Have you ever been singing along to your favorite tune and suddenly realized that the song might be about something completely different than you previously thought? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. In fact, there are more than a handful of hits that have more to their meaning than what meets the eye. For instance, if you like dancing along to “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People, you’ll be floored to find out that it’s actually about mental illness. And did you know that the early 2000s novelty hit “Who Let the Dogs Out” is a feminist anthem? To help clear things up—from The Beatles to the Boss—here are the famous songs that have been totally misunderstood.
As much as we love our four-legged friends, this Caribbean classic is not about canines. After eight years of research, Ben Sisto got to the heart of the titular question in his documentary Who Let the Dogs Out, which premiered at SXSW in 2019. The final answer? The steel drum-infused song is actually a feminist anthem.
According to The Daily Beast, Trinidadian artist Anslem Douglas wrote the song—originally titled “Doggie,” but famously known as “Who Let the Dogs Out” thanks to Baha Men’s 2000 cover—as a “rallying cry” against cat-calling. Hence the lyrics: “Well the party was nice, the party was pumpin’/And everybody havin’ a ball/Until the fellas started name callin’/And the girls responded to the call/I heard a woman shout out/’Who let the dogs out?'”
In terms of symbolism, “Blackbird” is one of The Beatles’ best metaphors—and no, it doesn’t have any aviary connection. The British band was fascinated and appalled by the American civil rights movement happening in the ’60s. They wrote the song “Blackbird” after hearing about the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American students who fought to desegregate the school system in Little Rock, Arkansas. In 2016, Paul McCartney tweeted, “Incredible to meet two of the Little Rock Nine—pioneers of the civil rights movement and inspiration for Blackbird,” following a meet-and-greet with Thelma Mothershed Wair and Elizabeth Eckford.
This ’90s hit from San Francisco rockers, Third Eye Blind, isn’t what it seems. Despite its upbeat sound, the lyrics have a much darker undertone. In a 1997 interview with Billboard, frontman, Stephan Jenkins, calls “Semi-Charmed Life” a “dirty, filthy song” about, well, sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll.
“I think people hear ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ as a happy summertime jam. And that’s fine with me,” Jenkins said. “I don’t think the song should be so blatant that I have to come out and say, ‘Couples who take speed tend to break up, so don’t do it.'”
Even the title itself refers to “a life that’s all propped up,” Jenkins adds. “You know, the beautiful people who lead bright and shiny lives that on the inside are all [messed] up.”
This breakup ballad is not about your typical “boy meets girl” scenario. In fact, Jim Steinman who wrote the song for Bonnie Tyler, told Playbill that he based the song off a fantasy about vampires. No joke. It was originally called “Vampires in Love,” which explains all the creepy lines such as, “Your love is like a shadow on me all of the time/I don’t know what to do and I’m always in the dark.”
Who could ever forget this carpool-karaoke staple? You loved singing the 1994 TLC hit, but you may have overlooked the song’s serious subject matter. It’s actually about the AIDS epidemic, as referenced in the line: “His health is fading and he doesn’t know why/Three letters took him to his final resting place.”
“Anything that’s self-destructive, that’s chasing a waterfall,” singer Rozonda ‘Chilli’ Thomas told The Guardian. “We wanted to make a song with a strong message—about unprotected sex, being promiscuous, and hanging out in the wrong crowd.” The music video furthered this message by showing a kid dealing drugs and a man contracting HIV.
Don’t be fooled by this popular 1998 song by the Goo Goo Dolls. “Slide” is not a love ballad, but rather, a story about an unplanned pregnancy. In a 2018 interview celebrating the 20th anniversary of the album Dizzy Up the Girl, lead singer Johnny Rzeznik told Billboard, “I was thinking a lot about the neighborhood I grew up in. ‘Slide’ is about a teenage boy and girl. They’re trying to figure out if they’re going to keep the baby or if she’s going to get an abortion or if they’re just going to run away. They’re dealing with these heavy life choices at a very early age. Everybody grew up way too fast.”
Don’t believe it? Just take a glance at these lyrics: “Don’t you love the life you killed?/The priest is on the phone/Your father hit the wall/Your ma disowned you.”
The choreographed moves are almost as iconic as the tune itself. But this ’90s Spanish cult-classic isn’t as innocent as our childhood memories would expect. The rhythmic hit is actually about a woman who cheats on her boyfriend (with his two friends!) while he’s being drafted into the army.
Maroon 5’s breakout album, Songs About Jane, may be full of steamy love songs, but “Harder to Breathe” is not one of them. In fact, it is actually about a different suffocating relationship—with the group’s record label.
“That song comes sheerly from wanting to throw something,” frontman Adam Levine said in a 2002 MTV interview. “It was the 11th hour, and the label wanted more songs. It was the last crack. I wanted to make a record, and the label was applying a lot of pressure, but I’m glad they did.”
Blondie frontwoman, Debbie Harry, pulled from personal experience to create the ’80s rock classic, “One Way or Another.” But, what sounds like a cat-and-mouse game between lovers is a scarier situation in reality. “I was actually stalked by a nut-job so it came out of a not-so-friendly personal event,” Harry told Entertainment Weekly. “But I tried to inject a little bit of levity into it to make it more lighthearted. I think in a way that’s a normal kind of survival mechanism. You know, just shake it off, say one way or another, and get on with your life. Everyone can relate to that and I think that’s the beauty of it.” And for other earworms from the ’80s, check out 25 Songs Every ’80s Kid Knows By Heart.
