Behind The Music: Perceived Meanings Of Songs

By Brad Sacchetti In Uncategorized


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A job for any writer is to emphasize subtext when writing content. If movies, shows, songs were straightforward, they wouldn’t be fun to listen to or watch. Subtext gives an additional layer of meaning, like a metaphor but with clever wordplay. This week’s blog focuses on songs whose meanings listeners may not have caught the first time. It also examines what the perceived meaning was behind the song. 


Closing Time- Semisonic

Perceived Meaning: For many including this writer, “Closing Time” was initially thought to be about a bar closing. The lyrics “time for one last alcohol, so finish your whiskey or beer.” “You don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here” helped solidify that into our collective consciousness.


Real Meaning: Now that listeners can pull back the subtext, it is revealed that front man Dan Wilson had his first child on his mind. He described his child going out into the world, away from home, and used the metaphor of the bar to represent this. Real sentimental stuff given the depressing tone of much of the song lyrics from other bands of that decade.


Imagine- John Lennon

Perceived Meaning: “Imagine” pictures a perfect world where everyone lives in harmony. The idea of a peaceful utopia seems ever more needed in today’s world. However, some old-world ideals exist within this song’s lyrics.

Real Meaning: John Lennon’s vision for a perfect world is based on Communism. John Lennon went on to say that the record was The Communist Manifesto. If he released “Imagine” today, that statement would cause a certain political party to lose their collective minds. “Imagine” describes a world without religion, politics, or country. However, in typical Lennon fashion, he contradicts himself by debunking his own claims, stating that while there are Communist undertones, he doesn’t belong to a particular party.



Total Eclipse Of The Heart- Bonnie Tyler

Perceived Meaning: Many listeners, due to the lyrical nature of the song, felt that it was about vampires. Jim Steinman, Meatloaf’s frequent composer and the songs writer, even stated that was his initial intention with the ballad.

Real Meaning: The song was written as a macabre love ballad. Steinman wrote the song about darkness and finding love in darkness. This is a nice diversion from the usual car crash songs that permeated the Meat Loaf records of the late 70’s. This song proved why Steinman was a great songwriter as he could take a song in any genre, and make it work for any artist. It was also his second top ten hit of 1983, following Air Supply’s “Making Love Out Of Nothing At All”.





The Cure- Just Like Heaven

Perceived Meaning- One of the greatest love songs of all time is not without its confusing meaning.  The songs iconic lyric “Just what is this scream/ laugh/ hug inducing trick” had many believing it was about falling deeply in love with a significant other.

Real Meaning: Front man Robert Smith said that the song was about being so in love with someone that you couldn’t breathe.  While that line was on the nose, the next set of lyrics show why Robert Smith is truly one of the greats. “Show Me, show me how you do that trick.” According to Robert Smith, the song is about his love of performing magic tricks in his youth. In tandem, it is also about a seduction technique he learned later in his life. Classic Robert Smith, nothing left to be said.


Hotel California-Eagles


Perceived Meaning: Fans have long speculated that the lyrics refer to a potential plot of a horror movie. A song about a hotel in which residents check in but could never leave. This sounds like the work of Stephen King, rather than one of the world’s biggest rock bands.

Real meaning: Glenn Fry said of “Hotel California” that the band wanted to do something weird, just to prove that they could. While the song never refers to any one true meaning as per Don Henley’s insistence it is presumed to be about the end of the 60’s. “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969” refers to the social activism of the 60’s, rather than a particular drink. Though there was no official hotel the song was based on, the lyrics describe how disco and pop music turned people away from the activism inspired by the music and decade before it.



Like A Virgin- Madonna

Perceived Meaning: While fans think Madonna’s lyrics are about her sexual encounters, it is far from the truth. Despite the songs subject being famously tackled in Reservoir Dogs, the lyrics were never intended to be sung by a woman. How can this be you ask? This is one of Madonna’s biggest songs, and yet it was not intended for her. Well strap in kiddos and let me explain.

Real Meaning: In the 80’s, studios gave artists songwriters as if they were on Halloween night handing out candy. This practice of having additional help with writing allowed artists to flesh out lyric ideas in their heads to see their vision fully completed. Everyone from Aerosmith to Madonna hired one or two to help crank out the hits. The songwriters hired to pen this number are the duo of Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly.

Billy wrote the song about his own relationship problems. He wrote the track about a new relationship he was in and how it made him feel as though he was in love for the first time. This was due to the deep and profound nature of the relationship. The song was originally a ballad, though the duo recorded a version resembling the one heard today with Kelly on vocals. The song was presented to Madonna, she flipped for it, and the rest they say, is history.



(Dude) Looks Like a Lady- Aerosmith

Perceived Meaning: Due to the nature of the songs title, as well as Desmond Child’s lyrical wordplay, many assumed this was about a man that had become a woman. The writing described a man “who had the body of a Venus”, which didn’t help first time listeners perceptions.


Real Meaning: During the 80’s, there were as many changes in style as there were music genres. One such style that was a product of its time was Glam metal. This style was noted for men dressing up as women in order to get audience’s attention who would otherwise be put off by the quality of the music. No band represented this style and genre more than Motley Crue. They were considered one of the top Glam bands of the era. Comprised of members Vince Neil, Mick Mars, Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee, they were known for both their music and offstage antics. As for the song, Steven Tyler was at a bar one night. In a drunken haze, he approached another patron who had long feminine hair. That individual he hit on was none other than Motley Crue singer Vince Neil. Tyler then told songwriter Desmond Child about the encounter and the basis for the song was formed.




