4 Beloved Throwback Songs With Bananas Backgrounds
After years and years of replay, throwback song lyrics kind of melt into the music losing their meaning. This is why you can still find breathing, functioning humans in the wild who don't realize "Semi-Charmed Life" is about crystal meth despite the words "doing crystal meth" being belted out mid-song. We're totally okay with singing along to complete nonsense as long as it sounds good. However, there are times when that nonsense turns out to have a good explanation -- it's just 100% pure bananas ...
"Life on Mars?" is Bowie's Revenge Parody of "My Way"
David Bowie's songs are always a bit hard to pin down, depending as they do largely on which character (who may very well be a space alien) he was playing when he recorded them, but "Life on Mars?" is pretty weird even for a Bowie song.
With its sweeping piano and orchestral arrangement and lyrics describing everything from movie watching to police brutality (but not, notably, any aliens), the BBC called it "a cross between a Broadway musical and a Salvador Dali painting." Believe it or not, that was pretty different from what Bowie was doing at the time.
That's because it's not entirely his song. Now that it's been pointed out to you, you'll never not notice that the song uses the exact same chords as the Sinatra-popularized "My Way," and it's not because Bowie was a flagrant plagiarist.
"My Way" was actually the result of the publishers of a song called "Comme d'Habitude" approaching English-language songwriters to translate the French hit, and Bowie was actually the first person tasked with the challenge. Unfortunately, he went and Bowie'd it up.
He'd gotten it into his head that the song should be sung by a then-popular English performer named Anthony Newley, who had a sort of "sad clown" schtick, and the lyrics of his take on the tune, "Even a Fool Learns to Love," reflect that perspective. The song's publishers said, "Obviously, we're not doing that," eventually going with Paul Anka's anthemic "My Way," which everyone, including 21st-century Bowie, can agree was the right call.
At the time, though, Bowie was a little sore about the whole thing -- "My Way" even took its title from a line of his song -- so he decided to go ahead with his own version except make it a lot better first. It should be noted that neither "My Way" nor "Even a Fool Learns to Love" appear to have anything lyrically to do with "Comme d'Habitude," which is about a vaguely unhappy relationship, so it's not clear if the oddball "Life on Mars?" is a dig at anyone or just Bowie doing his thing, which is the same answer to a lot of questions about David Bowie.
"Mr. Roboto" Was Part of a Bizarre Rock Opera
Unless you're the thankfully rare under-40 Styx superfan, you probably know "Mr. Roboto" as 1) the nonsensical song Buster Bluth listens to in that Volkswagen commercial …
… and 2) the reason you know the phrase "domo arigato." Upon closer examination, it seems like it's trying to tell a story about a man disguised as a robot, but it leaves a lot of questions unanswered: Why? Is the narrator Mr. Roboto, or is he the one thanking Mr. Roboto? Who the dickens is Kilroy?
It turns out all of this is explained in the rock opera Kilroy Was Here, an ambitious multimedia project/fever dream about a rock star imprisoned after rock music is outlawed that was conceived, birthed, and beloved by Styx keyboardist Dennis DeYoung and absolutely no one else. The rest of the band wanted no part in what DeYoung envisioned as a combination short film and live stage show with every member playing a character ... but DeYoung was responsible for most of Styx's financial success and also probably had incriminating photos of them, so he was getting his way.
It's not a format that lends itself to radio -- if you've ever heard one song from a musical without any background on the story, you're familiar with the violent confusion it often causes. "Mr. Roboto" specifically wasn't intended to be a single, but this was still the rock music business, and focus groups picked it, so it was foisted upon a baffled future populace.
At the time, the Kilroy Was Here album was actually quite popular, and the accompanying live tour was poised to be a success. The short film was made with special effects by no less a legend than Stan Winston of later Terminator and Jurassic Park fame, costumes were sewn, and lines were learned; everything seemed ready to go.
The problem was that all that stuff was really expensive, and DeYoung insisted on smaller venues so audiences could really get the personal "Tipper Gore but with robots" experience, so it wasn't very profitable. It also remained really stupid. Guitarist Tommy Shaw actually ended the tour -- and ultimately the band -- prematurely by destroying his guitar and storming offstage. As a result, everyone forgot about Kilroy Was Here until Volkswagen needed to show off Tony Hale's sweet moves.
Thom Yorke Really is a "Creep"
Contrary to its title and the assertions of its narrator, there's nothing really creepy about "Creep." We have no idea what kind of relationship the narrator has with the object of his affection. They apparently frequent the same places, so maybe she's a classmate or coworker or friend of a friend, but their only documented interaction involves difficulty with eye contact. His creepiness is all in his head, as far as we can tell. Sure, she's running out the door there at the end, but who knows why? Maybe Beyonce walked by. Maybe someone farted. It's not necessarily because she spotted the squinty dork who's been following her around.
Except that's exactly what Thom Yorke apparently did to the woman who inspired "Creep." According to guitarist Jonny Greenwood, while Yorke was in college, he became obsessed with a woman he never even spoke to. "He just followed her for a couple of days or a week or whatever," he said, which obviously translates to a minimum of three months. With that context, it's honestly pretty sneaky of Yorke to phrase the song the way he did, referencing the time "when you were here before," as if she's the one who just showed up. That's a real "it happens to be where Josh lives" move.
Even, well, creepier, this woman still has no idea who she is. Yorke never worked up the nerve to say hi, even when she showed up to one of their concerts a few years later. "He was very shaken up after that," Greenwood said. So if you happened to attend a Radiohead concert in Exeter in the early '90s, congratulations! Thom Yorke might have considered turning you into a skin suit.
"...Baby One More Time" is a Translation Error
Real talk: Why are there so many ellipses in Britney Spears' album titles? Oops!... I Did It Again is just a senseless miscarriage of punctuation, but the song and album title ...Baby One More Time is straight-up censorship. No one could figure out what the exact hell "Hit me, baby, one more time" was supposed to mean, but it was considered so offensive anyway that the record label preemptively cut it down. Of course, it didn't stop them from releasing it so people could ask, "Is it sexual? Violent? Wait, who cares?" before going back to singing along.
It's actually neither of those things -- it's just what happens when a non-native English speaker engineers a Western music revolution. You can credit the bare midriffs and frosted tips who performed it for the teen pop craze of the late '90s, but its driving force was Max Martin, a songwriter and producer from Sweden who was staring down the barrel of his 30s and looked like a lesser-known Van Halen. He wrote most of the from Backstreet Boys, N Sync, and Britney during this time, and the only reason he's not just as famous is that he doesn't look as good in a crop top.
He's also, it can't be overstated, Swedish, which is why those songs make no sense. "I don't care who you are, where you're from, what you did, as long as you love me"? That's terrible decision-making, Max. It turns out that Martin was only vaguely familiar with the English slang use of the phrase "hit me," as in "hit me back" or "hit me up." He thought people just said "hit me" when they meant "call me," completely unaware of the unsavory connotations of a line like "Hit me, baby, one more time." It turns out, contrary to another smash hit he wrote for Britney, it really was that innocent.
Top image: Jive Records