Nina Simone once asked “please don’t let me be misunderstood”. That is a pretty plain message right there, but often we don’t fully comprehend what musicians are trying to say. We soundtrack our lives with heartfelt ballads to sob to, slushy love songs for gazing into each other’s eyes and pumping anthems for all those good times.
But what if we’ve got it wrong?
Some other smart person once noted that “we only hear what we want to hear”, and music is a pretty perfect example of that. Growing up with The Police often on the stereo, it was clear to me that Every Breath You Take was a simplistic, if sickly, love song. These days it’s common knowledge that those lyrics were written with darker and uglier meaning, although opinion is divided as to whether Sting is narrating the part of a stalker, or governmental big brother.
Listening to The Stranglers gentle melodies, you would be forgiven for assuming that Golden Brown was some kind of endearment to a lover, as “she lays me down, with my mind to run”. Not a byword for heroin, as confirmed by the band’s singer and lyricist Hugh Cornwell. And even as the world went crazy for Gangnam Style, who amongst us realised that the song was mocking the excessively wealthy lifestyle of the Gangnam district in Seoul?
Here are five more songs that may not mean quite what you thought they did. If ever there was a time for a ‘spoiler alert’, this is it…
Total Eclipse Of The Heart – Bonnie Tyler
This is the ultimate power ballad pleading for a lover’s return, right? Wrong! Bonnie’s mega-hit from 1983 was actually about vampires.
In 1981, Tyler took on a new manager who, in turn, set about looking for a new producer to work with her. After seeing Meat Loaf perform Bat Out Of Hell live, they approached producer Jim Steinman. In the course of recording, Steinman presented Tyler with Total Eclipse of the Heart, which went on to become her most successful song.
In speaking about the track, Steinman is quoted as saying “with Total Eclipse of the Heart, I was trying to come up with a love song and I remembered I actually wrote that to be a vampire love song. Its original title was Vampires In Love because I was working on a musical of Nosferatu, the other great vampire story. 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 dark…”
And he isn’t lying. As Bonnie’s “holding on forever” to the love that’s “like a shadow on me all of the time / I don’t know what to do and I’m always in the dark”, it all becomes clear. And who could blame her for being “a little bit terrified” at the thought of dating the undead?
Born In The U.S.A. – Bruce Springsteen
This track is possibly the most publicly, and phenomenally, misinterpreted song of all time. Despite the fist pumping chorus, Springsteen was actually making a fairly damning, bleak commentary on the life that awaited returned veterans of the Vietnam War.
Released in 1984, Born In The U.S.A. was actually original demoed for Springsteen’s earlier album Nebraska. A somber, acoustic based release by Springsteen, Born In The U.S.A. grew out of that sensibility. Protesting the harsh conditions of the working class life in America, portraying a broken character isolated from his family and from the government.
Oddly enough, the song was then , and somehow still is today, taken up by American political figures as a sort of anthem and affirmation. Cited by critics and politicians as the embodiment of American values, as a figure of hope, Springsteen was even praised by President Ronald Reagan; the man behind the administration that Springsteen was condemning.
All can be blamed on that infectious chorus refrain “Born in the U.S.A.”, despite the intended irony. In 2000, journalist Brian Doherty made the interesting point that even though the song is continually misunderstood, “who’s to say Reagan wasn’t right to insist the song was an upper? When I hear those notes and that drumbeat, and the Boss’ best arena-stentorian, shout-groan vocals come over the speakers, I feel like I’m hearing the national anthem.”
Waterfalls – TLC
Anyone born before 1990 knows that this song is for putting your arms around your girlfriends and singing along – preferably loudly and a little out of tune. It is the R&B ballad of the era, the gentle encouragement that pushed us 90s kids to follow our dreams and not to chase waterfalls, encouraged by the maternal vocal stylings of Left Eye, T-Boz and Chilli.
Actually, Waterfalls was written to tackle the illegal drugs trade, promiscuity and HIV/AIDS. The band wanted to make their point without “seeming like preaching”, hence the slightly ambiguous chorus.
Once you start listening to the lyrics though, you hear the story of the mother who sees her son caught up in crime “Cause he can’t seem to keep his self out of trouble / So he goes out and he makes his money the best way he knows how / Another body laying cold in the gutter”. Or the tragedy of the AIDS virus as it sweeps through populations; “His health is fading and he doesn’t know why / Three letters took him to his final resting place”
Critics often comment that the famed chorus is urging audiences to stick to the calmer, safer dreams, characterising those waterfalls as seemingly exciting and adventurous ideals, which in reality are dangerous and will carry you too fast into peril.
My Sharona – The Knack
Another belter, this one is best for driving with the windows down to. My Sharona is unmistakably a love song, if a raunchy one, but did you know that the titular Sharona was only 16?
In 1979, the song was famed as “the song that killed disco”, as one of the very few rock songs charting at the time. Obviously about a girl, the lyrics were talking about a girl that The Knack singer, Doug Fieger had met and fallen for. Fieger, then 25, had struck up a relationship with Sharona Alperin, who was underage. She actually appeared on the single’s cover at the time of release.
Most people simply skirted over the more telling lyrics in the song; “Such a dirty mind, always get it up / For the touch of the younger kind” that went alongside unmistakable innuendos like “When you make my motor run”. The couple continued to date for several years, and Sharona inspired more songs for the band, including the worryingly titled That’s What Little Girls Do.
Imagine – John Lennon
Lennon’s hope for the world has lived on in this song ever since its release in 1971. The poster boy, and indeed the poster song, for world peace and unity. Imagine was played on nearly every radio station after the 9/11 bombings, often voted as Britain’s favourite song and described by Rolling Stone as “an enduring hymn of solace”.
There is a general sort of assumption as to the meaning of Imagine, but it’s only when you look a little deeper that you encounter widely differing interpretations. Yoko Ono has said that “It was just what John believed — that we are all one country, one world, one people. He wanted to get that idea out.”
But at the time, Lennon was quoted as describing the lyrics as “virtually the Communist Manifesto”. He went on to explain. “Even though I am not particularly a Communist and I do not belong to any movement…. But because it is sugarcoated, it is accepted… Now I understand what you have to do,” Lennon noted. “Put your political message across with a little honey.”
It has also proved divisive, hinting at a kind of Communist utopia, others have questioned whether it is similarly fatally flawed. Or commented on the hypocrisy of the vastly wealthy Lennon imagining no possessions or “No need for greed”. Bono has told how he loves ” the Buddhist core of the song”, and Tori Amos is certain that “It’s a song about sanity”. Iconic protest singer Joan Baez has said of Imagine that “It has tremendous meaning in places that are in the throes of social change.”
And maybe that is the key to the song. It is not so much a matter of being misunderstood, but actually that Lennon managed to write a song that was so utterly open to interpretation. It may have been the manifesto of John and Yoko, but it has also been moulded into thousands of personal and global manifestoes, with thousands of different meanings.