Chance the Rapper
Let's be honest, we all thought Taylor Swift was bragging about her long list "Starbucks lovers" when we first heard "Blank Space" playing on the radio, and no one really knows what Adele meant when she said she was going to "Set Fire To The Rain." Some of the most popular songs from the past few decades have completely different meanings from what we all thought, from modern hits like "Same Drugs" by Chance the Rapper to epic TBTs like "Closing Time" by Semisonic. That's right, it's not actually about a bar closing. Who knew? We've got the DL on all of the actual meanings behind your favorite songs, and we're totally shook.
“Closing Time” is pretty clearly about the last call at a bar. It literally references someone finishing their alcohol and finding someone to take home with them, but as it turns out, Dan Wilson wrote the song as a metaphor for becoming a dad. Yeah, we were confused, too. He explained to NPR that all of the lyrics about having to finally go out into the world are about a baby being birthed in a hospital and that there’s one last call for alcohol because the umbilical cord is being cut. Even Dan admitted it was “a bit of a stretch,” and he wrote the dang thing.
Universal Music Group
The U.S. has been in the middle of an obsession with the British royal family ever since Prince William and Kate Middleton got married in 2011. It’s pretty reasonable to assume that Lorde took inspiration from all of the pomp and circumstance while she was writing The Love Club EP in 2011, especially considering that Lorde’s stage name is rooted in her fascination with the aristocracy, but she actually had a different type of Royal in mind when she created the chart-topping hit. Lorde told Deadspin she was inspired by a picture of George Brett signing autographs in his Kansas City Royals jersey in a 1976 issue of National Geographic. Literally no one could have seen that coming.
When we first heard "Dancing With Our Hands Tied," we assumed Taylor Swift was telling another story about the end of a relationship. Time Magazine saw it differently, interpreting lyrics like "I'd kiss you as the lights went out/ Swaying as the room burned down/ I'd hold you as the water rushes in" as speaking towards the beginning of a relationship Taylor always knew was doomed, rather than depicting a struggle against the inevitable end of a long-standing relationship. Tay herself confirmed that the former interpretation was true in a Reputation Stadium Tour speech before playing an acoustic version of the song.
Rolling Stone called John Lennon’s anthem for peace the third greatest song of all time. Jimmy Carter equated it to national anthems, and over two-hundred mainstream artists have covered John’s solo hit in the forty years since its release. There may never be a song as ubiquitous as “Imagine,” but most people don’t realize that John meant it to be a clear endorsement of Communism. John referred to “Imagine” as “virtually the Communist Manifesto,” explaining on the record that he realized the message would be accepted if it was sugarcoated.
“Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)” is one of the best graduation tear jerkers, played for Senior Prom slow dances across the country as American teens look back on the worst best four years of their lives. Billie Joe Armstrong told Guitar Legends that the song is actually supposed to be a bitter bon voyage to a girlfriend that was moving away to Ecuador. We guess your S/O moving to Ecuador out of nowhere *is* a pretty unpredictable turning point, whereas graduating high school is hopefully a given.
When “Chocolate” came out in 2013, we honestly thought it was just supposed to be nonsense or something vague about living life as fun youths. Yeah, no, it’s about weed. What can we say, we were more innocent back then. Matty Healy went on record with Songs for Whoever about how the song’s titular “chocolate” is the weed the band members would smoke while being bored in their small town, and the antagonists in the song are the similarly bored authority figures in their small town who played cat and mouse with the bored youths. Matty actually said it was about “smoking weed, smoking anything I suppose,” which takes on a bit of a darker meaning considering his former struggles with heroin addiction.
“Love Song” sounds like Sara Bareilles was dating a stage five clinger who needed to be the center of attention all the time, even in her work. As it turns out, “Love Song” isn’t going out to a soon-to-be-dumped lover, but her record label, who was pressuring Sara to put a love song on her album. Sara told MTV that the label was apathetic to everything she had turned in, which ironically inspired her to clawback at their attempt at creative control with the chart-topping hit they'd been craving.
Sme of these misunderstood songs could have been figured out by eagle-eyed superfans with a penchant for conspiracy theories, but the inspiration behind “Blackbird” really came out of left field. Written by Paul McCartney, the song is about racial desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas during the Civil Rights Movement. Although The Beatles were British stars, Paul explained in no uncertain terms to Mojo in 2008 that the band was fascinated with the Civil Rights Movement and wanted to write a song about the black struggle using the bird as a symbol for an African-American person.
