"In the Air Tonight" stands alone as Phil Collins' sole flirtation with being awesome. With its spooky production and hammering drum patterns, the song pulled off the gargantuan feat of making television viewers believe Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson wearing pastel suits amidst mountains of cocaine was a plausible setting in which a crime other than forced sodomy could actually occur. It's no wonder that a song with that much force behind it would have an equally powerful back story attached to it.
It varies wildly depending on who you're talking to, but the most popular story behind the song, and the one awkwardly quoted by Eminem in the almost as popular "Stan," goes like this: As a kid, Collins witnessed a tragic incident in which a man drowned as another man who could have helped stood by and did nothing. Later, presumably through some form of leprechaun magic, Phil tracked the no-good Samaritan down and arranged for him to be sitting in the front row of the concert where he debuted "In the Air Tonight," singing the song directly to the man who sat uncomfortably under a spotlight. Were it not for that one Genesis video that starred a Ronald Reagan puppet, this would qualify as the creepiest moment of Phil Collins' career.
What It's Actually About:
Not a damned thing. Some songwriters do try to tell a story with every song, but others (like, say, Phil Collins) tend to just pick out words that sound catchy when matched up with the music (like, say, "Sussudio").
On the VH1 Classic series "Classic Albums," Collins explained that he made up the lyrics to "In the Air Tonight" in the studio, based on what he felt was appropriate for the vibe of the song. Yes, after all that, it turns out the song literally has less coherent meaning than "My Humps."
"American Girl," the first single from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' debut album, features the kind of enigmatic lyrics that send fans into fits searching for meaning. Apparently, Tom Petty fans are a morose bunch. According to an extremely popular story, Petty wrote the song about a University of Florida student who jumped to her death from the balcony of her dorm room.
It's an understandable conclusion if you take a look at some of the lyrics. Among the references that draw the attention of suicide song enthusiasts are "old 441" which is the name of the highway in Florida that runs past the dorm where the suicide allegedly occurred and "she stood alone, on the balcony" which is generally what people do shortly before hurling themselves off said balcony. Toss in the fact that Petty is from Gainesville where the University of Florida is located and what you have is one perfectly reasonable theory about the meaning of the song.
What It's Actually About:
It's not true at all. In the book "Conversations With Tom Petty," the ugly-stick-beaten rocker set the story straight.
In his words, the story is an "urban legend" and was actually written while he was living in Encino, CA. The 441 in question refers to an expressway that ran outside the apartment he lived in at the time. And unlike the Jagger song, Petty has no reason whatsoever to lie since it pretty much makes the lyrics less cool than people want to believe they are.
But if it's any consolation, "Mary Jane's Last Dance" is totally about weed.