There’s more than meets the eye with these songs. Here’s us looking at popular songs that have an intended meaning by their respective artist that the majority of listeners may not have picked up on. Join us as we count down our picks for the Top 10 Song Meanings Everyone Gets Wrong.
10 “Possession” (1993) By Sarah McLachlan
If you’re under the assumption that Possession is a love song, we’re sorry in advance. Lines like “I’ll take your breath away,” make it easy to see why people might take it that way but look closer, and you’ll notice some pretty creepy sentiments. McLachlan was inspired to make this song by two fans that created a fantasy relationship with her; sending love letters on a regular basis. One even went on to sue McLachlan for songwriting credit, but committed suicide before the case went to trial. Possession is still one of Sarah’s finest songs, but you may want to think twice before playing it on a first date.
9 “Closing Time” (1998) By Semisonic
This one seems pretty straightforward- “finish your whiskey or beer!” Clearly Semisonic is relaying the sense of loneliness experienced when the warmth of booze and friends fades away at the end of a night out. However, lead singer Dan Wilson explained that the song is actually a metaphor for childbirth. With his first child on the way, Wilson used the song as a way to express his emotions during a transformative time in his life. Upon learning this, the song’s sad, existential message transforms in to one of hope for new beginnings in a person’s life after entering in to the joys and challenges of parenthood.
8 “Fire and Rain” (1970) By James Taylor
Taylor’s career defining masterpiece hits all the right notes needed to reach the upper echelons of folk rock masterpieces. It may come as a surprise however, that it’s not actually about his girlfriend dying in a plane crash. Each verse tells the story of a low point in Taylor’s life spanning from the death of a friend, to heroin addiction, and finally the failing of his much-loved band, Flying Machines. Unlike some on our list, this revelation doesn’t change the essence of the song and it’s still the perfect track to put on next time you’re feeling down and out.
7 “Blackbird” (1968) By The Beatles
Written by Paul McCartney and featuring background vocals from an actual blackbird, it’s easy to think this just a song about blackbirds. Paul has since made it clear that Blackbird is actually a metaphor written in response to high racial tensions during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. The Blackbird’s attempt to take his broken wings and learn to fly is meant to symbolize the struggle of African American’s to come together and heal amidst severe racial discrimination. This isn’t the first time that the Beatles have laced their songs with multiple meanings nor the first time they’ve touched heavily on social issues.
6 “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (2005) By Green Day
One of Green Day’s most vulnerable pieces of work, there’s no question that this hit rocked its listeners to the core upon release. The music video’s depiction of war along with American Idiot’s central theme of George W. Bush-era American life, may lead listeners to believe that this song references the 9/11 terror attacks in New York. However, singer Billie Joe Armstrong has gone on to state that the song’s intent was actually to express a much more personal loss, that of his father who died when Billie was only ten years old.
5 “More than Words” (1991) By Extreme
Ever say something with good intentions that gets taken completely out of context? Well this band has plenty in common with you then. This 1991 hit is widely interpreted as a beckoning for sex because saying I love you to your significant other just isn’t enough. Extreme’s guitarist Nuno Bettencourt has gone on record saying that the song was intended to explore how the phrase “I love you” was becoming meaningless in relationships and perhaps it would be more evocative to express love in more creative ways. Clearly our minds were in the gutter on this one.
4 “Harder to Breathe” (2002) By Maroon 5
Maroon 5’s debut album, Songs about Jane, focused much of its efforts on expressing the inner-turmoil of Adam Levine after a tough breakup with, well, Jane… It stands to reason that the album’s first track would make this message crystal clear. At first glance, the lyrics appear to describe the feelings of loneliness and suffocation of a breakup, but Adam has since declared that Harder to Breathe is actually about the band’s label demanding more music late into production. It may have been intended initially as a screw you to the band’s label, but we can guess the animosity faded when the royalties came in.
3: “In the Air Tonight” (1981) By Phil Collins
Allegedly, Phil Collins wrote this song after witnessing someone drown while another man refused to help. While this would certainly add layers to Collin’s character, it begs several questions. Namely, if Collins saw this all happen, why couldn’t he just jump in and save his friend? It turns out that he was actually expressing his emotions during a devastating divorce. He intended to vent his sporadic anger toward the situation without really giving the song an exact direction. It’s now considered one of the greatest songs of all times, and likely one of the few examples of divorce leading to a financial gain.
2 “Every Breath You Take” (1983) By The Police
With seemingly loving lyrics and a catchy guitar hook, this song sounds like it belongs at wedding receptions or a school dance. However, the song is actually about a crazy stalker, and the lyrics make this pretty obvious. They actually say the words “every bone you break, I’ll be watching you”; and that’s not even the creepy bit. It’s best not to analyze this one too much. The focal image of the music video is a window washer while the girl in question never once even makes an appearance. What may have started as a pleasant toe-tapper kinda makes you wanna take a shower when you realize what it’s all about.
1 “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984) By Bruce Springsteen
This essential 4th of July power ballad likely conjures up images of fireworks, American flags and freedom. It’s truly an iconic song of patriotism … until you realize that Bruce Springsteen spends the entire song criticizing America and everything it stands for. Starting out, the song regales the story of a man born dirt poor and constantly in trouble. He then goes off to war killing “the yellow” man and things just get worse from there. All the while, the ever-popular chorus is repeated again and again. It’s hard to believe that this song is played right next to the likes of God Bless the U.S.A when its message couldn’t be any different.