Take Another Listen
You've heard these songs countless times, but how well do you know them? Here are 15 recordings by legendary artists that have a hidden meaning you may not be aware of.
"I Shot the Sheriff" — Bob Marley
ON THE SURFACE: A desperado freely admits he shot the sheriff, though he insists it was in self-defense. But let's get one thing straight: He did not shoot the deputy.
HIDDEN MEANING: This 1973 reggae classic, later a No. 1 hit for Eric Clapton, is a protest song—against birth control. Bob Marley's one-time girlfriend Esther Anderson recalls that the Jamaican singer strongly objected to her being on the Pill. Marley refers to the doctor who prescribed it—the "sheriff"—in these lines: "Every time I plant a seed / He said kill it before it grow."
"Sexy Sadie" — The Beatles
ON THE SURFACE:"Sadie" sounds like an irresistible but unfaithful girlfriend, a late-'60s version of "Runaround Sue."
HIDDEN MEANING: John Lennon wrote the song about Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, a guru who lured the Beatles to India in 1968. Originally, the meaning of this song wasn't hidden at all. To make it less obvious, Lennon replaced "Maharishi"—four syllables—with "Sexy Sadie."
"I Will Always Love You" — Dolly Parton
ON THE SURFACE: This heartfelt country hit from 1974—which topped the Billboard Hot 100 for 14 weeks after Whitney Houston released her version in 1992—appears to have a familiar theme: the end of a romance.
HIDDEN MEANING: In fact, the song is about a professional breakup. Dolly wrote it to her mentor and singing partner Porter Wagoner when she decided to go solo.
"Losing My Religion" — R.E.M.
ON THE SURFACE: It seems safe to assume that this 1991 alt rock classic, written and sung by R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe, involves a spiritual crisis.
HIDDEN MEANING: According to Stipe, the song is about a tortured relationship. "Losing my religion" is a Southern expression that translates as "reaching the end of my rope."
"Little Green" — Joni Mitchell
ON THE SURFACE:This 1971 track from the beloved "Blue" album evokes love, pain and longing, but the specific meaning of the lyrics was obscure.
HIDDEN MEANING: The song is about a child Joni Mitchell gave up for adoption in 1965 ("Just a little green / Like the nights when the northern lights perform / There'll be icicles and birthday clothes and sometime / There'll be sorrow'). Joni and her daughter reunited in 1997.
"Mother and Child Reunion" — Paul Simon
ON THE SURFACE: What could be more joyful than the reunion of a mother and child?
HIDDEN MEANING: Then again, this Top 10 single from 1972 describes a "strange and mournful day." In the lyrics, Paul Simon (seen here with his son Harper) aimed to convey the sadness he felt when, a year earlier, his dog was hit by a car and killed. As for the song's title, Simon said, "I was eating in a Chinese restaurant downtown. There was a dish called 'Mother and Child Reunion.' It's chicken and eggs. And I said ... 'I gotta use that one.'"
"Hotel California" — The Eagles
ON THE SURFACE: A weary traveler stops for the night in a hotel on a desert highway where beautiful people are living it up.
HIDDEN MEANING: Although some listeners have detected allusions to Satanism ("This could be heaven or this could be hell"), the hotel is just a metaphor for L.A.-style hedonism. As Don Henley said, "It's basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about."
"Respect" — Aretha Franklin
ON THE SURFACE: Aretha's definitive 1967 version turned this Otis Redding song into a feminist anthem, a woman's demand for the respect she deserves.
HIDDEN MEANING: Redding naturally wrote it from a man's point of view, which gave the lyrics a decidedly different flavor. In his original 1965 recording, the word "respect" ("But all I'm askin' is for a little respect when I come home") refers to sex.
"Every Breath You Take" — The Police
ON THE SURFACE: The title suggests a simple love song, the kind that belongs on the playlist at a wedding.
HIDDEN MEANING: It's actually about a stalker. Although the music is deceptively gentle, the lyrics to the 1983 Grammy winner for Song of the Year are chilling ("I'll be watching you"). "I didn't realize at the time how sinister it is," Sting said years later. "I think I was thinking of Big Brother, surveillance and control."
"Dear Landlord" — Bob Dylan
ON THE SURFACE: It's a letter from a hard-working man to his landlord, asking for a little patience and understanding.
HIDDEN MEANING: Many say that, in this track from 1967's "John Westley Harding," Dylan is addressing his manager Albert Grossman ("Please don't put a price on my soul"). Bob was never one to explain his lyrics, but it's worth noting that Janis Joplin—another Grossman client—recorded a cover of the song.
"Total Eclipse of the Heart" — Bonnie Tyler
ON THE SURFACE: Composed by Jim Steinman, best known for his collaborations with Meat Loaf, this power ballad expresses the anguish of love and loss.
HIDDEN MEANING: Before Bonnie Tyler's version soared to No. 1 in 1983, the song was part of a failed Broadway show called "Dance of the Vampires." Its original title: "Vampires in Love." The title was changed to disguise what was written as a vampire love song.
"London Calling" — The Clash
ON THE SURFACE: It's an apocalyptic punk anthem that envisions floods, food shortages, nuclear meltdown and "zombies of death."
HIDDEN MEANING: The song also alludes to the band's personal struggles. It was released as a single at the end of 1979, when punk rock was in decline and the Clash was in debt ("Don't look to us / Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust").
"Bohemian Rhapsody" — Queen
ON THE SURFACE: A rock opera packed into six minutes, this 1975 hit is pretty cryptic, but early in the song the narrator clearly confesses to murder.
HIDDEN MEANING: Singer-songwriter Freddie Mercury left his girlfriend for a man in 1975, and some call "Bohemian Rhapsody" his "coming out" song. Lyricist Tim Rice, who later collaborated with Mercury, explains: "In the line 'Mama, I just killed a man,' he's killed the old Freddie, his former image."
"Fast Car" — Tracy Chapman
ON THE SURFACE: This poignant Top 10 hit from 1988 describes the working poor and a young couple's plan to break free as fast as they can.
HIDDEN MEANING: Although Tracy Chapman never had a fast car, the song hits very close to home. It's about her parents, she says, about "how when they met each other they were very young and they wanted to start a new life together and my mother was anxious to leave home ... and it was very difficult going."
"Blackbird" — The Beatles
ON THE SURFACE: The lyrics come across as a simple poem about nature.
HIDDEN MEANING: Written by Paul McCartney in 1968, this song from the White Album is about the American civil rights struggle ("Take these broken wings and learn to fly / All your life / You were only waiting for this moment to arrive"). "Blackbird" refers to a black woman.
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