Inspiration for song lyrics can come from an infinite number of places, but sometimes the ambiguity of their meaning is the best part. Here are 10 well known songs that fans have misinterpreted over the years. Of course there are many more (and perhaps some with better stories), but these songs were chosen simply because of their widespread popularity.
10. Bob Dylan – Mr. Tambourine Man
Misconception: A song about drugs
As evidenced in the movie Dangerous Minds, this song has widely been speculated to be an ode to mind-altering drugs, with Mr. Tambourine Man supposedly representing Dylan’s drug dealer. The song’s abstract, surrealistic imagery has fueled the idea that LSD was responsible for some of the lyrics, although Dylan claims to have been introduced to the drug after the song had been written. Dylan insists the song was never about drugs, but rather the search for inspiration. He claims the title character of Mr. Tambourine Man was actually inspired by musician Bruce Langhorne, who played a large Turkish tambourine during many of Dylan’s previous recording sessions.
9. Bryan Adams – Summer of 69
Misconception: Autobiographical band story
In the summer of 1969, Bryan Adams was 10 years old. That should be enough to quell the idea that this song had anything to do with 1969 being the year he learned guitar, played in a band, and fell in love, yet the rumors persist. The upbeat nostalgia of this song wasn’t inspired by an actual year, but rather Mr. Adams’ fondness for a certain sexual position. According to Adams, the lyrics detailing a fondly remembered musical summer were mostly filler, because the song was actually about “making love in the summertime.”
8. Queen – Bohemian Rhapsody
Misconception: Describes singer’s struggle with AIDS
Queen’s classic was once rumored to reference Freddie Mercury’s battle with AIDS. The fatalistic lyrics about a man who has killed someone and his subsequent judgment supposedly chronicle Mercury’s feelings about his illness and impending death. The members of Queen have been intentionally vague over the years about the true meaning of the lyrics, but Mercury had been quoted as saying the words were simply “random rhyming nonsense” that were just written to fit the music. Furthermore, the AIDS epidemics of the early 80s took place years after this song had been completed.
7. Police – Every Breath You Take
Misconception: Sweet love song
Arguably the Police’s most popular song, Every Breath You Take has been played during countless weddings and on request lines due to the widely held belief that it is a gentle love song. According to Sting, the song is about love, but it’s quite a bit more “sinister and ugly” than people think. Sting wrote the song during the collapse of his marriage, amidst feelings of jealousy and obsession over his lost lover. He claims the stalker-like vibe of the lyrics were inspired by the desire for surveillance and control he was feeling during his divorce.
6. Dave Matthews Band – Crash Into Me
Misconception: Sexy love song
This lighthearted tune has solidified itself as a classic love song about longing for that special someone. Matthews’ soft and sincere delivery seem to distract some listeners from the lyrics that are actually kind of creepy. Matthews has admitted it is, indeed, a love song, but one that has been written from the perspective of a peeping tom. On close inspection, the song is definitely a celebration of women, albeit from a voyeuristic point of view, with the narrator at one point literally standing outside of a woman’s window watching her. Matthews has jokingly stated this song was written as an alternative to getting arrested.
5. Eagles – Hotel California
Misconception: Song about devil worship
The ominous and abstract nature of Hotel California’s lyrics have led to numerous interpretations through the years. One view that was widely held during the 80s was that the song referred to a hotel purchased by Anton LaVey, the founder of the Church of Satan. The spooky imagery in the album cover art along with lyrics like, “they just can’t kill the beast” contributed to this myth. Don Henley and Glenn Frey have stated the song is really metaphorically describing excess in America and the Los Angeles high life that the band experienced.
4. Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
Misconception: Patriotic song
Most people won’t be surprised to hear that despite many people (including politicians) having used the song for patriotic uses, the lyrics are actually extremely critical of the US. Many fist-pumping beer-drinking Americans, myself included, would proudly sing the chorus at ball games without giving a second thought to the lyrics contained in the verses. The song was written in response to the negative impact the Vietnam war had on Americans, but the catchy patriotic refrain is apparently just too� well, catchy. Similarly, the Australian band Men at Work’s song Down Under has been widely considered a patriotic song, while the authors maintain it was meant to be critical of their country.
3. Tom Petty – American Girl
Misconception: Song is about a suicide
Legend has it that Tom Petty wrote this song about a University of Florida student that commited suicide by jumping from her dorm room balcony. Petty is from Gainesville where UF is located, and Highway 441 (mentioned in the lyrics) does pass by the school, lending credibility to the story. However, Petty himself has insisted that this story is an urban legend, and the lyrics were actually inspired by the sounds of the freeway near his apartment in Encino, California, several years after he’d moved away from Florida.
2. Phil Collins – In the Air Tonight
Misconception: Witnessed a preventable death
The dark, accusatory lyrics of this song lent themselves to one of the most well known incorrect meanings. The story says that Phil Collins saw someone drowning once from far away, and that a third person, who was close enough to help, either ignored or refused to help the drowning person. Appalled by this, Collins penned this tune as an anonymous condemnation of the person’s cowardice and/or apathy. Some versions of the story have Collins finding this person at one of his shows and even singing it directly to them. Of course Collins says that story is incorrect, and the lyrics actually arose from the bitterness and anger he felt while going through his divorce.
1. James Taylor – Fire and Rain
Misconception: Girlfriend died in plane crash
The sad refrain and apocalyptic lyrics of one of James Taylor’s most famous songs gave rise to a belief that the song dealt with him losing his girlfriend, “Suzanne”, in a plane crash after friends bought her a ticket, trying to surprise Taylor with a visit while he was out of town. If interpreted in this manner, the line “sweet dreams and flying machines in pieces on the ground” supposedly references the crash. According to Taylor, however, the song was written over time, with each of the three verses dealing with a different aspect of his life: from the death of a friend, to his frustration in music, to his brief time spent in an institution. The lyric mentioned above actually referred to a band of Taylor’s that had failed, which left him deeply depressed. The name of that band was The Flying Machine.
Bonus. Beatles – Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds
Misconception: song is about LSD
John Lennon claimed this song was inspired by a drawing made by his son, and that he had no idea that the first letters of the words “Lucy,” “Sky,” and “Diamonds” were a reference to LSD. The lyrics certainly sound like some sort of drug-induced hallucination, but Lennon insisted that was never his intention.