Sig's Pick Six: Commonly Misunderstood Songs

This week’s topic is “Six Commonly Misunderstood Songs.”

“One” – U2
This song, commonly used in reference to people uniting, is mainly about a great divide in a relationship. Like most misunderstood songs, the true meaning of “One” is found in its verses: “Did I disappoint you/Or leave a bad taste in your mouth/You act like you never had love/And you want me to go without.” That being said, the choruses could indicate some hope for a reconciliation, so calling it a song about unity is not quite a complete misunderstanding of the song’s message, but rather an oversimplification.

“Imagine” – John Lennon
Sometimes a song’s lyrics all point to one particular meaning, but its melody obscures that message. Such is the case with “Imagine,” a song that is essentially a rallying cry for society to shed all the ideas and labels that turn people against each other (religion, national borders, etc.) and form a more equitable world order (one that is based on socialistic principles). However, the beautiful piano-based melody makes the song sound more like a whimsical wish than a call to revolution.

“Alive” – Pearl Jam
Eddie Vedder has introduced this song at a show as one whose meaning has shifted a bit over the years due to many fans’ misinterpretation of it. Growing up, Vedder was never informed that the man he called his father was actually his step-father, until his mother decided to tell him one day that his biological father had died (“What you thought was your daddy was nothin’ but a/While you were sittin’ home alone at age thirteen/your real daddy was dyin'”). He tried to sum up his feelings about that situation in “Alive,” and the chorus of “I’m still alive” is meant to be sarcastic, as in “I’m still alive…but so what? Who cares?” In the end, though, most people view the song as an affirmation of life.

“Born in the USA” – Bruce Springsteen
It is shocking just how often this song is used as part of the soundtrack for patriotic events when it is, in fact, a scathing criticism of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War (“I had a buddy at Khe Sahn/Fighting off the Viet Cong/They’re still there, he’s all gone”) and its treatment of veterans upon their return home (“I go down to see the V.A. man/He said “Son, don’t you understand?”). Even Ronald Reagan’s campaign team seemed to be confused by this “Born in the USA,” as they tried to make it a major part of Reagan’s ’84 re-election campaign (the only reason it didn’t happen was that Springsteen made them pull the song). I guess part of the blame here could be placed on Bruce, as the album version is full of the kind of uplifitng synth and driving rock beats that seem to run opposite of the song’s true intentions. Had he released a version like the acoustic one linked above, people may have gotten the message a little easier.

“Every Breath You Take” – The Police
Ladies: if someone ever uses this song to profess their love to you, consider running as fast as possible in the opposite direction. What he may think of as an ode to attentive love is actually a song written from the point of view of a stalker. The truth is in the details here, as the song’s narrator gets way over-possesive by telling a girl (who obviously is not interested in him), “Can’t you see/you belong to me,” making the constantly-repeated line, “I’ll be watching you,” very creepy indeed.

“Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” – Green Day
I will admit that I can fully understand how this song is so often misinterpreted, as its saracastic tone is only revealed by one or two lyrics. That being said, it is perhaps the most widely misunderstood song on this list, as it has been used at thousands of joyous occasions when people tend to reminisce (weddings, graduations, etc.), even though the song is essentially questioning the very meaning of a past shared experience. It was written by a “bitter” (self-described) Billie Joe Armstrong when his girlfriend decided to move to Ecuador without him, and he was wondering what (if anything) their relationship actually meant. Not exactly the kind of message you want to send at your wedding or graduation…

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