

13. “Rosanna” // Toto

In 1982, the same year actress Rosanna Arquette won an Emmy Award for her role in the TV movie The Executioner's Song, Toto released their hit song “Rosanna,” which was partly inspired by the actress (who was dating Steve Porcaro, the band’s keyboard player, at the time). In the years since, the band—and Arquette herself—have played down the idea that the song is about her … though it does seem a bit too coincidental.

Fun fact: While he has never confirmed it, rumors have long circulated that Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” (the song that Lloyd Dobler blasts from his boombox in Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything) was also written for Arquette, who was romantically involved with Gabriel for several years.

14. “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby” // Counting Crows

Rosanna Arquette isn’t the only actress to have inspired a hit song—although in the case of “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” there was no romantic relationship between the songwriter and his muse. In 1998, Counting Crows frontman Adam Duritz reportedly developed a bit of a crush on actress Monica Potter after seeing her in Con Air and Patch Adams. Cut to: Approximately one week later, and the band is in the studio getting ready to record more of their upcoming album … including “Mrs. Potter’s Lullaby,” Duritz’s ode to an actress whom he had never met. That’s when a friend called to let him know that she was having lunch with Potter’s agent at that very moment, and they all wanted to meet him (Potter included). Duritz obliged.

As Duritz later told the Broward Palm Beach New Times, Potter then asked him if it was true that he had written a song about her. “Well, no. I mean, not exactly,” he explained. “It’s a song about an imaginary version of you. The song is about what happens when you fall in love with people who don’t exist, like with a person on the movie screen.” When he informed Potter that he actually needed to leave to head back to the studio where he was recording the song, she asked to come along and listen. And it was Potter who, when Duritz decided the song was not ready for public consumption, convinced him that it was great and to keep it on their upcoming album.

15. “… Baby One More Time” // Britney Spears

You could be forgiven for thinking that the 1998 song that turned Britney Spears into a pop princess was called “Hit Me Baby One More Time,” as that was the original title—and is very clearly the song’s refrain. But Spears’s record label was (rightly) concerned that the title would make it sound like the song was about—or even worse, condoning—domestic abuse. The truth, it turns out, is far less controversial: The song was written by Swedish hitmakers Rami Yacoub and Max Martin, who thought the American slang term for call me was hit me versus hit me up, hence the more violent-sounding lyrics.

The phrasing didn’t seem to have any impact on the song’s success, though: It sat on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for 32 weeks, a personal record for Spears. And without the error, the song may never even have landed in her lap in the first place. Before offering it to Spears, Rami and Martin had tried to give it to TLC, who passed. In 2013, T-Boz told MTV News,  “I was like … ‘I’m not saying ‘hit me baby.”

16. “Jump” // Van Halen

The lead single from Van Halen’s hit album 1984 might be best remembered for Eddie van Halen’s synthesizer solo and David Lee Roth hamming it up for the camera in the video, but the song’s key direction to “Go ahead and jump” takes on a more ominous connotation when you learn that the lyrics came to Roth after he watched a news broadcast about a suicidal man standing on the top of a building and threatening to jump. While the news report may have put the word jump in Roth’s head, the band’s song is decidedly more positive.

17. “One Way or Another” // Blondie

With its rock-heavy beat and powerfully delivered lyrics, Blondie’s “One Way or Another” sounds like an anthem for empowerment. But listen more closely and it’s clear that the title is more of a threat.

“I was actually stalked by a nut job, so it came out of a not-so-friendly personal event,” Debbie Harry told Entertainment Weekly in 2011 of the song’s genesis, which she wrote as a sort of revenge poem to the man who was harassing her. “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. You know, just shake it off, say one way or another, and get on with your life. Everyone can relate to that and I think that’s the beauty of it.”

18. “Sunny Came Home” // Shawn Colvin

“Sunny Came Home” was a hit song off Shawn Colvin’s 1996 concept album A Few Small Repairs that went on to win Grammy Awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year. Yet it was also a song that was inspired by the cover art used for A Few Small Repairs. How did that chronology work, exactly?

“The inspiration behind that story came from the painting that I chose to be on the cover of the record,” Colvin explained in 2017. “I just liked Julie Speed’s work and I really wanted something different rather than a photo. In the 11th hour, ‘Sunny Came Home’ was really barely there—in fact I think I had it as ‘Jimmy Came Home’ at one point before I’d written the lyric to ‘The Facts About Jimmy.’ I looked at this cover and I thought, you need to write a story about this woman on the cover who’s got a lit match and a big fire in the background.” And with that, a Grammy Award-winning song was born.

