The Dark True Stories That Inspired 14 Famous Songs
Every song has a backstory. Some stories are happy, some sad, and others are something in between. The emotions that certain songs evoke are often what keep people replaying them. The songs that stick at the top of the charts tend to be the ones that really manage to touch our emotions and stay with us long after we're done listening.
While some songs are very obviously tragic, some are deceptively upbeat. We might be caught off guard when a song that we've been singing along to for years turns out to have a very different meaning than we thought. While the songs on this list have been popular for decades, many are unaware of the true story behind their lyrics. Read on to find out the not-so-happy backstories on some of the most popular and beloved songs of all time.
Upon reviewing Green Day’s album American Idiot, the general theme that comes through is that the band is telling people not to conform nor to become an “American idiot.” However, there is one song on the album that doesn’t really fit into this theme. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” was written by Billy Joe Armstrong about his father’s death. Armstrong's father passed from cancer in September 1982. Ten-year-old Armstrong allegedly shut himself in his room and told his mother: “Wake me up when September ends.”
The song was originally supposed to be featured on the album Shenanigans but Armstrong wasn’t ready to record such an emotional and personal song at the time. Speaking to Howard Stern about it, Armstrong said:
I think it’s something that just stayed with me; the month of September being that anniversary that always is just, I don’t know, kind of a bummer. But it’s weird: when things happen like that when you’re that young, it’s almost like life starts at year zero, or something like that…
I think about him every day, really. I kinda avoided writing about him for many years, and then finally having a breakthrough like that felt good. It wasn’t like a negative emotion so much, but it was just kind of like honouring him.
Many fans, who might not be aware of the song's serious subject matter, have turned it into an annual social media joke, alerting Armstrong when September is ending. Armstrong seemed to have a sense of humor about it, telling Vulture:
It's like when Jesus was born on December 25 people go "Hey, it's Christmas time"… When the Easter bunny comes it's like “Hey, it's Easter,” or when September comes people go “Hey, it's that guy in Green Day”… Have fun, but get a life at the same time.
- Photo: Don McLean / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0
Don Mclean’s ‘American Pie’ Is Partially About The Plane Crash That Killed Buddy Holly
The meanings and references within Don McLean's eight-minute classic, “American Pie,” continue to be a source of speculation and debate, decades after its release. McLean, who has been famously tight-lipped on the song's meaning, joked, “It means I never have to work again.”
While many of the lyrics remain ambiguous, most consider the song to be a journey from the idealistic innocence of the 1950s, through the challenges of the ‘60s to the disillusionment of the ’70s. While many subjects are touched upon during the song, McLean has confirmed that the first verse refers to the passing of musician Buddy Holly:
But February made me shiver
With every paper I'd deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn't take one more step
I can't remember if I cried
When I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died
The plane crash that killed Holly on February 3, 1959, seemed to mark the end of an era for McLean (who actually was a paperboy). But while the beginning of the song is about Holly, McLean has stated that he's only one piece of the story:
The fact that Buddy Holly seems to be the primary thing that people talk about when they talk about “American Pie” is kind of sad. But fine with me… Because only the beginning is about Buddy Holly, and the rest of it goes on and talks about America and politics and the country, and trying to catch some kind of a special feeling that I had about my country, especially in 1970 and '71, when it was very turbulent.
The song is believed to reference many other historical figures, particularly artists who stepped in to fill Holly's musical shoes, so to speak. “The jester," who is referenced several times, is widely believed to be Bob Dylan; the line “And moss grows fat on a rollin' stone” is also thought to be a Dylan dig. “The king” (from whom the jester steals a crown) is often considered to be Elvis Presley, and some theorize that “Satan” refers to Mick Jagger.
In 2003, many people in the US labeled the Chicks (then known as the Dixie Chicks) traitors and sent them death threats. The harsh backlash occurred after the band criticized then-President George W. Bush for his actions regarding Iraq. During a concert, singer Natalie Maines told the audience:
Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.
Maines's comment regarding the commander-in-chief struck quite a nerve, particularly with country music fans. Radio stations stopped playing their music and the group was boycotted, harassed, and threatened. Toby Keith, whose song “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (Angry American)” had previously been criticized by Maines, hung doctored photos of Maines with Saddam Hussein at his concerts. President Bush responded that “The Dixie Chicks are free to speak their mind. They can say what they want to say,” while also adding, “They shouldn’t have their feelings hurt just because some people don’t want to buy their records when they speak out.”
