Music has to be the thing that moves us most. When it comes just tapping your foot at work or losing it on the dancefloor, the difference is often just a well-written song. It’s easy to get swept up in the beat but how often do you ever sit and really listen to the lyrics? You may be surprised. For something that may be on the radio, some songs have somber sentiments. As they say, “never trust a happy song,” because oftentimes the lyrics betray the upbeat rhythm.
You’ve probably heard these tracks before but you might not listen to them the same way after getting the full story behind these classics.
9. Hotel California – The Eagles
When people think of classic songs with cryptic/creepy lyrics, The Eagles’ “Hotel California” almost always comes to mind. Though the guitars and melody are very slick the song’s lyrics belie the mood with mentions of hedonistic living, ghoulish hotel guests, and a haunting finale of “steely knives” to “kill the beast.”
So there are layers here. At first read, the song lyrics sound like some guy who just checked himself into the Addams Family house and can’t escape. Why? Well, maybe he’s already dead or a ghost, and now haunts the place forever. Some folks have speculated that the song was inspired by the infamous insane asylum, Camarillo State Mental Hospital, which is even featured on The Eagles’ album artwork. This would be a neat fit but the band has since dismissed that theory.
So what’s the metaphor here? In scattered interviews, the band members have hinted that the true meaning of the song is more quaint than the haunting lyrics. “Hotel California” is about hedonism and self-indulgence in American society; two things that were very present in the Golden State circa 1976 when the song was recorded.
“It’s basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about,” Don Henley said in a 2002 interview with 60 Minutes.
8. The Less I Know The Better – Tame Impala
In the realm of indie and alternative music, there is seldom a catchier or groovier beat than this single from the psychedelic artist, Tame Impala. “The Less I Know The Better” struts with this infectious groove and a bass line that urges heads to nod. It’s a song that will get folks to dance, but what most people don’t know is its story of unrequited romance and a messy love triangle.
According to Kevin Parker, the mind behind Tame Impala, the song is about a guy who is in love with a woman who is sleeping with another guy named Trevor. Sounds tame, but Parker’s lyrics really capture that punch in the gut feeling when you see your crush with somebody else.
So goes the chorus of the song:
“She was holding hands with Trevor
Not the greatest feeling ever
Then I heard they slept together
Oh, the less I know the better.”
7. Electric Avenue – Eddy Grant
This electro-80s classic from Briton Eddy Grant has been blasted from stereos worldwide, including here in the States, but many American listeners are probably not aware of its lyrics and sentiment. In the song, Grant delves into racial inequality and the bloody history of Electric Avenue, the first shopping area in Brixton to receive electricity; it was also the spot of violent clashes between police and protestors in 1981.
Though the song jams with a stomping beat, it centers on the life of a poor man walking around Electric Avenue. He sees all the bright lights and products of commerce, but despite working himself to the bone he cannot afford anything in the shopping district, more or less food for his family.
6. Born in The USA – Bruce Springsteen
From across the Atlantic, Bruce Springsteen takes aim at the same social realities as Eddy Grant did but wrapped in the rolling ballad of an American rock & roll classic. Judging by the music, it sounds like the working man was under some hard times during the 80s no matter the country. “Born in the U.S.A.” is no exception.
This fist-pumping American classic tells the dark story of a Vietnam vet abandoned by his country. While many folks foolishly thought it was a patriotic song, “Born in the U.S.A.” casts a shameful eye on the treatment of veterans when they returned home from the war. The truth is, the song is explicitly anti-war and questions the point of wars for a country that turns its back on its own people.
Many veterans sadly gave the conflict their all with little to show for it. For many, like the characters in the song, there were no parades or cheering crowds waiting for them as their fathers experienced, and hardly any help for the wounds of war.
5. Hey Ya! – Outkast
This has to be the bounciest song on this list, no questions asked! For many people in the 2000s, it wasn’t a party without this absolutely energetic, feel-good song. But unfortunately, I’m here to ruin the good vibes with the harsh reality!
There’s little hiding the sadness in this song. All you have to do is listen to the lyrics. Underneath that catchy, addicting beat Andre 3000 sings about how hard relationships are and the limitations of love. As the lyric goes: “Thank God for Mom and Dad, For sticking two together, ‘Cause we don’t know how.”