This head-bouncing bop sounds like it has simple origins about a teenager with sweet new shoes. In reality, it’s trying to raise awareness for mental illness and gun violence, as seen in the chorus: “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks/You’d better run, better run, outrun my gun.”
“I remember that week, there was some shooting that happened, and it really bothered me, because I recognized that it was going to continue to get worse,” lead singer Mark Foster told Billboard in 2019, setting the scene of the song’s creation. “And then that song popped out.”
As one of the earliest viral sensations—reaching 3.5 billion views on YouTube—Psy’s “Gangnam Style” swept the globe with its infectious beat and dance moves. But behind the South Korean artist’s lyrics, lies a sharp social satire on the ultra-rich residents of Gangnam, a neighborhood known as the Beverly Hills of Seoul. In the music video, he pokes fun at the glamorous lifestyle, but even doing that didn’t bring him much satisfaction. According to The Atlantic, Psy said: “Human society is so hollow, and even while filming, I felt pathetic. Each frame by frame was hollow.”
At first glance, the title track of Bruce Springsteen’s seventh album seems as patriotic as patriotic can get. According to The New Yorker, the 1984 hit was even used in Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign. This quickly prompted the Boss to clarify things a bit, saying that “Born in the U.S.A.” was “the most misunderstood song since ‘Louie, Louie.'” From then on, he played an acoustic version of the hit that made its darker tone—about Vietnam veterans—more obvious to listeners.
In a 1984 Rolling Stone interview, Springsteen said: “When you think about all the young men and women that died in Vietnam, and how many died since they’ve been back—surviving the war and coming back and not surviving—you have to think that, at the time, the country took advantage of their selflessness.”
If you thought Rihanna’s 2010 bop, “S&M,” was about a racy relationship, guess again. The songstress intended it to be about her tumultuous experience with the media. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Rihanna told Vogue in 2011, “The song can be taken very literally, but it’s actually a very metaphorical song. It’s about the love-hate relationship with the media and how sometimes the pain is pleasurable. We feed off it—or I do. And it was a very personal message that I was trying to get across.”
Although “London Calling” was known as a political punk-rock anthem in the late ’70s, the song was much more relevant to a topic of today’s time: climate change. According to The Wall Street Journal, the British band was scared after reading a 1979 London Evening Standard article about the Thames river flooding the streets of London. Originally, frontman, Joe Strummer, focused his lyrics on the subject of drowning but then broadened his approach to include an array of dire circumstances. You can hear it for yourself in the chorus, “The ice age is coming, the sun’s zooming in/Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin/Engines stop running, but I have no fear/’Cause London is drowning/I live by the river.”
Although the lyrics to Lorde’s 2013 hit “Royals” depict the idea of rejecting fame and fortune, the true meaning is literally in the song’s title. The New Zealand pop artist was flipping through a 1976 issue of National Geographic, and stumbled upon a picture of George Brett, a Kansas City Royals baseball player, who was surrounded by screaming fans begging for his autograph. In an interview with VH1, Lorde explained, “his shirt said Royals… I really like that word, because I’m a big word fetishist. I’ll pick a word, and I’ll pin an idea to that.”
Soothing acoustics aside, “The A Team” is a melancholy story inspired by Ed Sheeran’s experience performing at a charity concert for Crisis, a foundation that helps the homeless in the U.K. After visiting the shelter and hearing their stories, Sheeran went home and wrote the lyrics in 20 minutes. You can pick up some of the references, especially in lines like, “Ripped glove, raincoat/Tried to swim and stay afloat/Dry house, wet clothes/Loose change, bank notes/Weary-eyed and dry throat.”
Since she first stepped onto the scene in 2008, Lady Gaga has been an advocate for LGBTQ+ rights and representation. And on her debut record, The Fame, she explores her own bisexuality in the song “Poker Face.” According to NBC, the pop star said the song was “about being in a relationship with a man but fantasizing about a woman; hence, the man must read her poker face.”
Don McLean’s catchy 1970s ditty may be the perfect campfire sing-along, but it’s not as happy-go-lucky as it seems. In fact, the line “the day the music died” nods to the tragic 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson (a.k.a. The Big Bopper), and Ritchie Valens.
“The lyrics had to do with the [deteriorating] state of society at the time,” McLean told The Guardian. When he auctioned the song’s original manuscript at Christie’s in 2015, McLean said, “Basically, in ‘American Pie’ things are heading in the wrong direction. It is becoming less ideal, less idyllic… it is a morality song in a sense.”
This Sarah McLachlan song may conjure those sad SPCA animal commercials, but there’s more to the tear-inducing tune. According to ABC News, McLachlan penned the piece in memory of Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, who died from a heroin overdose in 1996. “The story shook me because though I have never done hard drugs like that, I felt a flood of empathy for him and that feeling of being lost, lonely, and desperately searching for some kind of release,” McLachlan wrote on Quora in 2014.
You’ve most likely heard this crooner at the end of a late night out with friends. But contrary to popular belief, “Closing Time” isn’t about the last call at a bar. Semisonic lead singer, Dan Wilson, actually wrote the piece for his daughter, who was born prematurely. At his college reunion at Harvard in 2008, Wilson told the crowd, “I hid it so well in plain view that millions and millions of people heard the song and didn’t get it. They think it’s about being bounced from a bar, but it’s about being bounced from the womb.”