The 8 Ball 11.05.12: The Top 8 Misconstrued Songs
Welcome, one and all, to the 8 Ball in the Music Zone! I’m your host Jeremy Thomas and as always, I will be tackling a topic and providing you the top eight selections of that particular category. Keep in mind that this list is meant to be my personal opinion and not a definitive list. You’re free to disagree; you can even say my list is wrong, but stating that an opinion is “wrong” is just silly. With that in mind, let’s get right in to it!
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You ever find out that a song means the exact opposite of what you thought it did? Of course you have. One of the great communal experiences of music listeners is that at one point or another we’ve all run across a song and suddenly the lyrics became crystal clear, stunning us with what the song actually meant. Sometimes its a subtle-yet-shocking reference to something taboo, or sometimes its right out and in your face but for some reason you never saw it. This week I thought it would be fun to take a look at some of the best misunderstandings about well-known songs.
Caveat: I had two main caveats that I was looking at here; the first is that the song had to legitimately misunderstood. Songs like Billy Idol’s “Dancing With Myself” and The La’s “There She Goes” are often believed to be misconstrued (as songs about masturbation and heroin use, respectively) but have been denied by the bands. I also left off songs that are so well-known in their misconstrued nature that they’re really not misconstrued anymore. Examples include Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight,” which most people know at this point is not about a drowning victim, and The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” which even my parents know is a really creepy song when you actually listen to the lyrics. Similarly, the controversy around Ozzy Osbourne’s “Suicide Solution” largely brought to everyone’s attention the fact that it was about alcoholism, thus rendering its potential misconstrued nature moot. Also, this isn’t the best songs that happen to be misconstrued, but rather the songs that were most significantly, ironically or hilariously misconstrued; in other words, my favorite misunderstandings.
Dire Straits – “Money for Nothing”: Believed to be a pro-MTV anthem; is a third-person critique on the music industry at the time.
Michael Jackson – “Ben”: Believed to be a song about love and friendship; is actually about being best friends…with a killer rat.
Bob Dylan – “Mr. Tambourine Man”: Believed to be about LSD use; is actually about the search for (non-chemically induced) inspiration.
“Harder to Breathe” may raise a few eyebrows as to its presence on this list. While I really like the song, I certainly admit it’s not a better song that, say, “Mr. Tambourine Man” or some other ones that could have made the list. And it’s a pretty straight-forward song about the disintegration of a relationship, isn’t it? It certainly seems like it, but I always felt that this was a bit off because of that line in the first stanza about “getting physical.” I mean, songs can and have certainly gone to a dark place in relationships but it just didn’t seem to jive right with the overall story of the song within the context of a relationship. And that’s because it isn’t truly about a relationship…or at least, it’s not about a romantic one. As it turns out, Adam Levine and Jesse Carmichael wrote “Harder to Breathe” about the band’s relationship with their record label while working on Songs About Jane. Levine told the story that Octane Records wanted more songs from the band for Jane and told them to keep writing even though they felt they had enough material. “That song comes sheerly from wanting to throw something,” he said. And along the way, they got to sneak in some great subtle shots at the label, like “You drain me dry and make me wonder why I’m even here” and “Does it kill? Does it burn? Is it painful to learn that it’s me that has all the control?” You have to give a band respect for being able to sneak “go screw yourself” messages into the very song that they wrote to make their label happy, and I appreciated the song far more once I learned that.
Like “Harder to Breathe” was for Maroon 5, “Lola” was a saving grace for The Kinks upon its release in 1970. The song, which was an advance single from Lola Versus Powerman and the Moneygoround, Part One, came along at a critical time when the rock group was nearing the end of their deal with RCA records and allowed them the sign a five-album deal that was a lucrative enough that they built their own studio and got more creative control. That couldn’t have happened if the song’s mellow, almost sweet love song-esque nature hadn’t helped it become a huge hit on both sides of the pond. It almost didn’t get any airplay by BBC Radio, who refused to air it because of a reference to Coca-Cola that violated the station’s policy against product placement in music. Interestingly (and perhaps impressively), they didn’t take any issue with the fact that it was a love song about a transvestite. The song was inspired by an incident where Kinks frontman Ray Davies saw the group’s manager dancing the night away with a transgendered individual. Davies later recounted that he brought it up to the manager after they left the club, noting, “…I said, ‘Have you seen the stubble?’ He said ‘Yeah,’ but he was too pissed [drunk] to care, I think.” The song has endured for the last forty-two years and even ranked on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” and to this day you can see people humming along and bobbing their head when they hear it, completely not understanding what they’re enjoying.
