We often fall in love with songs due to their catchy beats or captivating lyrics. One of the beautiful things about music is that it is open to interpretation, so we naturally connect to the lyrics that best reflect our current moods.
Sometimes musicians get so annoyed that their songs are being misinterpreted that they rage quit. What may seem like a love song may actually be about a stalker, and sometimes what may seem like an epic dance beat is actually a somber tune about a dear friend’s death.
Here are some popular songs that get totally misinterpreted.
Nirvana – Smells Like Teen Spirit
Considered by some to be one of the greatest rock songs ever, this 1991 Nirvana hit had a very dubious origin story. Even Kurt Cobain was not fully informed of what the phrase “smells like teen spirit” meant until after it was a chart-topper.
Teen Spirit was a brand of deodorant at the time that Cobain’s girlfriend wore often. Lead singer of the band Bikini Kill, Kathleen Hanna, wrote the phrase, “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on Cobain’s apartment wall because Cobain always smelled like it. Until Hanna told him the truth months after the song’s release, Cobain thought that the phrase was a type of revolutionary movement slogan.
Katy Perry – Firework
What is widely interpreted as a positive and motivational song is actually about what Katy Perry wants to be done with herself postmortem.
In an interview with Billboard, Perry said that she wants her body to be “put into a firework and shot across the sky over the Santa Barbara Ocean”. Apparently, she got the idea after she was introduced to the book “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac.
The Boomtown Rats- I Don’t Like Mondays
Going back to work is not usually at the top of people’s lists, which is why this song is so relatable. However, the true origin of “I Don’t Like Mondays” is much darker.
In 1979, 16-year-old Brenda Spencer shot at children in a playground at the Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego. Lead Singer Bob Geldof was enamored by the fact that the shooter showed absolutely no regret, saying, “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day.”
The Beatles – Martha My Dear
Who is Martha? You could listen to “Martha My Dear” a hundred times and just as easily assume it’s about a woman with whom John Lennon had a relationship. The truth is that it was about a woman, but not a human one. Martha was actually Lennon’s sheepdog, which passed away at the age of 15 in 1981. There is a subtle hint in the lyrics: “hold your head up, you silly girl, look what you’ve done.”
It’s also rumored that it had a second inspiration: his ex-fiancée, Jane Asher. Not too long before he wrote the lyrics in 1968, Asher called off the wedding because of his infidelity.
Goo Goo Dolls – Slide
It wasn’t until frontman Johnny Rzeznik spoke up that we finally understood that the lyrics to “Slide”, featured in the 1998 album “Dizzy Up the Girl” weren’t as straight up as they seemed. In an episode of VH1’s Storytellers in 2002, Rzeznik explains that Slide is a song about a teenage couple where the girl, raised as a strict Catholic, finds out that she is pregnant.
Listen to the lyrics again. The boy reflects on their options. Either get an abortion or “don’t you love the life you killed?” – or get married: “Do you wanna get married or run away?” The girl’s father is a priest, and her mother has disowned her: “The priest is on the phone, your father hit the wall, your ma disowned you.”
Spice Girls – Spice Up Your Life
The Spice Girls have a dizzying array of songs to spice up your life. This spice, however, is rumored to be the kind that will mess yours up: methamphetamine. The song was featured in a season 3 episode of Breaking Bad.
No one involved in the production of the song has ever acknowledged that “Slam it to the left if you’re having a good time. Shake it to the right if you know that you feel fine,” are instructions on how to prep meth.
Bruce Springsteen- Born in The USA
Does the album cover feature an American flag? True. Did Ronald Reagan use it in his campaign? True. Is it a patriotic song? False.
Bruce Springsteen himself said that it was about how ill the country was treating its veterans, especially from the Vietnam War: “Sent me off to a foreign land to kill the yellow man.”
“Down in the shadow of the penitentiary, out by the gas fires of the refinery, I’m ten years burning down the road. Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go” – a clear shot at the government for neglecting those who risked everything for their country.
The Guess Who – American Woman
If you think American Woman is referring to that stalker ex-girlfriend, then think again. The Guess Who band members were almost drafted into the Vietnam War even though they were Canadian. They often played in front of many anti-war Americans trying to seek refuge in Canada.
“American Woman, get away from me” and “I don’t need your war machine” is The Guess Who telling the US Army to get away from them and their fans.
Foster The People – Pumped Up Kicks
This 2010 beat by Foster The People is a lot darker than the tune suggests. According to lead singer Mark Foster, it was written with the mindset of a psychotic kid in the backdrop of that year’s school shooting news cycles.
“Yeah found a six-shooter gun in his dad’s closet hidden oh in a box of fun things.” And of course, “You’d better run, better run, faster than my bullet.”
James Blunt – You’re Beautiful
Next time you see a bride and groom dancing to this 2005 hit, signal to the band to cut the music. It may sound romantic, but its origins are certainly not. Inspired by true events, the British singer told the Huffington Post that the song is about a druggie who is stalking a girl who is with her boyfriend on a subway.
Beastie Boys- Fight For You Right
The fourth single released from Licensed to III in 1986 by the Beastie Boys was an instant classic. The rock hit helped quickly lift the band to international fame. However, only a very few people know that the song was meant to be a joke to ridicule the rock scene. They even filmed an over-the-top music video to to pair with the obnoxious song.
It obviously backfired, as the people who they were trying to make fun of were eating up their music. The Beastie Boys disowned “Fight for Your Right” and haven’t played it live since 1987.