Music has a power unlike anything else- it can transform us back to places in time, make us feel things we haven't felt in years, and even drive us to tears. Whether you're jamming at a concert, streaming via a subscription service, or singing karaoke, you can experience a song totally different than someone else does- but what if we told you you've been misunderstanding some of your favorite lyrics? Check out which of your favorite songs have totally different meanings than what you thought.
Hotel California- The Eagles
Another classic. Hotel California has a chilled-out sound that makes the average listener think they're enjoying a song about relaxing and escaping into a California vacation. The real meaning is deeper, and a bit darker. In a 2002 interview, Don Henley shared that the true meaning of the song is about American excess and how overindulgence in the wealth a person finds can detach them from reality and ultimately destroy them.
The inspiration for Hotel California was actually drawn from the 1965 novel The Magus, written about a man charmed by a rich lifestyle that stole his innocence and results in tragedy.
Like A Virgin- Madonna
While most songs have a darker meaning than we thought, this one actually has a much purer meaning than the lyrics imply. While the words seem to be pretty obviously about losing your virginity, they're actually about the feeling of renewal- when the emotional damage by a past relationship begins to heal during the start of a new relationship, making a person feel like they're experiencing pure love for the very first time.
Madonna herself addressed the song's true meaning in an iconic way- by autographing a CD and giving it to Quentin Tarantino, signed- "Quentin, it's about love, not d**k". The queen has spoken!
Slide- Goo Goo Dolls
This song sounds innocent enough- you may think it's about a young couple who wants to be together, maybe even run away together. It's a bit deeper than that. The song is actually about a young couple who find themselves pregnant and aren't sure whether they should get married or terminate the pregnancy. Suddenly, the lyrics about loving the life you killed, or a priest being on the phone ring a bit clearer.
Though the song is written about a pretty serious subject matter, the band managed to make it a bright and uplifting song, fooling listeners everywhere and shooting the Goo Goo Dolls into superstardom.
The Summer Of '69- Bryan Adams
This is one of those magical songs that invoke nostalgia, even for those of us who weren't alive in the summer of '69. So much happened that year, from Woodstock to the moon landing, that you probably, reasonably, assume the song was inspired by the iconic year and the special summer Adams experienced during it... but not quite. Adams was only born in 1959, so he'd only have been 10 years old at that time.
The summer of '69 is surprisingly, yet somehow unsurprisingly, about sex, particularly in the summertime. That being said, you can only assume how he came up with the number '69.
Puff The Magic Dragon- Peter Paul And Mary
This may be one of the most misunderstood songs of all time. Based on the word "Puff" and the fantastical nature of the song, many assume that this classic was written about or influenced by drugs. This song is actually as innocent as its whimsical lyrics imply. The words are based on a poem written by a friend of the band- and no, the poem wasn't about puffing drugs, either.
The poem was about a child and his imaginary friend- a dragon named Puff, who he eventually grew too old for. For a song that's loved by adults and kids alike, we feel much better now about where this song really came from!
I Will Always Love You- Dolly Parton
Made famous by the late, great Whitney Houston, this song was written by none other than Dolly Parton and has gone down in history as one of the greatest love songs of all time- which makes the fact that it wasn't written about a romantic love even more surprising. That's right, Dolly wrote this song for a friend. Before parting ways and moving on to work on her own, Dolly wrote this song to her mentor, Porter Wagoner, to tell him just how much she loves and appreciates him.
We don't know about anyone else, but for us, the song feels even more special now. How often do you really stop and tell platonic friends how much you love and value them? Friendship love is just as important as romantic love- thank you Dolly for reminding us!
Ticket To Ride- The Beatles
This classic sounds pretty straightforward- the Beatles are singing about a girl they love, who has a ticket for some sort of transportation to leave town... right? Wrong. The background of this song is actually pretty comical. Apparently, John Lennon coined the term "ticket to ride' referring to prostitutes on the streets of Hamburg, Germany. The girls had a card stating they had a clean bill of health- it was quite literally their ticket to ride.
