7 Songs Everyone Knows The Meaning To (But They Don’t)

Most pop songs are pretty upfront about their meaning. “I love you”, “I hate you”, “You should totally date me”, “Intercourse with you seems like a mutually beneficial and rewarding experience”, and “I am a God among men” (Jay-Z has made a career out of these types of songs) are just a few messages you’re likely to hear on the radio. But some artists are a little less blunt about it, and with room for interpretation, well… (Note: click the pictures to listen to the song–stupid record labels keep restricting playback)

7. Feist – 1234

Everyone says:
Oh, I remember this song! That’s the one with the funky, bright video from the iPod commercial way back! It’s so much fun and she’s so cute!

“1234” tricks you by masking sad lyrics with an upbeat melody so that when you hear the song, your first thought is “Wow, look at how catchy this song is!” and not, “Oh wow, that poor girl”. It’s called lyrical dissonance, and it’s used all the time to keep fans and musicians from killing themselves. In “1234”‘s case, there’s the added trick that you can’t quite tell what she’s singing.

A cursory glance at “1234”‘s lyrics reveal lines like, “Those teenage hopes/Who have tears in their eyes/Too scared to own up to one little lie” and “Before the teenage boys/They’re breaking your heart”. The song’s about a teenage crush changing and breaking your heart, and Apple would have probably sold few iPods if you could tell that.

6. John Lennon – Imagine

Everyone says: Hey man, can’t we all just like, get along? What about peace, man, you ever gonna live for peace? All that capitalism, and the religion…it’s just makes the hate grow, man, and we gotta, like, stop the hate, you know?

This might be going against the intent of the author, but…you ever really thought out what this place would look like? I love me some world peace, but “Imagine” wipes the world clean of any notion of another state of existence, passions, possessions, trouble…hell, John, what’d you leave us with? Existence? If you lived in the world of “Imagine”, there’d be no point to day-to-day life, and I’d rather not imagine that.

5. Pearl Jam – Alive

Everyone says: It’s all there in the chorus! “Oooh Aaahaaa, hooo whoaaaa, Ah’m stuh alike, yeaheyeah”. Or, for those of you that don’t speak Eddie Vedder, “Oh I, whoa, I’m still alive”. It’s uplifting and positive!

That’s technically the case now, but only because the band relented after fans spent over a decade insisting “Alive” was positive, because in fact, the original meaning would be more at home in a soap opera than a grunge concert. The song was originally part 1 of a trilogy called Manasan. In “Alive”, a mother tells her son that the man he thinks is his father is actually his step-father, and the mother and son engage in an incestuous relationship. Part 2, “Once” involves the son going on a killing spree, and the thrilling conclusion is him in jail, reflecting on his life.

Boy is it good to be alive!

4. The Smashing Pumpkins – Today

Everyone says : First line of the song, all I’ll say. “Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known”. Everyone from car commercials to high school graduations have used this song, the lyrics are uplifting and the music is, too.

“I was really suicidal. I just thought it was funny to write a song that said today is the greatest day of your life because it can’t get any worse.”–Billy Corgan, writer of “Today”. To wit, Corgan was facing high pressure to capitalize on his previous success, an all time high in tensions in his band, depression, and writer’s block. Hell, he was even able to “sneak” (re: say) this in the song; other choice lyrics include “I wanted more than life could ever grant me” and “Pink ribbon scars [self-mutilation] will never forget”. If that shit doesn’t make you want to buy a Ford, nothing will!

3. Oasis – Wonderwall

Everyone says
: With Valentine’s Day coming up, this song is getting played all over the place! Such a sweet and charming love song that the songwriter wrote for his girlfriend!

In all fairness, this is probably the most legitimate misfire on the list, as pretty much everyone who wasn’t in Oasis (that part’s important) claimed that it was a love song. However, Oasis guitarist Noel Gallagher was able to dispute this claim from the oh so wise perspective of writing the damn song, saying, “It’s about an imaginary friend who’s going to come and save you from yourself.” So for Valentine’s Day, when you make that special someone a mix cd that includes “Wonderwall”, you might want to make sure that they exist and that you’re ok. Otherwise, you’ll have more problems than giving a crappy gift.

2. Nine Inch Nails – Closer

Everyone says:
According to Limewire circa 2006, this song might as well be called “I Wanna Fuck You Like an Animal”, because that’s the only memorable thing about it. That and it sounds like you would be a champion if you boned someone to this song. Something to bring out your kinky, raunchy, awesome side, right?

“Closer” brings out sides of you that you don’t want to have, let alone have brought out. True, the song outright sounds like sex, but while classic sex songs like “Let’s Get It On” have lyrics that suggest, well, let’s get it on, “Closer” says something more like “Let’s get it on because I have no other way of adequately expressing myself and escaping how much I suck”.

The takeaway lyric of “Closer” (“I wanna fuck you like an animal”) only sounds kinky when you blatantly ignore everything else, especially considering the line right after that is “My whole existence is flawed”. Among other lyrical hints that everything’s not cool, we have lines like “You can have my isolation/You can have the hate that it brings”, “(Help Me) The only thing that works for me/Help me become somebody else”. And, even though it’s fairly muddled, the last line of the song is “You are the reason I’m still alive”. Sexy!

1. Lady Gaga – Telephone

Everyone says: It’s about a guy that keeps calling her while she’s at the club having a good time. That’s all the lyrics say! There’s no hinting at it being anything but that!

You know, that’s a perfectly valid, logical interpretation of “Telephone”. If Rihanna, Christiana, or (God help us) Britney released the song, that would be the long and short of its meaning. But wait, who are we dealing with again?

Lady fucking Gaga.

Turns out that “Telephone”, last year’s “I’m out with my friends, go away” club hit, is actually about the voice in Lady Gaga’s head that tells her to get back to work. Although to be fair, when the video for the song is an exercise in how much bullshit you can fit into nine and a half minutes, I guess there’s a lot of work involved. Still though, who are you going to believe: your own, rational sense of reasoning, or the woman in the meat dress?

About bgibs122

I enjoy music and music culture; I hope you do, too.
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2 Responses to 7 Songs Everyone Knows The Meaning To (But They Don’t)

  1. Stevie Wonder says:

    “The Ocean” by Led Zeppelin and “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by GnR are both about the lead singers’ respective nieces.

    “Legs” by ZZ Top is about the daughter of a member of the band, and how “she’s got legs, she knows how to use them” as in walking out the door and leaving.


    • bgibs122 says:

      Really? Everywhere I’ve read, I heard that “Sweet Child o’ Mine” was about Axl’s girlfriend at the time (she’s even in the video). I could be wrong, though.

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