6 Famous Songs That Don't Mean What You Think
Sometimes, the more you know about a song the less you enjoy it. You start out thinking the singer of some ballad totally identifies with your situation, then later find out most musicians are creepy sex maniacs, and boring at the same time.
With that in mind, here's six popular songs that aren't nearly as awesome once you find out what they actually mean.
Bryan Adams "Summer of '69"
This annoying as all get out little ditty from Bryan Adams' Reckless album has been a staple of wedding dances for over two decades now. And it's no wonder, people love to reminisce on days gone by when life was simpler and anything seemed possible. But what exactly is Bryan Adams reminiscing about?
It seems straightforward enough. He bought a guitar, played it until his fingers bled, started a band, the band broke up because Bryan Adams blows, he met a chick, she didn't realize he was going to grow up to be Bryan Adams so she made out with him. Those were the best days of his life, and ours, because we hadn't heard that song from the Robin Hood soundtrack yet.
What It's Actually About:
Some people speculate that Adams may be singing about, um, something else. Here's a hint, complete this sentence ... "Wine me, dine me, __ me." Still not getting it? Fine, some people think he may be singing about oral sex. Just what we like to think about when it comes to Bryan Adams.
And as you'll notice in a few of the songs on this list, the dirty, double meaning that sounds like it was thought up by a horny 12-year-old often turns out to be true. In an online interview, Adams said: "One thing people never got was that the song isn't about the year 1969. It's about making love, a la '69!" A la '69? What a dork. Then there's the interview with the Binghampton Press & Sun Bulletin where Adams confirmed "the title comes from the idea of '69 as a metaphor for sex," confirming he has both a child's sense of humor and understanding of metaphors. Anyway, coming from the source itself, that seems pretty convincing.
Jim Vallance, the song's co-writer has said, "Bryan Adams is a great writer, a great singer, and a great friend. He's entitled to his recollections as to what inspired the song 'Summer Of '69.' My recollections just happen to be different than his." So who's telling the truth? As a default, we always choose not to believe the guy who claims Bryan Adams is a great writer. We're pretty sure Adams himself wouldn't even say that. There's also the fact that Adams didn't turn 10 until November of 1969, and we refuse to believe Bryan Adams was a cooler 9-year-old than us.
Unfortunately, pretty much every single sign points to "Summer of '69" being another ill-fated attempt by Bryan Adams to be edgy, like that time he dressed like Kurt Cobain for a year or so back in the '90s.
The Rolling Stones "Angie"
With the possible exception of "Wild Horses," no Rolling Stones ballad is more beloved than "Angie." The mournful lyrics speak clearly of the sadness of love lost, which is strange coming from a guy who tends to sing songs like "Under My Thumb," where the lyrics suggest a relationship dynamic somewhere between groupie and sex slave.
But a popular rumor suggests that Mick may be singing about something far more disturbing than romantic heartbreak.
What It's Actually About:
Some claim the "Angie" in the song is Angela, the now ex-wife of David Bowie. Lending credence to that claim is that the former Mrs. Bowie herself is one of the ones making that claim. According to her, after returning home from a trip, she walked into her bedroom to find Bowie and Jagger in bed together. While their thin white dukes weren't in action at the time, they did just happen to be nude. And probably high, skinny to the point of borderline anorexia and, even in the post coital glow of dude-loving, far more attractive to most chicks than any of us ever will be.
Yes, the song you've probably dedicated to your ex-girlfriend is about the heartbreak someone else felt upon finding out you boned David Bowie.
While Jagger and Bowie understandably deny the incident ever happened, Bowie's wife has for the most part stood by her story. Adding fuel to the fire, after she divorced Bowie she wrote a book and made a famous appearance on the Joan Rivers Show in which she reiterated her belief that Jagger and Bowie had indeed been having sex shortly before she walked in.
Now, Keith Richards does say he came up with the chord sequence and title a full year before the incident that allegedly inspired the song. It's not known where Richards snorting his father's ashes fits in that timeline, but it is widely speculated that Keith Richards' perception of the time-space continuum is utterly fucked, even if he's not just fudging it to protect Jagger's reputation.
For the rest of us, there's the simple fact that around the time he got caught by a woman named Angela in bed with David Bowie, Mick Jagger wrote a song about the haunting, sad eyes of a girl named Angie. And then there's this picture, taken around that time.
Phil Collins "In the Air Tonight"
"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."
Tom Petty "American Girl"
"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.
