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VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Sean Newman
The true meaning behind these iconic tracks will shock you! For this list we'll be examining songs that have a widely accepted perceived meaning that differs from the song's actual meaning. Our countdown includes “Poker Face”, "Imagine", “Hallelujah”, "Summer of '69”, “Born in the U.S.A.”, and more!

#20: “Poker Face” (2008)

Lady Gaga With lyrics like “bluffin with my muffin,” “Poker Face” is obviously an x-rated track right? That’s also pretty much how Lady Gaga described it to Rolling Stone in 2009, but maybe she wanted to keep the personal backstory to this song a secret for a little while. On the surface, it’s also clear that “can’t read my poker face” could refer to the early moments of any romantic encounter, when you’re trying to suss out what your potential suitor is thinking. But aside from that, it’s actually a song that deals with Lady Gaga’s personal experiences with bisexuality. She found herself fantasizing about a woman while getting intimate with a man, requiring her to mask her true feelings. Or wear a poker face, as it were.

#19: “Possession” (1993)

Sarah McLachlan If you’re under the assumption that Possession is a love song, we’re sorry in advance. Lines like “I’ll take your breath away,” make it easy to see why people might take it that way but look closer, and you’ll notice some pretty creepy sentiments. McLachlan was inspired to make this song by two fans that created a fantasy relationship with her; sending love letters on a regular basis. One even went on to sue McLachlan for songwriting credit, but took their own life before the case went to trial. Possession is still one of Sarah’s finest songs, but you may want to think twice before playing it on a first date.

#18: “Hey Man, Nice Shot” (1995)

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Filter Moving on to a far darker topic, “Hey Man, Nice Shot” debuted just one year after the world was shocked by the sudden death of Kurt Cobain. Given its timing, many assumed “Hey Man, Nice Shot” was about this event. In reality, it was inspired by R. Budd Dwyer, a former Pennsylvania State Treasurer, who took his own life on the air in 1987. This was in response to an indictment on Dwyer for bribery despite his claims of being framed. Lines referencing those who were right there after the smoke has gone highlights the public nature of Dwyer’s death, which differs from Cobain, who died all alone. This misinterpretation is due largely to poor timing, and misdirected controversy upon its release.

#17: “Closing Time” (1998)

Semisonic This one seems pretty straightforward- “finish your whiskey or beer!” Clearly Semisonic is relaying the sense of loneliness experienced when the warmth of booze and friends fades away at the end of a night out. However, lead singer Dan Wilson explained that the song is actually a metaphor for childbirth. With his first child on the way, Wilson used the song as a way to express his emotions during a transformative time in his life. Upon learning this, the song’s sad, existential message transforms into one of hope for new beginnings in a person’s life after experiencing the joys and challenges of parenthood.

#16: “Imagine” (1971)

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John Lennon Rolling Stone hailed this song as “faith in the power of a world, united in purpose, to repair and change itself.” These sentiments, along with its hopeful sound, complete with chirping birds have made this song a wholesome classic. Except for the fact that even John Lennon admits that it’s virtually the Communist Manifesto. Upon closer analysis you’ll find remarks about a world with no possessions, no countries, and no religion. Preaching anti-capitalism and anti-religion doesn’t get much sneakier than this, especially considering the fact that it was released in the early 70s, during the peak of the Vietnam War.

#15: “Fire and Rain” (1970)

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James Taylor Taylor’s career defining masterpiece hits all the right notes needed to reach the upper echelons of folk rock masterpieces. It may come as a surprise however, that it’s not actually about his girlfriend dying in a plane crash. Each verse tells the story of a low point in Taylor’s life spanning from the death of a friend, to heroin addiction, and finally the failing of his much-loved band, Flying Machines. Unlike some on our list, this revelation doesn’t change the essence of the song and it’s still the perfect track to put on next time you’re feeling down and out.

