12 songs that don’t mean what you think they do

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12 songs that don’t mean what you think they do

Bonnie Tyler
Words by Christie Eliezer

Screaming the lyrics to your favourite songs on roadtrips, concerts and clubs is good and all... until you realise what you're singing.

In 1968, Bruce Springsteen avoided being conscripted to go and fight in the Vietnam War by pretending to the selection board he was gay and tripping on acid.

As it turned out they let him go anyway because of the impact of a motorbike accident the year before.

But he always wondered about the person who would have gone in his place.

Songs with meaning


Years later when he started to write a song about the demons haunting the returned Vietnam vets, he titled it  “Vietnam”.

A film script sitting on his writing desk sent to him by film maker Paul Schrader called Born In The U.S.A. caught his eye, and he changed his song’s title.

He spent the next decades stopping opportunistic politicians from using it at rallies thunder-doming about the greatness of America and its people.

Signature Tune

Similarly, when Colin Hay wrote Men At Work’s signature tune “Down Under”, the chorus was about “the plundering of the country by greedy people, the loss of spirit in Australia.”

But with enough colourful characters in the song, it became an anthem about flag waving instead.

They’re not the only rock songs to be misunderstood. Here are 12 more songs with meaning that aren’t so obvious.

Read all the latest features, columns and more here.


Your Thought:

A great song popular at school reunions and proms because of lines like “The people that you grew up and braved the trials of high school with will always hold a special place” and sold 5 million copies.

The Twist:

Billy Jo Armstrong was bitter that his girlfriend Amanda moved to Eucador.

The song title includes “Good Riddance”, sometimes as the main one, sometimes as the subtitle.

Tell Tale Lines:

“So make the best of this test, and don’t ask why

It’s not a question, but a lesson learned in time.”


You Thought:

Lady Gaga initially explained she used a reference to a poker game called Texas Hold Em to denote “I wanna hold that guy, I wanna be close to them.”

With such cutie sentiments, little wonder it sold 14 million copies to star-struck lovers and went to #1 in a number of countries including Australia.

The Twist:

At a concert Gaga changed the goal posts by telling the audience it was actually about her bisexuality, explaining “Poker Face” is one of those songs with meaning, and that she was thinking about a woman while bump-uglying a guy.

Tell Tale Line: 

“No he can’t read my poker face, she’s got me like nobody.”


What You Think:

Supa-dupa love song which is popular at weddings, additionally because of its foot stomping and whistling elements.

The Twist:

Singer Bernard Fanning, who wrote the lyrics, is bemused by its wedding cake status.

Referencing Powderfinger’s hard touring schedule, he admitted, “It’s a sad story of touring and the absence loneliness that comes with it.”

Tell Tale Lines:

“It seems an age since I’ve seen you

Countdown as the weeks trickle into days

I hope that time hasn’t changed you

All I really want is for you to stay.”


What You Think:

A sunny upbeat song written in 10 minutes in Sydney officially by Grant McLennan about Australian innocence, accentuated with a music video withy shots of brick veneer houses, tin-clad shops, clock towers and shots of the band looking happy.

The Twist:

Domestic violence.

Tell Tale Lines: 

“Don’t the sun look good today but the rain is on its way, watch the butcher shine his knives, and this town is full of battered wives”.


What You Think:

Reggae singers Marcia Griffiths and Bunny Wailer created “Electric Boogie” first in 1983 from a newly-acquired rhythm box with different sounds and beats.

It inspired a inter-generational dance, with teenagers line-dancing with their grandmothers, first in Jamaica and then through the world, with steps based on Michael Jackson choreography.

Today it’s inevitably pulled out at any social function in reggae and family circles.

The Twist:

Griffith angrily denies it but the story goes that Bunny wrote the song after his girlfriend got an Electric Slide vibrator and told him she didn’t need him any more.

Tell Tale Lines:

“You can’t see it (it’s electric!)

You gotta feel it (it’s electric!)

Ooh, it’s shakin’ (it’s electric!)


She’s a pumpin’ like a matic

She’s a movin’ like electric”.


What You Think:

Madonna took to this as soon she heard the demo to “Like A Virgin” because it was a hook-filled synth-dance number and it was sexually provocative which fitted in with her image.

