How About We Explain (And Then Ruin) Your Favorite Songs?
"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.
"What's The Frequency, Kenneth?" Is About The Time Dan Rather Got His Ass Kicked By Two Lunatics
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."
"Courage ... like the kind two grown men beating the shit out of a reporter definitely don't have."
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.
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.
Blondie's "One Way Or Another" Is About Debbie Harry's Actual Stalker
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.
Prince's "Sister" Might Be Based On Real-Life Molestation
We are not courting controversy here when we state, for the record, that Prince sure knew how to write a song about fucking. Statistically speaking, half of the people who read this were conceived to his work. But even he struggled to sound erotic on "Sister," a fun little tune about a 16-year-old boy being taught the ways of West Virginia lovin' by his older sister.
Actual incest is less blunt than this song. There are lines like My sister never made love to anyone else but me and Incest is everything it's said to be. One verse is dedicated to his sister's vaginal fluid. It's pretty much the grossest tale of sexual awakening this side of bad fanfiction and, according to Prince, it's based on his life: When Prince was 16, he was living with his 32-year-old half-sister in New York. And he would later describe the song as "autobiographical," "self-explanatory," "just an incident in my life," and, oh yeah, "pro-incest."
She should've done what everyone else did: fall in love with him from afar
while cursing the heavens that she can't have him.
Now, it's entirely possible that Prince was just trying to build his mythology and get a rise out of people, and we probably could have picked a better way to phrase that. But at the very least, we do know that he was very close with that sister, and he apparently saw no problem with writing a song about her where she deflowers him, introduces him to S&M and, at the end of the song, threatens to throw him out onto the street if he doesn't keep going along with it. So, whether it was literal or figurative, something about their relationship sure was fucked.
Arcade Fire Wrote A Song About Jessica Simpson's Creepy Dad
Arcade Fire was Canada's chief musical export for a time, after Celine Dion but before Bieber. Hey, one out of three ain't ... bad? It's not great, but regardless. One of their songs, "Antichrist Television Blues," is about an extreme case of stage dadism -- an exploitative father begs God to make his 13-year-old daughter famous so he can spread the Good Lord's word and also, total coincidence here, make the dad filthy rich so he'll never have to work again.
And that ugly relationship was inspired by real-life pop star Jessica Simpson and her father/manager Joe Simpson, which we know because the song was at one point called "Joe Simpson" and was once introduced as "a song about what happens when fathers grow up to manage their daughters." That's not exactly subtle. The unflattering track is about a man sexualizing, exploiting, and profiting from his little girl, but it still barely scratches the surface of the weird relationship the Simpsons have.
Joe Simpson was a Christian minister before he decided to help his daughter get into the entertainment business, which would be fine if everything that came out of his mouth didn't make their relationship sound like a movie script that Lifetime turned down for being too sordid and ridiculous. Joe gave Jessica a purity ring when she was 12, and Jessica promised that he would be the only man in her life until she married.
It's nightmarishly possible this is actually how he had her do house chores.
As you can see above, Jessica played up her sexuality for her career, and ugly realities of pop music aside, the fact that her dad was happy to brag about her "double Ds" makes us wonder if maybe he was the one who needed the purity ring. "Jessica never tries to be sexy. She just is sexy. If you put her in a T-shirt or you put her in a bustier, she's sexy in both. She's got double Ds! You can't cover those suckers up!" he told GQ Magazine, who tragically didn't think to capture the look on their reporter's face.
Just take a selfie next time you get food poisoning and you'll get the idea.
Stone Temple Pilots' "Sex Type Thing" Is About Scott Weiland's Girlfriend Being Gang-Raped
"Sex Type Thing," aside from being how we described all of our college relationships, is pretty explicitly about rape. Lines like You wouldn't want me have to hurt you too and I said ya shouldn't have worn that dress aren't trying to hide anything ...
But you may not have known that it's not about rape in the abstract -- it's about the specific time singer Scott Weiland's ex-girlfriend was gang-raped by three high school football players. On the one hand, that makes it a powerful look at the entitlement some men can feel. And the fact that Weiland is voicing the rapist implies that he's well-aware that many men, including himself, are capable of doing dark things, which was a valuable message considering the song came out in the early '90s, when rock's attitude towards sex was mostly still "Whoo!" and occasionally "Uh huh!" On the other hand, it's pretty goddamn creepy that Weiland basically sang about raping his ex-girlfriend.
It's the kind of revelation that makes us really not want to know what's happening here.
We have no idea what the ex thought about the song, but at the very least she's probably not thrilled that people keep naming it one of the "sexiest" songs ever. One radio station even noted that it's "almost stalkerish," but only in the sense of, "Like you see a girl in a bar and you just need her, but you can tell she digs how aggressive your approach is." Nailed it, guys.
Patrick Coyne has a blog; it's called Florida Cousins, and he'd like you to stop by.
For more songs you actually have no clue what they're about, check out 6 Popular Songs You Didn't Know Have Dark Hidden Messages and 6 Famous Songs That Don't Mean What You Think.
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