Objects in image are different than they appear
February 19, 2019 4:22 PM   Subscribe

What are some examples of famous icons that are widely thought to depict the epitome of something good but actually depict something more insidious? I'm thinking of the "kissing sailor," or perhaps John Lennon's "Happy Xmas" song. Can be any media, but should be well known and recognized, and widely accepted as symbolizing something good and happy despite actually showing something much darker.

Since "kissing sailor" George Mendonsa died recently, the photo that made him famous has been everywhere. It seems, broadly, to be accepted to depict romance and victory (and perhaps patriotism and good ol' masculinity?) But the woman he kissed, Greta Friedman, said in a 2005 interview, "It wasn’t my choice to be kissed. The guy just came over and kissed or grabbed.” So a very iconic image that's thought to show romance and love is actually showing, or even normalizing, assault.

The only other example I can think of would be John Lennon's "Happy Xmas," which is blasted in grocery stores and shopping malls during Christmas as a part of the standard holiday cheerful fare, but the song is really quite depressing and talks about endless poverty and war.

What are some other beloved icons that are grossly misinterpreted, or at least broadly thought to symbolize something good/happy/positive instead of its more dark/negative true meaning? (NB: Doesn't need to be related to war, though these two are).
posted by stillmoving to Grab Bag (48 answers total) 42 users marked this as a favorite
Born in the USA is a classic here and I'd argue Keep On Rockin in the Free World is another. People often sing the choruses without really understanding the rest of the song.
posted by jessamyn at 4:27 PM on February 19 [27 favorites]

Randy Newman's song He Gives Us All His Love is covered by Christian artists but is actually pretty scathing about how He could do more but doesn't.
posted by jessamyn at 4:30 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]

And I think we've finally gotten to the point as a society where we know that Baby It's Cold Outside is questionable at best and Every Breath You Take is super stalkery.
posted by jessamyn at 4:37 PM on February 19 [12 favorites]

The last movement of Shotakovich's 5th Symphony sounds superficially triumphant but is widely read as ironic, a statement of the empty triumph of Stalinism.
posted by Smearcase at 4:54 PM on February 19 [4 favorites]

I think there's a whole genre of animal photos that look amazing or adorable but are actually capturing their subjects in moments of great stress and/or pain

Forgive me for not googling for specifics, but it's kind of depressing
posted by prize bull octorok at 4:55 PM on February 19 [16 favorites]

Pesky’s Pole, in Fenway Park, Boston. It is celebrated because Johnny Pesky hit a lot of home runs off of it, but in fact it was so named in a mocking gesture by his teammates, because the pole is actually very close to the field and therefore easy for a mediocre hitter to hit home runs off of it.
posted by Melismata at 5:03 PM on February 19 [8 favorites]

Most people sing The Piña Colada Song chorus without realizing it’s a horrific story about trying to cheat on your partner.
posted by Crystalinne at 5:07 PM on February 19 [11 favorites]

Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah. People have this played at their wedding. The most optimistic possible interpretation reads this as a bitter, sarcastic breakup song.
posted by sourcequench at 5:09 PM on February 19 [19 favorites]

The creator of the Labradoodle regrets his creation. (They are great dogs, but the ethics of breeding them has been put into question for a number of reasons.)
posted by Seeking Direction at 5:13 PM on February 19 [5 favorites]

I Melt With You is a bit more literal than one might expect, being about a couple making love as they're killed in a nuclear explosion. Also, 99 Luftballons: both the German and English versions end in war.
posted by The Great Big Mulp at 5:25 PM on February 19 [9 favorites]

It’s been reported, but not proven, that 20 kittens were killed and many other animals were injured in the making of the cute animal film Milo and Otis.
posted by FencingGal at 5:33 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]

The catchy, iconic to some, Sweet Home Alabama has some complex interpretations and history.
posted by Pax at 6:15 PM on February 19 [2 favorites]

Last September Al Jazeera's 101 East had this: “China: Caging the Ocean's Wild” (~½-hour video) about China's public aquarium / marine park industry's treatment of animals... basically all the worst stuff seen in zoos and aquariums in the rest of the world at ten times the volume and a speed commensurate with the country's economic growth. Plus lots of exploitation of untrained human labor of course.

