The Strange Origins of 17 Popular Songs
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 17 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."
So that’s what “ba duba dop ba du” means.
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.) Suddenly "The Way" doesn’t sound as upbeat.
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.”
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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.”
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. "Born in the U.S.A." // Bruce Springsteen
America experienced a renewed sense of patriotism in 1984, when Bruce 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: "But when 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."
8. “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." Fair enough.
9. “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 learn that the song was about him and, according to Desmond, “He had a good laugh.”)
10. “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.
11. "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." Try telling that to the class of '97. Or '98. Or '99. Or ... you get the point.
12. “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 ) was also written for Arquette, who was romantically involved with Gabriel for several years. (The fact that the opening line to Toto's tune is "All I want to do when I wake up in the morning is see your eyes" only adds credence to the argument that both songs were written about Arquette.)
13. "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 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.
14. “…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’ 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.
15. “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.
16. “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.”
17. “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.