All art is open to interpretation. But what if the interpretations are stupid? Sure, everyone has a right to their opinion but that doesn’t mean we can’t mock those who have seriously missed the boat on a particular piece of art; or in this case, a song. Yes, we could fill a vault with songs that have been grossly misinterpreted over time, where the artist’s intentions fell on a slew of deaf ears. But for our purposes here, I have listed only ten of the most commonly misunderstood tunes. I have a life you know!  Well, kinda.

10. “Perfect Day” by Lou Reed

Common Misconception: This is a love song.

In Reality: This is a love song…to heroin. Reed was an addict. Danny Boyle got it right when he used the piece in his film, Trainspotting. End of song.

 

Notable Lyrics

Just A Perfect Day,
Problems All Left Alone,
Weekenders On Our Own.
It’s Such Fun.
Just A Perfect Day,
You Made Me Forget Myself.
I Thought I Was Someone Else,
Someone Good.

9. “The One I Love” by R.E.M.

Common Misconception: This is a sweet love song.

In Reality: Do people only pay attention to the title? Do they only listen to the first line? Do I have any idea what I am talking about ever? All are debatable. But back to the song: the opening lyric is immediately juxtaposed with, “a simple prop to occupy my time”—not exactly the stuff of enduring love. Lead singer Michael Stipe said in an interview with Musician magazine (January 1988) that, “It’s very clear that it’s about using people over and over again”. Ouch. Here’s hoping you didn’t dedicate this song to anyone you actually liked.

Notable Lyrics

This one goes out to the one I love
This one goes out to the one I’ve left behind
A simple prop to occupy my time

8. “Crash Into Me” by the Dave Matthews Band

Common Misconception: This is an innocent love song. Notice a theme here?

In Reality: Yes, this song is about a man being completely infatuated with a woman with whom he used to be in a relationship. Some may find that romantic. But the story doesn’t end there. Dave Matthews said in an episode of VH1 Storytellers that this song is actually, “about the worship of women. But this is a little bit of a crazy man…He’s the kind of person you would call the police on.” That’s right, this song is sung from the perspective of a peeping tom.

Notable Lyrics

Oh I watch you there
Through the window
And I stare at you
You wear nothing but you
Wear it so well
Tied up and twisted
The way I’d like to be

7. “In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins

Common Misconception: Collins witnessed someone drowning and did nothing to help prevent the victim’s death.

In Reality: Collins had just been through a bitter divorce and the song was written from a place of intense anger. In an interview with the BBC he said, “I don’t know what this song is about. When I was writing this I was going through a divorce…So what makes it even more comical is when I hear these stories which started many years ago, particularly in America, of someone come up to me and say, ‘Did you really see someone drowning?’ I said, ‘No, wrong’.” Get your facts straight, people!

Notable Lyrics

Well if you told me you were drowning
I would not lend a hand
I’ve seen your face before, my friend
But I don’t know if you know who I am
Well I was there and I saw what you did
I saw it with my own two eyes
So you can wipe off that grin
Know where you’ve been
It’s all been a pack of lies

6. “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan

Common Misconception: This is a ditty about drugs, with “Mr. Tambourine Man” being the narrator’s dealer. See: that scene from Dangerous Minds.

In Reality:  Bob Dylan has said that the song was actually inspired by Bruce Langhorne, whom he worked with on his album Bringing It All Back Home. Langhorne was a folk musician known for his work on the electric guitar and a large Turkish tambourine. The surrealist imagery found in the lyrics has been said to have been been influenced by the works of French poet, Arthur Rimbaud. And while such lyrics as, “Take me on a trip upon your magic swirlin’ ship” have kept some from being dissuaded from the popular LSD theory, Dylan has claimed otherwise.

Notable Lyrics

Though you might hear laughin’, spinnin’ swingin’ madly across the sun
It’s not aimed at anyone, it’s just escapin’ on the run
And but for the sky there are no fences facin’
And if you hear vague traces of skippin’ reels of rhyme
To your tambourine in time, it’s just a ragged clown behind
I wouldn’t pay it any mind, it’s just a shadow you’re
Seein’ that he’s chasing.

