We’ve all sat around listening to the lyrics of our favorite songs, trying to make sense of them. Often, the song’s meaning eludes us, but other times, we get what the songwriter was trying to say . . . or at least we thought we did. Here are 10 songs that we thought we understood but were wrong.
10 Bob Marley’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ Was About Birth Control
Esther Anderson was a native Jamaican who helped build Island Records in the early 1960s. She was an actress and a photographer and co-wrote songs and lyrics for the Island Records label. Anderson was in New York City in 1972 when she met Bob Marley at a hotel party
They began dating, and Anderson, almost from the start, collaborated with Marley on his songs. For Marley and the Wailers’ next album, Burnin’, Marley and Anderson wrote “I Shot the Sheriff.” Afterward, Marley claimed that part of the song was based on actual events but would not elaborate. For years, fans speculated on the song’s origins and perused newspapers looking for shootings of sheriffs and deputies. Then, in 2001, Anderson wrote a biography of Marley where she revealed what sparked the song.
Marley grew up in a Catholic household, but by the time he met Anderson, he was a Rastafarian. His deeply held beliefs forbade the use of birth control, and he frequently argued with Anderson over her use of the pill. Marley wanted Anderson to have his baby and considered birth control the killing of his “seed.” Anderson refused, especially when she discovered that Marley was married and already had several children.
A specific verse of “I Shot the Sheriff” was the result. According to Anderson, Sheriff John Brown was actually the doctor who prescribed her birth control pills, and the deputy, presumably, was Anderson herself. With this revelation, the lyrics now become clearer:
Sheriff John Brown always hated me,
For what, I don’t know:
Every time I plant a seed,
He said kill it before it grow.
9 Megadeth’s ‘A Tout Le Monde’ Was About Expressing Love
Megadeth is considered a pioneer in the “thrash metal” subgenre of heavy metal music and has been heavily criticized for their violent lyrics and preoccupation with death. It is therefore mildly shocking to hear that one of the band’s more controversial songs is about expressing love before it’s too late.
That song was “A Tout le Monde” (meaning “To the World” or “To Everyone”), released in 1994. The song’s lyrics sound like a suicide note, and it was widely panned for promoting suicide to teenagers. It didn’t help that it came out on an album titled Youthanasia. MTV banned the video for its alleged pro-suicide message and only televised it after a disclaimer was added to the end of the video: “Suicide is not an answer. Get help.”
The furor had finally died down when a Megadeth fan went on a shooting spree at the Montreal campus of Dawson College in 2006. One person was killed, and 19 others were wounded before the shooter committed suicide. The shooter blogged beforehand that “A Tout le Monde” had inspired him. The band was quick to condemn the rampage, especially since two of its members were from Montreal.
From the beginning, Dave Mustaine (Megadeth’s lead singer) has insisted that the song is not about suicide. In an interview when the album came out, he said:
It’s not a suicide song. What it is, it’s, you, it’s when people have a loved one that dies and they end on a bad note, you know, they wish that they could say something to them. So this is an opportunity for the deceased to say something before they go. And it was my impression of what I would like to say to people, if I had say, 3 seconds to do so in life before I died I’d say to the entire world, to all my friends, I love you all, and now I must go.
Later, Mustaine said that he was thinking about the passing of loved ones after he had a dream about his deceased mother, Emily. In the dream, Emily came to him specifically to say “goodbye” and that she loved him, something she wasn’t able to do before she died. Mustaine decided that he wasn’t going to make the same mistake.
8 Hall And Oates’s ‘Maneater’ Was About New York City
Darryl Hall and John Oates are one of the most successful duos in rock history. The pair had 29 top-40 hits between 1976 and 1990, six of which reached number one. One such song was “Maneater,” from their 1982 album H2O. Taken at face value, the lyrics seem to be about a ruthless, predatory woman who uses her beauty to lure wealthy men to her. Speculation that the song was about British actress and model Kelly LeBrock became so prevalent that most people still believe that she’s the inspiration even three decades later.
However, a song written by either Hall, Oates, or both is rarely that straightforward. In a 2014 interview, John Oates was asked what the song “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” a song that appeared to be about a lover who asked far too much, was really about:
That song is typical of a lot of the lyrics we’ve written over the years. It seems like it’s about one thing, but it’s really not. [ . . . ] If we have any kind of philosophy for our lyrics over the years it was to try to take a universal subject and somehow make it seem personal so that people could relate to it as if it was a personal thing. The underlying subject matter is actually not. That song is about the music business. That song is really about not being pushed around by big labels, managers, and agents and being told what to do, and being true to yourself creatively.
