Remember that moment when you learned you’d been misinterpreting the lyrics to The Police’s hit “Every Breath You Take” ever since you heard it? What you thought was a sweet, romantic love song was actually a ballad about stalking—and suddenly, you never saw Sting the same way again. Actually, plenty of hit songs that you’ve heard dozens of times have meanings you’ve missed. It’s true! For decades, many of your favorite chart-topping artists have been fooling you. So, it’s time to get smart about these 20 songs with secret messages you probably didn’t know about. And for more hidden meanings, check out 30 Secret Messages Hidden in Popular Logos.
1“In the Air Tonight” by Phil Collins
Phil Collins’ first solo single, “In the Air Tonight,” contains a disturbing monologue about what sounds like the singer’s brush with a man who refused to save someone who was drowning. But Collins revealed his first big hit is actually about something else entirely.
In an interview with the BBC, Collins confessed that the 1981 song is an introspective look at his divorce from his first wife. “It’s obviously in anger. It’s the angry side, or the bitter side of a separation,” he said. “What makes it even more comical is when I hear these stories which started many years ago, particularly in America, of someone coming up to me and saying, ‘Did you really see someone drowning?’ I said, ‘No, wrong.’”
2“Slide” by Goo Goo Dolls
Since its release in 1998, many believed that this popular ’90s song by the Goo Goo Dolls is about a love story. But in a 2002 episode of VH1’s Storytellers, lead singer Johnny Rzeznik revealed the song’s true meaning—and it’s much darker than anyone had anticipated.
The lead singer said “Slide” is about “these two teenage kids, and the girlfriend gets pregnant, and they’re trying to decide…whether she should get an abortion or whether they should get married…and I don’t think a lot of people got that.” The song’s secret meaning actually seems pretty clear when you look at lyrics like, “Don’t you love the life you killed?/The priest is on the phone/Your father hit the wall/Your ma disowned you.”
3“Firework” by Katy Perry
“Firework” by Katy Perry has become a motivational anthem since it was released in 2010. But according to the pop star, what inspired it was actually her own inevitable death. “Basically I have this very morbid idea,” Perry told Billboard in 2010. “When I pass, I want to be put into a firework and shot across the sky over the Santa Barbara Ocean as my last hurrah.”
Perry added that she liked the fact that fireworks make crowds “ooh” and “ahh.” “I guess that making people go ‘ahhh’ is kind of like my motto,” she said.
4“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” by The Beatles
Even though the first letter of each word in the song spells out “LSD,” John Lennon repeated denied claims that The Beatles’ 1967 hit “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was about the drug.
But decades later, Paul McCartney set the story straight in a 2004 interview with Uncut magazine. “‘Lucy in the Sky,’ that’s pretty obvious,” he said. “There’s others that make subtle hints about drugs, but, you know, it’s easy to overestimate the influence of drugs on the Beatles’ music.”
5“Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler
Song composer Jim Steinman revealed that Bonnie Tyler’s hit 1993 song “Total Eclipse of the Heart” was originally titled “Vampires in Love.”
“If anyone listens to the lyrics, they’re really like vampire lines. It’s all about the darkness, the power of darkness and love’s place in dark,” the composer told Playbill in 2002. So, the next time you listen to this 1990s classic, imagine it being about two vampires in love.
6“Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day
If you’ve attended a graduation ceremony, funeral, wedding, or goodbye party in the last 20 years, it’s highly likely that you’ve heard “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day a few times. The 1997 song has been widely interpreted to be about moving on to the next chapter of one’s life.
But in 2006, the band’s lead singer, Billie Joe Armstrong, confessed to Guitar World that the song was actually penned when he was feeling incredibly angry and resentful over a breakup with an ex-girlfriend who was moving to Ecuador. “In the song, I tried to be level-headed about her leaving, even though I was completely p***** off,” Armstrong said. “So I named it ‘Good Riddance’ just to express my anger.”
7“Poker Face” by Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga’s early hits often explored her bisexuality. Sometimes, it was openly discussed in songs like “So Happy I Could Die,” where she talks about falling for a “lavender blonde.” But other times, it was so subtle you could miss it. And that was the case with 2008’s “Poker Face.”
