10 Misunderstood Songs

misunderstood songs

Ever consider putting “Every Breath You Take” on a mixtape for a crush? Think again—if they’re paying attention to the lyrics, then you might end up driving them away forever. The fact of the matter is that popular music has countless examples of songs that have been misinterpreted to sometimes comical, frequently cringeworthy results. Songs seemingly about freedom that are, in fact, about America’s failures; prayers that are really conflicted sexual metaphors; breakup songs that probably shouldn’t be played at prom—the list goes on. We’ve compiled 10 of the most oft-cited cases of misunderstood songs, just in time for Valentine’s Day, as a disclaimer to those who might be going about this social-distance romance thing all wrong. Proceed with caution.


The Clash – “White Riot”

A squat in England’s Notting Hill neighborhood gave Clash founding members Joe Strummer and Paul Simonon a front-row seat to state violence throughout 1976, culminating in joining their Caribbean neighbors skirmishing with police during an August festival. The events inspired what became the band’s debut single, where they wondered aloud about how poor whites failed to address the threats of a dead-end existence with the courage or anger of their Black peers. Instead of unifying people in class struggle, however, too many listeners heard calls for a race war. Fans glossed over swift lyrical critiques of hoarded wealth and subpar education while the chorus—“White riot, I wanna riot/White riot, a riot of my own”—ignited too many fights in too many concert crowds. – Adam Blyweiss


Leonard Cohen – “Hallelujah”

Entire books have been written about Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” a song from an album (1984’s Various Positions) that barely made a dent when it was released, reinvented by the likes of Jeff Buckley and covered hundreds of times, including by American Idol contestants. Most recently it was heard at Trump rallies for no understandable reason other than, perhaps, IRL SEO keyword stuffing for the sake of appealing to a religious evangelical audience. Or so I presume. But “Hallelujah,” while sometimes mistaken for a prayer, is anything but. Cohen’s song is an intricate examination of sex and relationships that employs heavy use of Biblical imagery, most notably that of King David and Bathsheba: “Your faith was strong, but you needed proof/You saw her bathing on the roof/Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew ya.” It’s not a song about the glory of god, but rather a struggle between two very different forms of desire, neither of which can ever be fully satiated. – Jeff Terich


Elvis Costello – “Alison”

When you consider the narrative origins of the word “ballad,” the term “murder ballad” makes a lot more sense. Still, it’s an odd pairing of words that suggests a mishmash of tear-jerking romance and blood-curdling violence. This is to say that you can understand why listeners over the years have heard homicidal undertones in “Alison,” Elvis Costello’s devastating tale of unrequited love—specifically in lines like “Sometimes I wish that I could stop you from talking” and “I think somebody better put out the big light.” Costello was tight-lipped about what inspired the tune for nearly 40 years, only revealing in his 2015 memoir that he wrote it “after seeing a beautiful checkout girl at the local supermarket […] looking as if all the hopes and dreams of her youth were draining away.” True to the song’s concluding declaration, Costello’s aim was true. Just not in a creepy way. – Jacob Nierenberg


Green Day – “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)”

Boy, is this awkward. That song that’s been played at all those graduation ceremonies, weddings, the finale of Seinfeld? Yeah, it’s a breakup song—Billie Joe Armstrong wrote it in 1993 after his girlfriend moved to Ecuador. It’s literally called “Good Riddance,” which is about as bitter a title as you could possibly name a song about a relationship. For some reason, the misinterpretation of this song endures, and Armstrong has conceded that it makes sense at prom, perhaps, and that when he wrote it, he wasn’t actually trying to sound bitter. But as he said to Guitar Legends magazine in 2005, “I think it came out a little bitter anyway.” – Jeff Terich


Hall & Oates – “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)”

John Oates, the mustachioed half of blue-eyed soul duo Hall & Oates, insists that their 1981 chart-topper “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)” is about the music industry. “That song is really about not being pushed around by big labels, managers, and agents and being told what to do,” Oates once told The Philadelphia Inquirer. But when Daryl Hall sings “You’ve got the body / Now you want my soul” and “I’ll do almost anything / That you want me to,” it definitely sounds like he’s alluding to something other than a business relationship. But that’s not the only Hall & Oates song that gave people mixed signals—in that same interview, Oates claimed “Maneater” wasn’t about a scheming temptress, but the money-hungry concrete jungle of New York City in the ‘80s. Sure, dude. – Jacob Nierenberg


