True story: every time you play “Born in the USA” at your 4th of July barbecue, your token friend from Jersey, who inevitably has seen Bruce Springsteen in concert at least 12 times, cringes. Sometimes, when you think an artist is totally reading your mind and has written your personal anthem, it turns out they are actually singing an entirely different tune, and other times you may be right on point and the media is just being cynical. Next time you turn up the volume on these eight misunderstood songs, take a closer listen and tell us what you think they really mean.
“Born in the USA,” Bruce Springsteen
It wouldn’t be an Independence Day weekend without hearing this Bruce Springsteen classic play as fireworks light up the sky, but the song isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for America. It’s actually a tribute to his friends who fought in the Vietnam War, many of whom struggled to find footing after returning home. The Boss actually turned down a request from Chrysler to use the tune in commercials, which would have earned him millions of dollars, and often plays an acoustic version of the song in hopes people will listen to the true lyrics.
Key lyric: “Come back home to the refinery/Hiring man says ‘son if it was up to me’/Went down to see my V.A. man/He said ‘son don’t you understand now.'”
“Good Riddance (Time of Your Life),” Greenday
Played at every graduation party and prom since its release in 1997, Greenday’s “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” can make any teenage girl cry before Billie Joe Armstrong even gets to the first chorus. We’ve ignored the Good Riddance part of the title for years, but the song was written as a bittersweet, sarcastic good-bye to Armstrong’s girlfriend who moved to Ecuador.
Key lyric: Cut out in the radio edit (and, hopefully, your niece’s eighth grade graduation video), Armstrong drops the f-bomb right in the beginning of the track.
“Blackbird,” The Beatles
At first listen, The Beatles’ “Blackbird” sounds like a cute, catchy song about a blackbird. You might want to sit down for this news straight from writer Sir Paul’s mouth: the band was following the Civil Rights movement in the states closely when he penned the song, particularly the desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas, and McCartney told Mojo in 2008 he “got the idea of using a blackbird as a symbol for a black person.”
Key lyric: “Blackbird singing in the dead of night/Take these broken wings and learn to fly/All your life/You were only waiting for this moment to arise.”
“Puff the Magic Dragon,” Peter Paul & Mary
It’s been speculated that Peter Paul & Mary’s hit contained thinly veiled references to drug use. The most notable: Puff’s name may or may not be a nod to taking a hit on a joint and Jackie Paper’s last name to rolling papers. The group has repeatedly denied this and said it was an ode to the loss of childhood innocence. What do you think?
Key lyric: “A dragon lives forever, but not so little boys/Painted wings and giant’s rings make way for other toys/One gray night it happened, Jackie Paper came no more/And Puff, that mighty dragon, he ceased his fearless roar.”
“Closing Time,” Semisonic
When you hear the opening chords to Semisonic’s “Closing Time,” you know it’s time to dig your coat check ticket out of your pocket and settle up with the bartender. The quintessential last call choice was written by Dan Wilson as an ode to the miracle of life. “It was a song Dan had written in anticipation of fatherhood, a song about being sent forth from the womb as if by a bouncer clearing out a bar,” drummer Jacob Slichter told the Huffington Post. Are you starting to feel like musicians really seem to have some of the most interesting takes on things?
Key lyric: “Closing time/Open all the doors and let you out into the world.”
“The One I Love,” R.E.M.
The refrain may say, “This goes out to the one I love,” but you might want to listen a bit more before calling into your favorite late-night radio DJ to dedicate this one to your SO. “It’s very clear that it’s about using people over and over again,” co-writer Michael Stipe told Musician Magazine in 1988.
Key lyric: “This one goes out to the one I love/This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind/Another prop has occupied my time/This one goes out to the one I love.”
“Every Breath You Take,” The Police
If you get stalker vibes when you hear “Every Breath You Take,” you’re not being cynical—you’re right. Sting wrote the hit following his split from Frances Tomelty about a possessive lover who is watching your every move and can’t believe it went on to become such a popular choice for weddings. Maybe it’s because Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You,” which pays tribute to the late The Notorious B.I.G., samples it.
Key lyric: “Every move you make, every vow you break/Every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you.”
“Perfect Day,” Lou Reed
It sounds like a sweet love song, but it’s long been rumored Lou Reed was actually singing about heroin when he crooned, “it’s such a perfect day/I’m glad I spent it with you” in “Perfect Day.” Reed rejected claims it was about drug use and he certainly didn’t beat around the bush when he wrote the song “Heroin.” Decide for yourself.
Key lyric: “Oh, it’s such a perfect day/I’m glad I spent it with you/Oh, such a perfect day/You just keep me hanging on/You just keep me hanging on/You’re going to reap just what you sow.”