33 Famous Songs That Don’t Mean What You Think

By Rosunnara R.Last Updated Jul 7, 2020 6:10:03 PM ET
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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.

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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.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Frey added that the song is similar to an episode of the "Twilight Zone" because each line is like a new scene and the lyrics don't make sense altogether. The Eagles put a lot of thought into "Hotel California." The famous song went on to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1978.

‘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.

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Photo Courtesy: @ RollingStone/Twitter

“The co-writing sessions, I think for me, they came at a time where I was still so unsure of my own edges. In a way, I was still sort of discovering who I was as an artist at that time. And while I don’t think that any of those collaborators had any bad intentions, I just don’t think I was ready to collaborate,” said Bareilles. Now you know what “I'm not gonna write you a love song 'cause you asked for it” really means.

‘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.

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Michael Jackson
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Michael Jackson, then 14-years-old, received the song after Donny Osmond became unavailable to record it. “Michael and I would talk about this all the time. It's funny, because we eventually ended up laughing at this one. I will never forget, we stayed up to like two in the morning, laughing about the fact that I had a hit about a puppy and he had a hit about a rat” said Osmond. “Ben” became Jackson’s first solo No. 1 single and won a Golden Globe for Best Song. Who knew a song about a murderous rat would become a hit?

‘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.

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Photo Courtesy: @maroon5/Twitter

“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,” explained Adam Levine, Maroon 5’s lead singer. Everything worked out after all. Levine’s frustration plus pressure from the label helped create a hit song.

‘(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.

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Photo Courtesy: MTV/IMDb

When Green Day heard that the song was popular at high school proms, they were surprised. According to CBS, "(Good Riddance) Time Of Your Life” became one of the top 10 songs to play at prom. The song also became a hit at high school graduations.

‘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."

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semisonic
Photo Courtesy: @WorldCafe/Twitter

While no one caught on to the lyrics’ other meaning, Semisonic went on to earn a Grammy Award nomination for Best Rock Song in 1999 for "Closing Time." The popular song was also featured in many films and TV shows such as “Due Date,” “Friends With Benefits,” “The Office,” and “How I Met Your Mother.”

‘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.

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Photo Courtesy: Available Light/IMDb

Steinberg said he wrote the song based on his own experience, saying, “I had been involved in a very emotionally difficult relationship that had finally ended and I had met somebody new. I remember writing that lyric about feeling shiny and new — I made it through the wilderness, somehow I made it through — I made it through this very difficult time.”

‘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.

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The band’s lead guitarist, Berton Averre, hesitated to use Alperin’s name in the song, but Fieger insisted on it. Fieger elaborates, “It was like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat; I fell in love with her instantly. And when that happened, it sparked something and I started writing a lot of songs feverishly in a short amount of time." Thanks to Fieger, "My Sharona" became a hit, remaining No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart for six weeks in 1979. While “My Sharona” is an enduring hit, the relationship that inspired it was not — Fieger and Alperin dated for just four years before breaking up.

‘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.

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Phil Collins
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In a BBC World Service interview, Collins reveals “I don't know what this song is about. When I was writing this I was going through a divorce. And the only thing I can say about it is that it's obviously in anger. It's the angry side, or the bitter side of a separation. So what makes it even more comical is when I hear these stories which started many years ago, particularly in America, of someone come up to me and say, ‘Did you really see someone drowning?’ I said, ‘No, wrong.’”

‘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." 

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third eye blind
Photo Courtesy: @ThirdEyeBlind/Twitter

Jenkins adds that the successful track is "bright and shiny on the surface, and then it just pulls you down in this lockjawed mess ... The music that I wrote for it is not intended to be bright and shiny for bright and shiny's sake. It's intended to be what the seductiveness of speed is like, represented in music."

If you’re still not convinced that the song is about drugs, just listen to the lyrics: “I was taking sips of it through my nose/Doing crystal meth will lift you up until you break.” Radio stations aired a clean version of the song by censoring drug-related lyrics. When TV channels played the music video, they also edited some of the lyrics.

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‘(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.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

In 1987, "(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party)" reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was also included in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll. Although the song became famous, the band felt disappointed that people didn’t understand it was a parody.

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‘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.