Another hit song of theirs—“Rich Girl”—appeared to be about a vain woman, obsessed with her own wealth. Oates said that while the song is about a real wealthy person, the subject is a man, not a woman:
It was written about a guy who was the heir to a fast-food fortune. Obviously, because Daryl is really smart, he realized that “Rich Girl” sounded better than “Rich Guy.” That’s the truth. He had too much money, and too many drugs—and he just kind of burned out. He came over to visit one time, and after he left, Daryl just came up with the idea.
As for “Maneater,” that wasn’t about a woman either:
“Maneater” is about NYC in the ’80s. It’s about greed, avarice, and spoiled riches. But we have it in the setting of a girl because it’s more relatable. It’s something that people can understand.
7 Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’ Was Probably About Daniel Armstrong
Few songs have generated as much speculation and frustration as Carly Simon’s 1972 hit “You’re So Vain.” Part of the reason was that Simon had been linked—professionally, romantically, or both—with some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry—Kris Kristofferson, Cat Stevens, Mick Jagger, Warren Beatty, and James Taylor, her husband at the time. It’s therefore a little surprising that the real subject of her song is probably a man most people outside the music industry are unfamiliar with.
Another reason that the mystery still captures attention after four decades is that Simon herself has dropped hints and invited fans to piece together the clues. She even held a charity auction in 2003 where she whispered the secret to the highest bidder, Dick Ebersol, president of NBC Sports, who paid $50,000.
When she released an updated version of “You’re So Vain” on her greatest hits album Never Been Gone in 2010, she said that she whispered the first name of the man during an instrumental break in the song. Unfortunately, that clue was difficult to hear, and it was quickly reported that name was “David.” It was not. According to Simon:
I said “Ovid” both front- and backward together on the CD, and it came out sounding like “David” to some, I guess. But I meant it as an allusion to metamorphosis, and that this group of songs was rechanneled into a different cockroach. Kafka? Coffee? Clouds? I know it’s boring, but that could be good!
Simon has also changed her story over the years. In 1974, she claimed that the subject of the song was a compilation of several men. But in 2002, she said that the subject was one man and that he has appeared in some of her other songs. Six years later, she elaborated: “When I had the line ‘You’re so vain, you probably think this song is about you,’ that was definitely about one person. The rest of the descriptions basically came from my relationship with that person.”
For years, the media has maintained that the song’s subject was Warren Beatty, a man Simon dated briefly in the early 1970s. Beatty himself was convinced that the song was about him and even called Simon to thank her for the tribute. However, she maintains that while Beatty fits the song’s descriptions, he is not the subject.
One lyric may be a key to the mystery: “Then you flew your Lear jet up to Nova Scotia to see the total eclipse of the sun.” According to NASA, there were two total eclipses that could be seen from Nova Scotia in the early 1970s. One was in the summer of 1972, long after the song was written, but the other was in March 1970. Interestingly, Simon was ending her two-year relationship with a man named Daniel Armstrong in late 1969 and early 1970. Their circle of friends planned to fly to Nova Scotia to witness the March 1970 eclipse at its darkest.
Armstrong was the owner of one of the premiere electric guitar stores in New York City and counted among his clientele the band Cream and Eric Clapton. “I was the first and only electric guitar specialist in the world, and I knew every big-time guitar player in the world—I just plain owned New York at the time,” he once unabashedly said. He also claimed that he knew more blues riffs then Clapton. Sound like the subject of Simon’s song?
According to friends, Armstrong was not supportive of Simon’s budding music career and had bashed her already low self-esteem. Also, though Simon broke off the relationship, she allegedly regretted it and carried a torch for him for years. Simon freely admits that at least two of her songs—“I’m All it Takes to Make You Happy” and “Dan, My Fling”—were inspired by Armstrong.
In two separate interviews in 2004, Simon dropped her most revealing hint: The man in her song had the letters “a,” “e,” and “r.” All three letters can be found in the name “Daniel Armstrong.” Perhaps just as interesting is that 2004 is the year that Mr. Armstrong died.
We may never know for sure who inspired Simon’s famous song. In 1989, she said: “It always strikes me as funny that people should be that into what I was thinking about. That’s the greatest ego trip anybody could have. And for that reason of course, I can never give it away.”
6 Bonnie Tyler’s ‘Total Eclipse of the Heart’ Was A Vampire Love Song
Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 song “Total Eclipse of the Heart” hit number one on the charts in both the US and UK. Tyler’s raspy voice and haunting lyrics, reinforced by the song’s dark, Gothic music video, has given the world the impression that this is a song about two lovers—the singer and “Bright Eyes.” Their relationship is both uncertain and excruciating. However, the song’s writer intended the pain to be less in the heart and more in the neck.