Confusion surrounding “Waterfalls” is just a case of people not actually listening to the song’s lyrics. Not only is the song definitely about the HIV and AIDS crisis, but the song clearly references its protagonist having unsafe sex and dying from the virus. What exactly did y’all think “three letters took him to his final resting place” meant? Mic explains that fans would tell TLC members how glad they were that the band would talk about AIDS and the importance of contraception during their shows, so TLC wrote “Waterfalls” in homage to those same fans.
We *totally* forgot that Lady Gaga identifies as bisexual because she only has eyes for Bradley Cooper, but the mystery of what exactly her “Poker Face” meant is hiding in plain sight. After Gaga sings “he can’t read my poker face,” the background vocals echo, “she’s got me like nobody.” TBH, we thought they were saying “she’s gonna love nobody,” but Gaga told crowds at Jeffrey Sanker’s 20th Annual White Party in 2009 that the song is about Gaga being with a man but fantasizing that she’s with a woman. Because of her ~poker face~, her man will never know that she’d rather be somewhere else entirely.
On-again, off-again relationships are excruciating. Will they? Won’t they? Should they? It’s an emotional roller coaster that Maggie has alluded to in her songs but never really written about, despite the lyrics in “Light On” seemingly pointing towards a willingness to return to an old relationship. Maggie told Billboard that it’s actually about her lightning fast journey to fame and how she almost decided against letting her music take off in the way that it did for fear of celebrity. It's the music and the fans who kept their lights on for her to return to the path she was born for.
Noah Cyrus had a pretty good cry on social media after Lil Xan cheated on her, then tried to pretend their relationship was a PR scam. While her fraught relationship with the so-called rapper didn’t ~help~ her mental state at the time, she wrote “Good Cry” after hearing about Avicii’s death. Noah was in Bali at the time, and she told Entertainment Tonight that she stayed up until 6AM crying over the legendary producer’s death.
“One of my favorite songs, like, ever written is ‘Addicted to You,’" she told ET. "And so it was a dream of mine to work with Avicii, and I love him so much."
We assumed “MMMBop” was just some lighthearted scatting, but Zac Hanson told Entertainment Weekly that “ninety-none percent” of people who’ve heard the song don’t know what it’s really about — the frailty of human life. LOL, yeah. Apparently, MMMBops are units of time, like seconds or weeks, and everything you love can be gone in an MMMBop. That’s literally how he explained it on The Kylie and Jackie O. Show, and we wish he was kidding. Ironically, the band’s fame came and went in an MMMBop, so maybe he was onto something.
Def Jam Recordings
The amount of songs we assume are about love, heartbreak, or sex that are actually just about the media being horrible low-key shows how celebrities really aren’t just like us at all. Rihanna meant for “S&M” and its accompanying video to be a tongue-in-cheek look at how stars have a love-hate relationship with the media, their lack of privacy, and the pain it can bring, but she told Vogue that people just wanted to see sex, so they let the actual meaning go right over their heads. She still thinks it’s the obvious interpretation, but maybe us plebs just can't relate.
Max Martin is a hit machine in the United States, but the Swedish songwriter and his partner Rami Yacoub didn’t really understand what a “hit” meant to Americans when they wrote Britney Spears’s baffling classic, “… Baby One More Time.” Did she actually want to get hit? Was it a metaphor for sex? Honestly, we thought it was a metaphor for sex, but Max and Rami were a little confused about American slang and thought “hit” was the same thing as “call.” It’s really just a song about a girl who’d appreciate a call back from her ex, a feeling we can all relate to. Our question is why no one else involved in the song pointed out that that word didn’t mean what they thought it meant.
We’re sure we’re not the only ones who assumed Chance the Rapper was actually referring to drugs in his slow-burning rap ballad because the rapper decided to clear up the confusion on Twitter shortly after the song’s release. Chance tweeted, “Same Drugs isn’t about drugs 😒” in May 2016, and further confirmed they’re a metaphor for “stuff” in a Reddit AMA that same year. While Chance didn’t get specific about the song’s real meaning, it’s pretty clear that “stuff” is basically just a metaphor for finding joy in different realms as you grow up and grow apart.