Some songs are basically completely impossible to misunderstand. For example, I defy anyone to reinterpret 2 Live Crew’s Face Down Ass Up as a detailed satire on US foreign policy. Dude, it’s about banging. Same goes for the QOTSA classic Feel Good Hit of the Summer (total lyrics: Nicotine, valium, vicadin, marijuana, ecstasy, and alcohol. Cocaine.) Nice n’ simple, everyone knows where they are, and no one’s in danger of making some horrendous karaoke faux pas when their 8 year old nephews present. But some stuff, it just sneaks under the radar. You think you know what’s going on, but dammit, you’re just wrong. Whilst researching this article, I came across at least one surprise, so all I can suggest is that next time you’re singing along to a catchy chorus, I would suggest you LISTEN TO THE VERSE. It’s where those pesky pop stars hide the juicy bits. Prepare to have your mind (kinda) BLOWN ...
10. Chumbawamba – (Tubthumping) I Get Knocked Down
This article was inspired by hearing this song being used on a UK insurance advert. When Chumbawamba had their one hit with this slice of vaguely irritating terrace chant pop, most people buying it, and belting it out in pubs across the land, had little idea about the bands history as a radical anarchist collective devoted to attacking the morals and hypocrisy they saw in modern life. It seems that the people behind the insurance advert still haven’t caught on, so I’m going to spell it out. THIS IS NOT A HAPPY SONG. It’s a song about alcoholism, hollow bravado, and misery. The big dumb chorus of ‘I get knocked down, and I get up again, you ain’t never gonna keep me down’ is.. wait for it… ironic. The big clues in the next line: ‘Pissing the night away’. For further listening you can try out their first album, released at the height of Live Aid fever and entertainingly titled Starvation, Charity & Rock n Roll; Pictures of Starving Children Sell Records.
9. Outhere Brothers – Wiggle Wiggle
So this wasn’t so much misunderstood as mis-sold – in the mid 90s The Outhere Bros took over the UK charts with their kiddie friendly rave rap chant alongs. Infectious, hooky and fun, what hyper active kid wouldn’t want to neck 6 cans of Coke and go bananas to a tune who’s words consisted of ‘wiggle wiggle’. Except when you bought the single, as literally hundreds of thousands of children did, you discovered that the track had a bit more too it. Y’see, the version that got played on the radio was a specially made clean edit. No one bothered editing the other versions on the single, and horrified parents discovered just what it was the Brothers were wiggling as they jauntily rapped in praise of anal sex, pussy munching and rimming.
7. The Cure – Killing An Arab
The Cure were always asking for trouble with this one. Granted, Killing An Arab may well be based on the powerful conclusion of Albert Camus’ classic novel of alienation L'Étranger, but, if you’re a late 70s skinhead mug who don’t read much in the way of poncy French authors; its called Killing An Arab, so it’s about, y’know, killing Arabs. The Cure found themselves playing gigs to a unique mix of smeared lipstick sporting misery Goths and insanely violent National Front nutters. A match made in heaven, we’re sure you’ll agree. Nowadays the band have given in on educating and have just changed the song’s lyrics to the harder to misconstrue (at least in a way that pleases yer average EDL man) Kissing An Arab.
6. Mr Vegas – Heads High
Mr Vegas’s poppy dancehall hit has become a student party classic. If you’re ‘fortunate’ enough to find yourself at a fresher party , watch some gangly teenage freak hit it up on Spotify, then ‘hilariously‘ try to dagger the nearest drunk girl. But you can bet your bottom dollar that that same gangly student has little to no idea that the song is actually a prudish diatribe against women giving blow jobs. That’s right, Mr Vegas hates girls giving blow jobs, so much so that he made a pop song about it. Is it us, or is that a bit weird? A little bit?
5. Diana Ross – Im Coming Out
Diana Ross must be the only person on Earth who didn’t get what a camp disco song called I’m Coming Out might have been about. To be fair she had her suspicions, but song writer Nile Rodgers admitted recently that he blatantly bamboozled her:
“After we approached Diana with the song, she was concerned that people were going to think that she was gay. I’ve never lied to an artist anytime except this time. I looked Diana in the face and said, ‘Are you kidding me? Who’s going to think that? No, this is your ‘coming out’ song,.” Ross at the time was recording her last album for Motown and “coming out” from under the shadow of its owner, Berry Gordy.”
4. Richard Ashcroft - The Drugs Don’t Work
OK, Im guilty of this as well- I genuinely thought this song was about horrible come downs and drugs just not being like the good ol’ days. Had I ever pulled my head out of my arse long enough to listen to the verses properly on Ashcroft’s downbeat classic I would have realised that it was actually about the slow and painful death of the singers father. So not about being a rock n roller then. In any way. Is there a shame faced emoticon I can use at this point?
3. Crass – Our Wedding
Most times songs aren’t misunderstood on purpose (except in the case of Nile and Diana above) but 80s anarcho punks Crass went out of their way to con teenage magazine Loving. The fiercely anti patriarchal, anti-marriage band had recorded a pastiche of schmaltzy love songs to tack on the end of their raging punk classic Penis Envy. Titling it Our Wedding, the band were so pleased with the results that they decided to convince some sucker teen magazine to give it away as a freebie to loyal readers. Enter Loving magazine, who were convinced the song was performed by the ‘Creative Recording And Sound Services’, and a genuine eulogy to the joys of marriage. It was only after they’d given away hundreds of copies of the single that the mag copped on, leaving it’s editor incandescent with rage, branding the band ‘sick’ whilst tabloids frothed that they were ‘obscene’. Crass lead prankster Penny Rimbaud responded that Loving itself was “absolutely obscene and despicable. They exploit people in an aggressive and unpleasant manner... the people who promote and produce the paper [are] emotional charlatans. The way they trivialise love and relationships is scandalous – it’s teenage pornography.”
2. The Police- Every Breathe You Take
A classic of misunderstanding, this time almost entirely attributable to one legendary man: Puff Daddy. After the murder of Biggie Smalls, the Didster wanted to record a tribute, and what better song to mutilate than Sting’s heartfelt tale of loss and love Every Breathe You Take. Except of course, Every Breathe You Take is actually written from the view point of a psycho stalker planning to give his ex the full Richard Ramirez. Do you think Puffy gives a shit? Platinum sales and 16 number #1s worldwide suggest probably not.
1. Bruce Springsteen – Born in the USA
The King of misunderstood songs. We wouldn’t even include it, but dammit, American maniacs just keep on pretending that it’s a song praising the States. You probably know by now that the Boss’s most famous number is a serious, heart rending, and searing indictment on a military aggressive America that does nothing for returning war vets, but that fist pumping chorus just keeps people coming back. Just this year the song was wheeled out to celebrate the US winning Gold in the Olympic Basketball event, bizarrely soundtracking their victory with lines such as “so they put a rifle in my hands, // sent me off to a foreign land, //to go and kill the yellow man." Slamdunk!