9 Misconceptions About Popular Songs and Misheard Lyrics

Is Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born in the U.S.A.’ really a patriotic song? What does the Boss have to say about it?
Phil Collins in 1980.
Phil Collins in 1980. / L. Cohen/WireImage/Getty Images

The Police’s 1983 megahit “Every Breath You Take,” with lyrics about the narrator keeping an eye on his beloved, is often played at weddings—despite its songwriter, Sting, describing it as being about “Big Brother, surveillance, and control.” It’s a textbook example of the concept that not every song with love in the title is a love song.

Here are a few more common misconceptions about popular songs and misheard lyrics, adapted from Misconceptions on Youtube. 

1. Misconception: “You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt Is Romantic.

For some listeners, James Blunt’s falsetto voice calls to mind days spent dreaming about their crush while listening to their iPod Nano. It’s easy to see how the English singer-songwriter’s biggest hit gained its romantic reputation, but “You’re Beautiful” wasn’t conceived as a sappy love song. 

Blunt revealed to the Huffington Post that the true meaning is more creepy than heartwarming. It’s written from the perspective of someone leering at another man’s girlfriend while high on the subway. To make the story even more unsettling, Blunt envisioned it ending with the stalker character killing himself after realizing he can never be with the woman he saw. This subtext is more apparent in the music video, which concludes with him jumping off a cliff. Maybe it’s a good thing you didn’t serenade your crush with this song in middle school. Unless you did, in which case, we’re sorry..

2. Misconception: “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana Is About Hot Potatoes.

The fact that many listeners couldn’t understand the words to Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” didn’t stop it from dominating airwaves in the early ‘90s. The title, which references a deodorant brand whose scents include “pink crush” and “sweet strawberry,” doesn’t appear in the lyrics, making it even harder to pin down the hook. Instead of “Here we are now, entertain us,” some people hear “Here we are now, in containers,” or “Here we are now, hot potatoes.” Those misinterpretations sound less ridiculous next to the actual lyrics. The song has been claimed as a revolutionary Gen X anthem, but it’s unclear how lyrics like “A mosquito, my libido” fit that theme. 

Kurt Cobain claimed there was no deeper meaning to the words. In 1993, he told the Canadian TV channel MuchMusic, “I was just using pieces of poetry and just garble—just garbage, you know?—just stuff that just would spew out of me at the time. And a lot of times when I write lyrics, it's usually at the last second because I'm really lazy [....] and then I find myself having to come up with explanations for it.”

His manager Danny Goldberg challenged this self-deprecating attitude, saying, “I don't believe that at all. I think he worked as carefully on the lyrics as he did on everything else.”

3. Misconception: “Who Let the Dogs Out?” by The Baha Men Is Misogynist.

Many listeners know “Who Let the Dogs Out?” isn’t about literal dogs, but they still get the metaphor wrong. If you assumed dogs was used as an insult to women, you may be shocked to hear the song has a feminist message. 

Before it was covered by the Baha Men in 2000, the original artist Anslem Douglas wrote it about women being harassed at a party. The ladies respond to the catcalling by shouting “Who let the dogs out?” at the misbehaving men. This original meaning is kind of obscured in the Baha Men music video, where canines are being chased by dog catchers. But if we analyze it further, we can see the dogs turn into men and then seemingly turn back at the end. Are we saying it’s a feminist anthem with the addition of werewolves? Definitely not, but it’s also not a werewolf-free misogynistic song.

4. Misconception: “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix Is About Kissing Some Guy.

Jimi Hendrix was known for pushing social conventions in the 1960s, which could explain why so many listeners thought he was openly singing about kissing men in “Purple Haze.” Though the lyrics sound a lot like “’scuse me while I kiss this guy,” he’s really saying “’scuse me while I kiss the sky.” Hendrix wasn’t bothered by the misunderstanding. In fact, he was so amused it by it that he started singing the wrong lyrics on purpose during live performances. That likely didn’t help clear up the musical misconception.

5. Misconception: “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen Is Patriotic.

Since its release in 1984, “Born in the U.S.A.” has gained a reputation as a patriotic anthem.  But a closer examination of the Bruce Springsteen tune reveals it isn’t as uplifting as the upbeat melody suggests. The lyrics tell the story of a veteran struggling to readjust to society after returning home from the Vietnam War. Rather than celebrating America, “Born in the U.S.A.” is highly critical of the country. That adds a layer of irony to the catchy chorus that’s lost on some listeners, including politicians. Multiple presidential candidates have played it on the campaign trail without the Boss’s approval. They better watch themselves the next time they’re in Jersey.

