"Born in the USA"—Bruce Springsteen
You're probably among the vast majority who thought this song was all about patriotism and U.S. pride, though that's not exactly what this song is all about. This song is actually a major criticism of how veterans were treated after they returned from the Vietnam war.
However, even though most people might be misinterpreting the meaning of this song, that hasn't really hurt the enduring success that "Born in the USA" has had. The song, along with several others on the album, performed extremely well on the charts and has even been certified gold by the RIAA.
"Hotel California"—The Eagles
This song is simple and straightforward, or so everyone thought. The Hotel California isn't actually a luxury hotel for tired travelers to relax in. It's actually a bit deeper than that. Hotel California is a metaphor for the greed in the music industry that eventually leads to the artist's own self-destruction.
Even though Hotel California isn't a real location, the Eagles based this iconic spot on the real-life Beverly Hills Hotel where the band had spent a significant amount of time. Vocalist Don Henley noted, "We were getting an extensive education, in life, in love, in business. Beverly Hills was still a mythical place to us. In that sense, it became something of a symbol, and the 'Hotel' the locus of all that LA had come to mean for us."
A lot of Beatles songs actually had dark meanings behind them, and this one is no exception. "Blackbird" isn't actually about a literal blackbird with broken wings. It's actually about the American civil rights movement. However, the band has given various interpretations of the song over the years.
In 2008, Paul McCartney confirmed this in an interview with Mojo when he said: "It wasn't necessarily a black 'bird,' but it works that way, as much as then you called girls' birds'... it wasn't exactly an ornithology ditty; it was purely symbolic."
"Every Breath You Take"—The Police
Hard to believe that the epitome of emotional songs actually has a darker undertone. This song is all about stalking and possessiveness. Sting wrote the song when he suspected his wife of having an affair, so he penned the famous lyrics "Every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I'll be watching you." This song takes on a much creepier tone when you realize it's about a scorned lover.
This is one of those songs where the deeper meaning was sitting in plain sight, staring you in the face, but people just didn't hear it for whatever reason. If people mistakenly think this a romantic song, it's probably for the best if they never learn about its real, darker meaning!
"Harder to Breathe"—Maroon 5
At first glance, this song doesn't seem to be anything more than an allusion to a rocky relationship. However, this song is actually talking about the pressures of the music industry. At the time the song was written, the band was on a real time crunch to get their new album finished. "Harder to Breathe" was the result of that stressful process.
Levine said in a 2002 interview, "That song comes sheerly from wanting to throw something. It was the 11th hour, and the label wanted more songs. It was the last crack. I was just pissed. I wanted to make a record, and the label was applying a lot of pressure..."
"Semi-Charmed Life"—Third Eye Blind
But this song is so upbeat! Yeah, and super edited for radio. This song is all about a couple tripping together. You just never know because the radio edit took out all the illicit substance references. All you have to do is look at the original lyrics to see the true meaning.
Even though the dark lyrics and extremely upbeat music don't seem like they go together at all, that was exactly the strange juxtaposition that the band was going for with this number. Songwriter Stephan Jenkins said that the music was attempting to recreate "that bright, shiny feeling" that using meth gives people.
"Slide"—Goo Goo Dolls
Any song that kind of sounds like a love song probably has a much darker meaning to it, and "Slide" by the Goo Goo Dolls is no exception to this rule. This song is actually about a Catholic-raised girl who has gotten pregnant, and she and her boyfriend are trying to decide between marriage or abortion.
Despite the dark nature of this song, "Slide" became a major hit for the Goo Goo Dolls. Aside from their other major single, "Iris", "Slide" has been the best-performing song in the band's history, peaking at number eight on the Billboard Top 100 charts.
"Wake Me Up When September Ends"—Green Day
The music video had a lot of people speculating that this song was about a war, but in reality, the meaning is much sadder. The song was written in memory of lead singer Billie Joe Armstrong's father, who died Sept. 1, 1982, when Armstrong was just 10 years old.
Despite the meaning of the lyrics, the music video for "Wake Me Up When September Ends" took a different approach to the material. In it, the band references the Iraq War by depicting a couple that is separated after the boyfriend enlists in the Marines and is sent to Iraq.
"Like a Virgin"—Madonna
Nope, this song actually isn't about losing your virginity. It's actually about how writer Billy Steinberg was left "emotionally battered" after a failed relationship, and then a new relationship renewed him. The song clearly resonated with Madonna, as she loved it the moment she heard a demo version.
When a Warner Bros. Records executive played the single for Madonna, he noted, "When I played it for Madonna, she went crazy, and knew instantly it was a song for her and that she could make a great record out of it." And the rest was music history!
