40 Famous Songs With Meanings That Completely Went Over Our Heads

No, this isn't a story about infamous "backmasking" techniques supposedly used by recording artists to plant Satanic messages in the minds of the straight-laced families of unsuspecting America. We're talking about real hidden meanings here. The vulnerable truths behind songs like "Born in the U.S.A.," "Summer of '69," and all those songs you sang on vacation that have much deeper meanings than you may have thought.

1. "Imagine" — John Lennon

"Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man"

It's been widely accepted for years as a peaceful, feel-good anthem by the American public, but Lennon openly stated that the lyrics of his famous song were "virtually the Communist manifesto...Because it's sugarcoated, it's accepted." Well that settles that then!

2. "Poker Face" — Lady Gaga

"No, he can't read my poker face / (She's got me like nobody)"

Although it seems to be about a cavalier flirtationship, this song was actually a hint at Gaga's bisexuality. She admitted to crowds at a 2009 concert that the "poker face" in question concerned fantasizing about a woman while she was with a man.

3. "Hotel California" — Eagles

"And she said, 'We are all just prisoners here / Of our own device'"

Checking out anytime you like, but never being able to leave, sounds like typical customer service at the worst hotel ever. It's actually a veiled reference to the greed of the music industry, which Don Henley was feeling trapped by at the time.

4. "Closing Time" — Semisonic

"Closing time, this room won't be open / Till your brothers or your sisters come"

This classic down-your-drink-and-get-out ballad is a favorite of bartenders who, when it's lights-on time, have no patience for subtlety. But Dan Wilson wrote the tune about childbirth. "My wife and I were expecting our first kid...what a funny pun it was to be bounced from the womb," he said.

5. "Firework" — Katy Perry

"Make 'em go, 'Oh, oh, oh' / You're gonna leave 'em all in awe, awe, awe"

Now, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Katy Perry's catchy pop hit is an empowering song all about embracing your inner spark. According to Perry herself, though, the inspiration for the song came from a much darker place. "Basically, I have this very morbid idea," the star shared with Billboard in 2010. "When I pass, I want to be put into a firework and shot across the sky over the Santa Barbara Ocean as my last hurrah."

6. "Like A Virgin" — Madonna

"I'd been had, I was sad and blue, but you made me feel / Yeah, you made me feel shiny and new"

Written by Billy Steinberg, the song wasn't about virginity, or even about either of the two theories famously discussed in the beginning of the movie Reservoir Dogs. Steinberg wrote it about being in a healthy relationship that made everything feel new again. Aww.

7. "Just Like Heaven" — The Cure

"'Show me, show me, show me how you do that trick / The one that makes me scream'"

Fans wondered for years what the "trick" was that's alluded to in the song's opening lines. Robert Smith later said it was just an allusion to magic tricks or tricks of seduction, and that the song was about "hyperventilating — kissing and fainting to the floor."

8. "Total Eclipse of the Heart" — Bonnie Tyler

"I know there's no one in the universe / As magical and wondrous as you"

When Jim Steinman wrote the song, he was also working on a Nosferatu musical at the time, and a bit of influence seeped over. He wrote the classic ballad about vampire romance, almost calling it "Vampires in Love".

9. "Harder to Breathe" — Maroon 5

"You drain me dry and make me wonder why I'm even here / This double vision I was seein' is finally clear"

Though it sounds like it's about a relationship gone wrong, the band's classic track was actually about their frustrations with their label, which was pushing them to get more songs finished.

10. "American Girl" — Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

"Well, it was kind of cold that night / She stood alone on her balcony"

Fans actually read farther into this song than Petty intended, weaving an urban legend that it was about a girl tragically jumping from her balcony. Petty went on the record several times to say no, it was just a love song.

11. "Born in the USA" — Bruce Springsteen

"Got in a little hometown jam / so they put a rifle in my hand / Sent me off to a foreign land."

It's been used in political campaigns, at sports events, and basically anywhere you could envision a rowdy American anthem being played, but the song's lyrics are really a criticism of the country's terrible treatment of Vietnam veterans.

12. "In the Air Tonight" — Phil Collins

"Well, I was there and I saw what you did / I saw it with my own two eyes"

Another urban legend swirled around Collins' first solo single, rumoring that it was about a man he'd witnessed refusing to save a drowning victim. Less interestingly, it's merely about his divorce with Andrea Bertorelli.

13. "The One I Love" — R.E.M.