The song’s writer was Jim Steinman, famous for three Meatloaf songs on their 1977 Bat Out of Hell album—“Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad,” “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” and “I’ll Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t do That).” In the early 1980s, Steinman was working on a musical based on the famous vampire movie Nosferatu. One of the songs he wrote for the production was “Vampires in Love.”
When Meatloaf began to put together songs for Midnight At the Lost and Found in 1983, Steinman offered two songs—“Making Love Out of Nothing at All” and “Vampires in Love,” which was renamed “Total Eclipse of the Heart.” But Epic Records wanted Meatloaf to write his own songs, so “Making Love” went to Air Supply and “Total Eclipse” went to Bonnie Tyler.
Then, in 2002, Steinman’s production of Dance of the Vampires opened on Broadway, and audiences were surprised that Act II opened with—you guessed it—“Total Eclipse of the Heart,” this time with its original title of “Vampires in Love.”
Steinman had originally intended to write all new songs for the production:
I had only a month and half to write this whole show and I needed a big love duet. [ . . . ] But with “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” I was trying to come up with a love song and I remembered I actually wrote that to be a vampire love song. [ . . . ] If anyone listens to the lyrics, they’re really like vampire lines. It’s all about the darkness, the power of darkness and love’s place in [the] dark.
5 The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ‘Give It Away’ Was About Generosity
With lyrics like, “What I’ve got you’ve got to get put it in you,” we can be forgiven for our belief that “Give It Away” is about sex. “Give it away” is, after all, a euphemism for losing your virginity. When the Red Hot Chili Peppers were asked to appear in the fourth-season finale of the cartoon sitcom The Simpsons in 1993, they were asked to make their monster crossover hit “Give it Away” more family-friendly by changing the above line to “What I like, is I like to hug and kiss you.”
With a careful look at some of the other lyrics, however, it’s clear that something else is going on. The second verse opens with:
Greedy little people in a sea of distress
Keep your more to receive your less
Unimpressed by material excess.
In his autobiography Scar Tissue, lyricist Anthony Kiedis explained that the song’s genesis came from a bit of wisdom that his ex-girlfriend Nina Hagen imparted to him:
Nina was a wise soul, and she realized how young and inexperienced I was then, so she was always passing on gems to me, not in a preachy way, just be seizing on opportunities. [ . . . ] I was going through her closet one day, looking at all her crazy clothes, when I came upon a valuable exotic jacket. “This is really cool,” I said. “Take it. You can have it,” she said. “Whoa, I can’t take this. This is the nicest jacket you have in there,” I said. “That’s why I gave it to you,” she explained. “It’s always important to give things away; it creates good energy. If you have a closet full of clothes, and you try to keep them all, your life will get very small. But if you have a full closet and someone sees something they like, if you give it to them, the world is a better place.”
Hagen’s advice stayed with Kiedis for years afterward: It was such an epiphany that someone would want to give me her favorite thing. That stuck with me forever. Every time I’d be thinking “I have to keep,” I’d remember “No, you gotta give away instead.” For the Peppers’ 1991 album Blood Sugar Sex Magik, Kiedis wrote a song to impart that wisdom.
Anyone familiar with the song’s lyrics know that Kiedis slipped in a tribute to Bob Marley as a “poet and a prophet.” But Kiedis revealed that he also inserted a tribute to another star who died far too young, River Phoenix. River was a friend of RHCP guitarist John Frusciante and bass guitarist Flea (aka Michael Peter Balzary). The night that River died in October 1993, he was to perform onstage with Flea at The Viper Room, a Hollywood nightclub. He collapsed from a drug overdose right outside the nightclub. He was 23.
“River was around a lot during the writing and recording of our album,” Kiedis said. The verse, “There’s a river, born to be a giver, keep you warm, won’t let you shiver. His heart is never going to wither, come one everybody, time to deliver,” was a tribute to him.
4 The Rolling Stones’ ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ Was About Returning To Their Simpler R&B Roots
When the Rolling Stones came together in the summer of 1962, their rock and roll sound was far darker, sexier, and more rooted in blues than their greatest competitor, the Beatles. But by the middle of the decade, the Beatles had exchanged their pop rock sound for the folk rock sound of artists like Bob Dylan, and the Stones followed suit in 1967 with Between the Buttons. Then, when the Beatles turned to psychedelia with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that same year, the Stones answered with Their Satanic Majesties Request, their third album in a year.