You have to give the Beatles credit. It's no secret that they were musical geniuses, but to take such a silly, made-up term, and turn it into a love song about a fleeing lover was quite the feat.
Tears In Heaven- Eric Clapton
So these lyrics aren't quite mysterious- but did you know the inspiration for this sad tune? Eric Clapton tragically lost his son Conor when the boy was only four years old. Before an outing with his father, Conor was excitedly running around his 53rd floor apartment in New York City. Typically, he would press his nose against the window to look down at the street, but on this day one of the windows was left open.
Before anyone could notice or stop him, the poor baby fell out the window and to his death. Eric Clapton then wrote this heartbreaking song about the worst thing a parent can experience.
Bohemian Rhapsody- Queen
One of the most iconic songs ever written, to most, sounds just like a made-up story sung through a dramatic ballad- but this song was way more to the late Freddie Mercury. It was his coming out song before he was truly ready to be open about his sexuality. When in the song Mercury sang about killing a man, he was really singing about killing his former life after he left his then-girlfriend to be with a man.
According to Jim Hutton, Freddie's longtime partner, the song was his confessional and a reflection on what his life could've been had he been able to just be himself. Is it just us, or does this make the song even more of a masterpiece?!
Macarena- Los Del Rio
This 90's dance hit had a chokehold on parties for a long time, maybe even to this day. The music is fun and upbeat, and just about everybody knows the silly dance that accompanies it. There's just one problem- the song is sung in Spanish, which many people don't understand. It turns out, the lyrics are about a woman who cheats on her boyfriend while he's away serving in the military. Ouch!
Spanish speakers, why have you been holding out on us for so long? We've been out here shaking our booties to this poor suckers' love story.
American Girl- Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
As you've probably noticed by now, our favorite hits are full of secrets. American girl sounds like a fun, patriotic bop. Spoiler, that wasn't the intention. Many believe that the song was about a specific incident in Florida where a girl committed suicide by jumping off of her balcony. Petty himself said it's "just not at all true. The song has nothing to do with that." You heard it here! The rumors are false.
He later clarified that the song is simply about wanting more out of life and not being totally satisfied with what you have. The fact that the song addresses an American girl specifically is thought to be a statement on American consumerism.
Another classic 90's song that we totally misunderstood. Again, the lyrics seem frank- one wouldn't be crazy to assume the song is just about taking things slow, appreciating what you have, and not chasing outlandish dreams and goals. If that's how you interpret it, you're not totally wrong! But the ladies of TLC hid some darker themes in this catchy song that went right over our heads back in the 90s.
TLC were major advocates for AIDS awareness, and their passion for safety made it into this song. In the lyric "three letters took him to his final resting place" they're singing about HIV. Dark, but important work. Thank you, TLC!
Margaritaville- Jimmy Buffet
Margaritaville may be the go-to vacation song. It just has a way of transporting you to a relaxed state- no matter where you are, when Jimmy Buffet sings, you feel like you're on a tropical beach. As light and fun as this song is, the lyrics have a much darker meaning than just relaxing on a beach and enjoying a nice margarita. We know, we know, it's a bummer, but that's art!
The song is actually about a man who is so deep into alcoholism, he can hardly function. He's quite literally "wasting away", with no memory of what happened or who he should blame.
Closing Time- Semisonic
Closing Time has now become the anthem for things ending- from closing down the bar to graduating college, this melancholic tune lets you know, it's time to head home. However, the song was written with a totally different meaning. "Closing Time' was written as a metaphor for giving birth, not for shutting down the bar! The lead singer of Semisonic, Dan Wilson, was expecting his first child at the time and had the miracle of childbirth on his mind.
Now when you hear the lyric, "this room won't be open 'til your brothers or your sisters come" it makes a bit more sense- he was literally talking about his wife's womb- freaky!