"This one goes out to the one I've left behind / A simple prop to occupy my time"

It's not about love; it's about using someone, which is the opposite of love. Despite seemingly obvious lyrics, guitarist Peter Buck said people still, confusingly, made out in the audience to the song. Well, that's one way to occupy time, we suppose!

14. "Semi-Charmed Life" — Third Eye Blind

"It won't stop, I won't come down"

"Semi-Charmed Life," according to frontman Stevan Jenkins, is about substance addiction, and the feeling that "your life is always about to change and never be reliable." Its key line, "doing [redacted] will lift you up until you break," was edited out of the radio version... for obvious reasons.

15. "Flowers" — Miley Cyrus

"We were right 'til we weren't / Built a home and watched it burn"

Miley Cyrus' latest record seems to be filled with not-so-subtle nods to her ex-husband, Liam Hemsworth. From the unusual release time of 11 a.m, which meant the track dropped just in time for Hemsworth's birthday, to the video and undeniably pointed lyrics, the whole song can be interpreted as a powerful post-breakup message. At one point in the video, Cyrus struts her stuff in an oversized black suit. Supposedly, the same one that Hemsworth wore when he publicly told Cyrus to "behave for once" shortly before their split in 2019. As to whether the house from the video is, in fact, the place where Hemsworth was rumored to have been unfaithful during their relationship — the jury's out. 

16. "Blackbird" — The Beatles

"Blackbird singing in the dead of night / Take these broken wings and learn to fly"

"It's not really about a blackbird...it's a bit more symbolic," Sir Paul McCartney once said. Inspired by the American Civil Rights Movement, he wrote the song about desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, and racial inequality and struggles in general.

17. "London Calling" — The Clash

"The ice age is coming, the sun's zooming in / Meltdown expected, the wheat is growing thin"

Although it enjoys a reputation as being a criticism of British politics, the song stemmed from Joe Strummer's fear of drowning. The band had read an article about the possibility of the Thames overflowing its banks, and they "flipped out."

18. "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" — Green Day

"So make the best of this test, and don't ask why / It's not a question, but a lesson learned in time"

Although it's touted as a romantic ballad, the song was actually about frontman Billie Joe Armstrong's breakup. He was okay with the confusion, saying, "I sort of enjoy the fact that I'm misunderstood most of the time."

19. "Waterfalls" — TLC

"His health is fading and he doesn't know why / Three letters took him to his final resting place"

We all know it's not actually about chasing waterfalls, but unless you've watched the music video for this classic, you might miss the fact that it's warning its audience about the dangers of illegal drugs and STDs.

20. “Sympathy for the Devil” — The Rolling Stones

"Just call me Lucifer / 'Cause I'm in need of some restraint"

Penned by Mick Jagger with an assist from Keith Richards, their darkly upbeat manifesto recounts history from Satan’s perspective. The upbeat rock track covers a lot of ground — there's mention of Jesus’ crucifixion, the murder of the Romanovs, and even the Kennedy assassinations.

21. "Wake Me Up When September Ends" — Green Day

"As my memory rests / But never forgets what I lost"

Many listeners believed this song had a secret deep meaning about war, but it turned out to be much more personal than that. In actual fact, it was really a wistful memorial for Billie Joe Armstrong's father, who passed away when he was young.

22. “American Pie” — Don McLean

"Them good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye / Singing, 'This'll be the day that I die'"

Coining the phrase “the day the music died,” Don McLean’s pop-culture-reference-packed hit was written to commemorate the deaths of musicians Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens in a 1959 plane crash.

23. “Smoke On The Water” — Deep Purple

"But some stupid with a flare gun / Burned the place to the ground"

The first song everyone learns on guitar was born from witnessing a harrowing scene in Switzerland. From their hotel across the lake, the band watched flames engulf the Montreux Casino Complex, sparked by a fan shooting a flare gun at a concert.

24. "Summer of '69" — Bryan Adams

"Man, we were killin' time / We were young and restless / We needed to unwind"

One of Adams' most well-known tracks doesn't actually refer to the year 1969 at all. It's referring to a summer full of the other 69 — the, uh, physical romance maneuver. We don't know if we're allowed to actually say...

25. “Mississippi Goddam” — Nina Simone

"All I want is equality / For my sister my brother my people and me"

It took less than an hour to write one of the most powerful political songs of all time. Simone’s creative inspiration was fueled by the injustice of Medgar Evers’ murder and the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church.

26. “Ohio” — Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young

"Gotta get down to it / Soldiers are cutting us down"

The nation was hot with anger in the wake of the Kent State Shootings of May 4, 1970. Some four million students rose up in protest, while Neil Young channeled his deep hurt into song. According to bandmate David Crosby, the finished piece was ready in almost the blink of an eye, "He was silent for a long time, then picked up his guitar and 20 minutes later had this song."