Summer of 69- Bryan Adams

Perceived Meaning: Despite thinking the song is a nostalgic yearn for days gone by, Summer of 69 is not even about that year. Bryan Adams would have been 10 years old when that year took place, he was born November 5th, 1969.


Real Meaning: The song is a reference to the sexual position of the same number.  Though many elements of the song are taken from his life. There is however some truth to the track, Adams did indeed pick up his first guitar from a pawn shop.  It has also been confirmed in interviews of Adams himself that he did play until his fingers bled from over practicing. 



The One I Love- R.E.M.

Perceived Meaning: Many fondly remember the song as dedicating it to the one they love. They would be correct for thinking that it is a tender love song. However, if there is one thing that REM is not known for, its being tender.


Real Meaning: Front man Michael Stipe would look out over the crowd and see couples making out. Stipe went on record to say that the tune is anti-love. He was shocked to find out that some would go as far to make the song the one they dedicated to their significant other. The song is darker, more manipulative “a simple prop, to occupy my time” and even described by guitarist Peter Buck as “anti-love.”



In The Air Tonight- Phil Collins


Perceived Meaning: One of rocks all-time greatest air drumming songs, is also one of its darkest. Many listeners, this writer included, always thought it was about failing to save someone. The song references a drowning swimmer. Once the first layer of writing is peeled back, the story presented in the song is a deeply personal one for its writer.


Real Meaning: The lyrics present a more tender side to Phil Collins than fans are accustomed to hearing. Collins wrote the song about feelings he had about the end of his marriage to his first wife. Though Collins himself would go on to say the lyrics were more spontaneous and had nothing to do with his wife. Though it may appear that she might have given him a talking to once the song was released.


Rock Lobster- B 52’s

Perceived Meaning- This is one such song that gets misinterpreted often by listeners and fans. The song is widely interpreted to be about a B-movie monster that terrorizes a beach party. B Movies for those unfamiliar, are low budget, intentionally underwritten, yet widely entertaining films that appeared a lot in the 60’s and 70’s. For reference, Attack of The Killer Tomatoes sums up the genre perfectly. The plots typically involve a monster of some kind wreaking havoc amongst a populated location. The imagery presented in the song “Rock Lobster” invokes those films.


Real Meaning: For Fred Schneider and his fellow B-52’s, they just wanted to party. While the shindig did not take place at the “Luh-hu-hu- hove Shack”, the band danced the night away in Georgia. The club was in Atlanta called 2001, and it featured a side show that included lobsters on a grill.


Born In The USA- Bruce Springsteen

Perceived Meaning- Every 4th of July, Americans all over the USA blast this song in celebration of our country. It is a song that showcases what it means to love the Red, White, and Blue. However, that’s not what Bruce Springsteen had in mind when he recorded the track.


Real Meaning: Despite the previous statement, Bruce Springsteen is as far from un-American as he comes. The song is patriotic, highlighting the struggle of Vietnam War veterans. While grossly misinterpreted by even former presidents of our country, the song tells a powerful message. The song is interpreted as being about how blue-collar Americans celebrate the war being over. Though in celebration, Americans often forget or neglect those who fought for us, and the sacrifices made to keep us safe.


Every Breath You Take- The Police

Perceived Meaning: What was Sting thinking when this song was penned? The writer of “Every Breath You Take” produces a stalker song? The genuinely creepy lyrics make the song not a pleasant one for listeners to digest. The lyrics, when taken out of context describe a stalker, with a Taxi Driver like protagonist watching a woman’s every move.


Real Meaning: Like with Phil Collins, the song’s lyrics stem from a recent divorce. Sting had written the song following the split of his first wife, Frances Tomelty. The woman he was dating at the time of their split, just so happened to be Frances best friend. The affair between them was widely condemned by friends and family alike. Sting wanting to getaway, took time for himself and wrote “Every Breath You Take”. He wrote the song about the end of his affair, and the longing that follows what could have been.



London Calling- The Clash

Perceived Meaning- The Clash are known for their political commentary as much as they are their music. Often fighting for issues including support for African, Jamaican and west Indian countries struggling for unity during the 70’s in London.  The legacy of the US involvement during the Vietnam war amongst others. This got them the nickname, The Only Band That Mattered, due to their lyrical involvement in Global Affairs. Which is why it is particularly interesting that they chose a matter so close to home for their biggest track.


Real Meaning: The lyrics “London is drowning/ And I live by the river” allude to Climate Change. This a pressing issue facing our environment today. It also stoked fires in front man Joe Strummer, when he was concerned with the idea of the river Thames flooding. If the river were to overflow, much of London would be under water. Strummer broadened the lyrics to make audiences aware of this issue that was as relevant than as it was today.


American Pie- Don McClean

Perceived Meaning: The song “American Pie” is a contradiction. It’s melodies, instrumentation and music are upbeat, though the lyrics are dark. The song is like Springsteen’s Born in The USA is often grossly misinterpreted.


Real Meaning: According to McClean himself, the song’s lyrics were about the deterioration of society in the 50’s. McClean described in the lyrics that the world was heading in the wrong direction, becoming less ideal, less idyllic. The lyrics referring to “The Day the Music Died” were about the plane crash that took the lives of Buddy Holly, Big Bopper and Ritche Valens.

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