Despite the contingent of hardcore fans who think I'm infallible, I am but a human being who puts his pants on two legs at a time and occasionally makes mistakes. For example, there have been several times where I've wildly misinterpreted the meaning of a song. It happens to the best of us.
Even though the beauty of art means we can each create our own personal meanings, there are times when people are straight up wrong in what they think a song is about. Sometimes it’s an understated detail they’ve glossed over, other times it’s something so glaringly obvious one can't help but wonder if English is their first, second or third language.
I’m singling out four oft-misunderstood songs in this post, plus a bonus song for people who like getting an extra free thing along with their other, already-free things. Here are some songs that you may never look at the same way again.
“More Than Words” - Extreme
This song is genius. That might seem like a generous helping of praise to heap on the bigger hit of a two-hit-wonder, guilty pleasure band like Extreme, but consider this: every time I used to play this song for girls on guitar (it happened a lot in high school by request, don’t ask), they'd always melt with the delight of how Valentine's-Day-sweet it is. I'd then have to explain to them that this song is not sweet. It’s literally about getting laid. It’s even more literally about telling a girl to stop yapping so much and start getting more naked. But women seem to take the lyrics as some sort of heartfelt statement that love is about something more than just the words “I love you,” that it’s about showing your cherishing devotion through actions.
Yes. The action of banging. Listen to the lyrics again, but from the perspective of a guy who is manipulating a girl who genuinely cares about him into “proving” she really loves him by humping. Doesn’t it feel a little dirty now?
Fun Fact: This song absolutely, 100% fulfilled its mission for these guys. Well played.
“Wonderful Tonight” - Eric Clapton
I’ll give you a free pass for missing this song's true meaning, because it’s not really in the words themselves unless you're listening from the proper perspective—the one Clapton himself admitted to writing it from.
When I was first learning guitar and worshiping the ground Clapton walked on, I bought various books to learn about this fantastic role model who stole his best friend’s wife and then cheated on her by having endless threesomes on world tours while being blitzed out of his gourd first on heroin and later alcohol. One such book was a collection of direct quotes entitled Clapton: In His Own Words.
I don’t have the book anymore, but I very specifically remember one quote about the moment he wrote this sweet song of loving adoration. Clapton revealed that he did in fact write "Wonderful Tonight" while waiting for said stolen-from-best-friend wife while she was getting ready for a night out, but he was actually really irritated about having to wait on her taking forever. While he spun it into a song of patient reverence (and this is no doubt how he presented it to his wife), it’s actually totally sarcastic. “Yes dear, you look wonderful tonight… Can we f#$%ing go now?"
Fun Fact: "Wonderful Tonight" is actually far more enjoyable to listen to from this perspective.
“Every Breath You Take” - Police
So y’know how the last example was a very subtle detail that changed the meaning of the song? This one is not. The rampant misinterpreting of “Every Breath You Take” is simply a matter of people not using their earballs to actually listen to the lyrics. This song has inexplicably been used at tons of weddings, but it’s not a love song. It’s a creepy stalker song. Even Sting himself has admitted bafflement over how so many people have missed the decidedly sinister slant of the lyrics:
"I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it's quite the opposite.” - Sting
That’s just one of many similar quotes from the songwriter admitting "Every Breath You Take" is not at all the song so many think it is, and that it was written from a place of threatening malevolence. Swoon!
Fun Fact: “I’ll be watching you” is about the least romantic thing you could ever say to someone. How anyone could want that to be the centerpiece of their wedding boggles the mind.
“Only The Good Die Young” - Billy Joel
If "Every Breath You Take" is an example of people completely missing an un-subtle lyrical theme, "Only The Good Die Young" is even more dumbfounding because there is zero room for interpretation beyond what the song is saying in an incredibly matter-of-fact manner. Yet somehow, some way, there are are people who think it's a "sad" song.
I mean, it is sad as long as you think the story of a guy who desperately wants to get laid is sad (which it is in a certain way). But that’s all this song is about: a kid who wants a Catholic schoolgirl to give it up. “Only The Good Die Young” is simply what he’s telling her to convince her to lose her virginity. Her name is Virginia for God’s sake, and that's the closest thing to a metaphor you're gonna find in this song.
It has absolutely nothing to do with good people literally dying young. It would be a piss poor way to convey that sentiment via a bouncy, fun and upbeat ditty anyway.
Fun Fact: Billy Joel probably really has slept with a bunch of Catholic schoolgirls.
BONUS SONG: “The Christmas Song” - Bob Wells and Mel Torme
I’m counting this as a bonus song because there’s no hidden meaning in the lyrics (unless chestnuts roasting on an open fire is some sort of risqué symbolism that I didn’t know about), but the story behind the song’s composition is the complete opposite of what you’d expect: it was written during a summer heat wave in an effort to “think cold thoughts” with the hopes that it might cool the songwriters down a bit. Oh, and Torme is totally Jewish.
It’s one of the most beloved Christmas carols of all time, evoking the wintery feel of the season as good as, or better than, just about any song ever written. But it was written partially by someone who didn’t celebrate the holiday and entirely by people melting in sweltering summer heat.
Fun Fact: With the money they made from that one song, Wells and Torme could pay for the air conditioning bills of about a million people.