True Meaning Behind Some Of The Songs You Love

By: Lisa Lee | Last updated: Sep 08, 2022

Some of the biggest music hits have managed to catch our emotions and ears while completely deceiving us. Our lack of understanding of what the music is indeed saying has sometimes left us perplexed. However, musicians have periodically mixed in vague metaphors that have completely slipped past fans around the world.

Here’s a compilation of some of popular music’s often misinterpreted classics. Believe me when I say, you’ll never listen to songs a certain way ever again without wondering…is this literal?

1. Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You"

You would have to be living under a rock if you haven’t heard this album or the cover version by Whitney Houston. Dolly Parton kept publishing rights and therefore gained one of the most successful music industry contracts.


Donaldson Collection/Getty Images

Dolly wrote the song about a breakup that was nonphysical even though many think the song is of a romantic nature. She really wanted her singing partner with whom she was severing business ties to know how much appreciation she had for him.

2. Bonnie Tyler's "Total Eclipse of the Heart"

This song became a power ballad legend thanks to Welsh diva Bonnie Tyler’s immediately recognizable raspy voice and some of the decade’s most dramatic song lyrics. But what was going on in that strange, disturbing music video?


Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

This song was originally a ballad from a…vampire musical. The song was originally written for a vampire love show. However, that show was a flop when it finally opened on Broadway in ’02.

3. Maroon 5's "Harder to Breathe" (2002)

Did someone else listen to this beautiful song over and over after a failed relationship? Well, in the Maroon 5 smash hit “Harder to Breathe,” Adam Levine isn’t singing about his love woes.


Singer Adam Levine and his band Maroon 5 perform on MTV's Total Request Live, May 29, 2007 in New York City. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Adam Levine

In an interview, Levine disclosed that the song was about their dissatisfaction with their record company for pushing them to compose more lyrics. However, in the end, they were overjoyed when the single was chosen as the title track.

4. Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight"

You’re not alone if you assumed this song was about Phil Collins’ inability to save a drowning man. However, the famous urban legend surrounding the song’s origins turns out to be a bunch of lies.


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Phil Collins has dispelled myths, stating that he was going through a tumultuous divorce at the time he wrote the album, and that he channeled his anger into a song that he can’t fully explain.

5. John Lennon's "Imagine"

“Imagine,” is hands down one of the most well-known songs in the world. It’s easy to overlook how politically charged the song lyrics are because of the soft tones and optimistic appeal for peace.

Photo Credit: Michael Putland/Getty Images

“Imagine’s” message is vehemently anti-capitalist, as well as anti-religion (though not faith) and anti-nationalism. After being a caused of advocating Communism. John explained that he did not affiliate with any political movement, but that the song contained elements that were essentially a rewording of the Communist Manifesto.


6. The Beatles' “Blackbird”

You know this song by heart, which every frat boy claims to know on guitar just to pick up girls. But don’t be fooled by the chirping bird(slang for female) on the track. Humans are at the center of the story.

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The Beatles’ meditation retreat in India in 1968 inspired Paul McCartney to write the tune. His main reason was in reference to the American Black Power revolution, which saw people of color rise up and speak out.


7. Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA"

With its huge American flag background and optimistic uplifting melody, this main track could easily be mistaken for a patriotic rallying cry. Many powers surrounding President Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign were duped because they didn’t understand the chorus.

Bill Marino/Getty Images

The album is a social criticism of the United States of America. It aims to comprehend both the detrimental impact of the Vietnam War on an entire generation, as well as the public shaming and ostracization of veterans upon their return from Southeast Asia.


8. The Police' "Every Breath You Take"

It was one of the most popular songs of the 1980s, and it succeeded in diverting attention away from the message. It isn’t romantic, in any case. The Police sing about a stalker in this breathy song. When people tell him they want it played at their wedding, the song’s author, Sting, rolls his eyes.

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Sting took refuge in Jamaica, at the estate of James Bond author Ian Fleming, to get away from the press scrutiny of his love life. He imagined a lover who is obsessed with a former flame and embarks on a sinister surveillance quest, much like Big Brother ouch, that stings.


9. Sarah McLachlan's "Angel"

“Angel” can be viewed as an amazingly provocative song topping that category in recording history. For several, it became associated with City of Angels, in which an angel falls in love with a mortal.

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The true story behind the song is incredibly moving. Sarah McLachlan wrote the song as a tribute to the Smashing Pumpkins’ touring keyboardist, who died of drug addiction. Its lyrics are meant to discuss the dark feelings of helplessness and loneliness that can lead someone down the tragic path.


