Five Songs That Don’t Add Up to One Cogent Thought

Just because lyrics rhyme doesn’t mean that they make sense
Five Songs That Don’t Add Up to One Cogent Thought

Most of us are perfectly fine singing along to some random guy’s Spotify playlist without a single clue what the words mean. But this can get us into trouble. You’re flying along the highway, creating a perfect road trip moment with your crew, and the next thing you know, you suddenly realize you’re singing about the joys of crystal meth and school shootings. 

Rest assured, though, that that will never happen with these songs because they don’t mean anything whatsoever…

‘I Want It That Way’

Go up to any group of people born between approximately 1975 and 1992 shriek “Tell me why!” in their faces, and they’ll almost certainly reproduce the rest of the chorus of the Backstreet Boys’ signature song in perfect five-part harmony. But that same group of people couldn’t begin to tell you what the lyrics that are basically etched into their DNA actually mean. What way do they want it? The statement is expressed from two different viewpoints in the song, each time with different desirability (“Believe when I say that I want it that way” versus “I never wanna hear you say, ‘I want it that way’”). The rest of the lyrics abstractly describe some kind of breakup? Long-distance relationship? Minor disagreement? It’s deeply unclear, but nothing is more so than which way who wants it.

There’s actually a good reason for that. The song was written by Andreas Carlsson and Max Martin, two of the driving forces behind the Swedish songwriting team that was responsible for most of the era’s pop hits, from Britney Spears to Bon Jovi. None of those songs make a lot of sense, albeit a little more than this one, because the songwriters barely spoke English. They were just putting together syllables that sounded good, which was a nightmare for the censors who had to figure out exactly in what manner Britney’s guy was going to hit her one more time and almost left “I Want It That Way” dead in the water. “The record company was like, ‘We need to bring in maybe another lyricist to help work on this,’” Carlsson remembered, admitting that “the lyric doesn’t really mean anything.” 

Fortunately for singalong enthusiasts, they regained their faith in the American public to completely disregard the words they’re saying.

‘I Am the Walrus’

If you had to hazard a guess at what “I Am the Walrus” is about, you’d probably say, “Drugs? Is it drugs?” And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. According to John Lennon, he came up with the first line of the song during an acid trip and the second line during his next trip, and it wouldn’t be at odds with the final product if he’d just gone line by line like that.

However, Lennon’s biggest inspiration for writing the song, even beyond drugs, was his exasperation at Beatles fans endlessly overanalyzing his lyrics. The last straw was when a student from his old high school wrote to him that the school was teaching a whole class about Beatles lyrics. He was also pretty grumpy about the success of Bob Dylan, who he believed was “getting away with murder” by writing nonsense, and became determined to show everyone that he “could write that crap, too.”

The resulting song is a mishmash of lines pulled from other songs and books, including an old nursery rhyme Lennon used to sing as a child, and straight-up nonsense. After writing the line “Semolina pilchard climbing up the Eiffel Tower,” he was said to grin and declare, “Let the fuckers figure that one out!” Despite its incoherence, “I Am the Walrus” still managed to get banned by the BBC because of the line “Girl, you’ve been a naughty boy, you let your knickers down.” They might not have known what it meant, but “sounds kinda gay” was good enough for them in 1967.

‘Break Free’

Don’t come for us, Arianation: We’ll be the first to absolve Ariana Grande of any blame for the lyrics of “Break Free.” (But maybe Google Richard Butler and rethink that name, guys.) After all, it’s not like she wrote them. One glance at the credits does reveal people who should know better, though, including German DJ Zedd, veteran songwriter Savan Kotecha, and… well, well, well. Max Martin, we meet again.

Even Grande, who had barely, uh, broken free from Disney stardom at that point, found the lyrics so stupid that she flat-out told the double-digit Grammy-nominated songwriter she wasn’t going to sing them. “I fought him on it the whole time. ‘I am not going to sing a grammatically incorrect lyric, help me, God!’” she recalled, referring to lines like “Now that I’ve become who I really are.” But “Max was like, ‘It’s funny — just do it!’” which only presents us with a further conundrum: Which of these people is worse? (Just kidding, Arianators, it’s Martin. All hail Ariana.)