19. “Rocket Man” // Elton John

According to co-writer Bernie Taupin, many people assumed that Elton John’s 1972 song “Rocket Man” was inspired by another hit song about an astronaut: David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” released in 1969. But it actually harkened back to “The Rocket Man,” from Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story collection The Illustrated Man

The story is narrated by Doug, a young boy whose astronaut father leaves for three-month stints in space. While the song is sung from the astronaut’s perspective, it matches the story’s themes pretty closely—both men, for example, yearn for their families while in orbit, and struggle with the feeling that they’re leading two separate lives.

20. “Manic Monday” // The Bangles

The next time you find yourself humming The Bangles’ “Manic Monday” at the beginning of a busy week, you can thank Prince. Not only did he give us decades’ worth of dance bops and unparalleled guitar solos, he also penned the anthem for every bleary-eyed employee wishing their Sunday had never ended.

It all started when Prince showed up to a Bangles concert in 1984 and asked to perform their single “Hero Takes a Fall” with them. They were happy to oblige. Bangles lead singer Susanna Hoffs later told NPR, “It was truly mind-blowing. … It was almost like his guitar was just part of his body. There was no disconnect.” 

That same year, Prince was helping his female pop trio Apollonia 6 put together their first (and only) album, which was supposed to include “Manic Monday.” But after recording a demo with them, he decided the song wasn’t a good fit, and it stayed on the cutting room floor for two years. When he offered it to the Bangles, it was clear he’d found the perfect fit. Hoffs, who still has the cassette tape that Prince first played for them, said, “We were smitten with the song.” 

The Bangles released it as their first single from their second album, Different Light, and it soon climbed to the No. 2 spot on the pop charts. It never dethroned the reigning No. 1 of the time, though. That song? “Kiss,” by Prince.

The “Purple Rain” rocker wrote more than a few songs that became mega-hits for other artists in the ’80s and ’90s, including Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You,” Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and Celine Dion’s “With This Tear.” 

21. “The Loco-Motion” // Little Eva

Back in the ’60s, Carole King was cranking out hit after hit. With the help of her then-husband Gerry Goffin, King wrote “Some Kind of Wonderful” for The Drifters, “One Fine Day” for The Chiffons, and “The Loco-Motion,” which was supposed to be for Dee Dee Sharp. 

King and Goffin modeled their locomotive-inspired track after Sharp’s 1962 smash hit “Mashed Potato Time,” but for some reason the collaboration never came to be. King, for her part, suggested that Sharp’s record label wasn’t interested in buying songs from outside talent.

What is clear is that the songwriters gave “The Loco-Motion” to their babysitter—really. The duo had hired a young Eva Boyd in 1961 on a recommendation from the music group The Cookies, and her job interview ended up being an unofficial music audition, too. When she mentioned she could sing, her future employers invited her to perform a little something on the spot. King told NPR in 2003, “We thought, ‘Oh, this is cool, she’s got a really great voice. Make note to self.’ ” 

Boyd sometimes sang on demos for them, and she recorded the vocals for “The Loco-Motion” demo, too. When Sharp turned it down, music producer Don Kirshner—whom King and Goffin worked for—proposed that they give the song to Boyd, which they did. Though the lyrics imply that “The Loco-Motion” is a line dance, King and Goffin didn’t come up with one while composing it. That was all Eva, or “Little Eva,” as she came to be known. As King recalled in her memoir A Natural Woman, Little Eva invented the corresponding dance moves for publicity appearances.

“The Loco-Motion” ascended the charts in the ’60s … and again in the ’70s … and yet a third time in the ’80s. The success of Grand Funk Railroad’s 1974 version and Kylie Minogue’s late ‘80s rendition pretty much proves that a ride on “The Loco-Motion” is a one-way ticket to the top.

22. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” // Billy Joel

About two years after Minogue’s “Loco-Motion” chugged all over the world, a 40-year-old Billy Joel was brainstorming song ideas in the studio when he met John Lennon’s son Sean, accompanied by a friend who had just turned 21. The young man was complaining about how 1989 was a terrible time to be 21, and an empathetic Joel shared similar feelings about having come of age during the political unrest of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. His new acquaintance didn’t seem to feel like the situations were comparable, telling Joel that it was different for him because “you were a kid in the ’50s, and everybody knows that nothing happened in the ’50s.”

“Didn’t you ever hear of, like, the Korean War?” Joel responded. “The Suez Canal Crisis?” 