Fleetwood Mac "Sara"
"Sara" remains a favorite among Fleetwood Mac fans despite rarely being played live. You might chalk that up to the crazy drum pattern a presumably coked-up Mick Fleetwood wrote to accompany the song, which Stevie Nicks composed entirely on piano. But what about the lyrics? After all, it would sound like an ordinary everyday love song, were it not for the song being written by a heterosexual woman to someone named Sara.
So what's the deal?
What It's Actually About:
Well, one ungodly depressing theory suggests the song is about Don Henley. And if the image of a naked Don Henley flopping his manhood around with Stevie Nicks isn't enough, it gets worse.
Some have suggested the mysterious "Sara" in the song is a child Nicks was pregnant with that was aborted. Why would she abort the child? Did you miss the fact that the father was Don Henley?
While Nicks never confirmed the rumor, in true stand-up guy fashion, Henley was more than happy to confirm that he believed the song to be about both him and the terminated pregnancy.
In particular, the lyric "when you build your house, call me home" seemed to have particular importance as Henley was in fact in the process of building a house. And according to Nicks, the original version of "Sara" was 18-minutes-long and featured several verses.
That's got all the makings of someone sharing every detail of their personal life, ill-fated relationships with Don Henley included, and then realizing how bad an idea it was, and scaling it back. At this point, people writing about either musician pretty much take it for granted that the story's true. Plus, 18 minutes is a lot of song to fill. For all we know, there was a verse or two about us in there.
John Mellencamp "Our Country"
It's a well known story that in 1984, Ronald Reagan's campaign for reelection tried to use Bruce Springsteen's blue collar protest anthem "Born in the USA" as a rallying cry. By now, most people understand that a song about a Vietnam Vet who ends up unemployed and in jail isn't exactly an endorsement of trickle-down economics. What you might not know is that you probably made the exact same mistake as Reagan about the admittedly less awesome John Mellencamp song "Our Country."
While there's plenty of room for confusion in the lyrics, there is one thing most everyone can agree on. Those fucking Chevy commercials need to stop. Since approximately week three of the 2006 season, NFL fans nationwide have entered into each and every commercial break paralyzed by the fear that, at some point during the break in action, the words "The dream is still alive" will act as the harbinger that signals the beginning of the 30 least pleasurable seconds of their Sunday football watching experience. The least pleasurable, that is, until the whole experience is repeated 15 more times throughout the game. And the game after that.
It's not surprising that Chevy chose the song. Thanks to the ultra patriotic verse from the ad, and the whiff of almost territorial nationalism in declaring the country OURS, you can't help but think of a NASCAR infield full of flag-waving hillbillies.
What It's Actually About:
If that's what comes to mind, you don't know shit about John Mellencamp. The problem is that the 450,000 times you've heard it, the song started at this verse:
"The dream is still alive
someday it will come true
and this country
it belongs to folks like me and you."
Yep, sounds like a sentiment even Lou Dobbs could get behind. But anyone who thinks Mellencamp is going to start catering to the Toby Keith set ignores one important fact about the man. Springsteen wasn't the only guy who spurned Reagan in '84. Mellencamp also refused Ronald Reagan when he asked to use his blue collar anthem "Pink Houses" on the '84 campaign trail. In fact, Mellencamp recently asked John McCain to stop playing "Our Country" at his rallies too. The verse we all know and hate from "Our Country" is actually the last verse. Now check out the verses that come before it.
"There's room enough here
for science to live ...
And poverty could be just another ugly thing
and bigotry would be seen only as obscene
and the ones who run this land
help the poor and common man
this is our country"
That's right, our country is basically an idealistic American version of John Lennon's "Imagine." Of course Chevy chose not to include all that "end poverty, help the poor" business that reads like an endorsement of the welfare state.
We're not sure whether or not to blame Mellencamp for letting Chevy take the song out of context. Maybe he was being subversive, letting them use the song for an ad campaign aimed at the people who would most hate its real message. If so then it's being subversive in a way that makes him approximately three bajillion dollars in endorsement money. Which in itself is perhaps a meta-statement about the state of American popular culture as a means of protest. Or maybe he just really likes money.
If you liked that, you'll probably enjoy Adam's look at The 9 Most Unnecessary Greatest Hits Albums of All-Time. Or, if you're tired of all these rock stars and want to just nerd out, check out Star Trek TNG Rap (WARNING - EXPLICIT LYRICS).
Check out Robert Evans' A Brief History of Vice: How Bad Behavior Built Civilization, a celebration of the brave, drunken pioneers who built our civilization one seemingly bad decision at a time.