Born In The USA- Bruce Springsteen
Like American Girl, this song has a proud, patriotic feel. It's even been used at political rallies to induce a feeling of American pride. The truth is, The Boss had the total opposite intention when he wrote this song. If you listen carefully to the lyrics, this is a scathing observation of how America treated its veterans after the Vietnam war. In the lyrics, he relays the desperation of the working class in post-Vietnam America.
That doesn't seem very prideful, does it? It's not meant to be. Springsteen wanted to point out how shamefully America was acting toward its veterans. One thing rings true- he is a true patriot!
In The Air Tonight- Phil Collins
This is another example of a song that's meaning was wrongly theorized. The main theory is that Phil Collins saw a man let another drown without helping, and called him out using this song. We love a dramatic story as much as the next person, but that's just simply not true. Phil Collins set the record straight, saying he had no idea where this popular myth came from, but that it's just simply not true.
The actual story is a bit less tragic but nevertheless dramatic. Collins wrote the song about the grief and anger he was feeling following his divorce from his first wife, Andrea Bertorelli.
Semi-Charmed Life- Third Eye Blind
These lyrics aren't so much mysterious as they are hidden by a bright, cheerful melody. The lead singer of Third Eye Blind, Stephan Jenkins, even described Sem-Charmed Life as a "dirty, filthy song" and remarked that it's funny to him that people play it on the radio. Go ahead, give those lyrics another listen. They're about a meth-addicted couple on a bender- but the reason these dark lyrics and bright beat are in such contrast is actually pretty genius.
Jenkins said he wanted to create the "bright, shiny feeling" crystal meth gives people. We don't know from experience, so we'll have to take his word for it. Next time we bop our heads to this hit, we'll give those words a good listen.
Imagine- John Lennon
This song is regarded as probably one of the most peaceful songs of all time. The lyrics seem to fit that narrative- "imagine all the people, living life in peace"- sounds pretty peaceful if you ask us. But John Lennon had a totally different idea for this song. He said it was basically a communist manifesto, and that because he sugar-coated it, it was acceptable. He even waited until after the song succeeded to reveal the true meaning because he knew it would change things.
Once the true meaning of the song was revealed, it made total sense- "Imagine all the people, Sharing all the world"- isn't that like, the core principle of communism?
Every Breath You Take- The Police
The true meaning of this song sits right in front of our faces, but for some reason, we all choose to listen to it as a nice love song. In reality, it was written from the perspective of a scorned lover, after Sting suspected his wife was cheating on him. Once you listen from that perspective, these already-creepy lyrics become a whole lot creepier. Every breath you take, every move you make I'll be watching you?
The whole song is basically an admission to stalking! Now that we listen from this new, possessive viewpoint, the song is a lot less romantic than it used to be.
American Pie- Don McLean
Are you noticing a trend with songs that mention America? They tend to give off a feel-good, patriotic tone while hiding deeper lyrics, and this classic is no different. In American Pie McLean alludes to the innocence he felt he lost the day the music died- the day a plane crash killed rockstars J.P. Richardson, Ritchie Valens, and McLean's personal hero, Buddy Holly. The song is also a commentary on the change between the innocent 1950s and turbulent 1960s in America.
50 years later, the song still gives listeners that same feeling of nostalgia. When asked what the song means, McLean says "it means I never have to work again". But we know it means much more than that.
Good Riddance- Green Day
Similar to Closing Time, Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life) has become a song for goodbyes- graduations, breakups, etc. And while that sentiment isn't far from the song's original meaning, few know the true inspiration behind one of Green Day's biggest hits. Lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong admitted that the song was written after a nasty breakup with a girlfriend who was moving to Ecuador. He says he was trying to remain level-headed about her leaving, but that he was incredibly resentful and frustrated.
The lyrics now make total sense, but also kind of break our hearts. From the title Good Riddance to the well-wishing sendoff "I hope you have the time of your life", we're suddenly sad for teenage Billie Joe every time we hear it.