10. REM's "The One I Love"

Sure, the title and first line of this hit by college rock legends REM could lead you to believe it’s a romantic ballad. But it’s time to pay more attention to the lyrics and overall sound of the album once more. The album is grim to the extreme.

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In interviews, singer Michael Stipe has described the song as “exceptionally aggressive” and “brutally truthful” in its acerbic perspective on romance. He’s also said that because too many listeners haven’t gotten the message, they can just keep believing what they’re believing at this stage.


11. Black Sabbath's "Iron Man"

The godfathers of heavy metal, Black Sabbath, taught the flower power generation that not everything was rosy, and that headbanging was a perfect way to get out your rage, with an escalating sequence of four face-melting power chords. However, you may be perplexed by its use in advertisements for the film of the same name.

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However, the song is about a disgruntled man who travels back in time to warn humanity of the imminent apocalypse, only to be ignored and wrathful.


12. Joan Jett's "Poor Reputation"

Joan Jett, a former member of the Runaways, exploded onto the music scene with this song and its vile lyrics, proving she was a force to be dealt with. She was writing from personal experience in a field that did not welcome her.

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This punk rock legend had been rejected by no fewer than twenty-three record labels in order to get her album out. She released a video for “Bad Reputation” mocking the record labels that had turned her down, which angered some and led to a request that MTV quit broadcasting it.


13. The Beatles' "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"

Yes, it was the 1960s, and everyone was interested in expanding their minds by using chemicals. As a result, it’s understandable that many listeners mistook this trippy song’s whimsically psychedelic lyrics for anything else. The reality, on the other hand, is far more straightforward.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Julian Lennon, John Lennon’s three-year-old son, had been at nursery school and returned home with a drawing he had made for his father and drummer Ringo Starr. Lucy, his classmate, was floating across the sky with diamonds, he explained. John scribbled it down because he liked the sound of it.


14. Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life"

This smash hit’s original intent, as catchy and bouncy as it is, was something much more dangerous, something that was eventually censored for airplay

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Stephan Jenkins, the song’s writer and lead singer, was troubled that most of his friends had succumbed to drug abuse at the time, and used some allusions in the song’s original lyrics. As a result, the song’s essence was distorted once it was cleaned up to make it more lucrative.


15. Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit"

Nirvana helped to reinvent the music world and give a forum to an entire people stranded in time. We really don’t know what “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is about, as the “Weird Al” Yankovic parody suggests.

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Is it an ode to anger and befuddlement, or is it about something else? Is it about a youth uprising, as the film clip in a school gymnasium suggests? Listeners should not assume much into the lyrics, according to Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl, who believes the song might have no meaning at all.


16. Hanson's "MMMBop"

Those teenage-sibling trio from Oklahoma poured out a ray of light, and then vanished, as the late ’90s flood of chewing gum pop turned into a dominant wave.

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The lyrics seem clearer after listening the boys justify themselves. They had coined the term “mmmbop” to explain a brief period of time. The lesson is to live a full life and to be attentive, because everything can change in an instant.


17. Lady Gaga's "Poker Face"

You didn’t actually think the music was solely about poker games, did you? “Poker Face,” one of international superstar Lady Gaga’s first smash hits, is now one of her most successful and well-known songs. We’ve all had to put on a poker face at one point or another, but hers is for a reason.

Lady Gaga/YouTube

The song was really Lady Gaga’s way of revealing her bisexuality. It was an ode to the different boyfriends she had met on her way to stardom while still feeling unfulfilled by her other half.


18. Madonna's "Like a Virgin"

Thanks in large part to the coy lyrics of this pop hit and her show-stopping appearance at the MTV VMAs in that wedding gown, she made it through the woods and launched into full-fledged superstardom.

Bill Marino/Getty Images

Stein Berg who is featured on the album, had just begun a fresh, blossoming romantic relationship after leaving a failing one when he wrote it. He wrote it for the sake of sincerity, not shock value, and he never imagined it would be sung by a woman!


19. Green Day's “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”

It’s been played at countless school graduations and wistful prom dances, and it’s even been listed as a tearjerker. That, however, is not the aim.

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Billie Joe Armstrong, the singer and guitarist for Green Day, had to wait seven years to release the song because it clashed too badly with the rest of his band’s material. It was written during a particularly trying period in his life, when his girlfriend left him in 1990 to move to Ecuador.