#14: “Ironic” (1995)

Alanis Morissette Events and statements that are deliberately opposite of what one may expect are considered ironic. What takes place in Alanis Morissette’s song can be more appropriately categorized as tragic. Winning the lottery and dying the next day, being pardoned from death row two minutes too late, and discovering your dream man is already married are all tragic events, leaving listeners confused why a song named Ironic contains no real irony. Stay with us here, but the lack of irony in a song named for irony, is in fact, ironic. Confused? Think it over a bit, it’s actually quite clever.

#13: “Blackbird” (1968)

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The Beatles Written by Paul McCartney and featuring background vocals from an actual blackbird, it's easy to think this just a song about blackbirds. Paul has since made it clear that Blackbird is actually a metaphor written in response to high racial tensions during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. The Blackbird’s attempt to take his broken wings and learn to fly is meant to symbolize the struggle of African Americans to come together and heal amidst severe racial discrimination. This isn’t the first time that the Beatles have laced their songs with multiple meanings nor the first time they’ve touched heavily on social issues.

#12: “Hallelujah” (1984)

Leonard Cohen “Hallelujah’ is overflowing with religious reference from King David to Samson. Despite the divine nature of the song, the oft-repeated hallelujah is not intended to express worship, but rather deep pain from a man who has experienced love turned sour. Each hallelujah is spoken a little more tongue in cheek with tragic love stories such as David’s romantic encounter with Bathsheba interwoven throughout. There’s a reason this song remains so relevant today, as it embodies the sensation of great sorrow so profoundly, despite lyrics suggesting adoration and exaltation upon first impression.

#11: “Wake Me Up When September Ends” (2005)

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Green Day One of Green Day’s most vulnerable pieces of work, there’s no question that this hit rocked its listeners to the core upon release. The music video’s depiction of war along with American Idiot’s central theme of George W. Bush era American life, may lead listeners to believe that this song references the 9/11 terror attacks in New York. However, singer Billie Joe Armstrong has gone on to state that the song’s intent was actually to express a much more personal loss, that of his father who died when Billie was only ten years old.

#10: “American Girl” (1977)

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Tom Petty Proximity to tragedy has a strange way of skewing a song’s meaning, as exemplified once again in Tom Petty’s “American Girl.” A young woman from the University of Florida took her own life shortly before the song’s release, which incidentally took place close to Gainesville, where Tom Petty was born. The line about a girl standing alone on her balcony is merely a coincidence, with Petty’s inspiration coming from the sounds of the freeway near his apartment. Unfortunately for urban legend devotees, Tom made it clear that “American Girl” is a love song with no intentional references to the tragic event.

#9: “More than Words” (1991)

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Extreme Ever say something with good intentions that gets taken completely out of context? Well this band has plenty in common with this band then. This 1991 hit is widely interpreted as a beckoning for sex because saying I love you to your significant other just isn’t enough. Extreme’s guitarist Nuno Bettencourt has gone on record saying that the song was intended to explore how the phrase “I love you” was becoming meaningless in relationships and perhaps it would be more evocative to express love in more creative ways. Clearly our minds were in the gutter on this one.

#8: “Ticket to Ride” (1965)

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The Beatles The Beatles are a British treasure from a simpler time. Back then, songs didn’t need to be laced with dirty messages to grab the public’s attention. With the exception of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” which is incorrectly believed to describe an acid trip, their songs appear squeaky clean most of the time. “Ticket to Ride,” though, which tells the story of a girl who has decided to leave her lover, actually has a surprisingly dirty meaning according to John Lennon. He originally coined the phrase in reference to sex workers that authorities have noted are clean. Old John Lennon sure knows how to cover up a message the public’s not ready for.

#7: “Harder to Breathe” (2002)

Maroon 5 Maroon 5’s debut album, Songs about Jane, focused much of its efforts on expressing the inner-turmoil of Adam Levine after a tough breakup with, well, Jane... It stands to reason that the album’s first track would make this message crystal clear. At first glance, the lyrics appear to describe the feelings of loneliness and suffocation of a breakup, but Adam has since declared that Harder to Breathe is actually about the band’s label demanding more music late into production. It may have been intended initially as a screw you to the band’s label, but we can guess the animosity faded when the royalties came in.

