Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Five Songs That REALLY Aren’t About What People Think They’re About

The startling truth behind the lyrics of some of your favorite ‘80s and ‘90s standards

In the 1980s, Judas Priest released a song called “Turbo Lover,” which at the time of its release, sounded like this really awesome, hyper-masculine song about virility (or even possibly sexual assault, which led to plenty of accusations of misogyny as a result).

Of course, the song was actually the single gayest thing that has ever been made by humanity, but hey, it was the eighties, and GAYDAR didn’t become a reliable scientific tool until at least 1993. It’s SOO painfully obvious now (with the now-outed Rob Halford shrieking “You…won’t…see…me COMIN!” like a cast extra out of “Cruising”), but at the time, we were none the wiser. We just kept a singing along, banging our heads, screaming the lyrics as we rolled down the street…absolutely oblivious to the fact that the song was about the precise OPPOSITE of what we all thought it was about.

Yeah, that is a pretty amusing example of hindsight being 40/40, but the reality is, there are still TONS of songs from twenty and thirty years ago that are STILL being misinterpreted by the general public. A lot of times, we get so suckered in by the rhythm of a song (and perhaps even the nominalism of the song’s title, or even the accompanying imagery from the song‘s music video) that we never even bother to examine the lyrics of the songs we all adore. This means we end up thinking songs about unemployment and senseless warfare are odes to Americana, that tunes about mass shooting sprees are about children’s sitcom programs and that fluttery synth-pop ballads are about doomed relationships when the lyrics are actually about two chicks doing it.

In need of some examples and clarification? Well, how about we take a look at five pop-rock standards from the last thirty years, and see what their lyrics and back stories REALLY say about the music that moves us?

“Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen

What Everybody Thinks It’s About: A hyper-patriotic ode to how much ass it kicks to be American.

What It’s ACTUALLY About: A hyper-unpatriotic indictment of how much it sucks to be American.

The Background: “Born in the USA” may very well be the single most misinterpreted song in pop music history. At practically EVERY Fourth of July fun-run or international sporting event, you are bound to hear the song at least once, which has unofficially become a mega-patriotic hymn for the masses, akin to Lee Greenwood’s “I’m Proud To Be American” or “Real American” (AKA, Hulk freaking Hogan’s theme song) by Rick Derringer.

As it turns out, however, the song is actually about how American has failed its returning Vietnam veterans - you know, because somehow, we’ve been unable to note the song had lyrics for three decades now.

Hell, the very first line in the song, “born down in a dead man’s town,” really ought to be enough to clue you in that, maybe, the song really isn’t about the majesty of amber grain and purple mountains. As the song continues, we learn that the track is really about a kid that gets shipped off to Vietnam - “to go and kill the yellow man,” as the lyrics declare - only to come back home, where he’s unable to find employment. From there, the rest of the song is about the dude getting all psychologically scarred, noting among other things, how he’s being haunted by a Viet Cong soldier he presumably killed in battle. Ultimately, the speaker of the song finds solace in repression, as the narrator clearly indicates with the line “you end up like a dog that’s been beat too much / until you spend half your life just covering it up.”

So the next time you hear this one at a cookout or a fireworks show, you might want to make it a point to explain to the guy next to you that it’s actually a ballad about post-traumatic-stress-disorder and a shitty economy. Especially if he or she looks anything at all like this.

“Hey Sandy” by Polaris

What Everybody Thinks It’s About: A poppy rock tune dedicated to the much-beloved Nickelodeon program “The Adventures of Pete and Pete.” 

What It’s ACTUALLY About: A poppy rock tune dedicated to a kid that decides to shoot up his classmates. 

The Background: If you deserve to live, your probably remember/adore an old Nickelodeon series called “The Adventures of Pete and Pete,” a program about the weirdest damn nuclear family in the weirdest damn small American town that has ever existed outside the mind of David Lynch. One of the most memorable things about the show, no doubt, was its extremely catchy theme song, a tune called “Hey Sandy” by Polaris. Seeing as how “Pete and Pete” was such an absurd and whimsical show, the song MUST have been about some equally light and fluffy fare, right?

Well, not so much, as the song was actually written about a school shooting.

The first line of the song, which admittedly, is pretty hard to decipher, tells us pretty much everything we need to know about it’s lyrical content. “He’s smiling strange / you looking happily deranged,” we begin. From there, we hear about his intentions (“could you settle to shoot me / or have you picked your target yet?), his M.O. (“we was only funning / reluctantly, she had it coming”) and even when the shooting spree went down (“four feet away /end of speeches / end of the day.”)

Almost two decades before Foster the People rocked the charts with a pop hit about homicidal youth, the guys behind the “Pete and Pete” theme song had already penned a pre-Columbine, radio-friendly ditty about a mass killing spree…an absolutely stunning revelation that kind of makes you wonder what horrors the lyrics of “CatDog” may presumably entail.

“Closer to the Heart” by Rush

What Everybody Thinks It’s About: A sentimental ballad about love, unity and social brotherhood.

What It’s ACTUALLY About: A sentimental ballad about love, unity and social brotherhood…and also, endorsement of social stratification, and possibly eugenics.

