Usually it is simple to interpret the lyrics of some great songs. Most have no profound meaning and just happen to have an appealing chorus, memorable riff, or easy to learn rhyming verses. However, many familiar songs with distinctive music have hidden meanings, which you may not be aware of, or over the years have misinterpreted. How many songs have you listened to and thought, “What is that song actually about?” Known the meaning of classic or popular song can give it a new sense of understanding and therefore a deeper appreciation. With the following interpretations, the aim is to give the reader a better insight into the true intentions of the artist(s) who wrote and recorded the song.
Boomtown Rats I Don’t Like Mondays
Clash (The) London Calling
Eagles (The) Hotel California
Green Day Wake Me up When September Ends
Killers (The) Human
Lennon, John Imagine
McLean, Don American Pie
OutKast Hey Ya!
Queen Bohemian Rhapsody
REM Losing My Religion
I Don’t Like Mondays Boomtown Rats
Composed by | Bob Geldorf and Johnnie Fingers
The song is about sixteen year old Brenda Ann Spencer who on Monday the 29th January 1979 shot a number of people in the playground at Grover Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, California, from her house across the street.
The Principal Burton Wagg and custodian Mike Suchar were killed while eight children and Robert Robb a Police Officer were injured. Further casualties were avoided only because police blocked her line of fire by driving a garbage truck in front of her house.
Geldorf was astonished by the fact that Spencer showed no remorse and her response to the question “Tell me why you did it?” Answering “I don’t like Mondays. This livens up the day”.
Spencer’s family unsuccessfully attempted to prevent the song’s release in America.
Geldorf admitted some years later that he regretted writing the song because he had made Spencer ‘famous’.
London Calling The Clash
Composed by | Mick Jones and Joe Strummer
The title of the song refers to the BBC World Service, which began its broadcast to occupied countries during World War 2 with the announcement “This is London calling…”
Strummer, who was a news junkie, said that the lyrics reflected the world’s concern following the errors that lead to a partial meltdown of a reactor at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania on 28th March 1979.
The line about ‘London is drowning’ comes from the Mick Jones’ fear that if the River Thames flooded most of central London would be underwater.
Other concerns mentioned in the lyrics are police brutality, casual drug taking, and the struggles of the band in 1979 with major debts, no management, and arguments with their record able as to whether ‘London Calling’ should be a single or double album.
The Morse code at the end of the song, created by Mick Jones on one of his guitar pickups, spells out S-O-S enforcing the message of an emergency.
Hotel California Eagles
Composed by | Glenn Frey, Don Henley, and Don Felder
After Glenn Frey and Don Henley moved to Los Angeles, California, they described California as the best possible hotel and Los Angeles as the most requested suite to stay in.
They added into the lyrics their thoughts that Los Angeles was so full of temptations, and secret snares to corrupt you, that it was difficult to leave. Leaving would mean losing hope and the end of the dream.
Henley also described the lyrics as referring to the self-destruction, greed, and corruption in the music industry, as well as the excesses of overindulgence, materialism, and greed in American society. Henley added that it was also about the uneasy balance between art and commerce.
Wake Me up When September Ends Green Day
Composed by | Billie Joe Armstrong
Most people originally assumed, due to the video that accompanied the song, that it was an anti-war song focusing on heartache, loss, pain, and suffering.
Armstrong explained that in fact it was written in memory of his father, Andrew Armstrong, who died of oesophageal cancer on 1st September 1982 when Armstrong was ten-years old.
After his father’s funeral, Armstrong ran home crying and locked himself in his room. When his mother, Ollie Jackson, got home, she knocked on his door asking if he was alright and he replied, “Wake me up when September ends”.
Armstrong also said that the song is a reference to the terrorist attacks on the 11th September 2001 and is in memory not only of his father but all those who have gone through the pain of losing loved ones. The song was placed as track 11 on the American Idiot album.
Armstrong said that he found the song therapeutic but also very difficult to perform.
Human The Killers
Composed by | Brandon Flowers, Dave Keuning, Mark Stoemer, and Ronnie Vannucci Jr
Flowers said that the lyric ‘are we human, or are we dancer’ was inspired by a derogatory comment made by Hunter S Thompson (an American journalist) who thought that America’s youth were becoming too soft and said that “America was raising a generation of dancers, afraid to take one step out of line”.