Surprise! This early 2000s hit is actually kind of depressing if you pay attention to the lyrics. This catchy tune is really all about a romance crumbling into tiny pieces. However, if you've never really listened to the words, this deeper meaning might have completely eluded you!
While the band may have released a deceptively dark single, it's clear that audiences took it more like a straightforward, upbeat dance number. If you ask someone to name some lyrics from the song, they're almost certainly going to say, "Shake it like a Polaroid picture," and not remember any of the lyrics about failed relationships.
Can't Feel My Face - The Weeknd
This may sound like a sweet song about a guy so in love that his face is numb from smiling, but the actual meaning is much less sweet. The Weeknd isn't actually talking about a woman at all, he's talking about a personification of his addiction to illicit substances.
Chandelier - Sia
With the pop-y music and lyrics like "phone's blowin' up, ringin' my doorbell/I feel the love, feel the love" and "one, two, three, one, two, three, drink," it's easy for someone to just think of this as yet another party song. However, it's actually about Sia's former illicit substance and alcohol addictions. Thankfully, she's been sober for several years now. Good for her.
Imagine - John Lennon
Hailed as one of the most peaceful anthems in music history, Imagine isn't quite as innocent as it seems. Lennon himself has admitted that the song is basically a "Communist Manifesto." Lennon waited until after the song was a major hit to reveal the hidden meaning, saying "Because [Communism] is sugar-coated, it's accepted. Now I understand what you have to do — put your message across with a little honey."
American Pie - Don McLean
No one really knew what this song was about until McLean revealed its true meaning: the end of an era. A plane crash in 1959 killed rockstar Buddy Holly, driving McLean into believing that was "the day the music died."
You Are My Sunshine - Johnny Cash
You might know the original or the kids' adaptation, but you might not see it the same way after this. This song is actually really depressing as Cash croons about a lover who no longer reciprocates his feelings. Most parents tend to omit that part from the nighttime lullaby.
Gangnam Style - Psy
If you owned a radio back in 2012, then you heard this song. The origin of the rise of the K-Pop (Korean pop) genre in America, Gangnam Style is a fun song with a dance craze that swept the world. However, it's not as jovial as it seems. Gangnam is a rich area in South Korea filled with the uber-rich of the country. This song is all about people clambering over each other to get there, and it addresses the insanely high debt rate of the country's citizens.
Blurred Lines - Robin Thicke
Among a lot of scandals, this song only made things worse for Thicke. A lot of people took this song to refer to the 'blurred lines' of consent. Which is honestly kind of disturbing and creepy. Also, his whole performance of this song at the 2013 MTV awards with Miley Cyrus was super gross and uncomfortable so… yeah. Not great.
Baby, It's Cold Outside - Johnny Mercer
A Christmas classic that has risen to infamy and controversy in the past couple of years. This song gives off super predatory and manipulative vibes. The man is doing his damndest to keep a woman at his home, even after she repeatedly tells him she wants to leave. Several countries across the world have pulled this song from the air.
Exit - U2
Exit is considered the most disturbing song by U2, as Bono channeled the mind of a murderer while he wrote it. Bono has even admitted to this, saying that this song was his attempt at writing a story while in the mind of a killer. Bono said in an interview "to really understand that you have to get under the skin of your own darkness, the violence that we all contain within us."
One Way Or Another - Blondie
This catchy song, which has been included on Rolling Stone's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time list, isn't as fun as it seems on first listen. Debbie Harry, the Blondie frontwoman, wrote this song from the perspective of an ex-boyfriend who had stalked her.
Run For Your Life - The Beatles
So the meaning of this one isn't quite hidden, but no one ever really seems to pay that much attention to the actual lyrics. This song is from the perspective of a man who literally threatens to kill a woman if he ever catches her with another man.
Delilah - Tom Jones
Considered a Tom Jones classic, but if you listen to the lyrics, then you discover that it's much darker than it seems. It's all about a man going crazy and murdering his lover who cheated on him. Ironic, seeing as he famously cheated on his wife with 250 women.
In the Air Tonight - Phil Collins
Most people would think that this song was just about a man choosing not to save another from drowning, though that's not quite the case. The song was all about the grief he felt after divorcing his first wife, Andrea Bertorelli, in 1980. So, this one's a little bit less dark than the original theory.
Zombie - The Cranberries
The ultimate protest song, this was the song that really made The Cranberries big. The song focused on a bombing in March 1993, one of which killed two young boys and injured dozens more. Lead singer Dolores O'Riordan wrote this grungy and gloomy protest song in response to the deaths of those two children.
Polly - Nirvana
Fun fact: this song is actually based on a kidnapping in Tacoma, Washington on June 1987. A 14-year-old girl was kidnapped and tortured. Thankfully the girl escaped and lived, and this song focused on the perspective of the kidnapper and the twisted thoughts he might have had.
