Music is arguably the most universal and unifying form of art there is. Not only does it consist of raw talent and beautiful sounds, but it also conveys and evokes emotion in a way like no other.
While many people might just consider music to be something to sing or dance along to, someone who truly appreciates it knows it’s more than that. A song is not just a sound but a feeling and a story, an insight into the writer’s innermost thoughts. Sometimes these feelings and stories are not always good, but they’re still there.
Here are the 20 songs you’ve heard that manage to sound great while also telling a story no matter how dark the true meaning may be.
1. Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen
This Springsteen song isn’t the feel-good American classic you might know it to be. While many people view this song to be doused in patriotism and pride over being a born and bred American, Springsteen was actually trying to convey another message with it.
In actuality, the song is a massive criticism of how US veterans were treated on their return from the Vietnam war. They returned heroes only to be met with poverty and no job opportunities.
2. Imagine by John Lennon
Lennon’s infamous Imagine is known to be one of the greatest and uplifting songs in the world. Many people believe the song to be about unity and know it as the peace anthem, but that’s not really the case.
Truthfully, according to Lennon himself, the song is the communist manifesto. He claimed that the only reason it was so successful was that it was sugar coated and later said, “Now I understand what you have to do – put your message across with a little honey”.
The message behind Imagine is far more radical than you may think, despite the Hippie-Esque association with it. In the years leading up to the release of the song, Lennon had become far more political, and the song was actually designed to instill rebellion in its listeners.
3. Total Eclipse of the Heart by Bonnie Tyler
Many people associate this classic with heartbreak and the darkness that can surround love. While it may be partially about that, it probably comes as a shock to a lot of people when they find out it’s about vampires. Now there’s only love in the dark, isn’t the metaphor people think it is. Tyler was too inspired by MeatLoaf’s ‘Bat Out of Hell’ not to do a similar song herself.
She ended up approaching songwriter Jim Steinman, who’s known to be MeatLoaf’s long term partner, wanting a similar song. Steinman happened to be writing the music for a Nosferatu musical at the time, which is what Total Eclipse of the Heart’ was originally for.
4. Hotel California by Eagles
Everyone knows the Hotel California – the luxurious hotel for tired and weary travelers in need of rest. But of course, that’s not actually what the song’s about, is it?
Hotel California is actually a satirical metaphor created to critique the music industry. The hotel is indicative of the greed of the industry, which ultimately leads to the artist in the song’s self-destruction.
The song heavily alludes to the artist falling into substance abuse, so the song’s final line, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave!” is likely a nod to desperately wanting to quit but being unable to.
5. Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day
No one ever claimed ‘Wake Me Up When September Ends’ was a happy song, but many people are strangers to the extent of the dark meaning.
The Green Day hit was actually written by Billie Armstrong in response to his father’s death of esophageal cancer in September of 1982, when Billie was just 10-years-old. The song talks about the mind-numbing effects the death had on him and his inability to cope with it.
6. Like A Virgin by Madonna
Despite its out-there title, this song is surprisingly not about losing your virginity or sex in general. According to songwriter Billy Steinberg, the song is about entering a new relationship after being in a disastrously bad one.
This new relationship is positive and happy – everything the old one wasn’t. “I’d been had, I was sad and blue, but you made me feel…shiny and new” is blatantly saying that they feel valued and happy in this new relationship rather than the weighed-down feeling they associated with their old one.
7. Zombie by The Cranberries
The Cranberries release of this song back in 1993 was the beginning of a new era as it was quick to become the protest song of not only its current decade by the decades to follow. It’s also one of those songs that a lot of people don’t care to learn the real meaning behind, which is ironic because of all of the revolution associated with it.
In actual fact, Zombie is about PTSD associated with a bombing in March 1993. The bombing ended up causing the death of two young boys as well as injuring dozens of other people present. The song was written in response to the deaths of these two boys, though many people miss the mark on that one.
8. Hey Ya by OutKast
This is probably one of the most surprising secret meanings on the list, as the song is such a fun one.
However, it’s actually written about the ficality of modern-day relationships and people’s inability to be alone. In the song, he talks about the fact that his girlfriend is just with him for the sake of being with him but doesn’t actually know why. Ultimately, it’s a criticism of the way love has no real impact on modern-day relationships, but rather loneliness does.
So yeah, it is surprisingly one of the most depressing pop songs ever written. Sorry for ruining your childhood.
9. American Pie by Don McLean
Despite the upbeat appearance of this song, it is completely devoid of hope. That’s not a secret if you listen to the lyrics, though anyone can figure out that it’s about the crash of the American Dream or cultural and political decline in the 1960s after President Kennedy’s assassination.
But a large portion of the song is actually relating to the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly in 1959 and McLean mourning his death. Holly was McLean’s musical hero as a kid, and his death ultimately meant the death of rock and roll for McLean at the time.
10. Polly by Nirvana
This song is obviously strange and creepy, and you don’t have to be a genius to figure that out. But many people don’t know the actual story behind it.
Nirvana’s Polly is actually written in relation to a kidnapping in Tacoma, Washington. In 1987, a 14-year-old girl left a rock concert and was taken by Gerald Arthur Friend. He proceeded to take her to his mobile home, hang her upside down and repeatedly rape and torture her with a blow torch.