Following much confusion, speculation, and criticism of the poor grammatical use of words in the song Flowers stated that, “It’s supposed to be a dance song, it goes with the chorus, and if you can’t put that together then you are an idiot” adding “I just don’t get why there is confusion about it”.
Imagine John Lennon
Composed by | John Lennon and Yoko Ono
Many felt that the lyrics were meant to inspire people to imagine a world at peace, with no borders, or divisions of religion and nationality, with humanity living unattached to material possessions.
Whereas Lennon himself said that the song is “virtually the Communist manifesto, even though I am not particularly a Communist and I do not belong to any movement”.
Once the song became a hit Lennon added that “because it is sugar-coated, it’s accepted. Now I understand what you have to do… put your message across with a little honey”.
Shortly before his death Lennon said that much of the song’s lyrics came from his wife Yoko Ono. In 2017 she was granted a co-writing credit for the song.
American Pie Don McLean
Composed by | Don McLean
The lyric ‘The day the music died’ refers to the death of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP Richardson (known as ‘The Big Bopper’) in a plane crash on the 3rd February 1959. This was a known fact. As to the meaning of the other lyrics, since McLean refused to explain their symbolism, there was much debate and speculation over the decades since the song’s first release in 1971.
Then in 2015, McLean released his songwriting notes, which explained that the overall theme of the song was the loss of innocence of the early rock and roll generation.
There are also references to ‘The King’ (Elvis Presley), ‘The Jester’ (Bob Dylan) and the death in 1969 of Meredith Curly Hunter Junior who was stabbed and thrown of the stage by members of the motorcycle gang the Hells Angels who were acting as security guards at a Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway in California.
McLean said that the lyrics are intentionally ambiguous but are to do with the state of society at the time he wrote them.
Hey Ya! OutKast
Composed by | Andre 3000 (Andre Lauren Benjamin)
Andre 3000 explained that the lyrics are about a couple who are trapped in a disintegrating relationship and only stay together because of tradition and the assumption that they think it is what they are supposed to do, despite becoming more and more miserable and unhappy.
Bohemian Rhapsody Queen
Composed by | Freddie Mercury
Mercury began writing the lyrics in the late 1960’s and only finished them in 1975. As to what the lyrics are about will never be truly known as he refused to divulge their meaning, except to say that they were about relationships.
The rest of the band have never really expanded on the meaning of the lyrics either, having agreed that the core of any lyric “was a private issue for the composer” though Roger Taylor is quoted as saying that the true meaning of the song is “fairly self-explanatory with just a bit of nonsense in the middle”.
Mercury did say that the song although methodically composed was actually a bit of a ‘Rorschach test’.
The Rorschach Inkblot Test is a psychological test using ten different shaped inkblots to record and analyse people’s interpretation and then use the results to examine that person’s personality characteristics and emotional functioning.
Mercury added that the song did not just “come out of thin air, although it was written tongue-in-cheek as a mock opera”.
A DJ on Capital Radio, Kenny Everett, said that Mercury had told him that the lyrics were simply “random rhyming nonsense”.
Losing My Religion REM
Composed by | Bill Berry, Peter Buck, Mike Mills, and Michael Stipe
Stipe has repeatedly stated that the song’s lyrics are not about Religion.
They in fact come from an old Southern (USA) term meaning something so extremely upsetting has happened that results in someone losing their temper or civility, or they become frustrated or desperate, or they are reaching breaking point, and feel that they are “Losing my religion”.
He added that he had used this metaphor for a different type of faith… unrequited love, unreciprocated feelings, someone who pines for someone else.
Resources and Comment
Apart from an individual artist or group, radio stations, newspapers, and magazines own websites, there are also many specialised websites that offer explanations as to the background and meaning of songs and their lyrics.
If you have a favourite song that you would like to know the meaning of the lyrics please let me know.
© 2020 Brian OldWolf
Brian OldWolf (author) from Troon on July 24, 2020:
Liz Westwood from UK on July 24, 2020:
I have learnt a lot from this article. I realise now that I have been getting an incorrect interpretation from some of these songs.