Street Spirit - Radiohead
Radiohead frontman, Thom Yorke, has said that this song is hard for members of the band to listen to and play. Yorke has said, "'Street Spirit' is about staring the f--king devil right in the eyes... and knowing, no matter what the hell you do, he'll get the last laugh." Bleak.
Jeremy - Pearl Jam
A lot of rock songs have dark meanings to them, and Jeremy is a textbook example. Kind of similar to Foster the People's Pumped Up Kicks, this song centers around a kid who was bullied at school and neglected at home. The kid eventually shot himself in front of the class.
One - Metallica
This song is about a soldier fighting in a war when a mortar blasts off his face, legs, and arms. So now, the soldier is trapped in his body for the rest of his life with no hope of communications with the outside world. On the bright side, there's a fantastic guitar solo.
Tears in Heaven - Eric Clapton
Inspired by tragedy, Clapton wrote Tears in Heaven as a memorial for his son Conor who fell 50 stories to his death from an NYC apartment building. Conor was only 4 years old when he died.
Hello - Lionel Richie
If you're only reading or listening to the lyrics, then it's not that bad. It's the music video that makes this song so creepy. In the video, Richie plays a teacher who falls in love with one of his blind students. Throughout the video, Richie follows the student around the school. Creepy, for a lot of different reasons.
Total Eclipse of the Heart - Bonnie Tyler
Easily one of the most iconic songs of the '80s and Tyler's biggest hit, the meaning of this song would've made it perfect for the Twilight series. Writer Jim Steinman had admitted that this song was written to be a vampire love song for a musical adaptation of Nosferatu. Go figure.
Chocolate - The 1975
Most people overlooked the meaning of this song, mostly because it was honestly kind of hard to understand the lyrics being sung. A lot of people bounced between two theories: criminals on the run or a toxic relationship. Turns out it's actually talking about doing heroin.
I Shot the Sheriff - Bob Marley
This '73 reggae classic isn't actually about someone shooting down a law enforcement officer. It's actually a protest song against birth control. Marley strongly objected to his one-time girlfriend Esther Anderson's use of the pill. The sheriff in the song is actually referring to the doctor that prescribed her the birth control.
Bohemian Rhapsody - Queen
This legendary rock opera hit is pretty cryptic, but early in the song, we know the narrator confesses to murder. The true meaning behind this song is that it's his coming out song. In 1975, Mercury left his girlfriend for a man; this was his way of telling the world. Mercury explained that in the line 'Mama, I just killed a man,' he's saying he killed his former image.
Dear Landlord - Bob Dylan
Upon first listen, this song seems to be a letter from a hard-working man to his landlord, asking for a little leeway and understanding. In reality, many listeners believe that this song was addressing Dylan's manager Albert Grossman. Dylan never explains his lyrics, so we ultimately don't really know.
Little Green - Joni Mitchell
This song is sad, evoking feelings of love, pain, and longing, but no one knew exactly what the lyrics meant. The song is actually about a child that Mitchell gave up for adoption back in 1965. Mitchell and her daughter reunited in 1997.
London Calling - The Clash
A hailed apocalyptic punk anthem that paints a picture of floods, food shortages, nuclear meltdowns, and zombies. The real meaning? An apocalypse of a personal kind. Punk rock was on the decline, and the Clash was in debt. This song is all about their personal struggles.
Brown Sugar - The Rolling Stones
This song is legendary. Legendarily creepy. It's literally a song in which the narrator is having intercourse with underage black girls who were sold into slavery. Way darker meaning than you thought, huh?
Pumped Up Kicks - Foster the People
With such a catchy tune, you probably never would've guessed it's actually about a school shooting. Yeah, you read that right. The songwriter (Mark Foster) wrote the song from the perspective of an "isolated, psychotic kid" who was pushed to the breaking point and ended up taking a gun to school with the intent to kill.
Strange Fruit - Billie Holiday
This simple song has a super-powerful meaning. Strange Fruit is all about the lynching of black people in the American south during the first half of the 1900s. This song is actually haunting and dark.
Semisonic may have been a one-hit-wonder band, but they still made history when their song "Closing Time" was released. It became a fast favorite of bartenders and the bar crowd, but Dan Wilson had a little more than heading home after a long night of drinking on the mind when he wrote the song.
In reality, "Closing Time" is a lot more a metaphor for birth, than for a literal closing time. In 2010, he revealed the origins of the song, saying, "My wife and I were expecting our first kid very soon after I wrote that song. I had birth on the brain, I was struck by what a funny pun it was to be bounced from the womb."
"Summer of '69"—Bryan Adams
Bryan Adams wasn't looking back fondly on his youth when he wrote his classic hit "Summer of '69". For years, fans of the song have wrongly imagined the magic and wonder of being young in the summer of 1969. However, it turns out that all the people who made crass jokes about the song's title were exactly right about the song's true meaning.
