songs with interpretations the songwriter denied
May 26, 2021 9:57 AM   Subscribe

I was thinking about a couple of songs today, Tom Petty's "American Girl" and "Here Comes Your Man" by the Pixies, and realized that they share a common trait. There are fan theories about the meaning of the lyrics, but in both cases the lyricist denied those fan theories. I'm now looking for other songs that fit the pattern.

Black Francis has denied that "Here Comes Your Man" is about the bombing of Nagasaki, and Tom Petty has denied that "American Girl" is about autodefenestration. I'm not sure I believe either one of them, because their lyrics work so well with those themes.

I imagine most such songs are going to be about drugs, and the lyricists deny their meanings to cover their asses. Probably a lot about sex, too, often for the same reason. I had a friend in high school whose sister thought Ginuwine just really liked riding horses. So I'm going to exclude those two categories and ask only for examples of more... esoteric themes.

There's also the opposite effect, the "Closing Time" effect, where the songwriter has said the song is about more than people realize it's about. That's not what I'm looking for here, though.
posted by kevinbelt to Media & Arts (37 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
While 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' is totally about drugs, John Lennon always maintained that the fact that the title spells LSD was pure coincidence. Not every Beatles fan believed him.
posted by box at 10:05 AM on May 26 [4 favorites]

One of the most famous examples is Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight," about him watching a guy watching a guy drown (and subsequently inviting the bad guy to a concert to call them out). Eminem references the rumor in his song "Stan."
posted by AgentRocket at 10:07 AM on May 26 [7 favorites]

A lot of these have death and murder in common—Phil Collins has long denied "In The Air Tonight" is about watching someone drown.

Billy Squier ("The Stroke") and the Vapors ("Turning Japanese") have both had to deny their songs are about masturbating. (The Stroke is apparently about getting wined and dined by a record label that doesn't care about you, while Turning Japanese is about breaking up and becoming isolated.)

Michael Stipe has always connected "Losing My Religion" to the southern idiom about losing your cool, but if you're not from the south your first guess would reasonably be that it's actually (at least in some way) about losing your religion.
posted by Polycarp at 10:08 AM on May 26 [3 favorites]

Puff the Magic Dragon really is just about a dragon named Puff.
posted by Gray Duck at 10:13 AM on May 26 [5 favorites]

"This song is NOT a rebel song. This song is Sunday Bloody Sunday."
posted by bondcliff at 10:15 AM on May 26 [3 favorites]

People and politicians commonly believe "Born in the USA" is a patriotic anthem. Those who do so have not read the lyrics.
posted by metabaroque at 10:17 AM on May 26 [11 favorites]

Only Women Bleed is, of course, not about menstruation.
posted by jamjam at 10:26 AM on May 26 [2 favorites]

Not sure if this fits that for which you look, but Don McLean's American Pie was open for all sorts of interpretations because DM refused to talk about the meaning of the lyrics until recently
posted by AugustWest at 10:27 AM on May 26 [2 favorites]

Many literal-minded people swore that Devo's "Whip It" and Britney Spears' "(Hit Me) Baby, One More Time" were about sadomasochism. Others insisted that Paula Cole's "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone" was a tender paean to traditional gender roles. Yeah, no.

Bobbie Gentry is famously mum about just what the protagonist and titular character of "Ode to Billie Joe" were throwing off the Tallahatchie bridge. 54 years later, there are still diehards who insist it was an aborted fetus or a stillborn baby. The other 99% of the ballad's gothic saga has been more or less eclipsed by this single fixation.

You might enjoy the Songfacts category, "Songs that are commonly misinterpreted" -- although plenty of the misinterpretations there are more in the "Closing Time" vein of missing the point, rather than reading too much into it.
posted by armeowda at 10:33 AM on May 26 [4 favorites]

Didn't The Police have to horrifiedly deny that "Every Breath You Take" was a romantic song? (They consider it creepy-stalkerish, quite rightly IMO.)
posted by humbug at 10:46 AM on May 26 [6 favorites]

People and politicians commonly believe "Born in the USA" is a patriotic anthem. Those who do so have not read the lyrics.