The Background: Rush, the prog-rock Canadian legends, are one of the most beloved acts in rock and roll history, and certainly one of the most technically proficient, as Neil Peart, Geddy Lee and Alex Lifesan are all considered among the greatest drummers, bassists and guitarists, well, ever.

One of the somewhat hidden aspects of Rush’s catalog, however, is that the dudes were basically a heavy metal band as fronted by Ayn Rand. Not only were the dudes some Objectivism-loving rock and rollers offstage, they also managed to sneak a shit load of “The Fountainhead”-esque political claptrap in their lyrics, with “Closer to the Heart” being just one such example from the band’s discography.

It’s a hard sell, at first, I know. I mean, really, how asshole-ish can a song that begins with a xylophone solo actually be, right? As it turns out, quite a great deal, actually, from the very first line of the song - “The men who hold high places, must be the ones who start / to mold a new reality / closer to the heart.” Admittedly, it doesn’t sound too daunting, until you begin to piece together the rest of the song’s lyrics, chiefly “philosophers and plowmen, each must know his part.” The song - which to the layman, might be written off as just another ball-less rock and roll ballad - is actually a song promoting social stratification, with the creation of a “utopian” society as a “greater good” so damned great that it’s worth placing people into permanent ascribed conditions based on socioeconomic worth. In other words? It’s basically “Atlas Shrugged: The Musical” we’re looking at here.

“Voices Carry” by Til Tuesday

What Everybody Thinks It’s About: A lithe, saturnine ballad about a troubled relationship.

What It’s ACTUALLY About: A lithe saturnine ballad about a troubled relationship…between LESBIANS.

The Background: To be fair, “Voices Carry” really, really sounds like your typical, paint-by-numbers, eighties-to-the-core soft rock ballad. You have the sweeping chorus, the synthesizer interludes, and even some mildly creepy ambiance that, aurally, makes the tune seem like a kindred spirit to “Heaven is a Place on Earth” and “I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight.”

This is intensified, obviously, because of the music video. At the time, it was actually pretty cutting edge, since it was one of the first videos to interrupt the music with additional (read: that which has nothing to do with the song) dialogue, which led most listeners to assume the song was about a very rough - and perhaps even abusive - relationship between singer Aimee Mann and, uh, whoever she was singing about.

Now, the thing that isn’t common information is that the original version of the song had absolutely zero references to the “he” that is referenced about a million jillion times in the studio version we’re all used to. That’s because, in the original version, the “he” was actually a “she,” meaning that all of that woe and sex-spawned misery Mann was singing about was actually about another chick. With that little nugget of wisdom in mind, the lyrics to the song REALLY start to make a whole lot more sense, especially towards the end, when she starts sing-screaming “Shut up! Shut up!”  because “he” (most likely, her “boyfriend”) might hear all of that sexiness going on next door.

“Maniac” by Michael Sembello

What Everybody Thinks It’s About: A synth-pop rocker inspired by Jennifer Beals getting all wet and splashy in “Flashdance”

What It’s ACTUALLY About: A synth-pop rocker inspired by Joe Spinell getting all psychotic and stabby in “Maniac”

The Background: If you’ve ever seen the movie “Flashdance,” you’ll probably remember the montage sequence in which the song “Maniac” - as performed by one-hit wonder Michael Sembello - was used as the background soundtrack.

Clearly, the lyrics to the song HAVE to be about the movie.  “Just a steel town girl on a Saturday night,” the song begins, which is clearly an allusion to the steel-mill-working lead actress of the film in question.

Indeed, the song was written with the plotline of the film in mind. The thing is, the song was actually a rewrite of an EARLIER song, which was inspired by an altogether different film - this one being the 1980 William Lustig slasher classic, “Maniac.”

Reportedly, Sembello was inspired to pen the song after seeing Joe Spinell kick all kinds of ass as the traumatized, scalp-collecting mass murderer in the earlier film, although he ended up retooling it just a smidge so that it could be included on the soundtrack for the decisively less violent “Flashdance” (with reconfigured lyrics, of course.)

Per Sembello, the lyrics were actually WAY different than what eventually came to be. Although the lyrics we all heard we’re “She’s a maniac, maniac on the floor / and she’s dancing like she’s never danced before,” the song’s intended chorus was supposed to be “He’s a maniac, maniac for sure / he will kill your cat and nail him to the door.” And to authenticate the song’s original formatting, the Academy ended up disqualifying the tune from “Best Song” consideration, on the grounds that the song wasn’t expressly written for the film it appeared in…which means, yes, we very well could have lived in a world in which the phrase “Academy Award Winner ‘Maniac’” was indeed a reality, gosh-darn it.

In the mood for more musical mayhem?

Check out my countdown of the five worst alternative rock music lyrics of the 1990s RIGHT HERE!


  1. This was a FANTASTIC read! Thoroughly enjoyed this. Thanks, pal.

  2. Just imagine "Maniac" being played to the scene in Kill Bill Vol. 1 where Uma Thurman battles the Crazy 88's:

    "She's a maniac, MAAANIAC*stabs guy in heart*on the flooooor,
    And she's dancing*decapitates other guy*like she's never danced before*shoots guy in neck*.
    She's a maniac*stabs guy in liver*, MAAAAANIAC*slices into a guys entrails*....

    That would be so funny.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.