When a song writer is looking to pen their next masterpiece, they need inspiration. Inspiration for song lyrics can come from an infinite number of places, but sometimes the “unknown” origin of the lyrics is the best part and keeps fans guessing. Sometimes there can be a deeper meaning hidden behind a catchy chorus, and sometimes not.
Some songs are misinterpreted because people don’t bother to read the lyrics and are caught up in the music, while others can be misunderstood because people read too much into those lyrics and come up with some crazy theories about what they mean. This list will feature 10 songs whose actual meanings are much different than what is popularly believed.
10. “Semi-Charmed Life” – Third Eye Blind
The upbeat nature and tone of the song, along with the heavily edited radio cut that most people hear has made many people miss out on the sneaky hidden message in the song. The song may seem like an easygoing pop tune, but it actually has some deep and dark undertones, namely all the hidden drug references that hint towards crystal meth addiction. Despite this, the song is still constantly rated one of the best songs of the ’90s, even though most people don’t know what it is really about!
9. “Harder to Breathe” – Maroon 5
At first look, this song (which is off Maroon 5’s debut album Songs About Jane) seems to be just another song about “Jane,” the name of a girlfriend that lead singer Adam Levine shared a rocky relationship with for a while. But though the song sounds like a racy nod to his lover, “Harder to Breathe” stemmed from a different kind of relationship that was suffocating him. The song serves as a criticism of the large pressure that is present in the music industry. Levine said in a 2002 interview with MTV: “That song comes sheerly from wanting to throw something. It was the 11th hour, and the label wanted more songs. It was the last crack. I was just pissed. I wanted to make a record and the label was applying a lot of pressure, but I’m glad they did.”
8. “Puff, the Magic Dragon” – Peter, Paul and Mary
We are going way back to 1963 for this next entry. “Puff the Magic Dragon” by Peter, Paul and Mary might not seem like an overly controversial or questionable song today, but many critics in the 1960s believed it was about drugs, which was a much more sensitive topic back then than it is now. But those critics couldn’t have been more wrong. The song is actually meant to be an innocent tune about a child and his dragon friend, and about the loss of wonder that children often face when they grow up.
7. “Mr. Tambourine Man” – Bob Dylan
This song has widely been speculated to be an ode to mind-altering drugs such as LSD, with Mr. Tambourine Man representing Dylan’s drug dealer. The song’s often abstract, surrealistic and weird imagery has fueled the idea that LSD or other drugs was responsible for the lyrics, although Dylan has claimed that he was introduced to the drug after the song had been written. Dylan himself insists the song was never about drugs, but rather the search for inspiration. He claims the title character of Mr. Tambourine Man was actually inspired by musician Bruce Langhorne, who played a large Turkish tambourine during a good number of Dylan’s previous recording sessions.
6. “Closing Time” – Semisonic
Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson even predicted when he created this song that it would be used primarily in bars as their theme for closing time. But when Wilson penned down lyrics like “Time for you to go out to the places you will be from,” the song’s focus was more an emphasis on the miracle of childbirth than an ode to kicking college students out of your bar. Wilson has publicly admitted that he had babies on his mind partway through writing Semisonic’s breakout hit, stating, “My wife and I were expecting our first kid very soon after I wrote that song. I had birth on the brain, I was struck by what a funny pun it was to be bounced from the womb.”
5. “Pumped Up Kicks” – Foster the People
The cheerful and catchy tune of “Pumped Up Kicks” can actually be quite misleading, as the song is quite a bit darker than it appears. However, if you listen to the lyrics closely enough, you can tell it’s actually a song written about a school shooting. Lyricist of the band Mark Foster explained that the song idea came about after he read some shocking statistics regarding the growing trend in teenage mental illness. In writing the song he wanted to get inside the head of an “isolated, psychotic kid” and sought to raise awareness about the issue of gun violence amongst young people. If you don’t read into the lyrics of this song, you would have never guessed the true meaning behind it.
4. “Summer of ’69” – Bryan Adams
Born in the winter of 1959, Bryan Adams would’ve only been 10 during the summer of one of his best-known and most popular hits, which was actually released in 1985. But “Summer of ’69” isn’t so much Adams looking back to the days of the summer of 1969 as much as it is a reference to the sexual position of the same name. In fact, Adams told CBS News that “a lot of people think it’s about the year, but actually it’s more about making love in the summertime.” Parts of the song still hold some truth, however. In fact, Adams has gone on record saying that he picked up his second electric guitar at a pawn shop, and that his fingers did indeed bled while he was practicing.
3. “Born in the U.S.A.” – Bruce Springsteen
No list of songs with misunderstood meanings is complete without “Born in the U.S.A.” This song is the anthem of patriotic Americans all over the country, but when you really know what the song is about, the fact that they chose it is laughable. While most people thought it was a song about American pride, it is actually a song that casts a shameful eye on how America treated its Vietnam veterans and their struggles in a post-Vietnam America. The rocking rhythm and enthusiastic sounding chorus were definitely to blame for confusing some people into thinking this song was about American pride.
2. “Every Breath You Take” – The Police
Likely the Police’s most popular song, “Every Breath You Take” has been played during countless weddings due to the widely held belief that it is a genuine and gentle love song. According to Sting, the song is indeed about love, but it’s quite a bit more “sinister and ugly” than people are led to believe. Sting wrote the song during the collapse of his marriage, in the midst feelings of jealousy and obsession over his lost lover. He claims the “stalker-like” vibe of the lyrics were inspired by the desire for surveillance and control he was feeling during his divorce.
1. “Paper Planes” – M.I.A.
And coming in as the most misunderstood song of all time is “Paper Planes” by M.I.A. This is a tune that most people equate to a song about drugs and a drug dealer. In fact, this was such a common view among people that this song was actually one of the main tunes used in the promos for Pineapple Express, a movie which is almost entirely about marijuana. In reality, this Grammy nominated song is actually a satire of American immigrants, a topic which is close to M.I.A.’s heart as she was actually denied an entry visa in 2006. The song is one of the most important out there, as it promotes globalization in a way few songs do and is simply an entertaining joy to listen to.