That said, Grande did make a valiant attempt to defend some of the sillier lines like “I only want to die alive,” explaining, “It means life is so short — there’s no reason to not enjoy it and there’s no reason you should be anything but yourself.” It absolutely doesn’t mean that, but good for her for trying. That still doesn’t explain why it starts as a love song (“If you want it, take it / I should have said it before / Tried to hide it, fake it / I can't pretend anymore”) and abruptly transitions to breakup anthem, but we can reasonably chalk that up to standard Max Martin shenanigans.

‘Say You’ll Be There’

There’s no cute story about “Say You’ll Be There,” just a lot of gibberish. The verses are all about letting some dude down easy (“Last time that we had this conversation, I decided we should be friends,” “If you put two and two together, you will see what our friendship is for,” etc.), but by the chorus, they’re offering to give him everything, “all that joy can bring, this I swear, and all they I want from you is a promise you will be there.” And what about the bridge: “But any fool can see they’re falling”? “They”? Who is “they”? Just how many guys are the Spice Girls friend-zoning with these maddeningly mixed messages?

To hear them explain the song makes nothing clearer. In fact, the whole thing reads like a girl power Spinal Tap. “A lot of the sentiment in the song is to do with what we’ve been through together,” Mel C said, clearing nothing up. “We’ve always been there for each other, so we wrote about that.” Victoria added, while possibly high, “I immediately saw the ‘two and two is four’ pun … and tried to explain it to the others, but they didn’t get it at first. They’re no good at maths.” Finally, Mel B elaborated that “the song means different things to each of us, but basically it’s saying that when you’re in a relationship, you should be there for each other. You don’t have to give them the I-love-you bit, because what’s important is being there for each other.” 

Melanie. Melanie. What the genuine fuck?

What does explain it just a little bit is the fact that this was one of the first songs the group wrote with their management at the time. Describing their process, co-writer Eliot Kennedy said, “I'd sing them the chorus and the melody — no lyrics or anything — and straight away five pads and pencils came out and they were throwing lines at us. Ten minutes later, the song was written.” 

So it was a song written in the same amount of time as a particularly rough bowel movement by five different people all throwing out lines at the same time. Finally, something that makes sense.

‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

Let’s be clear: “Bohemian Rhapsody” might be the best song ever written. Stuffy historians might say it’s something by Mozart or Beethoven, but no, no, it’s Mercury. Part of the song’s genius is that it’s so easy to read meaning into, especially given what we know about Freddie Mercury’s turbulent personal life. But whatever you think about his heartfelt confession to his mama (ooh-ooh-ooh), it all kind of crumbles away when you get to the part about doing the fandango.

One of the reasons is that it’s not really a cohesive song but a collection of bits and pieces Mercury wrote over the years. The first section (you know, “Mama, just killed a man,” etc.) was initially known as “The Cowboy Song,” which should put to rest any speculation about who Mercury might have metaphorically “killed” and how. It’s just a Clint Eastwood movie in song form. Queen guitarist Brian May remembered Mercury “banging away on the piano and doing little bits that had big gaps in them. We asked, ‘Why are all these gaps in there?’ And he said, ‘That’s where the operatic bits are going to go.’” He hadn’t even written them yet. It was Mad Libs songwriting all the way.

When the time came for the “operatic bits,” “it was basically a joke, but a successful joke,” producer Roy Thomas Baker explained. It was explicitly meant to be a “mock opera,” with “choruses of multi-tracked voices alternate with aria-like solos, the emotions are excessive, the plot confusing.” Baker remembered that they “never stopped laughing” as they recorded it because “Freddie kept coming in with more ‘Galileos,’” like some kind of legitimately funny SNL sketch.

Mercury himself refused to ever publicly explain the lyrics, and his band and everybody else mostly respected that, assuming it was too dark and personal to discuss with anyone but an extremely well-paid therapist. However, the DJ who catapulted the song to success claims that Mercury once confirmed to him that the song was “just random, rhyming nonsense.” 

In the end, nothing really did matter. Literally anyone can see.

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