Smash hit pop songs don’t always have to have brilliant lyrics or mean anything at all, as the worldwide success of songs like ‘Bad Romance’ by Lady Gaga or ‘De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da’ by The Police shows. There are some songs, however, that seem simple when you first hear them, but they actually have hidden meanings. Many of them are pop staples that have been sung innocently by children for a number of decades, but the real meaning of their lyrics can be rather more adult-oriented. Here are seven hit songs with secret or controversial meanings; you’ll never listen to them in the same way again.
1. Puff The Magic Dragon – Peter, Paul, and Mary
This 1963 song written by Leonard Lipton and Peter Yarrow is still popular over half a century after its release, in part thanks to a nursery rhyme-like quality that makes it a popular choice at elementary school discos and children’s parties. What could more wholesome than children landing upon a magical island and frolicking in the autumn mist, even if they had to share the island with a magical dragon? In fact, the frolicking may have a less than savory source, as it is believed that ‘Puff The Magic Dragon‘ is actually about the effects of using marijuana, and that puff isn’t a dragon at all, but Peter’s exotic blend of smoking material.
2. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds – The Beatles
We are staying on the subject of illegal substances, as we look at a song by possibly the most famous pop group of all time – ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’. It is now commonly known that Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds is actually a reference to the mind-bending drug lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD. The psychedelic rhythm of the song is also seen as mirroring the effects of the drug known simply as acid, but The Beatles themselves were quick to distance themselves from this reading. Both writers of the song, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, claimed that it was actually inspired by Lewis Carrol’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ story, but that tale is rather less believable.
3. Like A Prayer – Madonna
Madonna Ciccone was born into a deeply Catholic family in Michigan, and despite being the undisputed Queen of Pop and not afraid to show her steamier side, in ‘Like A Prayer’, she acknowledged her faith in God. Or did she? Let’s look at the lyrical facts: it’s midnight, Madonna is on her knees, wanting to take someone there and feel their power. Sorry, religious purists everywhere, but Madonna is back on her familiar raunchy territory here, and as she showed with ‘Like A Virgin’, she wasn’t afraid to challenge religious conventions and make fun of her background at the same time.
4. Pretty In Pink – The Psychedelic Furs
London punk rockers The Psychedelic Furs are known for one thing only – their global hit ‘Pretty In Pink’ which reached the peak of its success in 1986, five years after its original launch, when it was used in the brat pack film of the same name. Screenwriter John Hughes stated that the song inspired the role, and Molly Ringwald plays the pink-clad beauty of the title. The phrase has become part of common parlance so that anyone who wears a shade of the color is likely to be told that they look ‘pretty in pink’ at least five times an hour. In fact, the song isn’t referring to pink clothing at all, or clothing of any kind, as lyricist and singer Richard Butler later admitted that the song was actually about the charms of a naked woman.
5. Total Eclipse Of The Heart – Bonnie Tyler
This power ballad by Welsh songstress Bonnie Tyler remains a karaoke standard many years after its 1983 release, and it’s often taken to be a sad tale of a woman who is left bereft after a failed love affair. Bonnie, however, says that it was meant to be a celebration of the dark, all-encompassing power of love, and it was originally titled ‘Vampires In Love’. Six million sales later, the change of title prior to the single’s release was definitely a smart move, as it may not have proved so popular if people realized it was actually about an undead romance.
6. Stop The Cavalry – Jona Lewie
Jona Lewie’s ‘Stop The Cavalry’ reached number three in the UK charts at Christmas 1980, and was only prevented from reaching the top spot by the tragic death of John Lennon. It has since become a staple of Christmas pop music in Britain and across the globe and is sung gleefully by party goers in silly hats and reindeer jumpers, but it wasn’t originally a Christmas song at all. The original song was simply a tribute to soldiers fighting futile wars throughout history, but it was Jona’s agent who suggested making it more commercial by adding the chorus line ‘Wish I was at home for Christmas’, in addition to some suitably festive bells and changing ‘stop the gallantry’ to ‘stop the cavalry’. Jona was wise to listen, for the annual royalties from this song alone means that he never has to work again.
7. Every Breath You Take – The Police
We’ve already mentioned The Police once, but on this occasion the lyrics actually do mean something – it’s just not the ‘something’ that most people think it is. This beautifully romantic song is often heard at weddings or valentine’s discos, but front-man Sting wrote it with a very different intention. ‘Every Breath You Take’ is about a man who is dumped and finds it difficult to get over this, so starts to stalk his ex-partner. Everything she does, he’ll be watching her, but not in a positive way.
From Puff The Magic Dragon to Pretty In Pink and Every Breath You Take, these are great pop songs that sold millions of copies. They’re great to listen to in happy ignorance, but it adds a little more to your enjoyment when you know what they’re really about. It’s great fun to investigate the hidden meanings of hit songs, but if you’re going to look up Little Richard’s ‘Tutti Frutti’, for example, keep mom out of the room and be aware that it isn’t safe for work.