Years after the song's release, Adams finally came clean about what all of us have been snickering about—the song's title is a direct sexual reference. During a 2008 interview, he said, "A lot of people think it's about the year, but actually it's more about making love in the summertime. It's using '69 as a sexual reference."
"Good Riddance"—Green Day
If you were a teen in the late '90s or early 2000s, there's a good chance that you danced the night away at some point to Green Day's "Good Riddance." It quickly became a favorite at proms and other dances, despite the fact that the song is not really as sweet and romantic as some people have misinterpreted it to be.
Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong revealed that he wrote the song after a particularly nasty breakup with a girlfriend, and it's not like the song is really concealing this meaning—the lyrics are clearly about a breakup and the title is "Good Riddance." It's not super hard to put two and two together, but people always hear what they want to hear.
"Who Let the Dogs Out"—The Baha Men
As ridiculous as it might sound, the Baha Men's inexplicable hit "Who Let the Dogs Out" is actually hiding a deeper meaning. It turns out that the song is not about literal dogs, but rather, the lyrics are about men catcalling women. How was anyone ever supposed to figure that out on their own?
It turns out that the song is actually a cover and was originally released by Trinidadian singer Anslem Douglas. While the Baha Men went all in by featuring a ton of real dogs in their music video, Douglas' version wasn't so on-the-nose, making its hidden meaning a little easier to figure out.
"The One I Love"—R.E.M.
When R.E.M. released their single "The One I Love", they couldn't believe how many people took it to be a straightforward love song. Despite some of the song's cynical and cruel lyrics, people didn't let that stop them from hearing romance where there was none, all because of the line "This one goes out to the one I love."
This is not the first time that people have completely misinterpreted obvious lyrics, and the band seems to have come to terms with this hit being misunderstood. Lead singer Michael Stipe found some humor in it, saying, "It's probably better that they think it's a love song at this point."
"Macarena"—Los Del Rio
Kids these days will never understand just how big "Macarena" got when it was released in the '90s. The dance that accompanied the song was silly and deceptively fun, but people might not realize that this quirky dance song is actually hiding some dark lyrics. But since they were in Spanish, not many people in the English-speaking world noticed.
Despite the upbeat nature of the music, the lyrics to "Macarena" aren't all sunshine and roses. If you can speak Spanish and pay attention to the words, you'll soon realize that the song is about a woman who cheats on her boyfriend after he leaves to serve in the army. Hey, Macarena!
These days, people only know Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" because of all those ASPCA commercials full of sad, neglected pets. But before those became popular, people enjoyed the song because they (wrongly) thought that "Angel" was about finding comfort and peace. However, its real message is much darker than what people think.
Eerily enough, the "arms of the angels" that McLachlan sings about are actually a reference to heroin and the false comfort that the drug can provide users. She was inspired to write the hit after reading an article about a member of the Smashing Pumpkins overdosing on heroin. We'll never hear this song the same way again!
"You're Beautiful"—James Blunt
"You're Beautiful" is another one of those songs where people really don't pay enough attention to the lyrics. It's become a romantic hit and a staple at weddings, which is completely insane when you consider the words that James Blunt is singing in the song. It's not romantic—it's incredibly creepy!
The lyrics of "You're Beautiful" tell the story of a guy using drugs and then obsessing over a woman that he just happens to see. It's completely perplexing that some couples think of this as "their song" when they clearly have never sat down and actually listened to the words!
Jimmy Buffett isn't just a musician—he sells his fans an entire, laid-back way of life. And one of his biggest hits that embodies his whole "no worries" lifestyle is "Margaritaville." However, the song has a darker meaning that's right there out in the open, if you really pay attention to what Buffett is singing about.
Although he makes it sound fun and quaint and charming, "Margaritaville" is ultimately a song about a guy who has become such an alcoholic that he can't function. He spends his time "wasting away" wondering if he should blame a woman or himself and just keeps on drinking. What a life to model your own on!
"99 Luftballons" is a quirky, upbeat-sounding song from 1983 that gained popularity with both a German- and English-language version. However, no matter which language you pick, the lyrics to the song are much darker than the music leads you to believe! As ridiculous as it might sound, this is a song about the end of the world.
In the lyrics, the release of balloons leads to a misunderstanding between militaries of different nations, which ultimately leads to apocalyptic nuclear war. The idea for the song originally came from a real-life event. Nena guitarist Carlos Karges was at a Rolling Stones concert in West Berlin where the band released a large number of balloons. Karges thought the balloons looked like UFOs and wondered what would happen if they floated over to Soviet East Berlin, and thus, "99 Luftballons" was born.