34 Famous Songs That Don’t Mean What You Think
A lot of popular songs contain secret messages that people tend to overlook. Fans enjoy hit songs because they believe the lyrics are catchy, innocent, or fun. However, when people finally take a look at a song, they realize they’ve misunderstood the lyrics. Even iconic and well-known songs like Semisonic's "Closing Time" have hidden layers of meaning.
Let’s take a look at a few famous songs that don’t mean what you think. Some of the real meanings may surprise you.
‘Hotel California’ — The Eagles
Some folks may think "Hotel California" is about staying at a very weird inn. However, Don Felder, Don Henley and Glenn Frey hoped to sneak a profound message into "Hotel California." The band says the song is about excess and materialism in the U.S. "Some of the wilder interpretations of that song have been amazing. 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," explains Henley.
‘Love Song’ — Sara Bareilles
This 2007 track isn’t your typical love song. In fact, “Love Song” isn’t romantic at all. Many people believe Sara Bareilles released this song in response to her record label telling her to create a love song. However, Bareilles actually wrote this song after a bad experience working with other songwriters.
‘Ben’ — Michael Jackson
Many people assume the sentimental song “Ben” is about a friendship between two boys, but it’s not. The song is actually about a relationship between a boy and a rat named Ben. “Ben” was featured in the 1972 movie with the same title. In the film, social outcast Williard finds out that his relationship with his pet rat has gained him access to a society of killer rats.
‘Harder to Breathe’ — Maroon 5
Most of Maroon 5’s songs focus on love, but there’s a different story behind the band’s song “Harder to Breathe.” Maroon 5 produced this song as a heated response to their record label’s requests for more songs. While Octone Records wanted the band to add more songs to their upcoming album “Songs About Jane.” the band disagreed.
‘(Good Riddance) Time of Your Life’ — Green Day
There’s nothing happy, romantic, or warm about this 1997 Green Day track. Green Day’s frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong, reveals, "I wrote the song about an ex-girlfriend who moved to Ecuador. And I was really bitter at the time." Armstrong originally titled the song "Good Riddance" and made "Time Of Your Life” the subtitle.
‘Closing Time’ — Semisonic
If you thought this song was about a bar at closing time, you’re half right. “Closing Time” rose to No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard Modern Rock Tracks chart in 1998. However, no one became aware of the song’s other meaning. The alternative rock song also referred to a baby’s birth. Dan Wilson, Semisonic’s lead singer, revealed he wrote this song during his wife’s pregnancy. “Closing Time” represented the joy of fatherhood and metaphorically “being sent forth from the womb as if by a bouncer clearing out a bar."
‘Like a Virgin’ — Madonna
In 1984, Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” ranked No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard hot 100. Many people thought the song was about sex. At concerts, Madonna’s performances of the song included sultry routines. However, Madonna didn’t write “Like a Virgin.” Billy Steinberg originally wrote “Like a Virgin” and said the song’s true meaning isn’t sex-related.
‘My Sharona’ — The KnacK
Many people believe that "My Sharona" is about getting it on. However, The KnacK wrote the song because one member, Doug Fieger, was enamored with a girl named Sharona. Fieger wrote "My Sharona," which became an international No. 1 hit in 1979. At the age of 25, Fieger began a relationship with Sharona Alperin, who was then 17-years old.
‘In the Air Tonight’ — Phil Collins
Audiences thought Phil Collins “In the Air Tonight” was about a drowning swimmer. However, the lyrics, "If you told me you were drowning, I would not lend a hand," symbolizes his feelings post-divorce. In 1980, Collins divorced his first wife, Andrea Bertorelli.
‘Semi-Charmed Life’ — Third Eye Blind
How old were you when you found out "Semi-Charmed Life" was about drug addiction? The happy 1997 song contains a lot of dark themes. Stephan Jenkins, the singer and songwriter of Third Eye Blind, described the song as, “a dirty, filthy song about snorting speed."