Gaga opened up about the real meaning of the song at the 20th annual White Party in Palm Springs, California in 2009. While on stage, Gaga said “Poker Face” is about being in a relationship with a man while fantasizing about being with a woman, according to NBC.
8“Harder to Breathe” by Maroon 5
Contrary to popular belief, the steamy love song that appeared on Maroon 5’s debut album was actually not detailing lead singer Adam Levine’s love life. In fact, “Harder to Breathe” was actually inspired by pressure from the band’s record label when it came to their 2002 album, Songs About Jane.
“That song comes sheerly from wanting to throw something. It was the 11th hour, and the label wanted more songs. It was the last crack,” Levine told MTV in 2002. “I wanted to make a record and the label was applying a lot of pressure, but I’m glad they did.”
9“Royals” by Lorde
It may seem like this first hit single from Lorde was about how she would never live up to the riches and fame of a monarchy. But the songstress admitted in an interview with VH1 that her 2013 song “Royals” was actually inspired by a photo of Kansas City Royals baseball player George Brett being hounded for autographs by fans.
“I’d been kind of thinking about writing that song for a while and been pulling together a couple little lines here and there, and I had this image from the National Geographic of this dude signing baseballs,” the New Zealand singer explained in 2013. “He was a baseball player and his shirt said Royals. I was like, ‘I really like that word,’ because I’m a big word fetishist. I’ll pick a word and I’ll pin an idea to that.”
The following year, Lorde met Brett and they posed for a photo together. So it’s safe to say she’s basically a royal now.
10“A Little Bit Longer” by the Jonas Brothers
At the height of their popularity in 2008, the Jonas Brothers released a song called “A Little Bit Longer,” which sounded like a breakup song. But shortly after it was released, Nick Jonas told MTV that the song was actually about his struggle with type 1 diabetes.
“I had a day when my sugar was out of range, and I sat down at the piano and wrote it in 20 minutes. And it was because I had this strong inspiration,” he told MTV shortly after the song came out.
When you reexamine certain lyrics in the hit song (like “Waiting on a cure/But none of them are sure”), the meaning seems obvious in hindsight.
12“Love Song” by Sara Bareilles
Contrary to popular belief, singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles is not telling a clingy boyfriend to get off her back in her 2007 hit “Love Song.” In reality, similar to the case with Maroon 5’s “Harder to Breathe,” Bareilles wrote this song for her record label, which was demanding she write a romantic tune that she didn’t have in her.
“They had encouraged me to keep writing, and I just wasn’t having any luck, and I was turning in the beginnings of ideas and snippets of moments of a song, and I was just getting a really sort of blasé reaction to everything,” she told MTV in 2008. “It’s totally honest, and I’m very lucky the label liked it as well.”
11“Closing Time” by Semisonic
This seemingly simple song about a bar closing after a long night of merrymaking is actually, at its core, something much more. During a 2008 performance, two decades after the Semisonic song first came out, lead singer Dan Wilson finally said “Closing Time” was actually about his impending fatherhood. Looking back, the lyric “Closing time/This room won’t be open ’til your brothers or your sisters come” must refer to his wife’s womb.
13“Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind
Here’s another hit song from the ’90s that has a much deeper message within its seemingly surface level lyrics.
Shortly after “Semi-Charmed Life” was released, Third Eye Blind frontman Stephan Jenkins explained in a 1997 interview with Billboard that it’s “a dirty, filthy song” about a drug-fueled bender. “It really is funny that people play it on the radio,” Jenkins said.
“I think people hear ‘Semi-Charmed Life’ as a happy summertime jam. And that’s fine with me,” Jenkins added. “I don’t think the song should be so blatant that I have to come out and say, ‘Couples who take speed tend to break up, so don’t do it.’”
15“Can’t Feel My Face” by The Weeknd
Many of The Weeknd’s fans initially believed that his first hit song, 2015’s “I Can’t Feel My Face,” was about the euphoria of being in an exciting new relationship. But he was actually using his songwriting prowess to personify his past drug abuse, according to Billboard.