6. Misconception: “In the Air Tonight” Is About Phil Collins Witnessing Someone Drown.

Songs tend to get misinterpreted when listeners don’t pay close attention. Of course, it is possible to read too much into a song’s meaning, as was the case with “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins. Whether it was the haunting drum beat or creepy music video, the song inspired one of the most pervasive urban legends in rock n’ roll history. According to the story, the part-time Genesis frontman wrote it after watching someone drown to death. While Collins was too far away to help, he did notice a third person standing close enough to save the victim but refusing to act. Some tellings end with the artist inviting the guilty party to his concert and shining a spotlight on him while singing about the alleged crime. 

It’s a compelling tale that has no basis in reality. Collins never witnessed someone drowning, nor did he expose someone’s terrible secret at a concert. He wrote the song in the midst of his divorce in 1980, which may explain the dark and moody tone. As for the literal meaning behind lyrics like, “If you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand” and “I was there and I saw what you did,” Collins doesn’t have a clear answer. He improvised the words after coming up with the music, and later told the BBC, “It’s so frustrating because 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.” That explanation won’t do much to silence the conspiracy theorists

7. Misconception: “99 Luftballons” by Nena Is a Light-hearted Dance Song.

Listeners can’t be faulted for thinking “99 Luftballons” was a cheery pop song, especially if they didn’t understand the original German lyrics. But the 1983 single, which was re-recorded in English with the title “99 Red Balloons,” wasn’t about an epic birthday party. Guitarist Carlo Karges got the inspiration for the song after seeing Mick Jagger release thousands of balloons into the air during a Rolling Stones show in West Berlin. He imagined the balloons floating into East German airspace, where they would be mistaken for an attack and trigger a global nuclear war. The song plays out the scenario against a poppy synth beat that feels inappropriate in hindsight. 

8. Misconception: “Blinded By the Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band Is About a Feminine Hygiene Product.

“Blinded By the Light” is just as famous for its hard-to-understand words as it is for its catchy melody. One line in particular is a candidate for the most commonly misinterpreted lyric of all time. When Chris Thompson sings “Wrapped up like a deuce, another runner in the night,” many people hear “Wrapped up like a douche, another rumor in the night.” 

The song was first released in 1973 on Bruce Springsteen’s debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. Springsteen originally wrote the lyric “cut loose like a deuce” in a reference to the deuce coupe—a 1932 Ford car that ran on a V8 engine. When Manfred Mann's Earth Band covered the song three years later, they thought rhyming “loose” with “deuce” sounded cheesy, and changed the lyric to . . . well, they’ve claimed “revved up like a deuce,” but if you look at the liner notes for the album, it says “wrapped up like a deuce.” 

How do you wrap up a deuce? Well, speculation has run rampant, with people saying the deuce was the devil or maybe a poker reference. Someone on Quora had an elaborate idea that it was to do with a type of carburetor called a deuce. We’ve read dozens of interviews with band members, and they’re more than happy to explain the deuce/douche confusion—which, for the record, they claimed was a technical problem with tape-head angles—but never the “wrapped” part.

Either way, that tweak, combined with Chris Thompson’s vocal performance, would inspire mass confusion when the song came out in 1976. Some radio stations reportedly refused to play it because they thought it was about feminine hygiene, but the controversy failed to keep the song off the charts. In fact, it may have boosted its popularity. Manfred Mann reflected on the surprise hit, saying, “The funny thing is that afterwards people came up to me and said: ‘You know why that record was such a hit, don’t you? Because everyone was trying to figure out if it was deuce or douche.”

9. Misconception: “The One I Love” by R.E.M. Is a Love Song.

Despite its title, “The One I Love” isn’t a romantic ballad. Listen to the lyrics past the first line and you’ll hear that it’s actually about an abusive relationship. R.E.M.’s guitarist Peter Buck called it “savagely anti-love” and was baffled by its popularity with couples. Singer Michael Stipe agreed, and admitted in a 1992 interview with Q magazine that he almost didn’t record the song because it was “too brutal” and “really violent and awful.” Not only did the true message go over listeners’ heads, but many of them took the complete opposite meaning. That’s a good reminder that not every song with “love” in the title belongs on a wedding playlist.

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