‘(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party)’ — Beastie Boys
One of the best party anthems ever isn't exactly about having a good time. The Beastie Boys wrote "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party)" to make fun of other party anthems like "Smokin' in the Boys Room" and "I Wanna Rock." One Beastie Boys member, Mike D, says, "There were tons of guys singing along to ‘Fight for Your Right’ who were oblivious to the fact it was a total goof on them." Nobody got the joke, so the Beastie Boys' song became the next big party anthem instead.
‘Every Breath You Take’ — The Police
Some couples have used “Every Breath You Take” as their wedding song, but it's actually far from romantic. The song is about an obsessive lover who is watching everything you do. When the band’s lead singer, Sting, wrote “Every Breath You Take,” he didn’t intend for the song to be dark. Sting initially aimed for a Big Brother story, about people under surveillance.
‘Tutti Frutti’ — Little Richard
In 1955, people grooved to Little Richard’s famous song, “Tutti Frutti.” Unsuspecting fans had no idea the song’s original lyrics were about sex. "Tutti Frutti's" initial chorus included the lyrics "Tutti Frutti, good booty/If it don't fit, don't force it/You can grease it, make it easy … "
‘Losing My Religion’ — R.E.M.
This 1992 track is another misinterpreted song. "Losing My Religion" actually has nothing to do with religion. "Losing my religion" is actually a phrase from the U.S. South, meaning to be "at the end of one's rope." Michael Stipe, R.E.M.'s lead singer has said that the song is actually about unreciprocated feelings.
‘Blackbird’ — The Beatles
The Beatles are famous for having some strange tracks, so fans weren't surprised when the band released "Blackbird" in 1968. However, you may be surprised to learn that this song isn't about a bird. "Blackbird" is symbolic for U.S. African American women during the civil rights struggle. In British slang, “bird” means girl, leading "Blackbird" to mean “black girl.”
‘Rich Girl’ — Hall & Oates
Daryl Hall and John Oates released their hit song "Rich Girl" in 1977. The lyrics suggest the song is about a woman who depends on her parents for money. However, Hall revealed to Rolling Stone that the song is really about a spoiled boy.
‘You’re Beautiful’ — James Blunt
What’s better than your significant other reminding you that "it’s true, you’re beautiful?" James Blunt's song "You're Beautiful" became a favorite at weddings and high school dances. However, "You're Beautiful" isn’t a romantic song. Blunt wrote the song after an awkward encounter with his ex-girlfriend, whom he saw on the Underground in London with another man. Since then, he’s never seen her again.
Total Eclipse of the Heart’ — Bonnie Tyler
Bonnie Tyler believed "Total Eclipse of the Heart" was about desperately wanting love. However, the heartbreaking ballad is really a vampire love song that was meant for the musical, "Nosferatu." Jim Steinman, the songwriter and producer, said the song’s original title was "Vampires in Love."
‘Waterfalls’ — TLC
TLC’s “Waterfalls” has nothing to do with going outdoors and chasing waterfalls. Singers Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes and Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas hid some important messages in the famous 1995 track. The song is about HIV/AIDS, sexuality and violence in the illegal drug trade. TLC's music video for the song also illustrated social issues plaguing the 1990s. The iconic video told stories of people dealing with AIDS and the effects of violence.
‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds’ — The Beatles
It’s easy to think “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” is about lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), but the truth is this song has nothing to do with drugs. John Lennon said the song’s inspiration came from a nursery school drawing by his son, Julian Lennon. The drawing depicted Julian Lennon's classmate, Lucy O' Donnell.
'Hey Ya!' - Outkast
In 2003, "Hey Ya!" had everyone dancing and saying, “Shake it like a Polaroid picture." The infectious song with a fun beat actually had some depressing lyrics. If you listen carefully to the lyrics, you’ll hear, “Are we still in denial when we know we're not happy here?”
'Gangnam Style' - Psy
While you were too busy dancing and singing to "Gangnam Style" by Psy, you most likely missed what the song is truly about. Psy, a South Korean musician, fooled many people with his catchy song. According to Psy, "Gangnam Style" makes fun of people living in the Gangnam District of Seoul, calling them posers and wannabes.
