Recently, I wrote a couple of articles about classic rock songs that fans had interpreted to have far more meaning than anything ever intended by the artists. By exposing the gap between authorial intent and superfan interpretations, I hoped to make an argument that everyone should just relax and take a giant step back before believing either that many pop songs held profound truths or that any fan had an inside beat on the one true meaning of any song. Yep, two points in one article, and I still only charged the usual price of "free."
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"I have seen Rush 439 times, and accordingly can say without fear of error that 'Red Barchetta' is not about a car, but Neal Peart's pet dog who died of consumption."
After writing these articles, however, I noticed that several members of the Cracked readership were eager to point out, "Hey, who cares what the writer intended? Songs can have personal meanings." And yes, a song can take on a meaning of its own despite artistic intentions. Agreed. And as long as an interpretation isn't patently moronic or contradicted by other lyrical clues, listeners should go forth and shout their interpretations with joy. (Or tap them out online.) But we all should do that with a little humility, because claiming to personally know a song's true, profound, intended meaning is just setting yourself up for failure, as these five oft-misinterpreted songs reveal.
#5. "Fake Plastic Trees" By Radiohead
Here's a perfect example to start us off. "Fake Plastic Trees" is one of my favorite Radiohead songs. Hell, it's one of my favorite songs ever. The first time I heard it, I turned up the radio, shut out all distractions, and listened intently until the DJ came on to tell me who wrote the song. Does any of that make sense now? Y'see, to understand that story, you need to know that people used to listen to non-satellite radio that didn't just display the name of song, and that I was a huge loser hanging out alone in my room listening for DJs to tell me things.
Anyway, to me, the lyrics were perfectly clear. Thom Yorke was singing a song about beautiful false things, about relationships built on artificial attractions, and the inevitable failure of those relationships. A song lamenting the absence of true love and beauty.
I can support that interpretation: The first verse is about a "fake Chinese rubber plant." OK, so that is something beautiful and artificial. The song then goes on about "a broken man" who "used to do surgery for the girls in the '80s." It doesn't seem too much of a leap to believe that's plastic surgery. Another false form of beauty. The next verse addresses the singer's frustration and desire to "turn and run," and, ultimately, he laments his inability to be what his lover wants. To me, the singer's beloved wanted a false thing he couldn't be, which would give context to everything that preceded those lyrics. I like my interpretation. It still seems internally consistent and valid to me, and I love the song. But here's the thing: Much like going through life not looking like a villain in a Charles Dickens story, Thom Yorke would never agree to such a thing.
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Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke, on a break from the latest production of Oliver!
Yorke has described the lyrics as "drunken," "a breakdown of sorts," and "a joke that isn't a joke." Unlike his usual method of keeping note of what he was singing or crafting deliberate phrases, he was just singing whatever was in his head to a previously-constructed melody. Does that mean that I shouldn't like the song anymore? Does that mean that my interpretation doesn't work? No, but it does mean that if I go on and on like a pontificating douchebag, swearing I know what the song "really" means, I'd be wrong.
#4. "White Room" By Cream
"White Room" by Cream is a seminal songs of the '60s. It's a stark rocker with a simple, strong image: a white room with black curtains.
Powerful, but what could it mean? Well, if you ask the Internet, you will get people telling you it's about Vietnam, no I mean Stalin, no wait, it's about heroin addiction. In fact, you can see all those interpretations right here. And what's so interesting about these interpretations is that no one on this comment page is saying, "Hey, I think it means ..." or "I interpret this as ..." They're all just laying truth bombs, man, because something about interpreting lyrics brings out the pretentious douchebag more than when someone wrongly calls Frankenstein's monster "Frankenstein."
"Actually, by novel's end, the 'monster' chooses to self-identify as 'Adam.'"
Well, according to lyricist Pete Brown, Jack Bruce threw out his original lyrics, called "Cinderella's Last Goodnight," and Brown scrambled to find some lyrics from an eight-page poem he wrote, ultimately cobbling together a "monologue about a new flat." But hey, maybe it's time-travelin' Stalin's flat after he comes home from 'Nam addicted to heroin!
#3. "Mr. Tambourine Man" By Bob Dylan
I've wanted to include Bob Dylan since the first of these articles (as has my editor, Adam Tod Brown) because he's written, arguably, the most disputed and analyzed song lyrics of the last 50 years. Adding to that mystique is how Dylan rarely commented or explained his lyrics. Fans were desperate to fill that void, turning his songs into tests or shrouded insights that only they, with their powers of perception, were deep enough to perceive.
The trouble is, which Dylan song do you include, when so many of his songs have been so intensely analyzed and he's been so reticent to speak of meaning? Indeed, some have criticized Dylan (like John Lennon, as expressed in the following entry) for being deliberately ambiguous to get credit for metaphors, symbolism, and insights he never intended. But ultimately, I went with "Mr. Tambourine Man," because it's one of the few times Dylan as been insistent about a meaning and still no one listened.
Critics and fans have love to speculate: Who is Mr. Tambourine Man? There have been differing interpretation that he's Dylan's muse, or the Pied Piper of Hamelin, or even better, Jesus Christ, because why not? (Presumably, Jesus laid down his best beats while not being crucified.)
Pictured above: Jesus Christ. (Tambourine not shown.)
But of course, the most persistent interpretation is that Dylan's singing about drugs. Dylan has repeatedly denied this interpretation, even 20 years after it was written, when no one would have cared if the song was about getting high. In 1985, Dylan explicitly stated in a rare moment of candor and specificity that the song was about ... a tambourine man. Specifically, Bruce Langhorne, a folk musician with whom Dylan had recorded. Dylan said, "He had this gigantic tambourine. It was as big as a wagon wheel. He was playing, and this vision of him playing this tambourine just stuck in my mind."
So hey, go ahead and continue to put forth metaphorical interpretations of this song. It's fun to do that. No one is stopping you, and yes, a listener can always interpret a song in their own way for themselves. But what you probably shouldn't do is tell people their interpretation is wrong and you know what the song is really about because it's totally about drugs, man. Even worse, don't do that on the Internet where everyone can see it.