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5 Classic Hits With Misunderstood Meanings

by Isa Nan about a month ago in vintage
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Sometimes, words and melodies can be very deceiving the first time around.

Image: Columbia

At its core, music is a story. It is a means to convey one’s thoughts and feelings for the world to hear. Other times, it is a message directly to a certain person. More often than not, its meaning is clear and its message is plain to see.

However, there are quite a few famous songs with meanings far different from how they may be originally perceived. With music, word choice is not the only thing that could deceive an audience as to a song’s true meaning. A sad song may be written with an upbeat melody and vice versa either to add irony or to intentionally misdirect the listener.

In this list we will look into 5 classic hits with misunderstood meanings. We will explore the songs’ more popularly perceived meanings and then their true message. Where possible, we will also look into why such misconceptions existed in the first place.

Without further ado, let’s begin!

5. Born in the USA: Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen is a true American icon. The Boss has wowed audiences for decades with his high energy and passionate performances while crafting an image no different from the average man on the street. Springsteen was one of us and we loved him for it.

With his everyman, blue-collar image, one would imagine a song by Springsteen with the title Born in the USA to be nothing less than a patriotic anthem about how much he loves his country. With his powerful vocals and catchy synth riff that dominates the song, Born in the USA is extremely easy to sing along to and has been used as a rallying cry by politicians and at various patriotic gatherings.

However, behind its jovial melody and almost celebratory tone, Born in the USA is actually a harsh critique of the Vietnam War. Upon closely examining its lyrics, the song is actually a tale about a man who has returned back to the States from Vietnam and is now struggling to find his place back home due to the experiences he was forced to endure.

Recognised as one of the most misunderstood songs in history, Born in the USA is also one of Bruce Springsteen’s most iconic tunes. Ironically however, some form of protest can be patriotic in itself. So, perhaps Born in the USA can still be considered a patriotic anthem but just not in the way that most people would think of it as.

4. In The Air Tonight: Phil Collins

The song that solidified Phil Collins as a solo superstar, In The Air Tonight was a hauntingly spectacular pop-rock song that featured Collins’ chilling vocals before building up to one of the most iconic drum solos in music history.

Taken at face value, the song’s lyrics seem to imply a grisly story of a man watching another person drowning and not doing anything to help. After all, the song does use the word “drown” and other allusions to suffocation quite explicitly. The song’s haunting tone also contributes to this perception.

A popular urban legend was that Collins had witnessed a man refusing to help another person who was drowning. Disgusted by the man’s inaction, Collins wrote the song and later invited the man to a front row seat at one of his concerts in order to personally deliver his scathing criticism to him.

Collins however, has denied all these fan theories and has clarified the true meaning of In The Air Tonight. Written in the midst of a tumultuous divorce, Collins himself has no idea what he was really writing about. Despite that, he does admit that the song’s chilling tone and bleak lyrics were reflective of the overwhelming feelings of helplessness and stress he had at the time. That being said, Collins finds the rumours amusing and admits that the song is not as morbid as it initially seems.

3. Blackbird: The Beatles

An iconic song by one of the greatest groups of all time, Blackbird was widely praised by fans and critics alike. Crosby, Stills and Nash among other legendary groups have cited this song as one of their favorites of all time. Known for its calming melody and tranquil lyrics, there have been many theories as to the exact meaning of Blackbird.

Many interpret the song quite literally and see it as being about an actual blackbird. At one time, Paul McCartney himself fuelled this theory by saying that he wrote the song after listening to the call of a blackbird while in India. McCartney’s stepmother, Angie, believed this song to be a tribute to her own mother whom McCartney was close with. During his many visits to his step-grandmother’s house, she would often tell him about the blackbirds outside her window.

Others believe the song to be a metaphor for persevering through any hardship in general, a comforting bit of encouragement to pick oneself up and push through. More ominously, Charles Manson believed this song to be a call for Black and White Americans to fight one another and he cited this song as one of the few Beatles which spurred him and his followers on their nefarious crime spree.