5. “Polly” by Nirvana

Common Misconception: 1) The song promotes rape and/or 2) It is about the horrific murder of Polly Klaus in Petaluma, California in October of 1993.

In Reality: Kurt Cobain wrote “Polly” two years prior to the Polly Klaus murder. He was actually inspired to write the song after reading an article about another tragedy: in June of 1987, a 14 year-old girl was kidnapped following a rock concert in Tacoma, Washington. She was held against her will, tortured, and raped by Gerald Arthur Friend. After two days, the girl was able to escape and Friend was later arrested. While “Polly” is sung from the point of view of the troubled kidnapper/rapist, it certainly does not glorify rape in any way. Anyone who believes it does is in need of some serious therapy. In fact, Nirvana played multiple benefits to support rape victims, including the 1993 concert “Rock Against Rape”.

Notable Lyrics

Polly says her back hurts
She’s just as bored as me
She caught me off my guard
It amazes me, the will of instinct

4. “Every Breath You Take” by The Police

Common Misconception: This is a swoon-worthy love song.

In reality: Obsessive stalker alert! Just read the lyrics below and the message is abundantly clear. Tragically, this song is played at many a wedding reception. Laugh, if you must.

Notable Lyrics

Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you

Every single day
Every word you say
Every game you play
Every night you stay
I’ll be watching you

3. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles

Common Misconception: The capitalized letters in the title refer to LSD and that the song is about taking a hallucinogenic trip, courtesy of the drug. At the time, the BBC banned this song due to the speculations.

In Reality: John Lennon has stated that the song was inspired by a drawing done by his son, Julian. Julian had drawn a picture of his classmate, Lucy O’Donnell, and titled it, “Lucy – in the Sky with Diamonds.”  Lennon said that any relation to the capitalized letters in the song and LSD were purely coincidental. That’s the official answer, anyway.

Notable Lyrics

Cellophane flowers of yellow and green,
Towering over your head.
Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes,
And she’s gone.

Lucy in the sky with diamonds,
Lucy in the sky with diamonds,
Lucy in the sky with diamonds,

2. “Born in the U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen

Common Misconception: Many view this song as a clear-cut glorification of American patriotism. It was famously used (and grossly misunderstood) by the Reagan re-election campaign in 1984. Either no one on the Reagan team ever bothered to listen to any of the lyrics beyond the chorus or they simply didn’t understand some pretty poignant verses. Either way, the whole thing was (and still is) pretty embarrassing.

In Reality: The lyrics paint a grim picture of veterans returning home from the Vietnam War, feeling disconnected from their home and disillusioned with their government.

 

Notable Lyrics

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”

I had a brother at Khe Sahn fighting off the Viet Cong
They’re still there, he’s all gone
He had a woman he loved in Saigon
I got a picture of him in her arms

1. “This Land is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie

Common Misconception: Similar to “Born in the U.S.A.”, this song is frequently thrown under the umbrella of “patriotic anthem”. Like many people, I remember singing this song in elementary school, in between sessions playing the xylophone and the recorder (which I KILLED, by the way). However, the only parts we ever sang were the first verse and the chorus; doing so completely undercuts the song’s intention.

In Reality: Maybe one of the most beautiful folk songs ever written, Woody Guthrie penned this song in 1940 as a response to Irving Berlin‘s “God Bless America“. Guthrie himself strongly disliked Berlin’s song, finding it both “unrealistic and complacent”.   That guy had gumption! And so the prolific folk musician who lived through the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl wrote “This Land Is Your Land”. It is a protest song addressing the issues of freedom, property ownership, the plight of the working man, and classism. The song is still patriotic in its act of protest, but not in the smiles and butterflies way it is often mistaken. Sadly, the most poignant lyrics are often edited from performances (and textual reprints). However, the second video below includes a performance of Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen performing the song in its entirety at the inaugural concert for President Obama in January 2009.

 


Notable Lyrics

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking that freedom highway
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of a steeple
By the relief office, I saw my people
As they stood hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?