Admittedly, it’s not always so easy to know what a songwriter really meant when they penned their biggest hit, but there are a surprising number of tunes whose meanings are actually quite clear, yet people still seem to misunderstand them.
1. Puff The Magic Dragon – Peter, Paul & Mary
The popular consensus is that this song about a magical dragon who lives across the sea is actually about getting high and floating away in your mind to a land of fairies and whimsy. The song’s authors, Leonard Lipton and Peter Yarrow, have consistently maintained that the song is simply about the difficulties of growing up and the loss of children’s innocence. The character Jackie Paper is just the dragon’s human friend, not a veiled reference to smoking papers used to roll joints.
2. You’re Gorgeous – Babybird
This one-hit British wonder from 1996 got to Number 3 in the UK charts, has been used in an advert for kids’ painkillers and has a chorus often sung along to by those wishing to express affection for their belle or beau. The truth is, the lyrics “Because you’re gorgeous, I’d do anything for you / Because you’re gorgeous, I know you’ll get me through” do not refer to a man’s expression of love for his partner, instead telling of the way in which a photographer exploits his topless models.
3. You Can Leave Your Hat On – Randy Newman
This 1972 track, which became part of the public consciousness thanks to its use in 9 ½ Weeks and The Full Monty, might appear on first listen to be a naughty, more-than-slightly risqué song in which the singer invites an unnamed paramour to slowly remove almost all their clothing. Turns out that it is about that, just not the way you think – apparently the hat is supposed to cover the unappealing facial features of the nearly-naked subject of the song.
4. The Drugs Don’t Work – The Verve
Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft has had his fair share of intoxicants in his lifetime, but while some think that this classic anthem of the Britpop age is a ponderance on the futility of recreational drug-taking, there is a much more normal and personal story behind it. Ashcroft’s father suffered a long, protracted battle against cancer, which eventually proved terminal, and the lyrics “the drugs don’t work, they just make you worse / but I know I’ll see your face again” actually refer to his struggle against the disease that eventually claimed his life.
5. Every Breath You Take – Sting
The first dance song of choice for countless newlyweds in the past thirty years, Sting himself has come out and declared that he is disconcerted by just how many people mistake the song’s meaning for something more positive. Declared by some to be the ultimate stalker anthem, the song’s writer has freely admitted that the song is about an obsession with a lost lover, and the jealous over-surveillance that follows. Remember that next time you’re Facebook-stalking your ex.
6. Mr Tambourine Man – Bob Dylan
Another song people think is about drugs (Mr Tambourine Man alleged to refer to Bob Dylan’s dealer), but Dylan himself has said that not only is the song merely about the search for inspiration. Allegations are also often made that the lyrics were written under the influence of LSD, but while Bob admits to partaking in acid, he maintains that he was not introduced to it until after he wrote the song.
7. Bohemian Rhapsody – Queen
While some people have opined that the bizarre lyrics to this classic rock anthem are simply nonsense chosen to fit in with the melody and song structure, others have suggested that the song actually covers singer Freddie Mercury’s battle with AIDS. Well, it goes to show that you shouldn’t always think too hard about these things, as Freddie himself stated that the words were just “random rhyming nonsense”.
8. Hotel California – Eagles
While most people hear this rock classic and appreciate its thought-provoking lyrics and cool guitar licks, some perceive an homage to Satan himself. Literally. Apparently, some misguided individuals in the 80s thought that the Hotel California referenced in the song was actually based on a real hotel which had been purchased by the Church of Satan, with lyrics like “can’t kill the beast” adding fuel to the fire. Don Henley and Glenn Frey have been unequivocal about the real story behind the song: excess in the USA and the LA high life.
9. The One I Love – REM
One of those songs that so often gets played on the radio with a dedication to someone’s other half, this tune is actually an ode to an ex. Michael Stipe has commented on several occasions that he doesn’t understand why people don’t get the meaning of the song when it’s right there in the lyrics: “This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind / A simple prop to occupy my time”.
10. Born In The USA – Bruce Springsteen
Arguably the most misunderstood song ever, this seemingly patriotic ‘MURICA and FREEDOM anthem is routinely belted out on loudspeakers at sports and community gatherings across the United States as a show of national pride. A shame, then, that it’s actually a highly scathing attack on the country which sent men to fight in Vietnam (“sent off to fight the yellow man”) but didn’t provide for them when they returned as veterans.