20 Pop Songs That Have Suprising Meanings

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Sometimes the sound of a song or the ambiguous choice of words it uses can mask what it’s truly about. Indeed, the history of pop music is littered with classics that most listeners have interpreted incorrectly. With that in mind, here’s a look at 20 tracks whose true meanings may totally surprise you.

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20. Bonnie Tyler – “Total Eclipse of the Heart”

One of the all-time great power ballads, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” came equipped with a spooky gothic video, shot at an old Victorian hospital. But most people don’t know that the song itself is also steeped in horror. Songwriter Jim Steinman told Playbill that the 1980s megahit was originally known as “Vampires in Love.” He said, “If anyone listens to the lyrics, they’re really like vampire lines. It’s all about the darkness, the power of darkness and love’s place in the dark.”

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19. Semisonic – “Closing Time”

Semisonic’s Grammy-nominated “Closing Time” is widely assumed to be about the moment when everyone has to drink up and leave the bar or club. However, in an interview with NPR, frontman Dan Wilson revealed the song was actually about the birth of his first-born. He said, “It’s kind of like being cut off, you know, your umbilical cord is going to get cut off and, you know, you’re done here. You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here in the womb.”

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18. Third Eye Blind – “Semi-Charmed Life”

With its jaunty production and infectious ‘do-do-dos,’ Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” is viewed by most as a carefree singalong. But it’s actually packed with drug references which allude to an addiction to crystal meth. Indeed, the U.S. number 4 hit even explicitly mentions the drug in the lyric, “Doing crystal meth will lift you up until you break.” Due to the song’s radio edit, however, you might never have heard that.

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17. Goo Goo Dolls – “Slide”

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Turns out the late ‘90s alt-rock scene was dominated by misinterpreted anthems. Like their biggest hit, “Iris,” Goo Goo Dolls’ “Slide” appears tailor-made to appear in the score of some Hollywood rom-com. But speaking to VH1 Storytellers, lead singer Johnny Rzenik revealed that the lyrics aren’t quite suitable for such a premise. That’s because the song is actually about an adolescent girl who’s disowned by her pious Catholic family after they learn of her abortion.

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16. TLC – “Waterfalls”

The award-winning video for TLC’s “Waterfalls” made things clearer about its lyrical content. But if you only ever heard the U.S. number one song on the radio you might not catch its tough-tackling themes. The third single from the seminal CrazySexyCool addresses two of the 1990s’ most notable epidemics, drugs and AIDS. In fact, the R&B trio were the first ever to address the latter in a chart-topping song.

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15. Green Day – “Wake Me Up When September Ends”

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While the video for TLC’s “Waterfalls” perfectly complemented the track, the promo for Green Day’s “Wake Me Up When September Ends” only confused matters. If you only know the track through MTV, chances are you think the 2005 hit is about a relationship torn apart by war. But the fourth release from the epic American Idiot LP was actually penned by frontman Billie Joe Armstrong as a tribute to the father he lost as a youngster.

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14. The Police – “Every Breath You Take”

Possibly one of the most famous misunderstood songs, The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” has been adopted by many as a heartfelt declaration of love and devotion. In fact, it has often proved to be a popular choice of wedding song. However, its real meaning is far more suited to the police station than the church. Described by frontman Sting as “ugly” and “very sinister,” the chart-topping single is actually told from the perspective of a stalker watching his prey’s every move.

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13. James Blunt – “You’re Beautiful”

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There’s also a major stalker element to James Blunt’s transatlantic number one hit from 2005. And the singer-songwriter made that very clear in an interview with The Huffington Post 12 years later. He said, “It’s about a guy who’s high as a f*****g kite on drugs in the subway stalking someone else’s girlfriend when that guy is there in front of him, and he should be locked up or put in prison for being some kind of perv.”

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12. R.E.M. – “The One I Love”

R.E.M.’s “The One I Love” is another anti-love song which many mistake to be a perfect Valentine’s Day anthem. In reality, the songs is about a bitter past relationship. In a 1987 interview with Rolling Stone, lead singer Michael Stipe said, “It’s a brutal kind of song, and I don’t know if a lot of people pick up on that. But I’ve always left myself pretty open to interpretation. It’s probably better that they just think it’s a love song at this point.”