In a New York Times profile, The Weeknd had revealed that as a teenager, he would “get high on whatever was around—MDMA, Xanax, cocaine, mushrooms, ketamine.” With several lyrics detailing how “she’ll be the death of me,” it seems clear that “I Can’t Feel My Face” is about substance abuse.
16“Wolves” by Selena Gomez
Nearly every time Selena Gomez puts out a new single, her army of fans (AKA Selenators) are at the ready to decipher all of its hidden messages. In the case of 2017’s “Wolves,” they figured out early on that the upbeat pop song is most likely about Gomez’s struggle with lupus. After all, the Latin word “lupus” actually directly translates to “wolf.”
Though the singer hasn’t been explicit about the song’s meaning, Gomez told Beats 1 that “the song is very beautiful and personal and the lyrics just have a whole story of its own. Weirdly, at the same time I was working on it in Japan, I was going through stuff, too, so it’s mirrored everything.”
16“I Feel It Still” by Portugal. The Man
You may not know Portugal. The Man by name, but chances are you’ve heard their catchy 2017 single “Feel It Still,” which earned the band their first Grammy in 2018. In the recent pop hit, lead singer and guitarist John Gourley sings: “It’s time to give a little to the kids in the middle/But, oh until it falls/Won’t bother me,” which is about the U.S.-Mexico border.
“It’s another one of those lyrics that just kind of seeps in,” Gourley told Genius. “With all the talk right now, of building a wall at our borders and the Berlin Wall, it was so much just like the image that you had in your head growing up that these people are separated by a wall, and why do we need that?”
17“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure
The Cure’s lead singer, Robert Smith, is known for spinning rather esoteric poetry into chart-topping hits. Case in point, 1987’s “Just Like Heaven,” a seemingly innocent song about falling in love.
However, as Smith pointed out in a 2003 interview with Blender, the famous line “Just what is this scream/laugh/hug inducing trick?” is actually inspired by an instance in which he was hyperventilating and began “kissing and fainting to the floor.” Smith told Blender: “As the song progressed, I introduced some different chord changes, which give it that slightly melancholic feeling.”
18“Chandelier” by Sia
When Sia released her song “Chandelier” in 2014, it was widely interpreted as a party song. But the artist intended it to be just the opposite. She actually penned the song about her past struggles with addiction and alcoholism, which she dealt with after her boyfriend was fatally hit by a taxi in 1997. Sia turned to drugs and alcohol to cope, but eventually got into Alcoholics Anonymous and is now sober.
“That’s why ‘Chandelier’ was interesting to me,” Sia told NPR in 2014. “I wrote the song because there’s so many party-girl anthems in pop. And I thought it’d be interesting to do a different take on that.”
19“Higher” by Creed
“Higher,” the 1999 lead single off Creed’s second studio album, seemed like a simple Christian rock ballad about a higher power.
But lead singer Scott Stapp said that the hit that inevitably helped Creed reach meteoric success was actually about the benefits of lucid dreaming. In 2000, Stapp told Spin magazine he’d been having a recurring nightmare and delved into the practice of lucid dreaming to rid himself of it. And that’s what “Higher” is about.
20“I Shot the Sheriff” by Bob Marley
Reggae icon Bob Marley was incredibly adept at weaving rather complicated storylines into his music. Take his 1973 song “I Shot the Sheriff,” for example. According to Marley’s ex lover, the song actually details his desire for her not to take birth control pills, something he allegedly believed to be sacrilegious. The song’s meaning was laid out in the 2011 film Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend, according to the Miami New Times. Marley’s ex says “the sheriff” was the doctor who prescribed her the pills.
When you reexamine the lyrics (like “Every time I plant a seed/He said kill it before it grow”), it seems to make sense. And though Marley never confirmed the meaning himself, he did say in 1974, “That’s not really a sheriff—it’s the elements of wickedness.” And for more iconic music content, check out 2018’s 30 Greatest Music Performances of the Year, Ranked.