You Are My Sunshine- Johnny Cash
We have to admit, we didn't even know this was a full song- we only knew the short tune typically sung to young children. While the shorter lullaby version is just a loving song about someone who makes you happy, the full version is a sad song Cash wrote about a lover who no longer felt the same way about him. We're glad our parents left that part of the loving song we heard as children!
The true meaning behind this song definitely puts a damper on the version our parents used to sing to us- but now the lyric "please don't take my sunshine away" makes much more sense.
The One I Love- R. E. M.
In this song, we just hear what we wanna hear. And clearly, that's just the lyric "this one goes out to the one I love", and literally nothing else, as the rest of the lyrics refer to the person as "the one I left behind" and "a prop to fill my time", yet we still think of this as a love song. Aside from that one line, every other lyric is fairly cruel. How could we be so blind?!
The lead singer of R.E.M., Michael Stipe, has commented on this frequently misunderstood song, laughing it off by saying that at this point, it's probably better that everybody thinks it's a love song. We agree!
One Way Or Another- Blondie
This song has become a fun, badass, and cheeky anthem for those of us who have ever been determined to win the affections of our crush. As with most songs on this list, that was far from Debbie Harry's intention when she wrote this song. It was actually inspired by a scary situation where Harry's ex-boyfriend stalked her and written from his point of view. She said she tried to make the song a bit more lighthearted, and she clearly succeeded, because we had no idea the meaning was so dark.
Debbie Harry referred to her injecting light into this scary subject as a "survival mechanism" which makes things sound even more traumatic. We'll never hear this iconic bop the same way again.
American Woman- The Guess Who
Americans- we hope by now we haven't offended you, but these American songs just keep coming. It's not us, it's them! This time them is The Guess Who- who wrote what initially sounds like an ode to American women- but- you guessed it- holds a deeper meaning. Being Canadian, the band was singing about not wanting Canada to be like America in the times of the Vietnam War. It's ultimately been deemed an anti-war protest song.
People have also theorized that the "American Woman" the band sings about is meant to represent the Statue Of Liberty. That hasn't been confirmed, but it's kind of cool that such a fun song could actually be so deep.
Stairway To Heaven- Led Zeppelin
If you're not really sure how to interpret this classic, you're not alone. Even Robert Plant says he interprets it differently depending on the day- and he wrote the lyrics! We can tell you this- it's not about drugs or a magical quest as many people have come to believe. The simple explanation for the song is that it's about a woman who gets everything she wants and gives nothing in return, but later realizes her shallow life leads nowhere.
Another iconic song railing against consumerism and gluttony! We wish the rock stars of today had the same anti-greed attitudes that the stars of the past had. Maybe that's why music just isn't the same anymore!
Brass In Pocket- The Pretenders
Similar to Blondie's One Way Or Another this song is usually heard and understood as being from the perspective of the woman. People interpret this as a cheeky girl power song about winning someone over but it's actually meant to be from the point of view of a man. It's about building up the courage to talk to a woman at a bar when the man isn't feeling particularly confident.
Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders has said that it bothers her that people have misinterpreted the song so much and find it empowering to women when it's "anything but", and that it was meant to just be a very playful, lightweight song about flirting.
Blackbird- The Beatles
Yet again, the Beatles have managed to mystify us with their lyrics. This time, it's Blackbird, and the subject matter isn't quite as lighthearted as Ticket To Ride. Upon listening to the song you may just think it's about simply picking yourself up after hard times, thus the lyrics "take these broken wings and learn to fly". It's actually about the struggles black people faced in America during the civil rights movement.
Through that lens, the lyrics make more sense and are even more meaningful. In England, the term "bird" refers to girls, so Blackbird was Paul McCartney's way of telling black girls it was their time to fly, particularly after Little Rock.
Hallelujah- Leonard Cohen
This song has been totally, comically misconstrued. Possibly one of the greatest songs of all time, it's been covered by just about everyone- from Celine Dion to Bono to the Shrek soundtrack, to just about every contestant on American Idol. Religious groups have also taken a special liking to the song as it has a lot of Biblical references like that of King David. But the song is really about- wait for it- SEX.