In fact, Andre originally titled the song “Thank God for Mom and Dad” but instead traded it for the titular chorus. As it turns out, love isn’t nearly as easy as it looks in the movies. But he really puts the nail in the coffin when he sings, “Are we so in denial when we know we’re not happy here?”
Now that is a line that would stop most people dead in their tracks, but when coupled with such an infectious beat, folks can’t help but dance. Somehow OutKast got the whole country grooving to some of the saddest lyrics ever. Amazing.
4. Semi-Charmed Life – Third Eye Blind
90s radio rock wouldn’t have been the same without Third Eye Blind’s hit, “Semi-Charmed Life.” But behind those catchy “doo, doo, doos” of course lies a darker reality. Though the song’s chipper energy suggests bright sunny days, Stephan Jenkins had actually written a song about a man’s rapid descent into addiction and ultimately regret.
This was all by design, however. In interviews, Jenkins said he wanted the song to feel very uppity much like the feeling of being high and never wanting to come down. Unfortunately, life rarely goes that way, and then the crash hits.
When you put it that way, the line “Then I bumped again, then I bumped again” are actually quite literal.
“It’s a song about always wanting something. It’s about never being satisfied and reaching backward to things that you’ve lost and towards things that you can never get,” Jenkins said on HBO’s Reverb. “I think everybody has some identification with that. The storyline between the people, and the demise of this relationship, is just an extreme example of that condition. I think that’s what makes people really relate to ‘Semi-Charmed Life.'”
3. Pumped up Kicks – Foster The People
Another indie earworm turned pop sensation, is Foster The People’s 2010 single “Pumped Up Kicks.” While many songs dabble in sadness or unusual metaphors, the meaning of “Pumped Up Kicks” is quite straightforward, disturbing, and unfortunately relevant.
Behind the reverb-y pop song is the rhetorical tale of a school shooting perpetrated by a loner and social outcast. In the song, Mark Foster laments the story of a kid with a troubled life and little to live for. Though many have said the song was in bad taste, there is technically no violence in the lyrics, rather just the inner monologue of a disturbed individual.
On the songwriting process, Foster said this on Spinner UK: “‘Pumped Up Kicks’ is about a kid that basically is losing his mind and is plotting revenge. He’s an outcast. I feel like the youth in our culture are becoming more and more isolated. It’s kind of an epidemic. Instead of writing about victims and some tragedy, I wanted to get into the killer’s mind, like Truman Capote did in In Cold Blood. I love to write about characters. That’s my style. I really like to get inside the heads of other people and try to walk in their shoes.”
2. Macarena – Los Del Rio
Yes, even the Macarena gets a spot on this list. Nothing is sacred! Not even the song played at your uncle’s wedding! Now we’ll give English speakers the pass because the song is performed in Spanish, but when translated, the song is not so feel-good.
In short, a macarena is a woman who will dance and seduce men to take home, hence the title. Okay, nothing too crazy, until we figure out that the macarena in this song has a boyfriend who has been drafted into the army and while he is away she is doing the deed with two of his friends. Ouch!
Like, that’s literally in the lyrics:
“Macarena has a boyfriend who is named
Who is named with the last name Vitorino
And while he was being sworn in as a conscript
She’s giving it to two friends.”
So if you hear this song at a wedding make sure to remind the good folks there this song is about a lady cheating on her boyfriend. Enjoy!
1. At Least it Was Here – The 88
The 88 is certainly the least well-known artist on this list other than for its song “At Least It Was Here” which was featured the NBC sitcom Community. Now a quick listen of the song and you can tell why they picked the upbeat major-key track for the theme of the show. It’s light, airy, and playful; perfect for a network comedy about some community college misfits. But its the lyrics -oh the lyrics- that will make you do double take.
They go something like this:
“Give me some rope, tie me to dream
Give me the hope to run out of steam
Somebody said it could be here
We could be roped up, tied up, dead in a year.”
Now I am no poet laureatte but songs that rhyme “give me some rope” with “give me the hope” often have a certain word in mind that starts with an “S.” Somehow a pop song about a guy ending it all managed to play every Thursday night on NBC for several years.