20. The Clash's "Rock The Casbah"

The Clash, forerunners of punk, were asked by their manager to write shorter songs. Topper Headon wrote the majority of this rollicking, snarky song, but singer Joe Strummer threw the old lyrics out the window.

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A colleague had told him that simply owning a disco record in fundamentalist Iran could result in the owner receiving twenty lashes. As a result, he wrote a song about a king’s futile attempts to prevent his people from listening to rock music, using lingo from a number of Middle Eastern languages.


21. James Blunt's "You're Beautiful"

James Blunt’s hit song and accompanying video of him disrobing in a snowstorm were an irresistible force of nature. However, a closer examination of the song lyrics reveals that there is more to it than meets the eye.

Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

James Blunt is quick to point out that the song was not intended to be a romantic ballad in the first place. Even as listeners were moved by the tragic story of a man who can’t be with the girl he loves, the lyrics refer to a man who is insane and stalking a girl.


22. Rihanna's "S&M"

Don’t believe what the lyrics of the song say, and don’t believe what the highly explicit music video would make you think. Rihanna maintains that it’s all a metaphor to emphasize a point.


This cheeky hit was influenced by celebrities’ relationships with the media and how they can fluctuate, according to Rihanna. She mentions how she and other A-listers can benefit from the media’s attention, but that it can also turn into a love-hate relationship, with the spotlight being suffocating.


23. Semisonic's "Closing Time"

The lights in the bar are dimming, it’s your last chance to buy a drink, and you might be repulsed by how the individual next to you appears under fluorescent lights. This is most likely the situation in which you first heard this album. Isn’t it implied in the title?

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Dan Wilson, Semisonic’s lead singer, wrote the song about a completely different experience, though he used the metaphor that bars picked up on. As he awaited fatherhood, he was inspired. Corazon, his first daughter, was about to be born, and the song is about being thrown into the world.


24. Green Day's "Wake Me Up When September Ends"

Green Day’s American Idiot album was an explosion in the music world, one of the first and most powerful artistic protests against the Bush administration and the Iraq War. The long, plot-driven music video for this single followed suit, portraying a young couple split apart because the man decides to enlist and join the Marines in Iraq.

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The song’s lyrics are straightforward about its true meaning: it’s a tribute to Billie Joe Armstrong’s deceased father, that passed away while the musician was only ten years old — in September.


25. OutKast's "Hey Ya!"

This rollicking joyous boogie remains a staple on dance floors the world over, and is one of the most popular songs of the new millennium thus far. The song belies a surprisingly grim tale about being cool or shaking it like a Polaroid shot.


It portrays a bleak situation in which he is trapped in a joyless relationship that he no longer wants to be a part of, and bemoans the fact that he is even in it at all. He also uses his parents as a point of reference, stating that at the very least they were able to stay together.


26. Paul Simon's "Mother and Child Reunion"

It would be safe to believe that Paul Simon’s 1972 song “Mother and Child Reunion,” with its upbeat reggae groove, was about, well, a mother and child being happily reunited

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The reconciliation of mom and baby is a rewarding feeling, but it isn’t the focus of this song. According to Paul Simon, he was influenced by a chicken and egg dish from his local Chinese take-out restaurant, which was jokingly dubbed “Mother and Child Reunion.” Simon mentally saved the dish’s name for a potential song when he saw it. Inspiration can be found everywhere!


27. The Guess Who's "American Woman"

Confess it: you’ve proudly boogied to this song like it describes who you are. However, once you learn the lyrics to the album, you’ll notice that the band is mocking you rather than idolizing you.

Gems/Getty Images

When you realize that the band is from Canada, it’s obvious that they’re making fun of their neighbors. Nixon’s wife expressly asked not to hear this jam when they were invited to perform at the White House.


28. The Eagles' "Hotel California"

Perhaps the Eagles’ most well-known song and a karaoke favorite (before you remember that the song is a whopping six and a half minutes long). “Hotel California” is a brooding, almost mystical soft rock song which seems to mean different things to different people. The Eagles, on the other hand, were delighted to put an end to the argument.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Period reports have circulated for years that it was influenced either by the Beverly Hills Hotel or the Chateau Marmont, the song is actually much less literal. “Hotel California” is half bizarre lyric “just to see if we could do it,” and mid sociopolitical introspection on Hollywood and L.A. in general, as per the band.


29. The Tokens' "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"

Another day, another children’s song that contradicts everything you’ve ever believed. That’s right, neither the immense jungle nor the peaceful village have a lion going to sleep tonight. At least not in the literal way.

