9 Popular Songs With Missed Subtext

Every song ever written has some sort of inspiration. They all possess a meaning near and dear to the songwriter whether it’s a particular person, object, or experience. Some of them positive, some not so much. Usually you can differentiate between the two easily but some of the most popular songs ever written are about subjects you wouldn’t expect due to the song’s tone, lyrical matter, or even the music video that accompanies them. The following are nine different songs from different artists from different decades. Songs you’ve heard repeatedly but probably didn’t know they’re really about. Let’s review the prevalent songs with not so innocent messages:

Dave Matthews Band – “Crash Into Me”

I admittedly have never been much of a DMB fan. What’s even more bewildering is their popularity amongst the “bro” crowd. Just thinking about a group of tanned, polo-shirt wearing Long Islanders bopping their heads to Ants Marching puts a blank stare to my face. Still, they’re far from the worst band around and I admit to liking a few of their songs. Not to mention that they’re all immensely talented. The group first broke onto the scene in the early 90s with their debut record, Under the Table and Dreaming but it was the lead single off their sophomore effort, Crash, in 1996 that had an peculiar meaning. Reportedly, Crash Into Me is about a peeping tom who spies on his neighbors having sex. This was more or less confirmed by Matthews himself as he elegantly stated that it was about a voyeur. The lyrics aren’t exactly subtle about this either referencing S&M activities. Hey it’s a groovy song so who cares, right?

Listen to “Crash Into Me” here

Third Eye Blind – “Semi-Charmed Life”

Third Eye Blind were one of the most fun American rock bands to drop in the 1990s. Their self-titled debut album experienced endless playback in every 90s kid’s discman. The most popular song from that LP was the insanely catchy Semi-Charmed Life. The virtuous “do do do do-do-do-do” that is synonymous with the chorus throws almost everyone off in the song’s true meaning. When singer Stephan Jenkins proclaims “she goes ‘round as she goes down on me” or “doin’ crystal meth will lift you up until you break/you won’t stop” he’s referring to just that, doing drugs and having sex. What kid or teenager actually paid attention to the lyrics of this song when it was released? No one, that’s who. I will also fully admit to attending a New York Mets game last summer for the sole purpose of seeing 3EB perform this song in a free set following the competition.

Listen to “Semi-Charmed Life” here

R.E.M. – “The One I Love”

Michael Stipe has always been an interesting lyricist. He’s composed thought provoking cuts about taboo subjects such as war and religion. One of R.E.M.’s highest charting singles from the 1980s was The One I Love, another intense, personal tune. While the song’s title may suggest a longing for a special someone, its message is actually much darker. It’s about manipulating and using people. The part “another prop has occupied my time” eludes to someone taking advantage of another individual who really didn’t mean much to them. This song was included in various installments of the popular music video game, Rock Band, so that kids can sing and play along to the track secretly about hurting people emotionally.

Listen to “The One I Love” here

Sweet – “Little Willy”

Sweet’s extremely catchy chart topper from 1973 was a favorite of mine growing up. When my mother bought me my first walkman sometime when I was in grade school, my older brother made me a mixtape with this track on it. I would constantly sing out loud in the house and even recite the lyrics in the schoolyard. This was years before I figured out that Little Willy is slang for a man’s penis. Now I’m wondering if any of the kids from P.S. 131 elementary school looked at me weird when I was belting out the words of Brian Connelly during recess. Oh my!

Listen to “Little Willy” here

The Police – “Every Breath You Take”

When that Diddy track commemorating the Notorious B.I.G., I’ll Be Missing You, came out when I was in 6th grade, it was every 12-year-old kid’s favorite song. Little did I know that the song sampled a really popular but very twisted song by the Police. The tune in question is Every Breath You Take which is very clearly about stalking. More specifically, it’s about being scorned by a lover and being obsessed with their life that follows according to singer, Sting. This is one of the most played tracks from Sting and co. and is echoed throughout many a memorial service and romance scenes in films. The creepiness of its tone is almost a non-factor in people’s enjoyment but why wouldn’t it be? While it’s not my favorite Police song, it’s still pretty good!

Listen to “Every Breath You Take” here

Bruce Springsteen – “Born in the U.S.A.”

This is one of the more misconstrued songs in music history. The legend, Bruce Springsteen’s 1984 hit is often blasted at sporting events and pro-American rallies. Simply put, it has always been the ultimate go-to tracks for American patriotism. What a lot of people don’t know is the song is actually about the difficulties a man faces after returning home from war. The task of adjusting to civilian life once again is a little too much for some veterans and the way some are treated make the process even worse. Still feel like marching outside your house in your red, white, and blue striped pants screaming the song’s title? Check out the words to the song other than than its title. It’s content may surprise you on how depressing it is.

Listen to “Born in the U.S.A.” here

Nirvana – “Polly”

The sixth track off of Nirvana’s smash hit album, Nevermind, is a light, somber tune. The lyric “Polly wants a cracker” led me and others (okay maybe just me) to believe that is was about a parrot or a bird of some sort but it’s actually not anything like that. Polly is actually about a 14-year-old girl who was abducted by a much older man and tortured in his hotel room in Washington State. She was barely able to escape the clutches of her tormentor and sent him packing to the big house. The band read about the story in the paper and decided to write a song about it. A lot of Nirvana’s lyrical matter is unsurprisingly depressing so add this to the pile.

Listen to “Polly” here

The Rolling Stones – “Brown Sugar”

The longstanding rock band from the U.K. released this track in 1971 to huge fanfare but its catchiness overshadowed the really cryptic subject matter. Slavery and rape are the two common themes located in the song. It tells the story of African American immigrants who were sold in the U.S. and raped by their masters. Of course, you would never know this due to the rocking tempo that just makes you want to jump around and dance.

Season one of the popular television series, The Wire, also references it’s upbeat tone when character, Roland (“Prez”), talked about trying to learn the song’s opening lyrics by listening to it intently numerous times.

Listen to “Brown Sugar” here

Billy Idol – “Dancing With Myself”

The blonde punker first recorded this track with his former band, Generation X, then released it on his own after the group’s dissolution in 1981. While the uplifting words would make you think it’s about not caring and just boogieing without a partner in a club, the subtext of masturbation often flies over people’s heads. This was sadly another song I listened to for years before someone clued me in on its hidden message. Even worse, the song was performed on a show I watched regularly growing on the Disney channel titled Kids Incorporated (which, by the way, helped launch the careers of Jennifer Love Hewitt and Fergie). The program was about a couple of friends who had their own singing group. Popular songs were always performed and one faithful episode contained Idol’s popular anthem. MY GOD, it’s pretty awkward looking back.

Listen to “Dancing With Myself” here


Written by Matthew Reine

is a New Yorker with a strong passion for film and television. Also the biggest Keanu Reeves fan you know.

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