The true inspiration for Blackbird however came from The Civil Rights Movement, particularly The Little Rock Nine. Inspired by the efforts of this African American group to desegregate the American school system, The Beatles came up with Blackbird as a metaphor for their struggle and encouraged them to push forward. After meeting with members of The Little Rock Nine in 2016, McCartney explicitly referred to them as the inspiration behind Blackbird. If it was not an inspiring enough song before this, the added backstory definitely makes it so.

2. 99 Luftballons: Nena

Now this entry is somewhat unique as the lyrics are not only misunderstood but lost in translation as well. Initially written and performed in German, Nena re-recorded their hit song in English as 99 Red Balloons with some of the song’s lyrics not being directly translated from the original version.

With its upbeat tone and rather odd story, 99 Luftballons tells the story of a girl in Germany who buys 99 red balloons with her friend. In a bit of good natured fun, they decide to release the balloons into the sky at dawn. The balloons fly into Soviet airspace and the Russians believe the balloons to be UFOs. Upon realizing that the objects were only balloons, the Soviets decide to show off their firepower to bring them down. This alerts the rest of the world who believe that the Soviets were preparing an attack and the world is plunged into nuclear war simply because of the balloons.

The English version of the song changes the story slightly with the Soviets panicking upon seeing the balloons and acting rashly to take them down. Believing the 99 balloons to be aliens, the Soviets launch their missiles at them and send the world into ruin and war. To most who do not speak German, they assume that 99 Red Balloons was just a cheeky dance number that poked fun at the Soviet Union.

In reality 99 Luftballons is meant to serve as an anti-war message focusing mainly on the paranoia of those in power. It criticizes how unintentional or innocent acts are immediately mistaken for aggression and must be retaliated against. The red balloons were inspired by a Rolling Stones concert in West Germany where Mick Jagger performed the act of releasing them as told in the song. The band jokingly wondered how the Soviets would feel if they saw these balloons flying into their airspace and that was how the song was born.

In later years, Nena has regretted their decision to re-record 99 Luftballons in English as they have felt that listeners have begun to ignore or misunderstand the song’s true message. That being said, its catchy dance sound doesn’t do it any favors either.

1. Imagine: John Lennon

If you look at any list which ranks the greatest songs of all time, there is no doubt that John Lennon’s masterpiece, Imagine would rank high, if not at the very top of that list. For over five decades now Imagine has served as an anthem for peace, unity and new beginnings.

President Jimmy Carter has compared Imagine to national anthems and the song is also a staple of the iconic New Year’s Eve celebrations in Times Square. It has also been covered by the likes of Queen, David Bowie and Elton John among many other legendary artists. Imagine has immortalized John Lennon and is the song most closely associated with the former Beatle.

A slow, peaceful song, Imagine seemingly asks the listener to picture an ideal utopia. It tells of a world filled with peace where people are not divided by possessions, countries and (somewhat controversially) religion. The song also invites the listener to help make this dream a reality and ends on a beautifully hopeful note.

While many assume the song to be a calling for peace and love in a world that is in desperate need of it, John Lennon himself has stated that Imagine was essentially preaching the tenets of the Communist Manifesto. Admittedly sugarcoating the lyrics somewhat, the politically vocal Lennon encouraged listeners to take a closer look at the song’s words. An end to borders, religion and individual ownership were indeed parts of the ideal Communist state

Those who caught on to the song’s true meaning took to criticizing Lennon for what they perceived to be sympathies to countries such as China or the Soviet Union. Religious groups were also quick to voice their displeasure. However, Lennon would further clarify that he did not consider those countries’ governments to be in line with his view of Communism and that no such state had yet to exist in the world. He also stressed that he did consider himself a Communist anyway.

Thus, Imagine is as political in its message as it is idealistic. Sugarcoated to sound like the poetic musings of a utopian society, Imagine is essentially a proposal for a kind of governance that has yet to be implemented in the world. It tells of the good that may come out of it and encourages the listener to at least consider it. Regardless of whether you agree with its true message or not, Imagine is an amazing song that will remain in the mainstream for years to come.

That does it for this list! If you made it this far, let me just say how appreciative I am of you taking the time to read this. I genuinely enjoy putting lists like this out and love to hear all your thoughts on it.

If I find any similar stories to the ones I have above, I may make a follow-up list too. Until then, take care!


About the author

Isa Nan

Written accounts of life, death and everything in between

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