GAB Archive/Getty Images

The lion in the lyrics refers to a human, not a big cat, and was initially produced by Simon Linda but made famous by The Tokens in 1961. The lion is widely recognized as the father of the jungle, and this track is jargon for Shaka Zulu, the Zulu leader who ruled the Zulus in the early nineteenth century. Shaka Zulu led the “sleeping” Zulus, who would one day “wake up” and overthrow the British dictatorship of the era.


30. Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69"

Many of you have thought this song was in reference to an enjoyable summer in the year 1969. Sorry to burst your bubble.


This song is actually about a romantic entanglement in a way more explicit sense referred to by those numbers. Yup…that’s exactly what it is about. Still a fun song to listen to, right?


31. "The Clash's" London Calling"

For years, people have been connecting this song to politics in the United Kingdom. However, it came into being because Strummer was terrified about drowning.

Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

When it was being rumored that the Thames River could possibly flood the city, the Clash, just like almost everyone else at the time, became fearful that they could drown, hence the song.


32. “The Way It Is” - Bruce Hornsby & the Range

Even though the late rapper Tupac did a great job with the lyrics for this song in his hit entitled, “Changes,” he did not originate it.

Sun Chronicle / Carol Spagnuoia

It was twelve years earlier that Bruce and The Range had recorded it to speak out about the divisiveness in the country and the importance of the Civil Rights Movement.


33. TLC's "Waterfalls"

These talented young women known for their sometimes sensual lyrics and moves could easily have been considered as singing a romantic song, telling you not to chase the kind of people you’re not accustomed to.


However, we all know one thing for sure, it has nothing to do with chasing waterfalls. To deduce what they are speaking of, catch a glimpse of the music video that comes with this masterpiece, and you might understand that it’s regarding the hazards of unlawful narcotics and STIs.


34. Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks"

So, be honest! You all thought this was about excitement over a special type of footwear, right? This was as far from correct as one could get.

FilmMagic/FilmMagic for Life Is Beautiful

The words of this big hit song were really highlighting the violence situations in school, particularly shootings. The proliferation of mental disturbance among students was also a key focus. Shoes definitely were not a part of it.


35. Don McLean's "American Pie"

There’s nowhere in the world that pies are loved like in the United States of America. However, this song has nothing to do with food, sadly.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel / Surf Ballroom and Museum

Don McLean was heartbroken about the many great musicians who had passed on. More specifically, the trio that was killed in a plane wreckage in ’59. He felt as though music died that day as well.


36. April 29, 1992 (Miami)" - Sublime

The first thing that throws you off the real meaning of this song is the date referring to the 26th of April in the song. You should instead focus on the title.


It pertains to the Los Angeles uprisings in ’92 in reaction to the attack of Rodney King by law enforcement officers. The days in the song was an error but the recording was so great, they decided to keep it.


37. Led Zeppelin's “When The Levee Breaks”

This is a beautiful song by the very talented Zeppelin and many metalheads were drawn to it even though it wasn’t written by it.

Black Past / Public Domain

Metalheads can note that this album was a cover of a song about the destructive Great Mississippi Flooding of ’29 penned forty-two years earlier by blues pioneers Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie.


38. Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising"

This is a very deep and powerful song that can be easily misunderstood unless you know specifically what it is in reference to. And usually, once you do, you’ll get teal teary-eyed.


Few voices resonate as deeply with Americans as Springsteen’s, which is why he felt compelled to compose a touching tribute to the 9/11 attacks, which went on to win several Grammys and a nomination for Song of the Year.


39. Dan Steely's “Black Friday”

Be honest! When you hear this song, all you can think about is those big discounts you look forward to annually after Thanksgiving.

Berlin Spectator / Steely Dan

Years prior to the actual shopping holiday’s craziness, Black Friday was a day when gold prices soared and then plunged, plunging the world into widespread poverty. This song’s narrator runs through multiple situations in his coping strategy.


40. The Cranberries', "Zombie"

This is a really lovely song that you would think is in reference to the singer’s family or families in general. However, this is about a country, which in some sense can feel like a part of us.

Rare Historical Photos

In the song when it declares, it’s not her, it’s not her family, that’s exactly what she’s implying,” the late lead singer Dolores O’Riordan clarified. She said it means it’s not the Ireland she knows. Following the IRA bombardment of Warrington in 1993, she felt the need to make an artistic comment.