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11. Bruno Mars – “Marry You”

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Perhaps unsurprisingly, Bruno Mars’ “Marry You” has become the go-to soundtrack for many a wedding proposal. But pay attention and you’ll notice that the entertainer isn’t as committed to walking down the aisle as you might think. In fact, a bored Mars only suggests getting hitched as a way of passing the time in the song, taken from 2010’s Doo-Wops & Hooligans. He even prepares for next-day regrets with the lyric, “If we wake up and you wanna break up that’s cool.”

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10. Sara Bareilles – “Love Song”

You can’t blame listeners for mistaking Sara Bareilles’ 2007 hit as a love song. It’s right there in the title. But in fact the track isn’t about infatuation at all. Rather, it’s a meta response to the record company that demanded the singer-songwriter pen more commercial material. In the end, both parties were surely happy with the result. “Love Song” not only peaked at number 4 in the U.S., but it also picked up a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year.

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9. Dolly Parton – “I Will Always Love You”

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Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” is a love song of sorts. It’s just not directed towards the kind of man you might think. Indeed, the country legend isn’t singing about a lover in the 1973 hit, which Whitney Houston famously revived nearly 20 years later. She is, in fact, paying tribute to Porter Wagoner, the musical mentor she decided to part company with shortly before writing the song.

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8. Foster the People – “Pumped Up Kicks”

You can’t help but sing, and indeed whistle, along to Foster the People’s seemingly cheerful breakthrough hit. But the Billboard Alternative Songs chart-topper is actually about the tragedy of an American school shooting. Frontman Mark Foster felt compelled to write about the subject after learning of some worrying statistics regarding teenage mental health. “Pumped Up Kicks” is therefore an attempt to understand the mindset of an “isolated, psychotic kid.”

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7. The Boomtown Rats – “I Don’t Like Mondays”

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The Boomtown Rats’ signature hit is another radio-friendly anthem which takes inspiration from a school shooting. “I don’t like Mondays,” was the remorseless explanation given by a teenager named Brenda Ann Spencer for firing upon a San Diego elementary school in 1979. Two adults died and eights kids were injured in the spree which shocked the world.

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6. The Verve – “The Drugs Don’t Work”

The Verve’s somber 1997 ballad was seen by many as an explicit nod to frontman Richard Ashcroft’s alleged gargantuan drug habit. But the second release from Urban Hymns had a much more emotional meaning. Indeed, the drugs in question weren’t of the recreational variety. Instead they referred to the medication which sadly failed to save Ashcroft’s father from dying of cancer.

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5. Sarah McLachlan – “Angel”

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You wouldn’t typically associate piano balladeer Sarah McLachlan with a song about a fatal heroin overdose. But that’s exactly what inspired her 1999 hit “Angel,” which has since been adopted as an official anthem for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. The singer-songwriter penned the track after reading about the 1996 heroin-related death of Jonathan Melvoin, the one-time keyboardist in grunge outfit Smashing Pumpkins.

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4. U2 – “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of”

U2 have also paid tribute to a musician who tragically lost his life in the mid-1990s. “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” sees Bono attempting to deter his friend, INXS frontman Michael Hutchence, from committing suicide in a fictional conversation. The Irishman later revealed that he wished he’d had such a talk with Hutchence, who killed himself in a Sydney hotel room in 1997.

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3. The Strangeloves – “I Want Candy”

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A U.S. top 20 hit back in 1965, The Strangeloves’ “I Want Candy” has since become a popular choice of backing track to promote various brands of kids’ sweets. On the surface, it’s probably a no-brainer for advertising execs. But take a closer look at its lyrics, and it soon becomes clear that it’s an entirely inappropriate choice. “I like candy when it’s wrapped in a sweater,” sing the trio, in a blatant reference to something sexual.

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2. Lenny Kravitz – “Are You Gonna Go My Way?”

Performed by a heavily inked, dreadlocked rock star renowned for his sexual magnetism and sounding like a long-lost Jimi Hendrix classic, “Are You Gonna Go My Way” wouldn’t initially appear to be particularly religious. But the 1991 hit is indeed about a messiah’s attempt to recruit his disciples. Lenny Kravitz once hailed Jesus as the “ultimate rock star,” and also has a tattoo of Christ on his back.

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1. Bruce Springsteen – “Born in the U.S.A.”

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Bruce Springsteen’s anthemic 1984 single must go down as one of the most misunderstood songs in rock history. Far from the patriotic celebration that many believe “Born in the U.S.A.” to be, the track is in fact a scathing response to the poor treatment afforded to American soldiers following their return from the Vietnam war. Even then-President Ronald Reagan was fooled, mentioning The Boss’ songs of hope while on his re-election campaign trail.

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