The Police – “Every Breath You Take”

“Every Breath You Take” is ubiquitous—nearly 40 years after its release, it hasn’t evaporated from the zeitgeist. This one song alone makes up a quarter to one-third of Sting’s publishing income. With its upbeat melody and unshakable hook, it’s the kind of song that sounds a lot more pleasant and comforting than it really is. The reality is that Sting was “thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control” as he was writing it, and so what at first sounds like the words of a romantic (“Every single day/ Every word you say/ Every game you play/ Every night you stay/ I’ll be watching you“) ultimately end up those of obsession, possession and ultimately something much more dangerous than a love affair. Sting, himself, has found the rose-colored interpretation of the song a bit disconcerting, offering two simple words of advice to those who’d add it to their wedding playlist: “Good luck.” – Jeff Terich


R.E.M. – “The One I Love”

Seriously, people! How do you misinterpret this? In what universe is “a simple prop to occupy my time” an object of affection? And then Michael Stipe has the temerity to not only admit “another prop has occupied my time,” but be so committed as to sing the line with some of the song’s highest notes? It’s not like his partner was “left behind” because of war or other strife. Don’t let the title or the brevity of its lyrics fool you: This is the darkest moment in the R.E.M. catalog, It suggests one of our most vital emotions only ranges from fleeting to outright fake—just because you say someone is the one you love clearly doesn’t make it so. – Adam Blyweiss


Bruce Springsteen – “Born in the U.S.A.”

It happens every presidential election season—a candidate, usually conservative, finds himself on the business end of a cease-and-desist order for using a song by an artist that abhors their politics. Most recently it’s been Neil Young and the estate of Leonard Cohen (both examples which you’ll find in this very article), but in 1984, during his reelection campaign, President Ronald Reagan held up The Boss and his feel-good American anthem as an example of the “message of hope” he was selling to voters. Only The Boss, himself, didn’t back that message. “Born in the U.S.A.”, with its major-key synthesizer hook, sounds every bit the patriotic anthem it was made to be. You know, except for the part about the U.S. government’s mistreatment of Vietnam veterans. Springsteen, on tour behind his Born in the USA album, addressed the Reagan campaign’s misinterpretation of the hit song by responding with another one from the catalog. “I don’t think he’s been listening to this one,” Springsteen said before playing “Johnny 99,” a bleak story of a laid-off factory worker who commits a murder and then requests to be executed. Not the Morning in America that the Gipper likely envisioned. – Jeff Terich


Violent Femmes – “Blister in the Sun”

This much-loved slice of frenetic folk-punk from 1983 always seemed to me—and countless others—like a horny teenage boy’s ode to masturbation. What with all the talk of stained sheets, big and blistered hands, and checking girls out. I mean, there’s even something ejaculatory about Victor DeLorenzo’s famous snare drum lick, don’t you think? Erm, apparently not. Singer and lyricist Gordon Gano was a little perplexed when he heard this interpretation. Rather, he says the song was inspired by the “strung-out” side effects of drug abuse and its impact upon his sex life. But what of “big hands, I know you’re the one”? Surely, a declaration of love for one’s own mitts and their capacity for self-abuse? Nope, as according to the famously small-handed Gano, he was imagining his ex-girlfriend walking off with some big-handed jock. Needless to say, such an interpretation might have been heavy-handed. – Sam Pryce


Neil Young – “Rockin’ in the Free World”

Much like “Born in the USA,” benighted listeners regarded the verses of Neil Young’s multilateral protest song as little more than conveyance devices to the rousing chorus. Young must have sensed the irony since he bookended his solo album Freedom with two versions of “Rockin’ in the Free World”: a live, acoustic rendition with a cheery audience singing along, and clamorous electric version at the end. This is anything but a gung-ho rallying cry; it’s much closer to a eulogy of ethicality in America, with lyrics about drug abuse, child abandonment, environmental ignorance, homelessness, and war. Young’s “warning sign on the road ahead” was nonetheless usurped by Donald Trump, against Young’s wishes, for his farcical escalator descent in 2015 to launch his Presidential candidacy. Yeah, how’d that turn out? – Paul Pearson


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