Nirvana’s Polly was written from the perspective of the kidnapper, portraying the ghastly thoughts he would have had while keeping the girl in captivity. Lyrics such as “Maybe she would like some food she asked me to untie her” are pretty obvious when you know the meaning behind them.
11. Summer of ’69 by Bryan Adams
This American-loving, nostalgia-inducing song has a whole other meaning than you might expect. While you probably think it’s just a look back on a simpler time in 1969 when Adams was enjoying himself in his youth, it’s not that at all. And I’m sorry for what I’m about to tell you.
Summer of ’69 is about sex, to put it bluntly. I mean, think about it, really. Adams would have been 9 years old in 1969, so I doubt it really was the summer of his life. The year ’69, according to Adams himself, is actually referring to the sexual position. The song is literally just about a summer of great sex.
12. Delilah by Tom Jones
This upbeat classic obviously has a darker meaning than the music portrays. The lyrics aren’t difficult to decode – it seems to tell the story of a man being cheated on by his lady. However, it’s actually far worse than that and easy to miss if you breeze over the lyrics, “I felt the knife in my hand, and she laughed no more.”
In response to his lover cheating on him, the man in the song goes crazy and kills her. An odd theme for someone that is notorious for cheating on his wife with over 250 women, but hey, it got him a hit!
13. Gangnam Style by Psy
This song was quick to become popular back in 2012 all over the world, despite many people having no idea what it was actually about. We’ll give you the benefit of the doubt this time, though, as you probably don’t know Korean.
The true meaning of the song massively contrasts its fun sound. Gangnam is actually a place in South Korea and is a trendy party in the capital, Seoul. Psy wrote his hit song as a criticism of the extent people will go to fit in there. The song actually mocks people and the fake nature they adopt to win the approval of others. The more you know!
14. One Way or Another by Blondie
One Way or Another was an instant hit when it came out and remains so to this day. But this fun song is actually much darker than it may initially seem.
The lead singer of Blondie, Debby Harry, actually wrote this song from the perspective of one of her ex-boyfriends. This wasn’t any regular exboyfriend either – he ended up excessively stalking Harry for a period of time. The lyrics were creepy anyway, but now they’re really creepy, aren’t they?
15. London Calling by The Clash
It’s no secret that London Calling is about an apocalyptic world of floods, famine, nuclear threats, and zombies. Many people interpret this as a nod to the BBC broadcast from World War II, and it partially is. But it’s also far more personal than that.
At the time of this song coming out, punk rock was massively declining, and The Clash was personally in a lot of debt. So while this song might be partly political, it’s actually far more personal than you might have originally thought.
16. Every Breath You Take by The Police
This classic love song has always been a little bit creepy if you listen to the lyrics, which is probably why many newlyweds choose not to. “The song is dangerously possessive and is about jealousy and surveillance and ownership”, according to Sting himself.
Ultimately, the song was written about obsessing over a lover in the wake of his separation from his first wife.
17. You are My Sunshine by Jimmie Davis
When reduced to its chorus, You are My Sunshine is a sweet love song that you probably recognise from when you were a kid. But if you listen to the song in its entirety, you’d be quick to realise that it’s not as innocent as it first appears.
Recorded by many popular singers over the years, perhaps most notably Johnny Cash, this song is heard time and time again as a classic love song. But the song is actually about troubled and unrequited love. It is about the loss of a lover and mourning them in their wake.
18. Waterfalls by TLC
Everyone knows and loves this song – it’s a classic, and it’s impossible not to join in with the chorus. But most people actually only know the chorus so often miss out on the dark and true meaning behind it.
Waterfalls actually covers many dark topics, such as violence in the illegal drug trade. It also heavily references unprotected sex leading to diseases such as HIV/AIDs; obviously, if you listen to the line “His health is fading, and he doesn’t know why/Three letters took him to his final resting place.”
19. Pumped Up Kicks by Foster The People
Like Nirvana’s Polly, this is also written from the perspective of an unstable person committing a heinous crime. This one is even more shocking, though, because it’s an incredibly catchy and upbeat tune.
Songwriter Mark Foster wanted to write the song from the perspective of an isolated psychotic kid. If you listen carefully to the lyrics, you’ll hear that the song is actually about the kid being pushed to the breaking point and becoming a school shooter. Scary.
So, which of these hidden meanings surprised you the most?
While all of these songs are fantastic hits that almost everyone knows, the true story behind most of them often goes unnoticed. It just shows the power of music, though, and that even when everyone interprets a song completely differently, it can still bring people together.
What Is It Called When music tells a story?
Many singers, artists, and composers express their feelings or tell stories through music. A term used for this is called a Ballad.
The term Ballad is derived from the French “Ballade”, which means “dancing song”. A ballad is a form of music mostly used to accompany dances, or interpretative actions, telling a story about history, urban legends, love stories, traditions, etc. This was an expressive way for people to spread stories back in the medieval period. It was a form of communication and entertainment back then.
There are 3 main types of Ballads, the Traditional Ballad, Literary Ballad, and Broadside ballad.
The Traditional Ballad is a short song or poem, mostly used to tell a dramatic story or a love story. The Literary Ballad, on the other hand, is created by poets and is based on folksongs or stories. While Broadside Ballads were ballads printed on cheap paper that were sold on the streets. They mostly are about current news or issues at the time.