I know we have a lot of readers who were not around (or at least of listening age) in 1986, but this song was everywhere when it was released off Timbuk 3’s debut LP. It hovered around the top 20 in both the US and the UK and was used in movies and TV shows galore; it was very much a feel-good song used by radio stations to boost the optimism of the era. That makes a lot of sense, to be honest; it has the upbeat, peppy feel of a Huey Lewis and the News hit and the title is almost the quintessential 80s pop song title in that it is a little bit cheesy but a lot of fun. The long-passed and underrated sitcom Head of the Class created an unbelievably dorky and fun cast video for the song touting the group’s bright future; that’s what the video is above. Sadly for our favorite high school honors students from 1986 through 1991, that future was only bright for those who were getting into the arms race. You see, the song was actually a satirical comment about the grim outlook of the future at the time, with the song actually being about a nuclear scientist whose job prospects is looking good due to the demand for that particular profession in the escalating nuclear race. The idea of a “bright” future requiring sunglasses alluded to wearing dark glasses to protect one’s eyes from the blinding light of a nuclear explosion. As it turned out, no one got the joke and the song went into history as people thought they heard it, and not as they actually did. The best part is that people didn’t get it even when the song was in regular rotation on MTV; for the record, the official video is here. Kinda spells it out, don’t you think?
Released as the first single off of their fifth studio album Document, “The One I Love” can largely be credited with beginning the rise of REM. The Athens, Georgia-based college rock band was a already a cult success in 1987, but this song became the group’s first mainstream hit, charting at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 and hitting #16 in the UK and it led the way for songs like “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” “Radio Free Europe” and the other songs that became increasingly-bigger hits for the group before “Losing My Religion” launched them completely into the public’s attention, a place they would stay until their dissolution last year. “The One I Love” remains one of their most beloved songs and became a very popular song to dedicate to loved ones via the radio. The irony of that fact was never lost on the band, and in 1987 Michael Stipe told Rolling Stone that “It’s probably better that they just think it’s a love song at this point.” The truth of the matter however is that it’s a song about a man who callously uses his lover, even to the point of being cruel about it with the sarcastic line “This one goes out to the one I love.” Sure, that sounds great, but people never seem to notice the third line in the stanza, “A simple prop to occupy my time.” By the end of the song, it changes to “Another prop has occupied my time,” alluding to the fact that the subject of the song has casually moved onto someone else to use. You now have permission to snicker, groan or make whatever sound of derision you see fit whenever you hear this song dedicated to someone else on your local radio station.
I almost didn’t put this on the list because the truth about the song is moderately well-known, but the truth of the matter is that you still hear this one get played on adult contemporary stations, whose audiences would be shocked if they knew what they were really humming along with as they drive along in their cars. The song, released as the first single from the band’s self-titled debut album, was an enormous hit and was practically unavoidable in the late 1990s. It was on all the radio stations, in TV shows and movies, commercials, you name it. And you can blame the song’s upbeat, catchy sound for that because if soccer moms had any idea what the song was actually about at the time there would have been a serious uproar. The song was written by frontman Stephan Jenkins as a San Francisco-style take on Lou Reed’s famously taboo “Walk on the Wild Side” and is essentially about descending into the haze of crystal meth addiction. What really gets me about this is that the song isn’t remotely subtle, nor is Jenkins’ singing particularly unclear in tone. You can very clearly hear such lines as “Doing crystal meth will lift you up until you break” and “You’re the priestess, I must confess/Those little red panties they pass the test/Slide up around the belly, face down on the mattress.” I mean really, what did people THINK this song was about? In truth, I can actually answer that as I didn’t know what the song was about until after it was no longer an ever-present hit; most people heard the heavily-edited radio version first and so they completely missed the references. They just knew it was fun…which I suppose it was, if being desperate to break out of addiction (“I want something else to get me through this semi-charmed kind of life”) is fun. To each their own.