Ah yes! Reminds me of the legendary George Will column:
I have not got a clue about Springsteen's politics, if any, but flags get waved at his concerts while he sings songs about hard times. He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: "Born in the U.S.A.!"
posted by Conrad Cornelius o'Donald o'Dell at 11:18 AM on May 26 [5 favorites]

Every song written by Bob Dylan.
posted by tman99 at 11:50 AM on May 26 [1 favorite]

The Eagles' Hotel California has some interpretations that the band has denied, as does James Taylor's Fire and Rain.
posted by hanov3r at 11:53 AM on May 26 [3 favorites]

Spoon’s Do I Have to Talk You Into It is not, as many fans have held, about a creepy relationship, but about the time frontman Britt Daniel had a dispute with a producer.
posted by holborne at 12:15 PM on May 26 [1 favorite]

Several early REM songs like "Radio Free Europe" had no written lyrics and were basically ad-libbed, yet people still try to decipher their meanings. Often in concert Stipe will read someone's interpretation off the internet with bemusement. Yet Stipe claims "Harborcoat" is a retelling of Anne Frank's story, which is puzzling. If you believe they put a man on the moon...

(BTW, Here Comes Your Man is supposedly about earthquakes, but I always though it was about capital punishment)
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 12:35 PM on May 26

I saw a YouTube video that claimed that "Who Let the Dogs Out" was really about toxic masculinity. I'm not including a link because I'm not really that interested.
posted by Billiken at 12:44 PM on May 26

It's been a long time since I went down the Tori Amos rabbit hole, but wasn't there controversy about whether "Professional Widow" was about Courtney Love or not?

In fact, I think there's a whole genre of songs that are widely believed to be about Courtney Love that their writers routinely deny
posted by thivaia at 1:16 PM on May 26 [1 favorite]

There's a group of people who believe that Barry Manilow's Mandy was written about his dog.
posted by librarianamy at 1:24 PM on May 26 [1 favorite]

Tori Amos' Professional Widow being written about Courtney Love.
posted by moons in june at 2:34 PM on May 26

There are fan theories about the meaning of the lyrics, but... the lyricist denied those fan theories.

In the most famous case I know of, the male subject of Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" has been the source of fan theory and artist denial for decades. Simon not only denied the guesses, but strategically made the whole thing into a decades long scavenger hunt -- giving out letters found in the man's name, divulging the true meaning to winners of contests with the condition that they keep it a secret, dropping hints, on and on.
posted by nantucket at 2:36 PM on May 26 [3 favorites]

For years Bryan Adams denied that Summer of 69 was about the sex position, and there's certainly nothing in the lyrics to suggest it was... but then, a few years back, he said it WAS about the sex position. FWIW, his co-writer disagrees.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 2:46 PM on May 26 [1 favorite]

'Fairies Wear Boots" by Black Sabbath is intended to be anti-skinhead; written after being assaulted, injured, and forced to cancel a performance.
posted by porpoise at 2:57 PM on May 26

American Woman by The Guess Who. Burton Cummings says he didn't intend to be political.
posted by philfromhavelock at 3:00 PM on May 26 [1 favorite]

Some listeners misunderstood the song Marduk T-Shirt Mens Room Incident by The Mountain Goats, to the point that John Darnielle went on a fan forum to explain.
posted by Kafkaesque at 3:00 PM on May 26 [2 favorites]

While it technically falls into the excluded sex category, "Louie Louie" seems notable enough to deserve mention in this thread; I can't think of any other song for which the fan theory was investigated by the FBI.
posted by aws17576 at 3:03 PM on May 26 [1 favorite]

Nirvana had to have a press conference about "Rape me" to make sure everyone knew it was not pro-rape. Unsurprisingly Cobain is not happy to have to do this.

