Once a song is out in the world, its lyrics no longer belong to the person whose brain they sprang from. That’s part of what makes pop music such a unique art form: Two listeners will hear the same seemingly straightforward three-minute pop tune in completely different ways. In a sense, the songwriter’s intent doesn’t matter, so long as fans are connecting with the words and finding meanings that fit with their own experiences. But it can be fun to compare popular lyrical interpretations with what the songwriters actually had in mind.
Brace yourself: What follows are 10 songs that aren’t about what you think.
Bruce Springsteen, “Bobby Jean”
Although the Boss has never confirmed it, “Bobby Jean” is almost certainly about Steven Van Zandt, who left the E Street Band during the making of Born in the U.S.A. Springsteen and Little Steven had grown up liking the same clothes and bands, as the lyrics say, and in the final verse, when Bruce offers up that famous “good luck, goodbye,” he imagines the other person in a bus or motel room. Regardless of the subject’s gender, “Bobby Jean” is about the powerful friendships you form in adolescence and carry with you through life like like prized LPs.
Jay Z, “Can’t Knock the Hustle”
It’s easy to misread the leadoff track on Jay Z’s debut album. After all, there’s a lot of time (20-plus years) and distance (four deceptively short miles from Brooklyn’s Marcy Houses to Tribeca) separating Hova’s drug-dealing past from his big-pimpin’ present. But back in 1996, Shawn Carter was fresh off the streets and taking a gamble with music. The “hustle” here isn’t crack slinging, but rapping — that’s the activity he’s trying to justify. He does so with the help of Mary J. Blige, who rips her heart out on the hook, and producer Knobody, who gives him some slick boom-bap to get busy over. Jay circa ’96 was brazen, funny and well-positioned for a career pivot.
Bryan Adams, “Summer of ’69”
Don’t let the apostrophe fool you. In the summer of 1969, Bryan Adams was a 9-year-old son of world-traveling diplomats, not a young rock ‘n’ roller living the best days of his life. The timeline suggests he meant something else with “69,” and sure enough, in a 2008 interview with CBS, Adams confirmed the number is a “sexual reference.” Unless John Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” is secretly about something anatomical, “Summer of ’69” stands as the most subversive heartland rock track of 1983.
Semisonic, “Closing Time”
Those sweet, contemplative piano chords at the beginning should’ve been a signal that Semisonic’s 1998 breakthrough single — the one that goes “you don’t have to stay home but you can’t stay here” — wasn’t simply about drunks getting tossed from bars. As frontman and songwriter extraordinaire Dan Wilson has explained many times in interviews that are sure to make moms and dads misty-eyed, “Closing Time” was written for the child he and his girlfriend were getting ready to welcome into the world. “I had birth on the brain,” Wilson told American Songwriter. “I was struck by what a funny pun it was to be bounced from the womb.”
Prince, “Little Red Corvette”
The experienced lady Prince hopes to get with in this ’83 classic might actually own a ‘Vette. In the opening line, we learn she’s got a car she tends to park erratically. That’s not the “little red love machine” the Purple One is looking to “tame” toward the end, though. If radio programmers picked up on the reference to female genitalia, they wisely looked the other way. Leaving tire marks on what was then a seldom-crossed line separating rock and R&B, Prince’s first top 10 single was something everyone needed to hear.
Beastie Boys, “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)”
A lot of people missed the joke behind the Beastie Boys’ breakout single, and from a commercial standpoint, that wasn’t a bad thing. “Fight for Your Right” is a shouty rap-rock rager perfectly complemented by the sound of beer cans crushing against skulls, and a large percentage of the fans figured the Beasties were loutish frat boys looking to party.
Unfortunately, the group meant the song as a joke — a spoof of the day’s Motley Crue and Twisted Sister hits. The more popular the song got, the more the band morphed into the thing they wanted to lampoon. “You set out with an agenda of parody,” Michael “Mike D” Diamond told NPR, “and then a certain amount of time goes by, and you kind of cross that line.”
The Beatles, “Got to Get You Into My Life”
Although it hardly ranks high on the list of Beatles songs seemingly about drugs, this brassy Revolver soul jam is about Paul McCartney’s love affair with the sticky-icky. “It’s actually an ode to pot,” McCartney told Rolling Stone, “like someone else might write an ode to chocolate or a good claret.” Even in full-on stoner mode, Paul is one romantic S.O.B.
Beyonce, “Love Drought”
Anyone looking to make the case for why authorial intent isn’t necessarily the key to understanding a song ought to start with “Love Drought.” When Beyonce’s Lemonade hit the Internet like a tsunami on April 23, fans and critics were quick to speculate about all the ways Bey was opening up about her marital troubles with Jay Z. That’s certainly the vibe she brings to “Love Drought,” but as the song’s lyricist, Ingrid, told Genius, lines like, “Ten times out of nine, I know you’re lying/ But nine times out of 10, I know you’re trying” were actually aimed at Beyonce’s label, Parkwood Entertainment. Showbiz, like marriage, can be tricky business.
Desiigner, “Tiimmy Turner”
On the follow-up to his surprise 2016 chart-topper “Panda,” Brooklyn rapper Desiigner seemingly shouts out Timmy Turner, a character on the Nickelodeon cartoon series The Fairly OddParents.
Except the title reads “Tiimmy,” mirroring the stylized spelling of the MC’s stage name, and as it turns out, that’s no accident. As Desiigner told All Def Digital, this gothy rap-sung banger about a dude coveting an unregistered firearm is autobiographical. “Tiimmy Turner is me,” Desiigner said. “I was referring to myself. I was wishing for a burner.”
Ace of Base, “All That She Wants”
This moody 1993 techno-ska jam can be read a couple of different ways. “All that she wants is another baby,” goes the chorus, warning of either a fast-moving temptress, like Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” lover, or a woman who’s actually trying to get pregnant over and over — perhaps to collect more welfare money, as many listeners initially speculated. Speaking with Billboard in 2015, group founder Jonas Berggren set the record straight: “Baby” means “infant,” not “lover.” This cold-hearted temptress is “going to get you,” but at least she’s not going to scam the government in the process.
Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”
That line about “holding on forever” is no exaggeration. As songwriter and producer Jim Steinman told Playbill, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was originally about vampires falling in love. Before giving the song to Bonnie Tyler — who took the deliciously overcooked power ballad to No. 6 on the Hot 100 in 1983 — Steinman wrote it for a musical version of Nosferatu. “If anyone listens to the lyrics, they’re really like vampire lines,” said Steinman. “It’s all about the darkness, the power of darkness and love’s place in dark.”