Most of us have had the experience of nodding along to a song and mouthing the words (or some semblance of them) without actually listening to what we're saying. Often the tracks with the most upbeat, feel-good sound mask a deeper, darker, deeper meaning. Whether it's illicit substances, bitter breakups, or straight-up homicide, the meanings and lyrics of these songs give off vibes very different from the music.
While some of these tunes struck a bigger chord than others, they definitely went over our heads the first time (or first hundred times) we heard them. From classic lullabies to disco fever to 1990s pop, vote up the songs that hit differently once you know what they mean.
The Bee Gees hit "Stayin' Alive" brings to mind disco balls and John Travolta in a white three-piece suit. The band wrote the song for the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, but that didn't mean it was all fluff.
Band member Robin Gibb explained, "The subject matter of 'Stayin' Alive' is actually quite a serious one; it's about survival in the streets of New York."
Barry Gibb elaborated on the idea:
People crying out for help. Desperate songs. Those are the ones that become giants. The minute you capture that on record, it's gold. "Stayin' Alive" is the epitome of that.
Everybody struggles against the world, fighting all the bullsh*t and things that can drag you down. And it really is a victory just to survive.
This everyday despair is perhaps captured best in the lyrics of the bridge:
Life goin' nowhere, somebody help me
Somebody help me, yeah
Life goin' nowhere, somebody help me, yeah
I'm stayin' alive
Despite decades of dance floors being torn up when Outkast's "Hey Ya!" comes on, the lyrics paint a much less happy picture. Once fans stopped shaking like a Polaroid picture, they heard what sounded like an exploration into a loveless, unhappy relationship.
While the start of the song says:
Thank God for Mom and Dad
For sticking two together
Like we don't know how
The second verse continues:
Nothing lasts forever...
Then what makes love the exception
So why, oh why, oh....
Are we still in denial when we know we're not happy here
The song seems to reference the ignored deeper meaning, as Andre 3000 says in the bridge, "Ya'll don't want to hear me; you just want to dance."
Outkast also addressed the song's hidden melancholy in a meme on Twitter that classified the song as one small fraction "a bop" but mostly "the saddest song ever written."
The simple and catchy lyrics of "Go Your Own Way" make it easy to sing along to without giving it much thought. But, like many of the songs on Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, it's actually about a bitter and ugly breakup.
Lindsey Buckingham, who wrote the song, used it to express his sentiments toward his bandmate and longtime romantic partner Stevie Nicks, after things ended between them in 1976. However, the two still had to continue working together. Buckingham recalled, "I was completely devastated when she took off... And yet I had to make hits for her. I had to do a lot of things for her that I really didn’t want to do."
Nicks took offense to the song, explaining, “It was certainly a message within a song. And not a very nice one at that." She particularly disliked the following lyrics:
Is all you want to do
Nicks thought the line insinuated she'd "shacked up" with other people during the relationship, which she denied. She tried to get Buckingham to remove the line, but to no avail. Still, Nicks got to tell her side of the story on the same album with the song "Dreams," with the famously quoted lyric: "Players only love you when they're playing."
Like many 1980s songs, "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" tends to get stuck in your head and stay there. But you might not realize when you're singing it for days on end that the lyrics aren't as lighthearted as they seem.
As Tears for Fears band member Curt Smith put it, "The concept is quite serious - it’s about everybody wanting power, about warfare and the misery it causes." Written in 1985, the song encapsulates Cold War anxieties and seems to speak not only of ongoing power struggles but of a 1984-esque world of oppression:
Welcome to your life
There's no turning back
Even while we sleep
We will find you
Acting on your best behavior
Turn your back on Mother Nature
Everybody wants to rule the world...
Help me make the
Most of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever...
It's no wonder the song has been used as a soundtrack for fictional dystopias such as The Hunger Games and Mr. Robot. An early version actually ended the chorus with "Everybody wants to go to war" but the band decided against it.
You can't help but move your head (or at least tap your foot) to the beat of Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue." But the song was meant to move people in a different way; it was intended as a wake-up call.
I had been talking to politicians and people at a high level about the lack of opportunity for Black people, and I knew what was brewing... I knew that when people felt they were being left behind, there was potential for violence.
The song's music video was filmed in Barbados, although it was made to look like a street in Brixton. The verses also hint at its more serious subject matter:
Now in the street there is violence
And and a lots of work to be done...
Who is to blame in one country
Never can get to the one
Dealin' in multiplication
And they still can't feed everyone
Play "Mr. Brightside" to a group of a certain generation, and you'll get every memorized lyric shouted back in your face. It's no secret that the song deals with infidelity, and "jealousy" is one of the few words in the chorus that's easy to make out. But the song, which was actually the band's first, was inspired by the real life of lead singer and keyboardist Brandon Flowers.
Flowers told Q Magazine that he learned his girlfriend was cheating on him after running into her at a bar in Las Vegas. "I was asleep and I knew something was wrong... I have these instincts. I went to the Crown and Anchor and my girlfriend was there with another guy."
Around the same time, in 2001, Flowers met guitarist Dave Keuning and they formed The Killers. Keuning had written some of the track already, and Flowers added in the lyrics, which, despite their place in the cultural zeitgeist, cut pretty deep:
Now they're going to bed, and my stomach is sick
And it's all in my head, but she's touching his ____
Chest now, he takes off her
Dress now, let me go
'Cause I just can't look, it's killing me...
Jealousy, turning saints into the sea
Swimming through sick lullabies, choking on your alibis
As Flowers joked to Rolling Stone: "Who would have thought betrayal would sound so good?"