10 Songs You’ve Probably Been Hearing All Wrong
The surprising real meanings behind once-ubiquitous hits.
“Roxanne was a hooker?!”
When I broke the news about the anti-heroine of The Police’s 1978 debut hit, my friend was shocked. She’d never even considered that Roxanne might have had such a questionable night job.
Although I’d always thought Roxy’s lady-of-the-evening leanings were fairly obvious, my friend’s reaction got me thinking: How much do we actually know about the songs we love? Sometimes we miss their meanings entirely, either intentionally or unintentionally flubbing the lyrics (I still insist that the line in Lauryn Hill’s “Lost Ones” should be “Hypocrites always want to play in quicksand”), assuming they’re about something they’re not, or ignoring them completely.
Today, we’re here to clear up some possible lyrical misconceptions. Hopefully, a dose of hard, harsh reality won’t spoil anyone’s future enjoyment of these songs.
“Baby Baby” Amy Grant
If perfect romantic love exists, gospel-turned-pop star Grant wasn’t singing its praises in her 1991 number-one hit. I don’t know what the state of her marriage to then-husband Gary Chapman was when she co-wrote it, but here, she was singing about a completely different “baby baby.”
Although she lip-syncs to a hunky guy (again, not Chapman) in the song’s rom-com-ready video and there’s no infant in sight, Grant’s “Baby Baby" lyrics were inspired by her own: daughter Millie, who was born in 1989.
Giveaway lyric: “No muscle man could sever/My love for you is true and it will never”
“Cloud Nine” The Temptations
Songwriters Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield insisted their composition that became a 1969 Temptations hit wasn’t set anywhere in the mind-bent vicinity of The Byrds’ “Eight Miles High.” Yeah. Right. That didn’t stop Gladys Knight and the Pips from turning it down flat — you know, just in case.
Giveaway lyric: “(Reality) I’m gonna sail (up, up) higher (up, up… up, up and away)”
“‘Heroes’” David Bowie
Years ago, when I heard that two of my friends had used Bowie’s 1977 non-hit classic as their wedding song, I thought, What an amazing idea! Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who had no clue what the song is really about. Had the bride and groom known, they might have opted for something describing a slightly less tainted, more conventional love, like Bowie’s “Be My Wife” (a 1977 single from Low).
In a 2011 lecture, Tony Visconti, the song’s producer, risked letting down event planners around the world (though he apparently didn’t deter the ones responsible for the playlist at the 2012 Summer Olympics opening ceremony) by explaining the one true meaning of “‘Heroes’”: “They use it for every heroic event, although it’s a song about alcoholics.” (Fun fact: Those quotations marks within the title — Did you ever even notice them in the track listing? — were meant to underscore the irony of the song.)
Giveaway lyric: “And you/You can be mean/And I/I’ll drink all the time”
“Killing Me Softly with His Song” Roberta Flack
It’s every bit as romantic sounding as either of Flack’s other two chart-toppers — “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” and “Feel Like Makin’ Love” — but it’s not exactly a love song. Its writers, Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, were inspired by folk singer-songwriter Lori Leiberman’s reaction to a Don McLean concert at the Troubadour in L.A. in the early ’70s.
Leiberman’s 1972 original recording of the song is perfectly passable, but it doesn’t quite do what Flack’s cover did the following year (and neither, frankly, did Fugees’ hit remake more than two decades later). In the most iconic recording of the song, Flack slayed as softly as the serenade she was saluting.
Giveaway lyric: “I heard he sang a good song/I heard he had a style/And so I came to see him/To listen for a while”
“Mellow Yellow” Donovan
Drugs or sex? The 1966 number-two single’s reference to an “electrical banana” led some to believe that one could get stoned by smoking the fruit’s peels (How would that even be possible?), but Donovan himself has said that the phrase refers to a vibrator, which actually might be even more scandalous.
Giveaway lyric: “Electrical banana/Is gonna be a sudden craze/Electrical banana/Is bound to be the very next phase”
“Miracle” Whitney Houston
This one is not about the miracle of love — not quite. It’s about the miracle of life … particularly, an unborn child’s. When I interviewed him in 1995 for People magazine, Babyface, the author of Houston’s 1991 I’m Your Baby Tonight single, told me he was inspired by the experiences of a friend who’d lost an unborn child and another who was contemplating terminating an unplanned pregnancy.
Though his composition was clearly on the pro-life side of the perennial abortion debate, Houston, who feared alienating her pro-choice fans with such polemic musical politics, took the middle ground in her vocal and mental interpretation. She pretended it was about the miracle of life and love and went all the way to number nine on Billboard’s Hot 100, pleasing everyone and offending no-one.
Giveaway lyric: “Nothing should matter/Not when love grows inside you/The choice is yours”
“Orinoco Flow” Enya
The title of Enya’s musical travelogue — a surprise 1988 top 30 U.S. hit — very well could have been referring to a river running through Venezuela and Colombia, but did you know it was recorded at Orinoco Studios in London (where Oasis and Chemical Brothers albums, among plenty of others, were mixed in the ’90s)? Kind of robs the song of some of its mystique, doesn’t it?
Giveaway lyric: “Turn it up, turn it up, turn it up, up I do”
“Pumped Up Kicks” Foster The People
Yeah, it’s about cool running shoes, which (and here’s the gruesome twist) others will have to use to escape the protagonist if he gives in to his homicidal thoughts. In the wake of all the gun violence around the U.S. over the last few decades, it’s hard to believe that this jaunty, catchy song became one of the major pop hits of 2011 (a year that bought us several films about troubled youths committing mass murders, including We Need to Talk About Kevin and Beautiful Boy) without inciting barely a peep of controversy over its lyrical content. Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” which covered similar topical terrain, at least also sounded tortured.
Giveaway lyric: “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks/You better run, better run, outrun my gun/All the other kids with the pumped up kicks/You better run, better run faster than my bullet”
“The Reflex” Duran Duran
Though I don’t believe it’s been confirmed by the writers of Duran Duran’s 1984 second number-one hit (the band itself and Nile Rodgers), if one school of thought is indeed correct, “the reflex” is a spiritual successor to Chuck Berry’s only number-one single, 1972’s “My Ding-a-Ling.” It refers to what would have been the tool of the trade of the protagonist in the song below if she had been a guy who just wanted to have fun.
Giveaway lyric: “The reflex is in charge of finding treasure in the dark”
“She Bop” Cyndi Lauper
And she was another girl who just wanted to have fun, but in Lauper’s 1984 ode to onanism, it was strictly a party of one.
Giveaway lyric: “They say I better stop — or I’ll go blind”