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Which Songs Are Definitely Not About What People Think They’re About?

Born in the Usa album by Bruce Springsteen

Columbia Records

I can’t stop thinking about a tweet from Brock Wilbur, The Mary Sue’s favorite Twitter correspondent (and husband to our Vivian Kane). Brock asked his followers about the songs that are often sung at karaoke by those who may be unaware of the underlying message. Which of these songs actually condemns a topic people believe it exults? This set off a chain of responses about the songs whose meanings we routinely misconstrue.

Pinning down a song’s intent can be nebulous business. Some deal almost entirely in allusions and imagery, leaving you to interpret at will. Is that broken-winged bird about heartbreak, or triumphing over adversity? But others can be pretty straightforward—and their intentions are obscured because the lyrics don’t fit the musical tone, or the lyrics are misread, or we’re made to hear selective snippets.

My first instinct in response to Brock’s question was Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” but others had already beat me to the punch. The band’s 1969 scorching indictment of America’s wartime hypocrisy that calls out the gulf of privilege between rich and poor is one of our most important protest songs.

But thanks to selective hearing—and a blasphemous flag-wrapped Wrangler jeans ad that only used the song’s opening lines—“Some folks are born made to wave the flag / Ooh they’re red, white and blue”—a good many people think this is actually a jingoistic, rah-rah Americana song. The first time that commercial played on my TV, I actually snarled “How dare they” out loud.

As SFGate explains, songwriter John Fogerty, who didn’t retain the rights to “Fortunate Son,” was furious about the misappropriation. Had commercial-viewers been able to listen for longer, they’d have a very different impression of what Fogerty was singing about.

That opening couplet alone does not convey the theme of the song, in which Fogerty shrieked about the way he felt those phony patriots were sending everyday men to their deaths in an endless quagmire:

Some folks inherit star-spangled eyes/ Ooh, they send you down to war/ And when you ask them how much should we give?/ They only answer, “More, more, more”

Of a similar bent is one of Brock’s examples, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” Thanks to the song’s soaring refrain and rocking beat, many seem to think this is an anthem about someone excited to be American. But if you read the lyrics as you’re belting them out at karaoke, they tell a very different story.

Springsteen’s 1984 hit is about Vietnam veterans whose lives were laid waste by the conflict and came home to an America that abandoned them—or didn’t come home at all. The song tracks the trajectory of the failed American dream from cradle to grave—from “Born down in a dead man’s town” to “Got in a little hometown jam / So they put a rifle in my hand” to the devastating verse:

I had a brother at Khe Sanh
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 now

And on and on. “Born is the U.S.A.” is a scathing look at what it really means to be born in this country for millions of its citizens. It has appeared to confuse listeners for decades, including the likes of Ronald Reagan and conservative commentator George F. Will, who called it “a grand, cheerful affirmation: Born in the U.S.A.!” There’s something quintessentially American about a great many people remaining unaware of the message of this song, while singing it at the top of their lungs amongst the beer towers in a private karaoke room.

Other responses to Brock that stood out? We can locate quite a bit of irony in some of the songs that we view as the height of romance and often play at dances and weddings when they’re anything but. Perhaps the best-known example of this would be The Police’s 1983 classic “Every Breath You Take,” which Sting wrote after the acrimonious breakup of his marriage and stated that at the time he was “thinking of Big Brother, of surveillance, of control.”

In response to couples who have told him they chose the song as their wedding dance, Sting said that he thought, “Well, good luck.” For some reason we’ve decided that the lyrics in “Every Breath You Take,” such as “Oh, can’t you see you belong to me” and “Every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you” are devastatingly romantic instead of terrifyingly stalkerish.

“I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly and people have actually misinterpreted it as being a gentle little love song, when it’s quite the opposite,” Sting declared. There’s nothing like a heartwarming ballad that is actually about possession and control!

If you’re intrigued by songs that are given these strange second lives, BBC News ran down some other famously misunderstood music, including R.E.M.’s “The One I Love,” Lou Reed’s “Perfect Day,” and many more. Since I’m fascinated by this topic, I’d love to hear what songs jump out for you, especially if you find yourself shaking your head when they’re played in unintentionally ironic situations.

Of course, it often doesn’t matter what the truth is behind a song. Some songs rock so hard you’d have to be made of stone not to sing along. (See: “Born in the U.S.A.”) Some occupy a nostalgic place in our lives that invokes the immediate need to shriek it out at karaoke no matter what.

Was I aware that Third Eye Blind’s catchy chart-topper “Semi-Charmed Life” was about a user’s descent into drug addiction and general chaos when I was 13? No, no I was not. Radio stations contributed to the confusion, muting and dulling some of the song’s lyrics. According to Songfacts, “The line ‘Doing crystal meth will lift you up until you break’ was a little racy for some radio stations, who played an edited version with the words ‘Crystal Meth’ distorted.”

Am I going to stop singing “Semi-Charmed Life” at karaoke now? Try and make me. Misunderstood songs, and those with darker themes, don’t need to not be sung recreationally. But it might be nice to share the background you have on some of these with others. Looking at the realities of history and ourselves, and how the creative process can represent the difficult parts of human nature, is always important.

With this in mind, what are some of the songs that you think may go over people’s heads—or fly under the radar?

(via Brock Wilbur on Twitter)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.