In the 1980s, songs came under scrutiny for sharing hidden messages with the impressionable youth. Bands like Judas Priest came under fire from the Christian right for apparently slipping in subliminal satanic messages urging young fans to commit suicide. Their frontman, Rob Halford, sensibly pointed out the rational argument of why the hell would we want to kill off our fanbase, if anything, the subliminal messages would be urging fans to spread the word and buy more records.
Sometimes, however, the messages are not simply in the overstimulated minds of heretics, and they hide in plain sight. If Bob Dylan brought a new sense of irony to lyric writing, a lot of other acts took his double meanings and obfuscated them in weird ways. And by weird ways, I mean that often the intent doesn’t shine through. Whether it is an irony that many of us have missed or a dark backstory twisted by an otherwise pretty melody, many famous songs are hiding secrets.
Below, we have curated a list of classic anthems that actually have a meaning that runs contrary to the one that the radio DJ espouses. From the real identity of Bob Marley’s sheriff to the dark missed verse of an old Johnny Cash lullaby, these ten tracks certainly contain some surprises.
10 classic songs with hidden meanings:
‘Every Breath You Take’ – The Police
The message here is the very definition of hiding in plain sight. If you imagine the following lyrics without the musical accompaniment read by Liam Neeson, then the true intention of the song is immediately apparent: “Every breath you take, and every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I’ll be watching you.”
Sting wrote the song in a paranoid state during a period when he suspected his wife might have been having an affair. Clear hints spring to the fore with lines like “Every smile you fake” but overall, the message seemed to be masked for some as they were blinded by the sanguine sound of chiming guitars.
‘Imagine’ – John Lennon
John Lennon’s call for peace reached the lofty heights of a global hymn. It still resides to this day as one of the most famous protest songs (if you can call it that) of all time. However, according to Lennon himself, the song was far more specific than a mere propagation of peace.
One of the key tenets of the song is a pro-Communist message which was seemingly missed by many as it became a hit even in America and other staunchly capitalist regions. As Lennon explained, “Because [Communism] is sugar-coated, it’s accepted. Now I understand what you have to do — put your message across with a little honey.”
‘You Are My Sunshine’ – Johnny Cash
You are my sunshine is a melody that has whisked millions of kids to sleep. Its lilting lullaby tones are as sweet as things get, but in Cash’s version, the sweetness comes from a place of utter desperation. His sunshine has departed to the extent of an Alaskan vampire.
Further verses beyond the ones you whisper to your little one end with lines like “You have shattered all of my dreams” and “You’ll regret it all some day.” The fact that a song so utterly depressing has been extrapolated by society at large to represent soothing paternal love is a cultural oddity that always seems to occur with nursery rhymes.
‘One Way or Another’ – Blondie
The psychologist Albert Ellis once said, “the art of love is largely the art of persistence.” There is a truth to that, but there is also a dark flipside is that persistence is misguided and reprehensibly one-sided. That was the case when it comes to the tragic story that Blondie masks with the upbeat melody to ‘One Way or Another’.
Debbie Harry actually wrote the lyrics from the perspective of an ex-boyfriend who stalked her. Thus, the poppy turn that Blondie twisted it with is almost a postmodern technique to capture the warped mind of an unreliable narrator.
‘Polly’ – Nirvana
Nirvana are no strangers to darkness, and their Nevermind track ‘Polly’ comes with a harrowing story that plays both ways. Albeit it might be obscured, the song is actually about the kidnapping of a 14-year-old girl after a concert in Tacoma, Washington. Tragically, she was raped and tortured with a whip, razor and blowtorch before she managed to escape.
Cobain tackled this in a progressive manner, but sadly the song was cited as an inspiration in a later attack. Thus, Cobain wrote in the liner notes to Incesticide: “Last year, a girl was raped by two wastes of sperm and eggs while they sang the lyrics to our song ‘Polly.’ I have a hard time carrying on knowing there are plankton like that in our audience.” And later played benefits to help rape victims, including the Rock Against Rape concert in 1993.
‘I Shot the Sheriff’ – Bob Marley
‘I Shot the Sheriff’ is one of the few songs on this list whereby most people would sense something was lyrically afoot. Seeing as though Bob Marley clearly wasn’t a murderer, just who was this sheriff, and how and why was he metaphorically slain?
Well, as Marley’s ex-lover explains in the film Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend, the sheriff was actually a doctor who prescribed her birth control pills. Of course, Marley didn’t shoot the doctor, but he did ask her not to take that pills as he viewed them as a symbol of the “elements of wickedness” that the sheriff represents. Hence lyrics like, “Every time I plant a seed/He said kill it before it grow.”
‘Closing Time’ – Semisonic
‘Closing Time’ may well have prolonged a thousand drunken nights by at least a few more unnecessary songs, but the truth is the indie disco anthem didn’t actually have anything to do with a night on the tiles, at least in the mind of the songwriter Dan Wilson.
Although you wouldn’t be able to guess it from the lyrics, Wilson explained that the song is actually a comical take on the reluctance of childbirth. “My wife and I were expecting our first kid very soon after I wrote that song. I had birth on the brain, I was struck by what a funny pun it was to be bounced from the womb,” he later explained of the hit.
‘Summer of ‘69’ – Bryan Adams
It’s a number that generates immaturity in an instant, like some sort of numerical psychological anomaly. Thankfully, Bryan Adams’ anthem seems to have subverted that so that thousands of drunken uncles can wholesomely sing about the best summer in Adams’ life without sullying the wedding.
However, as it happens, our immature thoughts were right all along. Dirty Bryan Adams isn’t actually celebrating the nostalgia of youth but looking back at sexual conquests. “A lot of people think it’s about the year, but actually, it’s more about making love in the summertime. It’s using ’69 as a sexual reference,” he explained in 2008.
‘Delilah’ – Tom Jones
It’s an anthem that has transcended the world of music and entered the culture as a whole. It is now chanted on football terraces and represents a snapshot of a bygone zeitgeist. Thus, while the lyrics might not be overly obscure, its radio-friendly mass popularity is at odds with the murderous tale that it tells.
Essentially, what Jones belts home with his trademark booming pipes is the story of a man going crazy and killing his formerly beloved wife. The line “I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more,” might make this point very clear, but there are certainly some folks out there who simply sang along, got whisked up in the waltzing melody and missed the dark facts within.
‘Run for your Life’ – The Beatles
Inspired by the Elvis Presley song ‘Baby, Let’s Play House’ in which the hip-swinging singer calls out, “I’d rather see you dead little girl, than to be with another man,” Lennon decided he would tell his own tale of dark domestic violence. Lennon eventually ended up hating the song when the irony seemed lost as the hidden message was somewhat subverted, and the track was hoisted by its own poppy petard.
In the years that have followed, the failed attempt at condemning the open darkness contained within has led to it being banned by radio stations for espousing a dangerous message of violence against women. In short, it’s perhaps The Beatles’ most regrettable song.