Songs can be easily deciphered to some and difficult to understand for others, but despite their true meaning, songs can have the ability to represent something different to everyone.
Ask anyone about the meaning of a track and they will share their opinion of what it may mean or how it came to be a hit, but no one knows the true meaning of songs until an artist is confronted about their lyrics.
These are just a few of the many hits that came about in an unusual way. Some have disturbing origins and others have clever or heartfelt beginnings, but be warned, your perception of a song may be forever changed and you may never hear a song the same way again.
“The Way” – Fastball
This upbeat late ’90s hit seemed to be a song about an endless road trip with youthful, careless characters enjoying life, but the true meaning of the song proved to be just the opposite. The song was actually about the disappearance of an elderly couple from Texas that left their home for an event 15 miles away in Temple, Texas. They were in their eighties and were prone to confusion due to their mental instability. The couple continued to travel, ending up 500 miles away in rural Arkansas where they were found nearly two weeks later at the bottom of a 25-foot cliff. Despite the heart-wrenching events that unfolded in real life, Fastball payed homage to the couple and painted them in a more positive light throughout the lyrics.
“You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet” – Bachman Turner Overdrive
This rock classic has been ranked in the top 10 across the world, but not many know about how the hit came to be. Lead guitarist and songwriter of the band, Randy Bachman, jokingly wrote the song about his brother who had a speech impediment. “For the ultimate tease I wrote a song like he spoke. Then I called him up and scared him by telling him it would be on the album,” Bachman said. ““I thought it was embarrassing, but it went to No.1 in the States and No. 2 in other countries. I was dumbfounded. Particularly because as soon it became a hit my brother stopped stammering.”
“Do You Hear What I Hear?” – Noël Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker
If there is any song origin that will cause you to think of the song differently, it will be this Christmas classic. Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne Baker wrote the song in 1962 during the Cold War as a response to the Cuban Missile Crisis. In fear of possibly getting obliterated, the duo wrote this song as a plea for peace. “[Baker] and Regney had a hard time singing ‘Do You Hear What I Hear’ without crying..,” according to The Atlantic. Next time you hear the lyrics about a star dancing in the night with a tail as big as a kite, don’t take it so literal, it might just secretly be talking about a deadly weapon that could wipe out a whole city.
“Let It Be” – The Beatles
This iconic piece of history was more than a persevering tune for the discouraged, it came from a vulnerable place in Paul McCartney’s heart. In 1968, McCartney had difficulty dealing with tension in the band; a recent break up and constant partying. But one evening, he had a dream that birthed “Let it Be.” “…One night, somewhere between deep sleep and insomnia, I had the most comforting dream about my mother, who died when I was only 14,” said McCartney. In the dream his mother calmly told him, “Let it be,” and thanks to mother Mary, we were gifted with a masterpiece.
“Jump” – Van Halen
“Jump” seems like a classic rock feel good track, but it is speculated that the track has quite the sad backstory. When lead vocalist, David Lee Roth, was watching the news, a man attempted to commit suicide. He claimed that someone could have encouraged him to jump, which gave him the hook for the track, according to multiple music sources. This claim has not fully been proven but it has made front page news when a DJ played the hit while the police were in the middle of trying to talk a woman out of jumping off of a bridge.
“Poker Face” – Lady Gaga
This song either is your anthem or is too obnoxious for your liking. Either way, this song meant more than putting on a poker face for your card playing opponents. It was a way for Lady Gaga to subtly express her personal life. In an interview with Jonathan Ross, Gaga explained that she had to put on a poker face in her previous relationship to hide the truth about her desire to want to be with women.
“Semi-Charmed Life” – Third Eye Blind
This poppy song with “doo doo doo”s is actually about sex and drugs. “Yeah, it’s funny. I wrote a song about drugs and f******, and I’m pretty much about clean living on the road. We can’t even believe it got onto the radio. It’s not cryptic,” Stephen Jenkins said in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine.
“Eleanor Rigby” – The Beatles
Eleanor Rigby may have been a fictional character, but she also turned out to be a real person. Paul McCartney had grown up in a neighborhood where he would hang out with the older ladies as a young boy and enjoyed their wise old stories, especially ones about World War II. “It was like writing a short story” McCartney said in a GQ interview. The second character, the priest, was originally written as Father McCartney. McCartney however, did not want to confuse the listeners because he wasn’t referring to his father, so they searched in the phone book to look at the names listed after McCartney and that’s how they stumbled on McKenzie.
McCartney had already liked the name Eleanor before writing the song, but when he visited Bristol, he saw a shop named Rigby and that married the two names. Years later, someone researched the name and a woman by the name of Eleanor Rigby had actually been laid to rest in a graveyard next to the village where John Lennon grew up. McCartney is unsure to this day on whether he subconsciously already knew that name and still wonders if that is why the names sounded so great together.
“Blondie” – One Way or Another
The lyrics to Blondie’s “One Way or Another” display the meaning fairly well if you are paying attention to the lyrics. The song was based off of lead singer, Debbie Harry’s ex lover, who would stalk her after their break up. “He was so wild, I had to move out of New Jersey,” she said. He would call her every hour, on the hour and would show up outside her front door. His stalking did not take away from what the message was supposed to really mean, which was meant to empower young women and not play the victim.
“I Shot the Sheriff” – Bob Marley
Now this track’s beginning has not been solidified to be one hundred percent true, but it is said that Bob Marley’s girlfriend claimed that the song was based on his disapproval of birth control. A reporter from the Miami Times helped back this claim when she pointed out the lyrics,
Sheriff John Brown always hated me. For what, I don’t know. Every time I plant a seed. He said kill it before it grow.
Unfortunately Marley is unable to disprove these claims, but it does make for an interesting origin and adds some more excitement to the lyrics.
All in all, each hit is more than a catchy hook and these origins remind us how relatable artists truly are to the everyday listener.
I am a former section editor for Coog Radio and had written for the organization for a little over a year. I am a broadcast journalism major graduate and intern at ESPN 97.5 where I have voiced and edited over 100 scripts. I love learning about my field, new people and the world, so feel free to contact me on any of the sites provided below.