1. The Verve Pipe: “The Freshmen”
In case you were innocently singing along to this song back in the ’90s, you should probably know that the song talks about a girl who terminated a pregnancy before taking her own life.
The girl of the song is based on a real-life girlfriend of Brian Vander Ark, lead singer of the Verve Pipe. Although the pregnancy was fictional, the relationship was real. (Vander Ark later said the pregnancy was real but the death was not. So who knows?)
2. Semisonic: “Closing Time”
The song that closes out the night at many a bar was never really about last call.
Lead singer Dan Wilson actually wrote it about impending fatherhood but wanted the song to be more accessible to the rest of the band. It’s closing time for the mother’s womb, and the baby needs to get out.
3. Psy: “Gangnam Style”
Have you ever stopped to think about what this song is actually saying?
Believe it or not, it’s a very critical commentary on young Koreans’ pursuit of wealth, or “Gangnam-style” living, by going deep into debt. If you can look past the iconic dance moves, the video depicts people trying to achieve the appearance of wealth without actually having it.
4. Sarah McLachlan: “Possession”
This haunting “love song” is far more sinister on a closer listen.
“And I would be the one / To hold you down / Kiss you so hard / I’ll take your breath away.” The lyrics actually refer to McLachlan’s experience with a stalker who sent her letters, which she apparently samples in the song. He even attempted to sue her for plagiarism, but he took his life before the case went to trial.
5. Phil Collins: “In the Air Tonight”
Everyone thinks that Collins must have experienced the situation in the song in order to sing such a haunting tale about witnessing a man drowning. In fact, it means absolutely nothing.
He just came up with lyrics in the studio to go with the music. He wrote the song while going through a divorce and has claimed that even he doesn’t fully understand what it’s about.
6. Traditional: “London Bridge Is Falling Down”
A mere children’s song, you say? Not so much.
London Bridge didn’t actually collapse when this song was written (but as it has existed in various forms since the Dark Ages, it has needed repairs often throughout history), but one of the leading theories is that it references immurement, or the grand old tradition of walling someone within a building, basically as a sacrifice to make the building more stable. The watchman of this song is the sacrifice.
7. Gwen Stefani: “Hollaback Girl”
Courtney Love has been a go-to source of material for many musicians in the past. What does that have to do with Gwen Stefani though?
“Hollaback Girl” is Stefani’s response to some comments Love made about her, calling Stefani a “cheerleader” in an interview. Isn’t that bananas?
8. Outkast: “Hey Ya”
“Hey Ya” was 2003’s “Happy”—a song that made you feel good.
So you may have missed the fact that it says some pretty critical things about love and relationships: “If what they say is ‘Nothing is forever’ / what makes…love the exception?” Ouch. The song even refers to these depressing lyrics in disguise: “Y’all don’t want to hear me / You just wanna dance.”
9. KISS: “Detroit Rock City”
KISS is known for their party anthems, and “Detroit Rock City” is no different. Yet on closer inspection, this song isn’t really about getting up and rocking out.
In the last verse, the lyrics refer to someone who was on their way to a KISS concert and got hit by a car. Quite somber for a KISS song, and it’s even more disturbing when you realize that this actually happened to a teenage fan on his way to their concert in Detroit.
10. Beck: “Loser”
“Loser” was never meant to be a hit.
Before he became famous, Beck had a penchant for spouting off random things during his performances just to see if anyone was paying attention. And that’s all “Loser” is—he even recorded it in someone’s kitchen and had no intention of releasing it. So relax, there’s no meaning in “beefcake pantyhose.”
11. The Beatles: “Blackbird”
“Blackbird” seems like such an innocent song, and many parents have chosen it to lull their kids to sleep.
Amazingly, the song is actually about a young black girl facing racism in her daily life: “You were only waiting for this moment to be free.”
12. M.I.A.: “Paper Planes”
Most people incorrectly assume that this song talks about a drug dealer, especially because it was used in the stoner flick Pineapple Express.
M.I.A. is actually describing American stereotypes of immigrants, a topic she was very familiar with; she and her family had ongoing struggles with obtaining entry into the U.S.
13. Green Day: “Time of Your Life”
A quick look at the actual title of this song will clue you into it’s awkward message. It’s really called “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life.)”
Countless high school graduations have rocked this tune, which isn’t actually about wishing someone a good time, but about bitterly telling off a romantic partner who’s rejected you.
14. Paul Simon: “Mother and Child Reunion”
It may be only a motion away, but it’s definitely not about reconnecting with your mom.
Simon had been sitting on the title for a while when he wrote the song, and the title’s source shows how far off the mark all of us Mother’s Day DJs actually are. “I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown,” Simon explained in 1972. “There was a dish called ‘Mother and Child Reunion.’ It’s chicken and eggs.” Pretty dark, Simon. Art Garfunkel never would have gone there.
15. Ice Cube: “It Was a Good Day”
A close listen to this hip hop classic shows that it’s not a party tune about a really nice weekend Ice Cube had once. It’s totally sardonic.
It lists all the things that the affluent take for granted every day; not being harassed by police, not knowing someone who’s been murdered. Look a little closer and you’ll find a blistering piece of social satire about living as a young black man in South Central Los Angeles.
16. John Lennon: “Imagine”
If you’re not a political radical, this song might not be up your alley. Sure, it sounds like more blissed-out hippie mumbo-jumbo, but it’s actually a call for revolution.
Among the circumstances that Lennon imagines you’ll find the dissolution of all governments, the disappearance of religion, and the end of personal possessions, full stop. Maybe this isn’t a great pick when your super-conservative mother-in-law is joining you at the karaoke place.
17. Bruce Springsteen: “Born in the U.S.A.”
Conservative politicians like to blast this one at rallies.
Too bad they didn’t pay attention to the part where Springsteen lambastes U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, throwing in a dig at VA incompetence while he’s at it. To hear Springsteen tell it, being “born in the U.S.A.” isn’t quite so enviable as the chorus makes it sound.
18. James Blunt: You’re Beautiful
Nice sentiment, right?
Except that the actual premise of the song features a crazed stalker chasing another man’s girlfriend. Think twice about including this song at your wedding.
19. Kendrick Lamar: “Swimming Pools”
This is not a party jam, you all. It’s a warning against substance abuse, which is pretty much the opposite of a party jam.
Just listen to Lamar’s conscience, who’s easy to recognize because he only raps in a triplet feel. “If you do not hear me then you will be history, Kendrick.” Party’s over.