The surprising true meaning behind 15 popular songs

Rihanna/YouTubeSome songs have a different meaning than you think.
  • There are plenty of popular songs that are misunderstood by listeners, according to the artists who wrote them.
  • Rihanna’s“S&M” isn’t actually about sex (it’s about her relationship with the media), but Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69” is about sex.
  • Semisonic’s popular drinking anthem “Closing Time” is surprisingly about the birth of the lead singer’s daughter.
  • Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA,” Clash’s “Rock the Casbah,” and John Lennon’s “Imagine” all have hidden political messages.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

If you’ve never read all the lyrics to certain songs or you’ve only heard them in passing, there’s a chance you have no idea what they are actually about.

Many of the most misunderstood or misinterpreted songs have a catchy hook, killer chorus, and memorable melody, which can sometimes be a recipe for distraction where intended messaging is concerned.

Here are some popular songs you’ve probably misinterpreted.


Rihanna’s “S&M” isn’t actually about sex.

Youtube/ RihannaA scene from the ‘S&M’ music video.

If you thought Rihanna’s 2010 hit “S&M” was about getting kinky, you might be surprised to learn it’s actually about her relationship with the media.

“The song can be taken very literally, but it’s actually a very metaphorical song. It’s about the love-hate relationship with the media and how sometimes the pain is pleasurable,” Rihanna told Vogue in 2011, according to The Sydney Morning Herald. “We feed off it – or I do. And it was a very personal message that I was trying to get across.”


REM’s “The One I Love” Is not a love song.

Youtube/remhqA scene from ‘The One I Love’ music video.

Despite the fact that the second line of REM’s “The One I Love” clearly indicates the song is about a bitter breakup – “This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind/A simple prop to occupy my time” – listeners still seem to believe it’s a heartfelt love song.

“It’s a brutal kind of song, and I don’t know if a lot of people pick up on that,” REM front man Michael Stipe told Rolling Stone in 1987. “But I’ve always left myself pretty open to interpretation. It’s probably better that they just think it’s a love song at this point.”

In a 1988 interview with the now-defunct Musician Magazine, Stipe said the song is “lyrically very straightforward.”

“It’s very clear that it’s about using people over and over again,” Stipe said.


The Goo Goo Dolls’ “Slide” is about dealing with an unplanned pregnancy.

Youtube/ Goo Goo DollsA scene from the ‘Slide’ music video.

A lot of people get hung up on thinking the Goo Goo Dolls’ song is a beautiful track about love, but the lyrics tell a much more complicated story.

“I was thinking a lot about the neighbourhood I grew up in. ‘Slide’ is about a teenage boy and girl. They’re trying to figure out if they’re going to keep the baby or if she’s going to get an abortion or if they’re just going to run away,” the band’s front-runner John Rzeznik told Billboard in 2018. “They’re dealing with these heavy life choices at a very early age. Everybody grew up way too fast.”

In an interview with Stereogum that same year, the singer further described the song’s intended meaning.

“That was a not-so-apocryphal tale about some hard choices and dealing with a very rigid culture with a lot of demands put on the people who are part of that community, whether it was religious pressure, family pressure. It was really interesting to me to examine all those things,” he said.


Green Day’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” is a bitter breakup song masquerading as a feel-good track.

Youtube/ Green DayA scene from the ‘Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)’ music video.

If you have fond memories of belting out “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” at your middle-school graduation or during the last night of overnight camp with your friends, you aren’t alone. Many people seemed to misinterpret the lyric “I hope you had the time of your life” as an earnest one, and ignore the first half of the song’s title.

Green Day’s lead vocalist, Billie Joe Armstrong, told Guitar Legends magazine in 2005 that he wrote the song while he was breaking up with his girlfriend who was moving to Ecuador.

“I was trying to be as understanding about it as I could. I wrote the song as kind of a bon voyage. I was trying not to be bitter, but I think it came out as a little bitter anyway,” he said.


Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life” isn’t about feeling dissatisfied. It’s about drug addiction.

Youtube/ ThrillingtonA scene from the ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ music video.

It’s pretty much a fact that “Semi-Charmed Life” is the best karaoke song of all time with its frantic tempo that can leave you breathlessly trying to keep up with the lyrics.

But you may not realise that song’s pace actually reflects its narrative about the brutal cycle of highs and lows that accompany a drug addiction.