Hallelujah! We've all been singing about getting down and dirty to some of the most beautiful lyricism of all time. Leonard Cohen was crooning about getting it on and it went straight over our heads because he made it so poetic- good on him.
Smells Like Teen Spirit- Nirvana
This song hasn't really been misunderstood by its audience, but by Kurt Cobain himself, and the story is just too funny to keep off the list. Back in the day, a friend of the band wrote “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Cobain's wall, referencing the popular deodorant brand that his then-girlfriend wore. This totally went over Kurt's head, and he interpreted Teen Spirit to be more of an idea of a rebellious spirit than an actual smell or product.
He went on to use the term to write Smells Like Teen Spirit which he wanted to be about his thoughts on his generation and what he felt about his surroundings. Thanks to this silly mistake, we got to experience an incredible song, and Teen Spirit deodorant saw a crazy increase in sales.
Much like John Lennon's Imagine, this song has come to be understood as being about unity, peace, and people coming together. It's been used in political movements, in response to tragedies, and even weddings for years- but again, we got it all wrong. The song was actually written when the band was on the brink of a break-up and decided to put their differences aside to complete their album. It was about having no choice but to stick it out with each other.
Bono has expressed that it drives him a bit crazy how misconstrued the song gets. He once said "The song is a bit twisted, which is why I could never figure out why people wanted it at their weddings. I tell them, ‘Are you mad? It’s a song about splitting up.'”
Pink Houses- John Mellencamp
"Ain't that America?"- this catchy chorus has been misconstrued time and time again as another patriotic rock song- but you must've learned by now that most "patriotic" sounding songs are usually quite the opposite, haven't you? This John Mellencamp hit is no different. The fun song is actually a commentary on how he felt that the American Dream was no longer working. Mellencamp told Rolling Stone "it's really an Anti-American song".
Because the song has been seen as a pro-America song, it's been used as a rallying song for usually conservative political events- which Mellencamp, an outspoken liberal, has publicly admonished each time.
Wake Me Up When September Ends- Green Day
It's clear that this is a sad song about a loss of some sort. But based on the time it was released, everyone came to think of it as being about the war in Iraq, or about 9/11 specifically. It does make sense, as Green Day has never shied away from political statements or anti-war sentiments, but this one has a much deeper meaning for lead singer Billy Joe Armstrong. He wrote the song about his father who died in September when he was only a child.
With that knowledge, you have to feel a bit bad for Billy Joe- he wrote the song about a traumatic death in his family and it's turned into a bit of a joke, as every October fans reach out to "wake him up". The artist takes it all in stride and has even joked about writing a song called Shut the F*ck Up When October Begins. We say go for it!
There She Goes- The La's
This song sounds just like a whimsical love story of a man chasing a girl who just keeps slipping from his grasp. Lovely, right? Wrong! The "she" being referenced in this love story is actually heroin. With that in mind, we suggest giving this song another listen. the lyrics "pulsing through my veins" and "no one else can heal my pain" suddenly make a lot more sense, and feel a lot darker.
This song is another example of how the lightest, cheeriest songs can hide dark meanings. This song has found its way into so many pop-culture moments, from The Parent Trap to being played heavily on the radio when Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, that it's weird to think it has such tragic roots.
Crash Into Me- Dave Matthews Band
Crash Into Me has been hailed as a classic love song, with Dave Matthews himself saying it's about the worship of a woman. Sounds nice enough, and Dave Matthews is known as such a good guy you'd never suspect him of something darker, but he continued to explain that this is from the point of view of a creepy guy, the "kind of man you'd call the police on". Okay, some red flags... now let's take another look at those lyrics.
"I watch you there through the window and I stare at you"... okay now we get it, we need no convincing. We do not want to crash into this person. We'll never hear this song the same again!