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Photo Courtesy: WNET/IMDb

Sting felt disconcerted after finding out listeners enjoyed “Every Breath You Take” and thought it was a love song. The track really emphasizes control and jealousy. On BBC Radio 2, Sting reveals, "I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it's quite the opposite."

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‘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 … "

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The song’s producer, Robert Blackwell, asked Little Richard to edit the lyrics’ "minstrel modes and sexual humor" before releasing the song. In the 1950s, songs with sexual innuendos were considered to be too vulgar. As a result, the song's chorus was changed to "Tutti Frutti, all rooty." Little Richard's song became an instant hit after its release. Even Elvis Presley became a major fan of "Tutti Frutti," covering the song in his 1956 album, "Elvis Presley."

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‘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.

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Photo Courtesy: @gretamorgan/Twitter

Stipe adds, “I hate to make this comparison, but ‘Religion’ is similar in theme to ‘Every Breath You Take,’ by the Police. It’s just a classic obsession pop song." What else could the lyrics “That's me in the corner/That's me in the spotlight/Losing my religion/Trying to keep up with you” mean? R.E.M. received two Grammy Awards for the song, including Best Short Form Music Video and Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.

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‘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.”

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Paul McCartney wrote the song as a response to high racial tensions during the Civil Rights Movement. "I was sitting around with my acoustic guitar and I'd heard about the civil rights troubles that were happening in the '60s in Alabama, Mississippi, Little Rock in particular. I just thought it would be really good if I could write something that if it ever reached any of the people going through those problems, it might give them a little bit of hope. So, I wrote 'Blackbird,' says McCartney.

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‘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.

Hall & Oates
Photo Courtesy: @halloates/Twitter

The boy in question is Victor Walker, an ex-boyfriend of Hall's then-girlfriend, Sarah Allen. Walker is well aware that the song is about him. Hall & Oates changed the lyrics from "boy" to "girl" because the band believed "girl" sounded better. The simple switch worked because "Rich Girl" became the band's No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1977.

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‘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.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

"It’s about this guy who’s high as a kite stalking someone else’s girlfriend — and should be locked up and put in prison. But people think, 'Ah, he’s a sweet romantic.' If you think that’s what romance is, then I think you’re pretty weird," Blunt tells TIME. Although Blunt thinks the song is sad and unromantic, it became the most-liked song from his debut album, "Back to Bedlam." Blunt earned two Grammy Award nominations for this famous song.

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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."

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

"If anyone listens to the lyrics, they're really like vampire lines. It's all about the darkness, the power of darkness and love's place in dark," says Steinman. Thanks to Steinman and Tyler, millions of fans sang along to a vampire love song. The song topped the UK Singles Chart. In the US, the single ranked at No. 1 for four weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983.

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‘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.

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Photo Courtesy: @OfficialTLC/Twitter

“We wanted to make a song with a strong message – about unprotected sex, being promiscuous, and hanging out in the wrong crowd. The messages in Waterfalls hit home. I think that’s why it’s our biggest hit to date,” said Thomas. The song remained No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks and earned two Grammy nominations. TLC’s music video became just as successful, winning four MTV Video Music Awards.

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‘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.

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Photo Courtesy: Warner Bros./IMDb

Lennon elaborates, “My son came home with a drawing and showed me this strange-looking woman flying around. I said, ‘What is it?’ and he said, ‘It’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds,’ and I thought, ‘That’s beautiful.’ I immediately wrote a song about it. After the album had come out and the album had been published, someone noticed that the letters spelt out LSD and I had no idea about it. … But nobody believes me.”

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'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?”

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Photo Courtesy: @ComplexMusic/Twitter

These lyrics are far from happy. One of Outkast’s members, Andre 3000, explains, "It's about some people who stay together in relationships because of tradition, because somebody told them, 'You guys are supposed to stay together.' But you pretty much end up being unhappy for the rest of your life.”

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'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.

Psy
Photo Courtesy: @psy_oppa/Twitter

Maybe no one noticed the song’s meaning because Psy distracted everyone with his dance moves. Psy actually put a lot of thought into the choreography for the music video. For 30 days, Psy tried to figure out the perfect dance move for the song. Psy settled on the iconic horse trotting move. Many people appreciated his hard work. In September 2012, "Gangnam Style" became the most "liked" video on YouTube.

