11 Wild Urban Legends Surrounding Popular Songs

Tom Petty
Tom Petty / Michael Putland/GettyImages

There are many ways to measure a song’s impact on the world. Chart positions and sales figures are helpful, but they only tell part of the story. If a piece of music truly resonates, it often inspires listeners to concoct wild theories about the writing and recording. What follows are 11 pop songs that have spawned totally baseless—yet boundlessly entertaining—urban legends.

1. “American Girl” // Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

The Theory: Tom Petty penned this 1976 classic rock touchstone about a student at the University of Florida who took her own life.

The Truth: While Petty is from Gainesville, home of the university in question, he insisted the story is complete bunk. “The song has nothing to do with that,” the artist once said. In fact, Petty wrote the lyrics while living across the country in Encino, California, and reflecting on how the nearby freeway sounded like an ocean.

2. “Strawberry Fields Forever” // The Beatles

The Theory: At the end of "Strawberry Fields Forever," John Lennon says, “I buried Paul,” seemingly confirming another popular urban legend, one that claims Paul McCartney died in a 1966 car accident and was replaced by a lookalike. 

The Truth: Lennon actually says “cranberry sauce,” and he does so twice. Check out “Strawberry Fields Forever - Take 7 and Edit Piece” on The Beatles’s Anthology 2 collection to hear Lennon’s bizarre exclamation more clearly. 

3. “Dancing With Myself” // Billy Idol

The Theory: Billy Idol is singing about masturbation on this punky ’80s favorite.

The Truth: Idol was inspired by a 1978 trip to a Japanese disco where all the young people were dancing along to their own reflections in the mirror. Still, there’s some truth to the urban legend. “There’s a masturbatory element in those kids dancing with their own reflections,” Idol told Rolling Stone in 2014. “It’s not too much further to sexual masturbation. The song really is about these people being in a disenfranchised world where they’re left bereft dancing with their own reflections. These kids were almost disaffected from each other and with their own reflections.”

4. “Love Rollercoaster” // Ohio Players

The Theory: The high-pitched scream heard at the 2:32 mark of this 1975 funk banger belongs to a woman being murdered in or near the studio. Some versions of the story identify the victim as Playboy model Ester Cordet, the woman dripping honey into her mouth on the cover of Ohio Players’ Honey album. The sticky-sweet fluid evidently reacted with fiberglass (check out the gatefold inner photo) and fused to her skin, and she threatened a lawsuit. In retaliation, the band’s manager stabbed her to death during a recording session.

The Truth: The scream was keyboardist Billy Beck doing an “inverted” inhalation meant to sound like people on a rollercoaster. 

5. “In the Air Tonight” // Phil Collins

The Theory: Collins wrote the 1981 classic after watching a man fail to save another person from drowning. The British rocker then played the song in concert and shone a spotlight on the guilty party, exposing his crime to everyone.

The Truth: Collins claims he has “no idea” what inspired the lyrics—though he admits he was feeling “anger, bitterness, and hurt” after his first wife left him.

6. “The Kids” // Lou Reed

The Theory: Producer Bob Ezrin got his own young children to scream at the end of the song by telling them their mother had just been killed. Some variations of the tale suggest he physically hit them.

The Truth: Ezrin didn’t abuse his kids in any way—he simply recorded them resisting bedtime one night. The studio wizard then treated their screams with compression and distortion and pushed the wailing way up in the mix. “It makes it so unbelievably emotional people accused me of beating my kids,” Ezrin wrote in the liner notes for the 1992 box set Between Thought and Expression: The Lou Reed Anthology.

7. “Hotel California” // The Eagles

The Theory: With lyrical nods to “hell” and “the beast,” this 1976 smash celebrates the Church of Satan, the founder of which, Anton LaVey, appears in the photo found on the inner cover of the Hotel California album. (Look up on the balcony.)

The Truth: According to the myth-debunking website Snopes, that’s not LaVey in the photo, but rather a “woman hired for the photo shoot.” As for the famously abstract lyrics, co-writer Don Henley had this to say in 2007: “It was really about the excesses of American culture and certain girls we knew. But it was also about the uneasy balance between art and commerce.”

8. “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” // Looking Glass

The Theory: This 1972 pop-rock favorite was inspired by Mary Ellis, a woman from New Brunswick, New Jersey, who died in 1828. As per local legend, Ellis fell in love with a sea captain who swore he’d marry her when he returned from his voyage. But he never came back. Weirdly, her grave now sits behind an AMC Cineplex

The Truth: While Looking Glass are from New Brunswick, singer/guitarist Elliot Lurie claims to have written “Brandy” partially about his high school girlfriend, Randy. It then morphed into a song about a fictional barmaid—not Mary Ellis. “Now, I have never heard that story, and I have seen it online,” Lurie told Tennessean, denying prior knowledge of the Ellis mythology. “And if that story is true, it’s a remarkable coincidence.”

9. “Solsbury Hill” // Peter Gabriel

The Theory: The eagle that swoops down to offer words of comfort to Peter Gabriel in the opening verse of the singer’s 1977 debut single symbolizes Bruce Springsteen, who made a massive impression on Gabriel when he first played London in 1975. Springsteen’s performance also inspired Gabriel to quit Genesis and go solo.

The Truth: In 2011, Gabriel told Rolling Stone that the Springsteen interpretation is “hogwash,” though he did catch Springsteen’s London debut. “​​Because when I left Genesis, I just wanted to be out of the music business,” Gabriel said. “I felt like I was just in the machinery. We knew what we were going to be doing in 18 months or two years ahead. I just did not enjoy that.”

10. “Wind of Change” // Scorpions

The Theory: This mega-hopeful 1991 power ballad, which arrived shortly before the collapse of the Soviet Union, wasn’t actually written by West German rockers Scorpions. It was secretly penned by the CIA to promote a pro-Western agenda.

The Truth: Scorpions frontman Klaus Meine insists that he wrote the song—not the American government. “It’s a fascinating idea, and it’s an entertaining idea, but it’s not true at all,” Meine told metal journalist Eddie Trunk in 2020, shortly before the debut of the Wind of Change, a podcast that explores the conspiracy theory in depth.

11. “You Dropped a Bomb On Me” // The Gap Band

The Theory: This 1982 funk standard is about the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, wherein hundreds of Black people were killed and more than 1250 homes were destroyed. The racist attacks dealt a critical blow to the Greenwood District of Tulsa, which had been known as “Black Wall Street.”

The Truth: In a 2012 interview with BlackTree TV, Gap Band lead singer Charlie Wilson said the song has nothing to do with the tragic events of 1921, even though the group hails from Tulsa. “It was only about a woman who was a little bit older than the guy, and she turned him out,” Wilson said. “He didn’t know how to cope with it. He was a young buck.”