He started jotting down all the events that had happened in his lifetime thus far, from 1949 to 1989, and the song “We Didn’t Start the Fire” quickly took shape. As for whether the Piano Man will ever write a sequel for his rapid-fire history lesson, chances aren’t great—he’s talked openly about how dull he thinks the melody is, comparing it to a “dentist’s drill” and a “mosquito buzzing around in your head.” Fall Out Boy did release an updated version of the track, though, featuring events from 1989 until 2023.

23. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” // Bonnie Tyler

If “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is the stuff of history, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is the stuff of legend—and not just any legend. Long before it became the magnum opus of ’80s ballad belter Bonnie Tyler, the tune was intended as a “vampire love song.” Composer Jim Steinman (who also wrote the Celine Dion mega-hit “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now”) told Playbill that “its original title was ’Vampires in Love.’” He was working on a musical adaptation of Nosferatu at the time, because nothing screams “Broadway potential” like German expressionist horror.

Steinman is probably best known for penning Meat Loaf’s entire 1977 album Bat Out of Hell (which, ironically, had nothing to do with vampires). Tyler, blown away by the title track off Meat Loaf’s album, asked her record label to put her in touch with Steinman, who agreed to work with her. At that point, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was only half-written and still called “Vampires in Love,” so Steinman finished it up and handed it over to his new collaborator. 

Though the Nosferatu production never saw the light of day, Steinman did end up getting a different vampire musical onto a Broadway stage: 2002’s Dance of the Vampires, loosely based on Roman Polanski’s 1967 film The Fearless Vampire Killers. Act II opened with an eerie, emotional number that most of the audience had likely heard before. Yeah, it was “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” 

24. “New York Mining Disaster 1941” // Bee Gees

Most of the Bee Gees’ song titles have a nice ring to them. Think “Stayin’ Alive,” or “How Deep Is Your Love.” “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” on the other hand, sounds more like something you’d find in the pages of a history textbook than at the top of the music charts. But there’s a reason you never learned about that particular mining disaster in school—because it never happened. 

In early 1967, band mates (and brothers) Barry and Robin Gibb were sitting in a dark, echoey stairwell at London’s Polydor Records when they came up with a song about a man trapped in a dark, echoey mine. According to Maurice Gibb, the lyrics were also inspired by a catastrophic mining disaster in Aberfan, Wales, that had occurred just a few months earlier. 

Barry claimed they chose New York for the titular disaster of their song because, “the name New York is just a little more glamorous than ... Southampton Mining Disaster 1941 ... New York held just a little bit more glamor for record buying.” 

It’s also possible that the group wanted to distance the song a bit from the source material, since the UK was still reeling from the very recent tragedy.

Whatever the case, the song kickstarted the Bee Gees’ international career. Their success may have been related to the fact that some of their songs were quite reminiscent of another popular band from the era: the Beatles. Some fans thought the Bee Gees actually were the Beatles, and their band name was code for the “Beatles Group.”

25. “The Tears of a Clown” // Smokey Robinson & the Miracles

Another song with unintentionally dark undertones is “The Tears of a Clown,” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. At a Motown Christmas party in 1966, Stevie Wonder gave Robinson a fully recorded instrumental track and asked him for help coming up with some lyrics for it. When Robinson listened to it, the opening notes immediately reminded him of a circus, so he decided to base the song on the story of a lovelorn clown named Pagliacci that he had heard as a kid.

Robinson explained that “Everybody loved him, and then he went back to his dressing room and he was very sad, because he had all this love, but he did not have the love of a woman.” 

The narrator of “The Tears of a Clown” follows that same pattern of acting upbeat in public and succumbing to his sorrow behind closed doors. Robinson even mentions Pagliacci in the song, singing “Just like Pagliacci did / I try to keep my sadness hid.” 

And that isn’t even the first time Robinson penned a couplet along those lines. A couple years earlier, he had co-written “My Smile Is Just A Frown (Turned Upside Down)”, which included the line: “I only laugh to fool the crowd / Just like Pagliacci did / I'll keep my sadness hid.”

Clearly, something in the story of Pagliacci spoke to Robinson, but he may have misremembered a few key details about the story. He might have also chosen to elide some details to avoid crafting a more macabre pop song. Pagliacci is an Italian opera that was composed by Ruggero Leoncavallo; it premiered in 1892. Pagliacci actually means “clowns” in Italian. In the opera, a man named Canio performs a clown act with his wife, Nedda. As Nedda’s rumored affair reaches the ears of her jealous husband, he becomes more and more enraged, and the story culminates with Canio murdering Nedda and her lover. On stage. It makes for a more dramatic tale, but it is harder to dance to.

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A version of this story was originally published in 2023 and has been updated for 2024.