This documentary from Deutsche Welle English: Dream Empire - China's Real Estate Bubble shows some of the superficiality of the real estate market there during the past decade. It's told from the perspective of a man working in the industry where foreigners are hired to attend real estate and other business events, sometimes representing themselves deceptively at the behest of the hosting business or event. More of that is portrayed in this Vice Media video segment from a few years ago: “Rent a White Guy.”
posted by XMLicious at 6:25 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

I may have mentioned it before but "You Are My Sunshine", beloved of grandparents and greeting card commercials, is a tremendously sad breakup song.
posted by Mister Moofoo at 6:48 PM on February 19 [10 favorites]

Semi-Charmed Life by Third Eye Blind is the happiest-sounding song about crystal meth addiction.
posted by airplant at 6:49 PM on February 19 [7 favorites]

Sarah MacLachlan's "Angel" is about death by drug overdose. Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" is a love song to heroin.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 6:54 PM on February 19 [6 favorites]

John Mellencmp’s Pink Houses is not about cute, happy neighborhoods.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:07 PM on February 19 [4 favorites]

There is, of course, the iconic VW Beetle, which has a bit of a dark genesis.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:12 PM on February 19 [5 favorites]

I often hear "This Land is Your Land" presented as a patriotic/nationalistic song when it's a socialist protest anthem that was written as a direct retort to "God Bless America".

Very shortened versions of "Big Rock Candy Mountain" appeared throughout my childhood in things intended for children, but it's a song about a homeless person's idea of paradise, including references to cops who can't chase them, bulldogs that can't bite them, and booze freely flowing down the rocks. It's kind of heartbreaking, and definitely not a children's song!

And as long as we're talking messed up misinterpreted Christmas songs, let us not forget how awful "Do They Know It's Christmas?" is.
posted by rhiannonstone at 7:37 PM on February 19 [15 favorites]

Depending on your take on “death of the author”, you might be able to find rich pickings in film and literature.

Off the top of my head, both The Catcher In The Rye and The Steppenwolf were both widely misunderstood, according to their creators (intended to be much more bleak and much less bleak, respectively).

On the other hand, if you care about the logic of the text, rather than the author intention, it’s often been noted that Groundhog Day is actually an insane nightmare, rather than a heartwarming romantic comedy.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 8:14 PM on February 19 [4 favorites]

Friday I'm In Love by The Cure sounds like a poppy, danceable song, but just listen to the lyrics.
Similarly, Pumped Up Kicks by Foster the People sounds like fun, but the lyrics are about a kid who steals a gun from his father with the intention of shooting the kids who bullied him.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:52 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

Friday I'm in Love is simultaneously the worst The Cure Song and the best Yo La Tengo Song. And I say that with absolute love for both The Cure and Yo La Tengo.
posted by sourcequench at 9:04 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

The original last verse of "Big Rock Candy Mountain:

The punk rolled up his big blue eyes
And said to the jocker, "Sandy,
I've hiked and hiked and wandered too,
But I ain't seen any candy.
I've hiked and hiked till my feet are sore
And I'll be damned if I hike any more
To be buggered sore like a hobo's whore
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains."
posted by librosegretti at 9:12 PM on February 19 [5 favorites]

Iggy Pop's ode to drug culture "Lust for Life" was used to sell family-friendly Caribbean cruises.

Timbuk 3 had a minor 80s hit with The Future's So Bright (I Gotta Wear Shades). Hardly anyone got that the brightness was going to come from a nuclear holocaust. The band got so frustrated that they took to wearing sunglasses with mushroom clouds on them when they performed, and then added a whole other verse when that didn't work.

Not insidious, but a ton of people had no idea what the Village People were singing about. I remember they played "Y.M.C.A." at one of the Republican national conventions, and the crowd danced along, spelling out the letters with their hands.

Similarly, "Tutti Frutti" was originally about gay sex.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:28 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]

Wasn't Jailhouse Rock about gay sex, too?

Apparently people play Better Man by Pearl Jam at weddings, not realising that the song is about an abusive relationship.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 9:50 PM on February 19 [1 favorite]

Not sure if this really fits, but the true horror in The Shining isn't ghosts, it's addiction.
posted by stormyteal at 10:10 PM on February 19 [5 favorites]

Last Train to Clarksville is about a guy calling his girlfriend just before he ships off to Vietnam. ("And I don't know if I'm ever coming home...") Actually a lot of bouncy Monkees tunes are pretty dark.

The original Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas is super sad but then Sinatra got a hold of it, changing various lines to make them cheerful and bullshitty, and that's the version people mostly sing today.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 10:12 PM on February 19 [3 favorites]

chappell, ambrose: "On the other hand, if you care about the logic of the text, rather than the author intention, it’s often been noted that Groundhog Day is actually an insane nightmare, rather than a heartwarming romantic comedy."

