"American Pie" is about the death of Buddy Holly, Pearl Jam's "Jeremy" is about a real high school student who killed himself at school, and Ke$ha's "Dancing With The Devil" is just generally horrifying in retrospect. Music deals with tragedy all the time. But sometimes a song that sounds like pure fantasy ends up actually being about some real and terrible event, and now we're going to tell you about it so you can feel bad the next time you sing along. We're jerks like that.
5"What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" Is About The Time Dan Rather Got His Ass Kicked By Two Lunatics
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R.E.M.'s lyrics are famously inscrutable even when you can understand what the hell Michael Stipe is saying, and "What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" seems like just one more song in that rambling mold. Lines like I thought I'd pegged you an idiot's dream / Tunnel vision from the outsider's screen sound like Stipe repurposed some material from his college slam poetry days because a deadline was looming. But the obtuse song is actually inspired by the time news anchor Dan Rather was randomly attacked on the street.
In 1986, Rather was walking home after a long day of newsing when two well-dressed men started beating him. Normally, this could just be chalked up to living in NYC in the '80s. But one of the men repeatedly asked, "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" and wasn't satisfied with Rather's answers, which we assume were along the lines of, "My name isn't Kenneth, I emit no frequencies, please stop assaulting me."
Help soon arrived, but the men were never apprehended. So it was chalked up as just another of those wacky New York beatings. But then, in 1994, a man named William Tager drove from North Carolina to New York City to stop NBC from beaming secret messages into his brain. And what his argument lacked in sanity, it made up for in firepower. A technician tried to stop Tager from entering the studio, Tager shot him dead, and Tager got arrested. Then it got weird.
While in custody, Tager confessed to the assault of Rather, and Rather identified him as one of his attackers. Tager also claimed that he was from the year 2265 and that he was a convicted felon who was being used to test time-travel, which you may recognize as the plot of 12 Monkeys. Tager said he mistook Rather for Kenneth Burrows, the vice president of his future world, and decided to engage in a little impromptu political commentary, which just goes to show why you shouldn't trust felons to conduct your time-travel experiments.
United States Air Force
He now makes it perfectly clear who he is at every opportunity,
in case any other wannabe Time Lords get the wrong idea.
Stipe and R.E.M. were inspired by the whole sordid affair to write an alt-rock classic that sounds like the paranoid ramblings of a crazy man who doesn't understand the world around him. Rather himself would later sing along live while giving off his best "cool dad" vibe so other than, you know, the murder, the whole thing turned out to be a pretty neat anecdote.
4Blondie's "One Way Or Another" Is About Debbie Harry's Actual Stalker
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You all know this one, right?
"One Way Or Another" has been covered by everyone from One Direction to Alvin And The Chipmunks, and it's pop culture's go-to "fun shenanigans are in progress" song. From romantic trickery in Mean Girls, to a goofy bar riot in Coyote Ugly, to a wacky adventure in The Rugrats Movie, it's always used in silly scenes.
Except, according to singer Debbie Harry, the song is about a nut-job ex-boyfriend who was literally stalking her. So it isn't about a Ryan Gosling-esque hunk being tricked into noticing the unattractive-by-Hollywood-standards girl -- it's closer to Glenn Close breaking into Gosling's house to kill and boil his pet rabbit.
The accurate version would be less about Angelica's girl power and more
about some creepy dude watching her at the mall.
It's obvious if you listen to any word beyond "gotcha" or "meetcha," as the singer scouts out her target's house, follows them around the mall, and generally gives off a "My idea of true love is flaying the skin from your body and wearing it as a poncho" vibe. But it's understandable that a lot of people would miss the song's true meaning given its bouncy pop sound, which according to Harry was a "survival mechanism" intended to turn a horrifying part of her life into something lighthearted. It also brought her lots and lots of money, which is another good survival mechanism.
When you get your own Barbie and your stalker doesn't, you've beaten them at life, hands-down.