27. “Let Him Dangle” — Elvis Costello

"Craig fired the pistol, but was too young to swing / So the police took Bentley and the very next thing"

Lyric by lyric, this song unfolds the circumstances of the controversial murder trial and subsequent hanging of 19-year-old Derek Bentley in 1954. Today it stands as the foremost anthem against capital punishment.

28. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” — Gordon Lightfoot

"And a wave broke over the railing / And every man knew, as the captain did too / T'was the witch of November come stealin'"

Rising to the number two spot on the Canadian charts, this song at its core was motivated by storytelling. As more details emerged about the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald into Lake Superior, Lightfoot updated the verses.

29. “The Way It Is” — Bruce Hornsby & the Range

"The man in the silk suit hurries by / As he catches the poor old ladies' eyes / Just for fun he says, 'get a job'"

Tupac sampled it in his hit “Changes,” but this song was released 12 years earlier. In essence, similar to the hip hop version, it's a commentary on the Civil Rights Movement and race and class divisions.

30. “99 Luftballons” — Nena

"Panic bells, it's red alert / There's something here from somewhere else / The war machine springs to life"

The German band’s guitarist spotted some balloons while at a concert in West Berlin, and he envisioned how easily their appearance could send Cold War tensions into an overactive military death zone.

31. "Pumped Up Kicks" — Foster the People

"He found a six-shooter gun / In his dad's closet, and with a box of fun things"

Far from a fun pop song about fancy sneakers, the lyrics of this smash hit are a reference to the alarming prevalence of gun violence in schools, and the uptick in mental health problems among the American youth.

32. “Zombie” — The Cranberries

"It's the same old theme / Since nineteen-sixteen / In your head, in your head, they're still fighting"

The late lead singer Dolores O'Riordan explained, “When it says in the song, 'It's not me, it's not my family,' that's what I'm saying. It's not Ireland." She was moved to make a musical statement after the 1993 IRA bombing of Warrington.

33. “Abraham, Martin, and John” — Marvin Gaye

"But it seems the good die young, yeah / I just looked around / And he was gone"

While Marvin’s version is widely known, he was one of a few to cover the song chronicling the assassinations of iconic figures Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy.

34. “Black Friday” — Steely Dan

"I'll collect everything I'm owed / And before my friends find out / I'll be on the road"

Long before the chaos of the retail holiday, Black Friday stood for the day the gold prices skyrocketed then plummeted, sinking the country into mass poverty. The narrator of this tune runs scenarios of his survival plan.

35. “The Rising” — Bruce Springsteen

"Can't see nothing in front of me / Can't see nothing coming up behind / Make my way through this darkness"

Few voices resonate with Americans as strongly as The Boss’, which is why he felt a duty to write a moving remembrance of the September 11th attacks, later earning several Grammys and a Song of the Year nomination.

36. “When The Levee Breaks” — Led Zeppelin

"If it keeps on rainin', levee's goin' to break / When the levee breaks, I'll have no place to stay"

Metalheads would do well to remember this song was a cover from a tune written 42 years earlier by blues legends Kansas Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie about the devastating Great Mississippi Flood of 1929.

37. “Cortez the Killer” — Neil Young

"He came dancing across the water / With his galleons and guns / Looking for the new world"

As a high school student studying Spanish history, Neil scribbled out an early draft of this song about conquistador Hernán Cortés and his conquest of Mexico from the Aztecs. And the rest, as they say, is musical icon history!

38. “Biko” — Peter Gabriel

"You can blow out a candle / But you can't blow out a fire / Once the flames begin to catch / The wind will blow it higher"

Hearing about the death of South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko on the news, the former Genesis frontman eulogized the hero through song. The sampled recordings at the beginning and end were also played at Biko’s funeral.

39. "April 29, 1992 (Miami)" — Sublime

"With red lights flashin', time to retire / And then we turned that liquor store into a structure fire"

The title refers to the 1992 Los Angeles riots in response to the beating of Rodney King by the police. If you’re singing it, you’ll note the lyrics are “April 26,” an error they kept because it was their best take.

40. "Suffer Little Children" — The Smiths

"We may be dead and we may be gone / But we will be, we will be, we will be, right by your side"

Lead singer Morrissey grew up in England during the 1960's when the infamous Moors murders took place. The aptly named song is all about the tragic murders of minors committed by Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.