Despite the controversy, the Chicks didn't back down, and instead wrote the song “Not Ready To Make Nice” in response. Their lyrics made it clear that they were going to stand their ground, while the bridge references the threats they received:
I made my bed and I sleep like a baby
With no regrets and I don't mind sayin'
It's a sad, sad story when a mother will teach her
Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger
And how in the world can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they'd write me a letter, sayin' that I better
Shut up and sing or my life will be over
Known for their lively stage presence, Van Halen's equally lively song “Jump” was immensely popular in 1984, reaching the number one spot the week it was released. But despite the upbeat synthesizer, the song actually has a pretty bleak origin story.
Lead singer Dave Lee Roth reportedly wrote the lyrics based on a news report he'd seen about a suicidal man threatening to jump to his death. As the story goes, Roth was driving around the Los Angeles canyons with his roadie Larry Hostler, trying to find lyrics for the tune, when he joked about the news story. Roth said that there must be at least one onlooker who'd just tell the guy to “go ahead and jump," prompting the jumper to think, “Yeah, might as well jump."
Despite the backstory, the completed song ended up having a more positive and life-affirming intention.
Alanis Morrisette Really Did Bug Dave Coulier In The Middle Of Dinner As Stated In 'You Oughta Know'
Alanis Morissette's “You Oughta Know'' reached number one in the US when it was released in 1995 and has continued to act as a go-to bitter breakup anthem in the years since. With intimate lyrics (like the one questioning if her ex's new flame would “go down on you in a theater?”) fans have long speculated about the song's subject. The most popular theory? That it's about actor Dave Coulier, best known for playing Uncle Joey on Full House.
Coulier and Morissette dated in 1992, and Coulier has stated that the lyric “I hate to bug you in the middle of dinner” sounded all too familiar. He recalled to HuffPost Live an instance after their break-up:
She called, and I said, “Hey, I'm right in the middle of dinner, can I just call you right back?”… I remember that line when I heard “You Oughta Know,” and I just went...it was like, “Uh-oh.”
Despite this comment, Coulier has admitted that he's not entirely sure whether the song is really about him; in fact, he hopes it's not: “[T]he guy in that song is a real a--hole, so I don't want to be that guy.”
Morissette has never confirmed or denied whether the song is about Coulier. She has, however, expressed a similar sentiment that despite “six people who've taken credit for it,” being the song's subject isn't really a compliment:
I am intrigued at the thought—or at the fact—that more than one person has taken credit for it. I'm thinking, I don't know if you want to take credit for being the person I wrote “You Oughta Know” about…
I just think: If you're going to take credit for a song where I'm singing about someone being a douche or an a--hole, you might not want to say, “Hey! That's me!”
Whomever the song is really about, the gut-wrenching pain behind the lyrics is clear and is perhaps what makes people connect so much with the song. As Morissette told Andy Cohen:
For women sometimes, we're told we can't be angry; we can't be sad and we can't be…17 other feelings. You can't be anything. So just sublimate it all. Just squish it all down… But I think I was really just devastated when I wrote that and it's a lot easier to siphon that through anger sometimes.
The Sisters Of Heart Wrote ‘Barracuda’ After Someone From Their Record Label Made An Offensive Remark About Them
Heart’s “Barracuda” was a song born out of a need for revenge. Sisters and bandmates Ann and Nancy Wilson were inspired to pen the hit after an insulting exchange with someone they met in the industry. Wilson recalled:
There was this one sleazy guy at a record company or promoter — I can’t even remember where from, exactly. You know that type; there’s a lot of those kinds of guys in this business. And he was like, because of our [Dreamboat Annie] album cover where we had bare shoulders touching … “So, Ann, how’s your lover?” And she goes, “Oh, yeah, Mike’s great!” And he goes, “No, no, I mean your sister, haha!” So, the insinuation that we were lovers was, of course, not anywhere near true and really sleazy and inappropriate.
We were just young enough, just idealistic enough to take it pretty badly and have a lot of anger around it, insult around it. So Ann went and fired off those words and we finished it maybe that night or the next day.
While the song may have been inspired by one person, Wilson said it became a more universal theme, since everyone has met a “barracuda” at some point in their lives.