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‘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.

goo goo dolls
Photo Courtesy: @googoodolls/Twitter

The band’s lead singer, Johnny Rzeznik, elaborates, describing the song as, "two teenage kids, and the girlfriend gets pregnant, and they're trying to decide ... whether she should get an abortion or whether they should get married ... and I don't think a lot of people got that." Many fans missed the song's real meaning, but it became a successful hit for Goo Goo Dolls. "Slide" peaked at No. 8 on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1998. The song also reached the top of three more US Billboard charts: the Mainstream Rock Songs chart, the Adult Top 40 chart and the Mainstream Top 40 chart.

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'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.

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Photo Courtesy: Gozamos/Flickr

"Swimming Pools" presents some heavy and serious content. The song reveals Lamar’s life growing up and his thoughts on alcoholism. Lamar talks about his grandfather’s drinking habits, which led to his death. Lamar also discusses his own experience with alcoholism. Lamar’s friends pressure him to drink and Lamar gives in many times. Doesn’t this sound like a situation that other people can relate to?

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‘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.

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Photo Courtesy: @billboard/Twitter

The translation of the original Spanish lyrics goes, "Macarena has a boyfriend who is named/Who is named with the last name Vitorino/And while he was being sworn in as a conscript/She’s giving it to two friends." The lyrics describe a girl named Macarena, who cheats on her boyfriend with two of his friends (while he’s serving in the army).

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‘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.

Green Day
Photo Courtesy: @GreenDay/Twitter

The song was the first time he discussed his father's death, which shows in the lyrics "Like my father's come to pass/Twenty years has gone so fast/Wake me up when September ends." The song's music video portrays a couple torn apart by the Iraq War, reflecting the song's focus on loss, pain and heartache.

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‘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.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Growing up, members of Foster the People were exposed to youth gun violence. Cubbie Fink's cousin survived the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. Vocalist Mark Foster explains, "For me, that song was really an observation about something that's happening in the youth culture these days. I guess I wanted to reveal that internal dialogue of a kid who doesn't have anywhere to turn, and I think the song has kind of done its job."

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‘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.

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Photo Courtesy: Broadway Video/IMDb

The lyrics introduce a frustrated citizen who is forced to fight in the Vietnam War. After the soldier returns home, he struggles to find a job as well as a place in his community to belong. "Born in the USA" may sound like a positive song, but the lyrics actually criticize the government and the treatment of soldiers. Many politicians like Ronald Reagan didn’t understand the song and tried to use it for their presidential campaigns. Why hasn’t anyone told them yet?

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‘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.

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Photo Courtesy: Tim Burton Productions/IMDb

Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of The Killers, became frustrated with the opinions from fans. He tells Rolling Stone, “It's supposed to be a dance song, it goes with the chorus. If you can't put that together, you're an idiot. I just don't get why there's a confusion about it.” “Human” is a confusing song, but it’s also popular. The song reached the top of many charts including No.1 on the US Billboard Dance Club Songs in 2009.

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‘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.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The lyrics go, “Imagine there's no heaven/Imagine there's no countries/Imagine no possessions/And no religion, too,” confirming the song's secret message. Lennon adds that "Imagine" is “virtually the Communist Manifesto, even though I am not particularly a communist and I do not belong to any movement…. But because it is sugar coated, it is accepted."

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‘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.

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Photo Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

The rocky relationship between the band members may have influenced the lyrics. U2 almost split up because they couldn’t agree on the musical direction of the album, “Achtung Baby.” The band finally saw eye to eye while creating "One." Many fans probably overlooked the clear references in the lyrics that say, “We’re one/But we’re not the same/We hurt each other/Then we do it again.”

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'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.

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Photo Courtesy: @hansonmusic/Twitter

One Hanson member, Zac, explains “What that song talks about is, you've got to hold on to the things that really matter. 'MMMbop' represents a frame of time or the futility of life. Things are going to be gone, whether it's your age and your youth.”

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'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.

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Photo Courtesy: @1Xtra/Twitter

However, the songwriter of "Electric Slide," Bunny Wailer, put those rumors to rest. Wailer told EDM.com that the stories were false and offended his legacy as an artist. He adds, “At no time have I ever lent credence to a rumor that the song was inspired by anything other than Eddie Grant’s 'Electric Avenue.'” 

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