Certainly the most famous I can think of is the entirety of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, which according to many (high) people syncs up suspiciously well with the 1939 Wizard of Oz. I believe they've managed to stay quiet on it and not be like "it's definitely not a thing" because I think they're tickled by it. But it's almost certainly not true or by now someone would have detailed the immense amount of work it would have taken. Considering there are documentaries about making that album it seems unlikely they could have kept it hidden!

Incidentally on the same line of thought it appears that their song "Echoes" really was originally going to be used for the cosmic sequence in 2001 but it didn't work out.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:14 PM on May 26 [2 favorites]

Victor Willis of Village People denies that “YMCA” was meant to be about gay hookups.
posted by Comet Bug at 5:24 PM on May 26 [1 favorite]

In the album liner notes, John Prine said "Illegal Smile" was "not about smokin’ dope. It was more about how, ever since I was a child, I had this view of the world where I can find myself smiling at stuff nobody else was smiling at. But it was such a good anthem for dope smokers that I didn't want to stop every time I played it and make a disclaimer."

Not all his fans believe him.
posted by rhiannonstone at 7:33 PM on May 26 [1 favorite]

Seconding essentially every song written by Bob Dylan. With the exception of the early protest songs about specific events or people, he pretty much says that the songs don’t have a meaning.
posted by wnissen at 10:04 PM on May 26

Perfect Day by Lou Reed:

“ Some commentators have further seen the lyrical subtext as displaying Reed's romanticized attitude towards a period of his own addiction to heroin. This popular understanding of the song as an ode to addiction led to its inclusion in the soundtrack for Trainspotting, a film about the lives of heroin addicts. However, this interpretation, according to Reed himself, is "laughable". In an interview in 2000, Reed stated, "No. You're talking to the writer, the person who wrote it. No that's not true [that the song is about heroin use]. I don't object to that, particularly...whatever you think is perfect. But this guy's vision of a perfect day was the girl, sangria in the park, and then you go home; a perfect day, real simple. I meant just what I said."
posted by Dwardles at 10:15 PM on May 26 [1 favorite]

ooooh, Dwardles, you beat me to it: this article uses Perfect Day to talk about authorial intent.

And I don't know if Smash Mouth had to push back against this interpretation, but apparently there's at least one person who suggests they're writing about the UK Suffragette Movement?
posted by adekllny at 7:23 AM on May 27

I just looked this one up this morning due to its use in a movie trailer, and it turns out the song choice was inappropriate for a different reason than I first thought:

Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run Through the Jungle" is frequently thought to be about the Vietnam war, but John Fogerty tells us it is actually about the proliferation of guns in the U.S.
posted by subocoyne at 8:48 AM on May 27

Three songs people frequently assume are about 9/11:

Wilco, "Jesus, Etc."
Sloan, "Dreaming of You"
The New Pornographers, "Centre for Holy Wars"

All were actually written/recorded before the attacks, but to varying degrees the lyrics seem eerily prescient in hindsight.
posted by armeowda at 12:03 PM on May 27

While 'Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds' is totally about drugs, John Lennon always maintained that the fact that the title spells LSD was pure coincidence.

¿Por qué no los dos? Lennon loved puns and wordplay, as shown by his books In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works was taking lots of LSD when he wrote the song. I don't believe he was unaware of the possible connection.

One of the most famous examples is Phil Collins' "In The Air Tonight," about him watching a guy watching a guy drown

Sugar's "A Good Idea" is actually about watching somebody getting drowned.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:28 PM on May 27

For years Bryan Adams denied that Summer of 69 was about the sex position, and there's certainly nothing in the lyrics to suggest it was...

Bryan Adams was nine in the summer of 1969. I doubt he was in a band.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:30 PM on May 27

That “tin roof rusted” in Love Shack meant pregnancy.
posted by johngoren at 2:24 PM on June 1

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