That same year (still 1967), Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones were all arrested for drug violations and faced hefty prison sentences. Also, Jones was mentally and physically deteriorating from substance abuse. When the band got together in 1968 to record Beggar’s Banquet, they decided to return to their blues roots. Mick Jagger would later say that “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” was about the previous stress-filled year: “It was about having a hard time and getting out. Just a metaphor for getting out of all the acid things.”
Fans have long thought the song to be about drugs—everything from “laughing gas” to injecting heroin into the tear ducts. However, the word “gas” in the song refers not to getting stoned but to the feeling that the band members experience when they play its catchy blues riff, which is, as Richards points out, the same riff from their 1965 rock-blues hit “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” but in reverse. Richards would later say:
When you get a riff like “Flash,” you get a great feeling of elation, a wicked glee. I can hear the whole band take off behind me every time I play “Flash”—there’s this extra sort of turbo overdrive. You jump on the riff and it plays you. Levitation is probably the closest analogy to what I feel.”
The “Jack” in the song is Jack Dyer, Keith Richards’s gardener, who surprised Jagger and Richards one morning by traipsing around in the garden outside their window. Richards called him “Jumpin’ Jack,” and Jagger added “Flash” to give them an alliterative phrase to hang the song on. Dyer was a simple country bumpkin who seemed to symbolize a simpler time to Richards and Jagger, a time they wanted to return to. The song is the Stones’ most consistently played song at their concerts, and they frequently spray water and flower petals into the audience when they play it, probably a tribute to Dyer.
3 Semisonic’s ‘Closing Time’ Was About Childbirth
For more than a decade, everyone—including most Semisonic members—thought the Grammy-winning “Closing Time” was about a bar’s last call. In fact, after the song was released in 1998, it became a mainstay of bars around the world as a signal to its customers they were about to be booted to the street. In a 2010 interview, Dan Wilson, the song’s writer, said:
I really thought that that was the greatest destiny for “Closing Time,” that it would be used by all the bartenders, and it was actually. It still is. I run into people all the time who tell me, “Oh I worked in this one bar for four years and I heard your song every single night.”
When Wilson sat down to write the song, it was originally to be used as a closing song for their concerts:
I was initially trying to write a song to end the Semisonic shows with. We had always ended with a song called “If I Run,” and I really liked it a lot. John and Jake, the other two members of the band, were always impatient with ending the show with the same song. So I set out to write a new closer for the set, and I just thought, “Oh, closing time.” Because all the bars that I would frequent in Minneapolis, they would yell out “closing time.” There was one bar where a guy always would scream really loud, “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here,” and I guess that always stuck in my mind.
However, the song evolved as Wilson wrote it: “Part way into the writing of the song, I realized it was also about being born. 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.” Wilson’s wife was pregnant with a girl, Coco. In another interview, Wilson added: “It’s all about being born and coming into the world, seeing the bright lights, cutting the cord, opening up into something deeper and more universal.”
But Wilson didn’t want to tell the other members of the band what the song was really about. He knew that songwriters frequently wrote songs to celebrate the birth of a child, such as David Byrne of the Talking Heads (“Stay Up Late,” on the Little Creatures album), Stevie Wonder (“Isn’t She Lovely,” from Songs in the Key of Life), R. Kelly (“Havin’ a Baby,” from Double Up), Jay-Z (“Glory” as a single), and Lauryn Hill (“To Zion,” from The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill). Wilson elaborated:
[The guys in the band] instinctively know that as soon as junior arrives on the scene, the next thing that’s going to come is a song about junior. [ . . . ] I knew this. I knew that my bandmates . . . were feeling that dread. So I did what any good sneak would do, and I hid my junior song, and I did it in plain view, which is where a good sneak knows is the best place to hide something. 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.
2 Los Del Rio’s ‘Macarena’ Was About A Woman Who Slept Around
Anyone born before 1991 almost is certainly familiar with the “Macarena” song and dance. For a couple years in the mid-1990s, almost every wedding reception, bar mitzvah, sporting event, high school or grade school dance, and church picnic cleared four minutes and a significant amount of floor space so that everyone within earshot could gather to shake their butts, flap their arms, and slowly hop-spin in a circle. The dance was mostly arm movements and required little lower body coordination, making it possible for tots, centenarians, and everyone in between to participate. It could even be performed sitting down, which made it possible to “dance” even if a person were inebriated, shoehorned into a stadium seat, or on a canting cruise ship dance floor.
And with everyone concentrated on their cool dance moves, few actually paid much attention to the words. It didn’t help that most of the words were in Spanish. Nor did it help that there were nearly a dozen versions of the song when it was at its most popular, some with toned-down lyrics, others not so much.
