Some of the Most Misunderstood Songs of All Time (I think...)

  • - "Born in the USA" by Bruce Springsteen: Geez, even as a 12 year-old listening to this song for the first time, I could easily figure out this was no patriotic jingle. The character in this song was one truly pissed-off man who wanted nothing more than a "thank you" from the country he fought for.
  • - "Baba O'Riley" by the Who: It helps to understand Pete Townshend wrote these songs found on the "Who's Next" LP as part of a failed project called Lifehouse (a project very well worth looking into, as it's quite relevant these days). And this song is the most misunderstood of them all; it's not about teens being wasted, it's about the wasteland society has created by being neglectful, and the fact that our future generations will have to suffer the consequences for our wastefulness.
  • - "Every Breath You Take" by the Police: Written at a time when Sting was going through an ugly divorce, this is a mean, nasty little song about obsession.
  • - "The One I Love" by R.E.M: Another song people think is a love song. In fact, it's far from it. The line "a simple prop to occupy my time" reflects what little Michael Stipe thinks about love and love songs.
  • - "In The Air Tonight" by Phil Collins: No, for the last time, he did not see anyone drowning and not do anything about it. All those urban legends you heard about this song (he wants to kill his ex-wife, it was his brother who drowned, etc.) are false.
  • - "Swallow, Baby" by Ruby: Dunno if everyone's heard this one, but if you have, please discuss. My wife swears it's about oral sex, but I think it's about being someone who's become a burden.
Author Comments: 

Just a small list of songs that are often misunderstood, because people didn't get their hidden meaning. There will be more added to this list.

For all of these so far, you debunk the common interpretation, and then provide the real one. Except "In the Air Tonight", which you just debunk. Is there a real story behind this one?

Thanks for the link. I swear it used to drive me crazy when people thought there was some hidden meaning, or there was something Phil Collins wanted to confess. I've been a fan of his for nearly 20 years, and he sometimes writes songs in a stream-of-consciousness manner. This song is one such example.

i'm not that big of a phil collins fan, but this is an absolutely great song--especially that drum solo. there's something about the mood of the song that's very haunting. and in my head i lump it together with that mike & the mechanics song "silent running"... maybe it's just cuz they're both a bit eerie, but i almost think they were both used on miami vice episodes; however, i could just be making that up. :)

You're right - "In The Air Tonight" was heard on a "Miami Vice" espisode - the first one, in fact. If I recall, I think the song was played near the end, as Don Johnson was driving through the streets of Miami ready to bust the drug dealer Calderon. I don't recall if "Silent Running" was ever featured.

If anyone knows, please fill us in.

I like your list, and I think you should consider two songs that have been mindlessly applied to TV ads: the Stones' "Brown Sugar" and The Who's "Bargain." I think "Bargainb" fits into the same obsesseive borderline psychotic category as "Every Breath You Take" and definitely does not impart any insight about getting a good deal on a sport utility vehicle. Much worse is the Kahlua commercial that depicts a pretty black woman dancing around a pool table. "How come she dance so good?" Well, "it's just like a black girl should." Apparently, the raping of slave girls is a perfect theme for a night on the town getting drunk on Black Russians.