Weird History

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. 

  • 'Wake Me Up When September Ends' Is What Billie Joe Armstrong Said After His Father Passed
    Video: YouTube

    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.

  • Don Mclean’s ‘American Pie’ Is Partially About The Plane Crash That Killed Buddy Holly
    Photo: Don McLean / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA 4.0

    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.

  • The Chicks' 'Not Ready To Make Nice’ Was A Response To Backlash After They Spoke Against The Iraq War
    Video: YouTube

    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

  • 'Jump' By Van Halen Originated With A Dark Joke In Response To A News Item
    Video: YouTube

    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.