Filter has been rather unfairly left out of popular regard for the top grunge and post-grunge acts throughout the years; while they don’t have the prevalence of Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots or Alice in Chains, they have been a consistent source of good, solid alt-rock throughout the years. Fronted by former Nine Inch Nails guitarist Richard Patrick, the group first entered the public consciousness thanks due to a bit of misperception and unfortunate (or fortunate, depending on your perspective) timing. Kurt Cobain had been dead just over a year of his self-inflicted shotgun wound when “Hey Man, Nice Shot” exploded onto the airwaves. With lyrics like “I wish I would have met you, but now it’s a little late” and “They think that your early ending was all wrong,” combined with the group’s grunge-like sound, made people immediately associate the song with Cobain’s suicide and that recognition did help it financially. The only thing is, it has nothing to do with the late Nirvana frontman. It is indeed about a real-life suicide, but rather than Cobain’s it is about that of Budd Dwyer, the Pennsylvania state treasurer who shot himself in the mouth during a press conference on live television following his conviction on accepting bribes. Dwyer always claimed his innocence and some speculated that he killed himself due to the fact that, still being the treasurer at the time, he made sure that his wife could collect death benefits. Recanted testimony has since suggested that Dwyer was in fact innocent, and Filter’s song certainly leans in that direction. To this day many believe the song to be about Cobain, but the group has always denied it to no avail.
This song has a funny sort of history for the Beastie Boys. When discussing the group, “Fight for Your Right” is an absolutely essential part of their legacy. And yet, they joked that the song “sucked” (which was in fact a joke, to be fair) and were disappointed that people missed the point. The song became an anthem for hard-partying in the late 1980s and has remained so throughout the years; it helped propel the band to greater mainstream as well, making them a pop culture phenomenon. And yet, the song mocks the very people who ended up flying its banner high. The song was intended to be a parody of Twisted Sister’s “I Wanna Rock” and the many other wild party anthems that had become prominent during the 1980s, but that fact was completely lost on most people and remains so today. The song typecast the trio in a certain public image for a while, but it also inspired them to come back strong and fired them up to be more than just the guys who created the party hit that was supposed to do the exact opposite. Still, to this day you can’t reference wild 1980s parties without this song playing, a fact which has always bemused the band.
It is hard not to laugh whenever you hear this song referenced by politicians as some sort of statement about the greatness of America. Clearly, these people have not actually listened to the song, which does not try to be subtle regarding what it is really about. You imagine that during campaign meetings, they say “You know that song that goes ‘I was born in the USA?’ That would make a great campaign song.” And somewhere in that meeting, some younger staff member is sighing because they know how pointless it is to even try to point out the truth. The fact or the matter is that while the song has that inspiring sound and that memorable chorus, the song is Springsteen’s lyrical examination of the effects of the Vietnam War on the people of America. I mean seriously, just look at the lyrics; there is no mistaking how stanzas like “Got in a little hometown jam/So they put a rifle in my hand/Send me off to a foreign land/To go and kill the yellow man” are supposed to be interpreted. And just in case you’re confused and think that “killing the yellow man” is something to be proud of, the Boss drives it home at the end with the oh-so-uplifting “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the gas fires of the refinery/I’m ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.” This is clearly the most misconstrued song out there that continues to be so year after year, seemingly without end, and it always amuses me to no end.
MUSIC VIDEO A-GO-GO
Here’s one that almost made the list, but got cut because the “misconstruing” in question has been debunked. The Vapors’ 1980s classic “Turning Japanese” was believe to be secretly about the face one makes in sexual climax, thus making it a song about self-love (“I want the doctor to take your picture/So I can look at you from inside as well”) but it is actually about someone who is in upheaval about the loss of their girlfriend to the point that it is changing him into something emotionally foreign. As songwriter David Fenton said, “It could have been (turning) Portuguese, Lebanese, anything that fitted with that phrase. It has nothing to do with the Japanese.” Check out the song below:
Finally, 411 Music has its first podcast in a long time, as Mark Radulich and our resident metal god Robert Cooper took to reviewing Dethklok’s Dethalbum III! Check it out below:
And that will do it for us this week! Join me next week for another edition of the 8-Ball! Until then, have a good week and don’t forget to read the many other great columns, news articles and more here at 411mania.com! JT out.