Murray's character is also pretty much the ultimate creepy stalker even in a genre that embraces that behaviour while being perceived as having grown as a result of his stalking.
posted by Mitheral at 11:35 PM on February 19 [5 favorites]

Tay Zonday's Chocolate Rain (yt) is about structural racism.
posted by yaymukund at 2:52 AM on February 20 [5 favorites]

Volvo's been using the Queen of the Night's aria from Mozart's The Magic Flute in one of their commercials. Some of the lyrics translated into English:

Then you will be my daughter nevermore.
Disowned may you be forever,
Abandoned may you be forever,
Destroyed be forever

Not exactly the positive angle they're trying for I don't think...it's a beautiful aria though.
posted by Rufous-headed Towhee heehee at 2:59 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]

Apparently people play Better Man by Pearl Jam at weddings, not realising that the song is about an abusive relationship.

Similarly, I've been to a wedding themed around Phil Collins' In the Air Tonight, a song about divorce.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:34 AM on February 20 [5 favorites]

Less well-known Monkees song Cuddly Toy may be about a Hell’s Angels gang rape. I saw this in liner notes - I can’t find anything definitive online. The lyrics seem horrible now though (You’re not the only cherry delight that was left in the night and gave up without a fight.).

Also, this could apply to a lot of food. Your chocolate bar may be tied to human slavery, as may your fish. Packaging depicts happy cows and chickens on storybook farms, when the products are actually from tortured animals on nightmare factory farms. There is endless suffering in a glass of milk and a hamburger (which McDonald’s commercials used to depict as growing in hamburger patches).
posted by FencingGal at 5:40 AM on February 20 [4 favorites]

The famous National Geographic photo of green-eyed Afghan girl Sharbat Gula, which a lot of people saw at the time as looking soulful, haunting, and glamorous, actually depicts anger and fear. For me at least, once I knew that, it was hard to even imagine how I'd ever seen it differently — now, the look on her face looks to me like plain, unambiguous, unglamorous fuck-you terror.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:17 AM on February 20 [5 favorites]

Green Day's "Time of Your Life" was played incessantly in the late 90s/early 00s at graduations, proms, during poignant moments in TV shows, etc.

Oh, wait, I didn't give the full title of that song. Its correct title is "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)."
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:06 AM on February 20 [3 favorites]

The O'Jays' "For the Love of Money" isn't exactly celebratory, certain past game shows by current presidents notwithstanding.
posted by Capt. Renault at 9:33 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]

There's an interesting story behind "Migrant Mother," probably the most iconic photograph of the Great Depression. The article relates all the ways the subject is not who she is portrayed as in the photo. Ironically, for a photo that arguably spurned the government into action, the woman in the picture did not want the aid that was eventually marshaled together.
posted by backseatpilot at 9:37 AM on February 20 [2 favorites]

The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald is often shown as a celebration of Jazz Age thrill seeking culture, a story of star-crossed lovers, and the American man's ability to reinvent himself (albeit with a tragic ending), but it's really a commentary on the vapidness and futility of excessive wealth, isn't it?

Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" is not a story about rugged individualism and self-assurance. It's a poem about the fictions we create for ourselves about the decisions we've made in the past.
posted by elmer benson at 9:53 AM on February 20 [7 favorites]

The Extreme song "More than Words" is basically a guy telling a woman that saying "I love you" isn't enough, she needs to "touch" him to prove it. It always read as straight-up backseat begging/coercion to me.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:31 PM on February 20

Flannery O'Connor's novels The Violent Bear it Away and Wise Blood are often read as scathing critiques about Christianity but that was not what she intended.
posted by perhapses at 9:29 PM on February 20

a society where we know that Baby It's Cold Outside is questionable at best

Counterpoint: "it’s not actually a song about rape - in fact it’s a song about a woman finding a way to exercise sexual agency in a patriarchal society designed to stop her from doing so." Meta-misinterpreted!
posted by exogenous at 12:14 PM on February 21 [3 favorites]

Wonderful? Sorry, George, It’s a Pitiful, Dreadful Life. Rather than warm, celebratory Christmas story, It's a Wonderful Life is really the tragedy of a frustrated guy with big dreams who winds up trapped in his dull town and burdened with family while his friend and classmate escapes to the big city.
posted by Rash at 1:47 PM on February 21

Despite being a favorite of elementary school gym classes and church picnics in the '90s, the "Macarena" is about a woman cheating on her boyfriend after he's been drafted into the army.

Led Zeppelin's "All My Love" may sound romantic at first listen, but Robert Plant wrote the song as a tribute to his son, who passed away at the age of five.
posted by Seeking Direction at 5:59 PM on February 21

Basically, every racist or sexist joke, song, or story ever made. And lots of passages from the Bible and other sacred writings have been misinterpreted or glossed over.
posted by euphotic at 9:25 PM on February 23

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