The origin of the song began with a pair of middle-aged Spaniards, Antonio Romeo Monge and Rafael Ruiz, who formed the group Los Del Rios. Monge and Ruiz had been together since 1962, crooning their flamenco-pop sound. In 1992, Los Del Rios toured South America, and while at a party in Venezuela, they met a stunning flamenco dancer named Diana Patricia Cubillan Herrera. She and her dance moves inspired the duo to write the song.
The original song was about a woman whose boyfriend, Vitorino, joined the army. In retaliation, she slept with two of his friends. The woman dreams of new clothes, living in New York City, and finding a new boyfriend. The chorus encourages the woman to “give your body joy, Macarena. because your body was meant to be given joy and good things.” Whether it was clothes or sexual gratification that gave her “joy” is left up to interpretation. The woman and the song were first given the name “Magdalena,” a colloquialism for a sexy, assertive woman, but when another song was found with the same title, Los Del Rios changed the name to “Macarena.”
The duo released the song in 1993 as a rumba. It became a hit in Spain, and by 1994, it was being played all over South America. The next year, The Bayside Boys remixed it and gave it spicier lyrics. In this version, Macarena declares “[The boys] all want me, they can’t have me. So they all come and dance beside me.” But in the next refrain, she urges the boys, “And if you’re good I’ll take you home with me.” Macarena now simply despises her boyfriend and asks her audience “Now come on, what was I supposed to do? He was out of town and his two friends were so fine.” This is the version that most English-speaking countries are familiar with.
In 1996, Los Del Rios released a music video using the Bayside Boys remix and 10 women performing the “Macarena” dance. A new dance craze was launched. No one is sure where the dance originated, but it became a cultural sensation. People all over the world shook their groove-things while two dirty old men urged Macarena, over and over, to “give her body joy.” You’re never going to see that song the same way again, are you?
1 Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Was Really About Shallow Materialism
Considered one of the greatest rock songs in history, 1971’s “Stairway to Heaven” has generated more than its share of conjecture as to its meaning. Lyric writer Robert Plant described the origins of the lyrics:
I was holding a pencil and paper, and for some reason I was in a very bad mood. Then all of a sudden my hand was writing out the words, “There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold / And she’s buying a stairway to heaven.” I just sat there and looked at the words and then I almost leapt out of my seat.
Many recognized that the line “all that glitters is gold” is the inverse of Bilbo Baggins’s line in Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring: “All that is gold does not glitter.” Bilbo was observing that a person or thing’s worth is not always evident on the surface. The lady in the song, however, is “sure” that the opposite is true.
Plant stated that he wanted an epic song for Led Zeppelin’s fourth album and built upon that first line using Celtic and Tolkien imagery to gradually reveal the shallowness of the woman’s perspective: “It begins with the concept of trying to have something [that] would unravel in layers as the song progressed.”
Plant wrote most of the lyrics in one sitting and admits that much of his inspiration came from reading Magic Arts of Celtic Britain, written by occultist Lewis Spence. Together with the fact that fellow band member Jimmy Page had purchased Boleskine House in Scotland, formerly owned by satanist Aleister Crowley, speculation turned to a satanic meaning for the song.
Crowley was known to have instructed his followers to speak backward, and it wasn’t long before listeners were playing the song backward. We’ve already discussed the song’s alleged backmasking and satanic message. Plant scoffs at that:
As far as reversing tapes and putting messages on the end, that’s not my idea of making music. It’s really sad. The first time I heard it was early in the morning when I was living at home, and I heard it on a news program. I was absolutely drained all day. I walked around, and I couldn’t actually believe, I couldn’t take people seriously who could come up with sketches like that. There are a lot of people who are making money there, and if that’s the way they need to do it, then do it without my lyrics. I cherish them far too much.
Eventually, the band, and Plant in particular, grew tired of the song. In 1988, he said: “I’d break out into hives if I had to sing ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in every show. I wrote the lyrics and found the song to be of some importance and consequence in 1971. But 17 years later, I don’t know. It’s just not for me.”
In time, Plant even wearied of the picking apart of his lyrics. “Depending on what day it is, I still interpret the song a different way—and I wrote it,” he once said. He called his lyrics “pompous” and said in 2012, “I struggle with some of the lyrics from particular periods of time. Maybe I was still trying to work out what I was talking about. [ . . . ] Every other f—er is.”
Steve is the author of 366 Days in Abraham Lincoln’s Presidency: The Private, Political, and Military Decisions of America’s Greatest President and has written for KnowledgeNuts.