In college, I took a class called “The Author’s Intention,” which analyzed whether readers (and even the authors themselves) can ever really understand the meaning behind a piece of writing. When we read a poem or a story, we bring our own experiences into the text and that often yields vastly different interpretations. Thus, the meanings of things such as songs, which can be interpreted as poems set to music, become blurred and stretch far from what their writers might have originally intended.
Because many of us use music as an outlet for our deepest feelings, we are often shocked when the meanings that we have given to certain songs prove false. Just as some literary works are commonly misinterpreted, there are songs with meanings that are consistently misinterpreted. All too often, we find out that the songs we put on mix tapes for our crushes, or those we listen to on repeat in the midst of bad breakups, were written from a completely different view.
1. “Born in the U.S.A.,” Bruce Springsteen
Almost everybody knows the chorus of this song, but fewer know the rest of the lyrics, which is why Springsteen loudly singing, “I was born in the U.S.A.” is often taken as a patriotic proclamation. However, it’s really about veterans returning from the Vietnam War and facing the harsh realities of how they’re treated post-war. The misinterpretation only grew after both Ronald Reagan and Bob Dole used the song on their campaign playlists.
2. “Losing My Religion,” R.E.M.
When Michael Stipe sang about being in a corner and losing his religion, he wasn’t referring to a relationship with a higher power, as many believe. To “lose one’s religion” is actually a Southern phrase that means to run out of patience or to be very frustrated by a person or situation. This song is actually about having a crush on somebody and constantly looking for assurances that the love is not unrequited.
3. “Every Breath You Take,” The Police
How many people foolishly chose this song for their first dance as newlyweds? I’m not sure why this song is misinterpreted so universally as a love song. Do people listen to lyrics? If someone says to you, “Every game you play, every night you stay, I’ll be watching you,” wouldn’t you be more than a little creeped out? I guess that’s the power of Sting—even his stalker anthems are considered romantic.
4. “Hollaback Girl,” Gwen Stefani
I’ve gotten into arguments with people over this song. Many believe it means that, by not being a “hollaback girl,” Stefani is saying that she won’t respond to guys who “holla” at her or treat her poorly. Actually, she’s using a cheerleading metaphor—a hollaback girl is one who repeats back the cheers that the head cheerleader yells. With this song, Stefani is stepping away from the pack and proclaiming herself independent. She’s the head cheerleader giving orders, not one of the cheerleaders who simply repeat them back.
5. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” The Beatles
Many assume that this song refers to drug use, especially since the capitalized words in the title start with the same letters used to denote a particular hallucinogenic drug. However, John Lennon stated that the origins of the title come from a drawing that his son did of his friend, Lucy. The title of the picture was “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” so John used that for his song. Whether the actual meaning behind the song is about drug use is debatable, but the title itself is not meant to refer to an LSD trip.
6. “Crash into Me,” Dave Matthews Band
I’m pretty sure I put this song on a mix CD I made for a crush my sophomore year of high school. At the time, I thought it was a beautiful love song about longing for someone else. Well, it is … but the person singing is actually a perv! These lines give him away: “Oh I watch you there through the window and I stare at you. You wear nothing but you wear it so well.” How did I miss the peeping tom aspect? The part about him wanting to be “tied up and twisted” is a bit off-putting as well …
7. “The One I Love,” R.E.M.
It sounds like the perfect song for a radio dedication when Michael Stipe sings, “This one goes out to the one I love.” Oh, except until he gets to the line about the one he loves being “a simple prop to occupy my time.” Ouch! This song hardly inspires romantic feelings; actually, it makes Stipe seem like kind of a jerk. He’s basically saying the one he “loves” is nothing more than a waste of his time that he’s abandoned. Not exactly an uplifting declaration of true love, but people seem to focus on that first line before listening to the rest of the song, hence the constant misinterpretation.
8. “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie
I remember singing this song in elementary school and thinking it sounded so pleasant and positive. It’s actually a critique of the idealistic version of the U.S. that Irving Berlin sang about in “God Bless America.” His displeasure is subtle, but made obvious upon careful examination of lines like “As I was walkin’, I saw a sign there and that sign said—No trespassin’. But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’! Now that sign was made for you and me!” This song is often grouped with “God Bless America” as patriotic tunes, but Guthrie had the opposite intention.
What music essentially boils down to is not necessarily the meaning songs are meant to convey, but what meanings we actually derive from them. After all, more important than what messages artists intend to get across is their desire for people to connect with the music. However, considering how striking the differences are between what the aforementioned songs mean and how they’re interpreted, it might be wise to stick to the author’s version. I know I’ll think twice before putting “Crash into Me” on my next mix CD.