It sold six million copies, with interpretations ranging from “saving” one’s self until the right person, to embracing people’s sexual independence.

The Twist:

The song was written by two men, and its lyricist Billy Steinberg told the LA Times the song was never intended to be sung by a woman.

It was about how after each romantic break up, he would approach the next encounter fresh and with no emotional baggage of being hurt… like a virgin.

He explained: “But I’m starting a new relationship and it just feels so good, it’s healing all the wounds and making me feel like I’ve never done this before, because it’s so much deeper and more profound than anything I’ve ever felt.”


What You Think:

The piano-pounding Little Richard was one of the original 1950s rockers, colourful and outrageous beyond belief, with his signature “oooh”. 

“Tutti Frutti” was the 22-year old’s his first hit, with “dumb” lyrics overlaid with a pulsating rock and roll beat, with mischievously sexy lyrics like “Tutti frutti, aw rooty” (“rooty” was ‘50s slang for “alright”).

 His affairs with experienced women who went by the names of Sue and Daisy was punched home with the infectious singalong line “a-wop-bop-a-loo-bop, a-lop-bam-boom!”

The Twist:

It was about anal sex, and none of the straight white men who recorded it, danced to it, played it and sang along to it, realised that.

Little Richard was gay, and it was no coincidence that he slyly chose the song title, after a fruit salad sold in supermarkets, as “fruit” was an American put-down of a homosexual man.

Tell Tale Lines:

“Tutti Frutti, good booty / If it don’t fit, don’t force it / You can grease it, make it easy.”


What You Think:

British rock band The Las came up with this experimental pop song that had no verses, just a single chorus repeated four times and a bridge.

It was a great indie anthem about a girl, and Noel Gallagher and Eric Clapton were among its fans.

The Twist:

It was about heroin, but the band always denied it.

When asked about it in 1995, bassist John Power said: “I don’t know. Truth is, I don’t wanna know.”

Tell Tale Lines:

“There she goes again… racing through my brain… pulsing through my vein… no one else can heal my pain”.


What You Think:

A love letter by Whitlams leader Tim Freedman to his hometown Sydney, punching in “You gotta love this city, love this city, you gotta love it, love it” through the eyes of a lad walking the streets at night.

The Twist:

The lad has actually lost his girlfriend, job and self-respect, turning to the bottle, as Sydney gets ready to host the 2000 Olympics in a cloud of hyped vacuity.

Tell Tale Lines:

“Then it dawns on him as a cracker explodes/And who the hell is he going to blame?/It dawns on him — the horror — we got the Olympic Games”.


What You Think:

The happy upbeat Grammy-nominated breakthrough single for US indie band Foster The People could be perceived as being about shoes.

The Twist:

The song is written from the perspective of a deranged teenager plotting to shoot his school mates, with the reference to shoes being that his victims should “better run, better run, faster than my bullet.”


What You Think:

A cracking power ballad delivered by deep-voiced Welsh singer Bonnie Tyler, whose take on the song was, as she told Juke, “Someone who wants to love so badly she’s lying there in complete darkness” helped make it a worldwide #1 (including Australia) and shift 6 million copies.

It was written by Jim Steinman, the man behind the melodramatics of Meat Loaf, initially cut from seven minutes to 4 minutes 30 seconds for radio.

The Twist:

It’s a vampire love song from Steinman’s musical adaption of the 1922 version of Dracula, called Nosferatu, with its original title “Vampires In Love.” 

Tell Tale Lines:

Steinman revealed, “If anyone listens to the lyrics, they’re really like vampire lines. 

“It’s all about the darkness, the power of darkness and love’s place in the dark…”


What You Think:

The global success of The Knack’s “My Sharona” (#1 in Australia) lay in the fact it was a return to exhilarating guitar-rock, and a coyly lustful song written in 15 minutes about singer Doug Fieger’s high school sweetheart Sharona Alperin.

Fieger said: “It was like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat; I fell in love with her instantly.”

The Twist:

It was actually lusting after an under-age girl, with Alperin aged 16 when they stated dating and he was 22.

Tell Tale Lines:

“Such a dirty mind, always get it up

For the touch of the younger kind…

When you gonna give it to me

Give it to me

 It’s just a matter of time Sharona.”

Keep reading about “Total Eclipse of the Heart” here.