Music | Pop Culture

9 Songs Whose Meanings You've Been Getting Wrong This Whole Time

Part of the power of music comes from how we connect with it, and the meaning we take from it. Whether it's a love song, a generational anthem, or a nostalgic look back on youth, the stories behind the song and its lyrics are what help us connect with them. But sometimes, an urban legend gets out of hand, or we misunderstand a lyric and get the whole thing wrong. Luckily, we have the Internet to help set us straight, so we don't need to keep living a lie. Here are 9 examples of songs that we've been getting wrong this whole time.

1) Bryan Adams - Summer of '69

What We Think It Means

Now if unlike me you are a sweet, naive summer child, you would listen to this song and think it's just a guy reminiscing about the simpler times of his youth, which just happened to focus on the summer of one particular year in the late 1960s. He got his first real guitar, started a band, and met his young love at the drive-in.

What It Actually Means

OK, let's be honest, the second you see the numbers 6 and 9 together you know exactly what's up. While the song's co-writer claims they were talking about the year 1969 as a stand in for being young in general, Adams himself has confirmed the naughtier interpretation. In his words, the song's about "making love in the summertime" and the 69 in the title is referring to the sex position, not the year. "The best days of my life" indeed.

2) Phil Collins - In The Air Tonight

What We Think It Means

In the 36 years (oof) since Phil Collins released his debut solo single, there have been many theories as to the inspiration and meaning of the song. The most popular interpretation has been that Collins wrote the song after the drowning death of a friend. The details of this story have varied slightly over the years: sometimes he and this tragic mystery friend were on a boat, and when his friend fell overboard he was unable to save him; sometimes it's that he witnessed a man drowning from a distance, and though he was too far to save him when he got closer he realized there was a man who could have helped but didn't. This second version typically ends with Collins seeing the man years later at one of his concerts and calling him out in front of the whole audience by shining a light on him, pointing at him, and performing the song. It definitely makes for an interesting story, so it's almost disappointing that it's completely untrue.

What It Actually Means

Despite the lyrics including the word "drowning" a whole one time, the song itself has absolutely nothing to do with anyone drowning. In fact, if we believe Phil Collins, the words of the song have absolutely nothing to do with anything at all. Apparently, after splitting with his first wife, Collins needed to write out his feelings - which, let's be real, is more productive than what most of us do after a nasty breakup. Most of the songs he wrote in that time are what ended up being his first solo album. The entire song is just him letting out his anger and frustration, and the words themselves are what he just threw together and thought sounded good.

3) Third Eye Blind - Semi-Charmed Life

What We Think It Means

It's easy to see why this song was so popular in the late 90s. It's catchy, it's got that alt-rock but still kinda pop vibe, and it just sounds light and happy. If you heard nothing but the radio edit, it makes sense that you'd believe it's just another late 90s summer anthem to nod along to.

What It Actually Means

Surprise, surprise, that light feel good song is actually about the horrifying and crippling descent into meth addiction. Because nothing says summer anthem quite like crystal meth. Third Eye Blind's lead singer has said the lighthearted sound of the song is intentional, since it's supposed to represent "the bright, shiny feeling you get on speed." When you actually listen closely to lyrics, the meaning becomes pretty clear, but it's a hard pill to swallow knowing that the song you sang along to in 8th grade was that dark.

4) Green Day - Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)

What We Think It Means

If you graduated at any point between 1997 and 2007, chances are this was your graduation song. The simple acoustic sound and the bittersweet lyrics perfectly capture those mixed feelings we get when going through any major life transitions.

What It Actually Means

Here's a hint, it's in the title. No, not the "Time of Your Life" subtitle, the main one. Billie Joe Armstrong has been open about the songs origins as a break up song with his girlfriend who moved to Ecuador, and the anger he felt at her leaving, which is why he called it "Good Riddance." Suddenly the line "I hope you had the time of your life" seems less bittersweet and more just straight up bitter.

5) Madonna - Like A Virgin

What We Think It Means

No doubt, any song with a title like "Like a Virgin" is going immediately be associated with sexual things, but when that song is performed by a singer as controversial and sexually open as Madonna, it's no surprise that everyone's brains would end up in a dirty place.

What It Actually Means

Turns out everyone does need to get their filthy minds out of the gutter, because this song has nothing to do with sex or losing your v-card. Instead, the songwriter has said that it was written about the experience of getting out of an intensely negative relationship and finding someone new. So that whole "Like a virgin, touched for the very first time" hook is meant as a metaphor, you pervs.

6) Six Pence None The Richer - There She Goes

What We Think It Means

The airy acoustic feel and the lyrics make it sound like a fairly typical 90s love song. Lines like "There she goes, racing through my brain" make it seem like it could be about those blissful early days of love.

What It Actually Means

The song is actually a cover of a song by The La's, and if you believe bassist John Power, the "she" referenced in the song isn't actually a person, but heroin. When you hear a line like "There she goes, pulsing through my veins" and "no one else could heal my pain" that argument starts to make a little more sense. However, the plot thickens, as ex-guitarist Paul Hemmings has denied the song's status as an ode to heroin, so who knows, maybe they pulled a Phil Collins and the actual words of the song are meaningless.

7) Dire Straits - Money For Nothing

What We Think It Means

Between the absolutely iconic music video and the repeated line "I want my MTV," "Money For Nothing" in some ways became the anthem for the brand new MTV Generation. The music video was considered groundbreaking for it's use of computer animation. Fun fact, the team who animated it, would later go on to make the truly incredible TV show Reboot.  

What It Actually Means

If you actually listen to any of the lyrics (aside from the "I want my MTV part") is becomes pretty obvious that this song is complaining about these kids and their newfangled MTV nonsense. Mark Knopfler has discussed how the song is written from the perspective of a blue collar worker complaining about how the music stars on MTV are getting "money for nothing."

8) The Vapors - Turning Japanese

What We Think It Means

Since its release there has been an urban legend that this song is about masturbation. The fact that the song keeps referencing a staring at a picture certainly seems to lend itself to that. And if you're wondering how "turning Japanese" and masturbation could be related, the answer is...well...a little racist. Apparently the idea is that a dude's 'o face' involves squinting, so if you're 'hands on' a little too often it'll be just like your mother said and your face will get stuck like that. Or something.

What It Actually Means

Songwriter David Fenton has said the song is actually about a guy who begins to lose his mind after his girlfriend breaks up with him. This not only explains the whole "staring at your picture" thing, but also the line where he's saying he'd "like a million of them all round [his] cell." While it's definitely not as exciting as an entire song being a euphemism for masturbating, let's be real there are much better options out there to use than "turning Japanese."

9) Tom Petty - American Girl

What We Think It Means

Thanks to the lyrics about a desperate girl standing on her balcony, and a reference to hearing cars on the 441 there has been a long-running urban legend saying the song is about a young girl committing suicide at the University of Florida. The main residence building there, Beaty Towers, is right by US Route 441, and Gainesville - where the university is located - is Tom Petty's hometown.

What It Actually Means

The urban legend is likely fueled by a misunderstanding of one of its lyrics. Where a lot of people believe it says "And if she had to die," the actual lyric is "And if she had to die trying." Petty has also said that the line about the 441 was actually inspired by his time staying in Encino, where he thought the sound of the cars driving by sounded like the ocean. Multiple member of the band have said that the song is simply about the drive for wanting something more out of life.

There you have it, all those songs that you thought were about dark and terrible things actually weren't, and the songs you thought were light and happy were actually about drug addiction.

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