‘Poker Face’ — Lady Gaga
In 2008, Lady Gaga hoped listeners would believe “Poker Face” referred to a simple poker game. The dated dance track was actually her first reach at attracting LGBTQ+ fans. During her performance at the Palm Springs White Party in 2009, Lady Gaga revealed the true meaning of “Poker Face.”
‘Slide’ — Goo Goo Dolls
Plenty of people thought “Slide” by Goo Goo Dolls was just another love song. The lyrics "What you feel is what you are/And what you are is beautiful" seem to suggest a romance. However, the song is really about a teenage girl who lives in a strict Catholic environment and unexpectedly becomes pregnant.
'Swimming Pools (Drank)' - Kendrick Lamar
“Pour up, drank, head shot, drank. Sit down, drank, stand up, drank.” With lyrics like these, it’s easy to believe that "Swimming Pools" is a pro-drinking anthem. Many parties and clubs played the song, but "Swimming Pools" is actually an anti-drinking song.
‘Macarena’ — Los del Rio
Raise your hand if you’ve ever danced to the “Macarena” by the pop and dance duo Los del Rio. The song was fun and catchy, becoming a favorite at weddings, parties and school dances. However, "Macarena" isn't as innocent as it sounds. If fans look closely at the translated lyrics, they’ll notice the shocking story in the song.
‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ — Green Day
On the surface, "Wake Me Up When September Ends" appears to be a song about war. According to Rolling Stone, Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong really wrote the sad song about his father. When Armstrong was 10 years old, his father died of cancer.
‘Pumped Up Kicks’ — Foster the People
As soon as “Pumped Up Kicks” was released to the public, it went viral. The song earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Pop Duo/Group Performance. Although the song became a favorite across the US, this happy, upbeat track actually hides a dark message. “Pumped Up Kicks” is about gun violence.
‘Born in the USA’ — Bruce Springsteen
Politicians and the rest of the U.S. couldn’t get enough of Bruce Springsteen’s "Born in the USA" in 1984. Everyone thought the song was a patriotic American anthem. However, the song's true meaning was quite the opposite. Springsteen wrote "Born in the USA" as an anti-war song during the Ronald Reagan period.
‘Human’ — The Killers
Listeners took a while to figure out if the song "Human" had grammatical errors. Some people thought the line "Are we human, or are we dancer,” was a grammar mistake, while others believed the line said “denser” instead of “dancer.” Either way, listeners were left scratching their heads. Overall the song’s meaning is more than “Are we human, or are we dancer?” It’s about the growing softness of America's youth. According to Song Facts, the song addresses the moral decay in society.
‘Imagine’ — John Lennon
Many listeners believe John Lennon’s song “Imagine” is just a beautiful song about world peace and unity. The 1971 song actually hid a strong political message. Lennon wanted fans to imagine a better world where religion and possessions didn’t divide people.
‘One’ — U2
Trying to figure out which song to play at your wedding? Couples should avoid the song "One" by U2, according to Bono, U2's lead singer. As lovely as the track sounds, it’s not about two people wanting to unite as one. The anti-love song is actually about breaking up. "I have certainly met a hundred people who've had it at their weddings. I tell them, 'Are you mad? It's about splitting up,’" says Bono.
'MMMBop' - Hanson
Many Hanson fans think that "MMMBop" makes no sense, and the song was just a bunch of catchy noises and sounds. However, a lot of people couldn’t stop singing "MMMBop" in the ‘90s. The addicting song actually holds a deep meaning.
'Electric Boogie (Electric Slide)' - Marcia Griffiths
In 2018, an internet rumor spread involving "Electric Slide," a popular song at weddings. The rumor claimed "Electric Slide" was secretly about a vibrator. Many listeners said the vibrator explanation made sense. Some people thought their childhood was ruined, and others were mind blown.