#6: “Summer of ‘69” (1985)

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Bryan Adams We all know that guy in high school who couldn’t go without making a low hanging sexual joke any time someone mentioned the number 69. It turns out that Bryan Adams’ nostalgic rock classic was never reminiscent of that final summer of the 1960s, as Adams would have only been 10 at the time. Bryan has gone on to admit that the musical experiences are merely filler, and the intended meaning is to detail a summer full of lots and lots of sex. It turns out this time around, immature high school guy was right, and the most obvious of innuendos slipped right under our noses.

#5: “In the Air Tonight” (1981)

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Phil Collins Allegedly, Phil Collins wrote this song after witnessing someone drown while another man refused to help. While this would certainly add layers to Collin’s character, it begs several questions. Namely, if Collins saw this all happen, why couldn’t he just jump in and save his friend? It turns out that he was actually expressing his emotions during a devastating divorce. He intended to vent his sporadic anger toward the situation without really giving the song an exact direction. It’s now considered one of the greatest songs of all time, and likely one of the few examples of divorce leading to a financial gain.

#4: “Like a Virgin” (1984)

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Madonna If the guys in Reservoir Dogs are any indication as to public perception of this song, it’s safe to say most people think it’s about, well, sex. But Madonna cleared this up in the most remarkable fashion, sending director Quentin Tarantino an autograph exclaiming that the song is “about love, not dick”. Written by songwriter Billy Steinberg, it compares the feeling of emotional destruction after a relationship with the shiny new feeling of falling in love again. At this point we’re at a loss whether our minds are in the gutter, or we’re painfully naïve. Either way, the double meaning of the song has surely helped it become one of her biggest hits ever.

#3: “Every Breath You Take” (1983)

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The Police With seemingly loving lyrics and a catchy guitar hook, this song sounds like it belongs at a wedding reception or a school dance. However, the song is actually about a stalker, and the lyrics make no mistakes about this. They actually say the words “every bone you break, I’ll be watching you”; and that’s not even the creepy bit. It’s best not to analyze this one too much. The focal image of the music video is a window washer while the girl in question never once even makes an appearance. What may have started as a pleasant toe-tapper kinda makes you wanna take a shower when you realize what it’s all about.

#2: “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” (1997)

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Green Day This song has a message that is mind-bogglingly obvious, but largely ignored nonetheless. The expression ‘good riddance’ suggests relief at being liberated from a troublesome person or event, yet the song is heavily associated with nostalgia and high regards for time passed. This is perhaps due to the rich, beautiful melody which masks Billie Joe Armstrong’s intended message of “screw you” to his then-girlfriend who left him to travel to Ecuador. With this in mind, its continual placement in graduation slideshows, weddings, and funerals becomes a little weird. We’re sure Armstrong is perfectly fine with that. Before we get to our top pick, here are some honorable mentions: “The One I Love” (1987) , R.E.M. When ‘the One You Love’ Is Nothing More Than a Prop “Alive” (1991) , Pearl Jam A Celebration of Life? Or a Reflection on Losing Your Father? “A Horse with No Name” (1972) , America A Simple Country Tune Misconstrued as a Love Letter to Heroin “Slide” (1998), Goo Goo Dolls A Heartfelt Tune About Dealing with Pregnancy at a Young Age “Puff, the Magic Dragon” (1963) , Peter, Paul and Mary An Ode to a Pet Dragon Misconstrued as a Weed-Smoking Anthem

#1: “Born in the U.S.A.” (1984)

Bruce Springsteen This essential 4th of July power ballad likely conjures up images of fireworks, American flags and freedom. It’s truly an iconic song of patriotism … until you realize that Bruce Springsteen spends the entire song criticizing America and everything it stands for. Starting out, the song recounts the story of a man born dirt poor and constantly in trouble. He then goes off to war killing “the yellow” man and things just get worse from there. All the while, the ever-popular chorus is repeated again and again. It’s hard to believe that this song is played right next to the likes of God Bless the U.S.A when its message couldn’t be any different.