Songs that aren’t about what you think they’re about
Like a bright yellow bus, inspiration can hit a person from any direction. A butterfly can signify death and fall can become an analogy for rebirth. That is, if you have the unique vision to paint a convincing picture for either.
Creative artists have been lauded for doing exactly that for centuries; everyone from Leonardo Da Vinci to John Keats to Marilyn Manson have asserted their brilliance over the years by making unique symbolic connections between otherwise unconnected concepts. The 90s’ punk rock band Nirvana became the voice of a generation with their hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, a song which portrays the meaninglessness experienced by the post-Regan youth through a chorus which goes; “A mulatto, an Albino/A mosquito, my libido”.
While these abstractions can be identified upon first listening to a song, or looking at a painting, sometimes artists make deliberately trivial connections. You may be able to detect them after an in-depth analysis of their work, but there have been songs whose actual meaning cannot be understood until the artist has come on record to explain it. This has happened more often than you think; songs that became integral to social causes have turned out to have been penned about something completely unrelated. Here is a list about some surprising songs that aren’t about what you think they’re about.
1. Green Day, “(Good Riddance) The Time of Your Life”
What you think it’s about: A bittersweet account of the end of an era (like school or college)
What it’s actually about: Being dumped
“Time of Your Life” is a self-patented post-2000 high school graduation song and even appeared on the final episode of Seinfeld. However, Green Day lead Billy Joe Armstrong originally penned this song from a place of anger (the end of a rocky relationship) rather than nostalgia. He told Guitar Legends in 2005 that his then girlfriend had ended things with him before moving away to Ecuador and that he “was trying not to be bitter, but I think it came out a little bitter anyway.”
So take the photographs, and still-frames in your mind
Hang them on a shelf in good health and good time
Tattoo’s of memories and dead skin on trial
For what it’s worth, it was worth all the while
2. John Lennon, “Imagine”
What you think it’s about: Peace and harmony in the world
What it’s actually about: A lyrical representation of The Communist Manifesto
John Lennon penned one of his most iconic songs as a description of communism, although he didn’t identify as a communist himself. While this was arguably a dangerous move in 1971, no one realized it at first and the American and British public championed the song as an anthem for peace. Lennon went on record to state the song was essentially a lyrical summary of Marx’s The Communist Manifesto. He said, “Now I understand what you have to do”, in response to the song becoming one of the most popular songs in the US, “Put your political message across with a little honey.”
Imagine no possessions
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
3. Bruce Springsteen, “Born in the USA”
What you think it’s about: Uber-patriotism
What it’s actually about: An ironic critique of America’s involvement in war
While the song has a decisively upbeat and celebratory tone to it, it is an ironic representation of the devastation the Vietnam War brought on Americans. However, due to the patriotic Top Gun-esque opening chords of the song, the American public has made it a pro-America anthem. It has even featured on election campaigns for many years and it was only after Springsteen admitted to the critical tone of the song that people identified it.
Down in the shadow of the penitentiary
Out by the gas fires of the refinery
I’m ten years burning down the road
Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go
4. U2, “One”
What you think it’s about: Universal love; the joining of two different people
What it’s really about: The strained relationship between U2 band members
U2’s lead singer, Bono, penned these lyrics after being influenced by a number of things. The song was recorded in Berlin while the Berlin Wall was being taken down, so the spirit of the city inspired him. The song was also about strained relationships between famed photographer David Wojnarowicz and his father, who later died of AIDS. The cover art for this single is a picture by Wojnarowicz featuring two buffaloes walking down a cliff, which has become a symbolic photograph for HIV and AIDS causes.
However, perhaps the most important influence for the song was the internal problems in U2, which could have resulted in the band splitting up. Bono has gone on record to express his surprise at couples playing this song at their wedding by stating; “Are you mad? It’s about splitting up!”
You ask me to enter, but then you make me crawl
And I can’t be holding on to what you got
When all you got is hurt
5. R.E.M, “Losing My Religion”
What you think it’s about: Disenchantment with religion
What it’s really about: Falling head over heels in love
This song became the unofficial anthem of the self-proclaimed high school atheist who would express their rebellion by blasting this song on the radio while driving with their parents. One can’t blame them because, on first hearing, that seems to be the case. Even the iconic video for this song is full of biblical imagery which, coupled with the lyrics, becomes obvious. Well, not that obvious as the songwriter and lead vocalist for R.E.M, Michael Stipe tells The New York Times, “The song is about romantic expression and about someone being at the end of one’s rope.”
That’s me in the corner
That’s me in the spotlight
Losing my religion
Trying to keep up with you
6. Sting, “Every Breath You Take”
What you think it’s about: Someone hopelessly in love
What it’s really about: A creepy, obsessive stalker
This song is one of the most auditioned songs on reality television music competitions. It is also a popular wedding song. However, on hearing it carefully, one cannot help but be made uncomfortable by the lyrics. Sting himself has called the song “very sinister” and “ugly” as it presents the image of a stalking boyfriend who is obsessing over his ex even though she is showing signs of moving on.
Every move you make
Every vow you break
Every smile you fake
Every claim you stake
I’ll be watching you
7. Billy Idol, “White Wedding”
What you think it’s about: A wonderful, loving wedding
What it’s actually about: Someone being forced into a shotgun wedding
Acclaimed guitarist Eddie Van Halen played this song on his wedding to Valerie Bertinelli, proving that even seasoned musicians often fail to decipher the actual meanings of songs. Do not be deceived by the title of this song: it is an ironic contrast to the content of the song, which recounts the singer of this song watching a woman he cares about being forced into a hurried wedding with a man who has been away. The word “shotgun!” is mentioned a number of times in the song as well, which is another clear indication of its actual meaning.
Hey little sister what have you done?
Hey little sister who’s the only one?
Hey little sister who’s your superman?
Hey little sister who’s the one you want?
Hey little sister shot gun!
8. Maroon 5, “Harder to Breathe”
What you think it’s about: A painful breakup
What it’s actually about: Irritation at the band’s music label for pressurizing them to write more songs.
This track is off the band’s debut album “Songs About Jane” which contains songs written by band lead Adam Levine about his breakup with girlfriend, Jane. Therefore, it is a safe assumption to make that this angst-filled powerhouse song is about her as well. However, the band has revealed that this song was a result of their music label forcing them to record more tracks for the album. Adam Levine wrote it as a response to the annoyance he felt on the label, which eventually worked out because the song is amazing. Not surprisingly, it was that same label which released this album, and therefore, the track.
How dare you say that my behavior is unacceptable
So condescending unnecessarily critical
I have the tendency of getting very physical
So watch your step cause if I do you’ll need a miracle
Did this list surprise you? Well, it’s just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are numerous more songs which have hidden and double-meanings and you should check them out.