“It’s a dirty, filthy song about snorting speed and getting blow jobs. It’s really funny that people play it on the radio,” Third Eye Blind singer Stephan Jenkins told Billboard magazine in 1997. “I think people hear ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ as a happy summertime jam. And that’s fine with me. I don’t think the song should be so blatant that I have to come out and say ‘couples who take speed tend to break up, so don’t do it.'”

In a 1998 interview with Rolling Stone, Jenkins added, “Yeah, it’s funny. I wrote a song about drugs and f—ing, and I’m pretty much about clean living on the road. We can’t even believe it got onto the radio. ‘Coming over you’ is just really what it reports to be: ‘She comes around, and she goes down on me.’ It’s not cryptic.”


Don McLean’s classic campfire song “American Pie” disguises its depressing nature with catchiness.

Youtube/ maildavenowA scene from the ‘American Pie’ music video.

The iconic and undeniably catchy 1971 song “American Pie” is known to inspire group sing-alongs at bonfires and karaoke bars, but lyrically it’s rather dark.

The original release of the song clocks in at more than eight minutes long but, generally, people remember the song’s rhyming chorus, which bids farewell to “Miss American Pie.”

They tend to forget that the lyrically dense song references the 1959 plane crash that killed legends Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. Richardson as “the day the music died.”

According to The Guardian, Don McLean said in a 2015 interview that the lyrics are intentionally ambiguous.

“People ask me if I left the lyrics open to ambiguity. Of course, I did. I wanted to make a whole series of complex statements. The lyrics had to do with the state of society at the time,” he said.

In 2015, McLean also put the song’s original manuscript up for auction at Christie’s Auctions and Private Sales and told the auction house, “Basically, in ‘American Pie’ things are heading in the wrong direction. It is becoming less ideal, less idyllic. I don’t know whether you consider that wrong or right, but it is a morality song in a sense. I was around in 1970 and now I am around in 2015 there is no poetry and very little romance in anything anymore, so it is really like the last phase of ‘American Pie.'”


Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is not a song that celebrates the country.

Youtube/ Bruce SpringsteenA scene from the ‘Born in the USA’ music video.

The catchy, repetitive chorus of Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 hit makes it easy for listeners to overlook the song’s actual message, which is a critique of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War.

“But when you think about all the young men and women that died in Vietnam, and how many died since they have been back – surviving the war and coming back and not surviving – you have to think that, at the time, the country took advantage of their selflessness. There was a moment when they were just really generous with their lives,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone in 1984.

After conservative columnist George Will lauded the song’s chorus as a “grand, cheerful affirmation,” and Ronald Reagan dropped the singer’s name on the campaign trail, Springsteen said that he thought the American people’s need to feel good about the US after the Vietnam War was “gettin’ manipulated and exploited.”

He continued in the interview with Rolling Stone, “And that’s why when Reagan mentioned my name in New Jersey, I felt it was another manipulation, and I had to disassociate myself from the president’s kind words.”

According to The New Yorker, Springsteen once called “Born in the USA” the “most misunderstood song since ‘Louie, Louie.'”


Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” isn’t about letting go of an epic romance.

Youtube/ TransLucenT3DDolly Parton performing live.

The 1973 song (which was famously covered by Whitney Houston in 1992) was inspired by Dolly Parton’s decision to move on from working with her mentor, musician Porter Wagoner, and his series “The Porter Wagoner Show.”

“I was with Porter for seven years, and I learned so many things from Porter. We had one of those relationships where we were just so passionate about what we did; it was like fire and ice,” Parton told the Tennessean in 2015. “We kind of butted heads all the time, but we loved each other. There was a great passion there. And I wanted to leave the show. I had told Porter that I would stay with the show for five years. I wanted to go out on my own.”

Parton said she wanted to make Wagoner understand how much she appreciated him, so she wrote the song to let him know.


Semisonic’s “Closing Time” isn’t actually an anthem for the last call.

Youtube/ SemisonicVEVOA scene from the ‘Closing Time’ music video.

Just because bars are still playing Semisonic’s “Closing Time” as the final song of the night doesn’t mean the song is actually about the last call.

The band’s singer Dan Wilson revealed the song is actually about the birth of his daughter. Rather than write a cheesy song that was blatantly about the birth of his kid, Wilson hid the song’s real meaning.

“And I hid it so well in plain view that millions and millions of people heard the song and bought the song and didn’t get it. They think it’s about being bounced from a bar, but it’s about being bounced from the womb,” he said on stage during his college reunion at Harvard in 2008.


Clash’s “Rock the Casbah” was inspired by the 1979 ban on music in Iran.

