15 Songs That Don't Mean What You Think
Writing a song is hard -- it’s gotta be poetry that people can dance and sing along to, or your label will drop you and you’ll be relegated to the one-hit wonder graveyard. As a result, a lot of people never stop dancing long enough to really listen to a song, or its meaning is intentionally obscured because it’s too much of a downer to make you boogie. We’ll tell you one thing: Lord Byron never had to deal with this.
“I Shot the Sheriff”
A 2012 documentary revealed that lyrics like “Sheriff John Brown always hated me, for what, I don’t know/Every time I plant a seed, he said ‘Kill it before it grows’” referred to the doctor who prescribed birth control pills to Bob Marley’s girlfriend at the time, to Marley’s disapproval. He ended up having 11 children with various women, so that’s just greedy.
“Who Let the Dogs Out?”
Despite what Paw Patrol and internet memes might have you believe, the song isn’t about dogs, and it’s not about harassing ugly women, either. In fact, the “dogs” are men, and the song describes a group of women’s response to being harassed. That’s right: The Baha Men are feminist icons.
“Barracuda” is about betrayal, but not by a boyfriend. It was written after Heart’s record company went behind the band’s back to promote sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson as incestuous lesbians, which is actually not a tactic that’s ever worked. Even t.A.T.u. weren’t related.
“Ticket to Ride”
It sounds like a typical breakup song, and it pretty much is, but “Ticket to Ride” has two fairly immature double meanings, depending on which Beatle you asked. Paul McCartney thought they were talking about literally taking a train to a town named Ryde on the Isle of Wight, while John Lennon was writing about the health records carried by Hamburgian sex workers. Those guys really needed to communicate more.
“Martha My Dear”
Speaking of Beatles being children, Paul McCartney wrote “Martha My Dear” about ex-girlfriend Jane Asher, but then he went and named it after his dog. That’s about as scorching as ex disses get outside of Taylor Swift.
Jolene wasn’t the name of a woman trying to take Dolly Parton’s man but an eight-year-old girl. Parton signed an autograph for her at a concert and thought she had such “beautiful red hair, this beautiful skin, these beautiful green eyes” and her name was so pretty that she decided to write a song about… a homewrecking skank.
“I Will Always Love You”
Meanwhile, the world’s greatest breakup anthem is actually about the end of a business relationship. Parton wanted to leave Porter Wagoner’s TV show to pursue a solo career, so she wrote “I Will Always Love You” to soften the blow.
No doubt Rihanna can write a banger about banging, but “S&M” isn’t one of them. She said the song is “about the love-hate relationship with the media and how sometimes the pain is pleasurable.” To be fair, that music video did muddle the message somewhat.
The meaning of “Paper Planes” doesn’t seem hard to discern -- maybe it’s all that “shoot you and take your money” business -- but it’s actually a satire of immigrant stereotypes. M.I.A. herself had unpleasant experiences with border patrol agents, so “that's why I wrote , just to have a dig."
“Losing My Religion”
“Losing My Religion” actually has nothing to do with religion. It’s about unrequited love -- “a classic obsession pop song,” as Michael Stipe says -- and losing one’s religion is a Southern idiom that means losing one’s temper or patience. As usual, Stipe is just being delightfully from Georgia.
“Pretty in Pink”
The fact that it was made famous by a movie whose plot hinges on a pink dress obscures the real meaning of pinkness in the song, which is nakedness. It’s about a few frequently naked, i.e. slutty, women known by the Psychedelic Furs’s Richard Butler, mashed into an amalgamation whose sluttiness “makes her feel empowered somehow and popular, and in fact, the people that she's sleeping with are laughing about her behind her back and talking about her.”
“Summer of ‘69”
The summer of 1969 was presumably romantically unexciting for Bryan Adams, who would have been nine years old, which is your first clue that the song isn’t about the year. It might have been initially, when the phrase was included as a throwaway line, but then Adams added “Me and my baby in a 69” at the end of the song and thought it was so funny that he started telling everyone it was about “making love a la 69,” so now you know he’s the kind of guy who says things like that.
The song that made Semisonic a one-hit wonder isn’t about being ejected from a bar but from a womb. Songwriter Dan Wilson “thought everyone would get” that the song was about the birth of his daughter, and really, what kind of bar only lets in people who have siblings?
“Born in the U.S.A.”
No matter how badly political rally organizers want it to be true, “Born in the U.S.A.” is not about how awesome it is to be American, which is obvious if you listen to any part of it that isn’t the words “Born in the U.S.A.” It’s about a Vietnam veteran who returns home to find himself unemployable and homeless, so maybe not something you want to bring up, politicians.
Why is the ice we skate getting so thin? Climate change. While Smash Mouth intended to write the song mostly as a message to fans who got rightfully bullied for being so into Smash Mouth, some clairvoyant spirit took control of their bodies and lines like “It’s a cool place and they say it gets colder/You’re bundled up now, wait ‘til you get older” sneaked in there. Feel free to comb the Smash Mouth catalog for other potential harbingers of doom.
Top image: Interscope/YouTube