Youtube/ The ClashA scene from the ‘Rock the Casbah’ music video.

If you’ve never sat down and read the lyrics to “Rock the Casbah,” you might be surprised to learn that the song was actually written as a response to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s 1979 broadcast music ban in Iran.

According to WCSX radio station, in a 1991 interview, late Clash front man Joe Strummer said he started writing the song after the band’s manager pleaded with them to write shorter songs.

“I started to wail about the muezzin and the sheiks and the oil in the desert. Somebody’d told me earlier that if you had a disco album in Tehran, you got 20 lashes. And if you had a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label whiskey, you got 40 lashes,” he said. “I couldn’t get this out of my mind, so I was trying to say fanaticism is nowhere. There’s no tenderness or humanity in fanaticism. That’s what I was trying to say in ‘Rock the Casbah.'”


Bryan Adams’ song “Summer of ’69” is not referencing the year.

Youtube/ Bryan AdamsA scene from the ‘Summer of ’69’ music video.

Historically speaking, 1969 was a big year. That was the summer Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Woodstock took place, and the Stonewall Riots happened.

But Bryan Adams’ song “Summer of ’69” isn’t about any of that – it’s about sex.

“A lot of people think it’s about the year, but actually, it’s more about making love in the summertime,” Adams told CBS’ “The Early Show” in 2008. “It’s using ’69 as a sexual reference.”


Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” wasn’t written after he saw a man let another man drown — it’s about his divorce.

Youtube/ Phil CollinsA scene from the ‘In the Air Tonight’ music video.

The legends surrounding the backstory to Phil Collins’ 1981 hit are plentiful and likely grew thanks to a reference in Eminem’s song “Stan.” But “In the Air Tonight” isn’t about, as Eminem put it, “that guy who could’ve saved that other guy from drowning, but didn’t.”

“Unfortunately, none of it’s true. I was just pissed off, ya know? I was angry,” Collins told Jimmy Fallon on an episode of “The Tonight Show” in 2016, adding that he was going through an emotionally taxing divorce.


John Lennon’s “Imagine” isn’t simply a song about unity and world peace.

Youtube/ John LennonA scene from the ‘Imagine’ music video.

Most people think the 1971 ballad by John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band is about people putting aside their differences to change the world, but the song – which was cowritten by his wife Yoko Ono – is more political.

According to a 2001 Rolling Stone article, Lennon once described the song as “virtually the Communist Manifesto, even though I am not particularly a communist and I do not belong to any movement.”

The song clearly asks the listener to imagine a world without religion or possessions, but Lennon admitted that he intentionally tried to “sugarcoat” his message with the song’s sweetness.

“‘Imagine’ is a big hit almost everywhere – anti-religious, anti-nationalistic, anti-conventional, anti-capitalistic, but because it is sugarcoated, it is accepted,” Lennon once said, according to biographer James Henke. “Now I understand what you have to do: Put your political message across with a little honey.”


Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” is about someone who died from heroin addiction.

Youtube/ Nettwerk MusicA scene from the ‘Angel’ music video.

Most listeners think the song is about a profound, personal loss – or think about the commercials for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – but Sarah McLachlan revealed the song was inspired by the death of Smashing Pumpkins keyboardist Jonathan Melvoin, who died of an apparent drug overdose in 1996.

“I went to a cottage north of Montreal to relax and write. I read on arrival in Rolling Stone about the Smashing Pumpkins keyboard player who had OD’ed in a hotel room,” McLachlan wrote on Quora in 2014. “The story shook me because though I have never done hard drugs like that, I felt a flood of empathy for him and that feeling of being lost, lonely, and desperately searching for some kind of release.”


“MMMBop” is a word Hanson made up, but it’s supposed to be a measurement of time.

Youtube/ HansonA scene from the ‘MMMBop’ music video.

Though the song was everywhere in 1997, many people had no idea what the Hanson brothers were singing about.

“‘MMMBop’ represents a frame of time. ‘In an MMMBop they’re gone,’ it says in the lyrics of the song. The whole song’s about the fact that almost everything in your life will come and go very quickly,” Zac Hanson told Australia’s “Kyle and Jackie O Show” in 2017. “You’ve got to figure out what matters and grab onto those things.”

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly that same year, Zac dubbed “MMMBop” the “most misunderstood successful song of all time.”

“Even at the height of 1997, it’s a song nobody understood,” he said. “99% of the people who have any reference from it don’t understand it.”

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