Have you ever listened to a hit song and caught yourself thinking, “hey, I wonder where this song came from?” Well, you’re in luck because you’re about to learn the crazy and twisted origins of some of the most popular songs of all time.
Do you know what a hollaback girl is? Do you know who Carly Simon wrote “You’re So Vain” about? Keep reading to find out.
Journey – Don’t Stop Believin’
This classic rock ballad from 1981 has a pretty substantial factual error in it. The lyric, “Born and raised in SOUTH DETROIT” (which you definitely just sang out loud in your head just now) is incorrect because South Detroit doesn’t exist.
When written, Steve Perry admitted he tried North Detroit, East Detroit, West Detroit, but for him, South Detroit sounded the best, so he rolled with it. He would later find out that “South Detroit” doesn’t exist, the location south of downtown Detroit is the Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario.
Van Halen – Jump
A seemingly upbeat and invigorating song actually has its lyrics rooted in a pretty dark place. David Lee Roth came up with the line “Go ahead and jump” after seeing a news broadcast of a guy standing on top of Arco Tower, threatening to commit suicide.
David then commented that there’s always one guy in the crowd below that shouts to the person to “Go ahead and jump.” Slightly less uplifting than I always read into the lyrics. Happy Monday, people.
Gwen Stefani – Hollaback Girl
This pop song was written as a direct response to Courtney Love who’d dissed Stefani, calling her a cheerleader. In the music video, there are multiple shots of Stefani sporting a cheerleader outfit.
I still don’t know what a hollaback girl is. I guess it’s a cheerleader? Does that make sense?
Aerosmith – Dude Looks Like A Lady
Aerosmith had spent a good amount of time hanging with the band Motley Crue, and the band collectively rolled their eyes at how nearly every sentence spoken by M.C. started with “Dude.” But more importantly was one night, while imbibing a few drinks, Tyler said, the band noticed what they thought was an attractive girl with teased, bleach-blonde hair.
They soon realized that it wasn’t a girl at all—it was Vince Neil from Motley Crue, who did indeed have a beautiful mane of hair. “That dude looks like a lady,” one of them uttered. And the phrase stuck.
Fastball – The Way
This chart-topping 1998 one-hit-wonder was interpreted by most as eternal youth and a road trip that never ends. Wrong. It was actually inspired by a real news story the band read about of an elderly couple that left for a festival in Texas and disappeared. Later on, after the band decided to record the song, they would find out in the newspaper that the elderly couple was found dead at the bottom of a canyon in their Oldsmobile, hundreds of miles off course.
I guess we now know where they were going after all.
Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run
‘Born to Run’ was briefly considered by the New Jersey state legislature to be their state song.
However, it was later turned down by the Senate due to harsher lyrics including “a death trap,” and a “suicide rap” that describe a place that people would want to escape from rather than celebrate.
Billy Joel – We Didn’t Start The Fire
Joel found the inspiration for “We Didn’t Start the Fire” after he had just turned 40. While in a recording studio, a friend of Sean Lennon, who had just turned 21 (yes, the son of John Lennon, FYI), said: “It’s a terrible time to be 21!” Joel retorted, “Yeah, I remember when I was 21 – I thought it was an awful time and we had Vietnam, and y’know, drug problems, and civil rights problems and everything seemed to be awful.”
The friend replied, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, but it’s different for you. You were a kid in the fifties and everybody knows that nothing happened in the fifties”. Joel was quick to correct that belief by asking, “Wait a minute, didn’t you hear of the Korean War or the Suez Canal Crisis?” Joel later said admitting those headlines formed the basic framework for the hit song.
Deep Purple – Smoke On The Water
This song, with arguably the most universally noticeable opening guitar riff ever, was written after someone launched a rocket inside a casino during Frank Zappa’s concert. A fiery inferno broke out instantly, destroying the casino complex.
The title “Smoke On The Water” refers to the sight Roger Glover saw roll over Lake Geneva as the fire raged inside the casino.
Beastie Boys – Fight For Your Right To Party
As you would imagine, most believe this song is about partying. The MTV video further perpetuates this concept too. But in reality, the Beastie Boys were parodying all the songs at the time singing about…well…partying. Adam Yauch was making fun of partiers but admitted irony is often missed by people. He went on to say, “The only thing that upsets me is that we might have reinforced certain values of some people in our audience when our own values were actually totally different.”
Whether this is total BS or not, that’s their story and they’re sticking to it.
Sixpence None The Richer – There She Goes
This popular bubbly song covered by Sixpence None The Richer, was originally written and sung by The La’s, and it appears to be about a girl who keeps slipping out of a man’s fingers just when they are getting close.
Not the case. In reality, it’s about the fleeting feeling after someone takes heroin and the addiction that follows.
Pink Floyd – Comfortably Numb
The misconception is that this song is about drugs or even masturbation. But Roger Waters, the song’s writer, insists it’s actually about what it felt like when he was sick as a kid.
He explained: “I remember having the flu or something, an infection with a temperature of 105 and being delirious. It wasn’t like the hands looked like balloons, but they looked way too big, frightening. A lot of people think those lines are about masturbation. God knows why.”
Third Eye Blind – Semi-Charmed Life
With upbeat riffs and loads of “Doo-Doo-Doos,” this poppy song is actually about falling apart from a drug addiction.
Stephan Jenkins later admitted, “When I wrote ‘Semi-Charmed Life,’ the guitar riff was intended to have this sort of bright duh-
Carly Simon – You’re So Vain
For a while it was unknown who Carly Simon spoke about when she wrote and sang, “You’re So Vain”. She would later admit it was primarily about Warren Beatty who she dated for a period of time. Ouch. Guy was a real Dick Tracy, I guess.
Hanson – MMMBop
This catchy, one-hit-wonder was a smash hit in 1996 that most considered a simple, meaningless song. However, Hanson explained that it originally had a somber tone to meet its intended meaning but was changed to a pop song later after some studio peer pressure.The song is actually about the futility of life and how the things you think are important are going to be dead and gone one day.
Bob Marley – I Shot The Sheriff
Strap on everybody because this one will make your head explode. Turns out the song about shooting a sheriff is metaphorical. “That’s not really a sheriff, it’s the elements of wickedness.” Stranger still is one more layer, Marley’s then-girlfriend claimed it’s actually about birth control! She explained Marley thought birth control was a sin and the doctor prescribing them was the “sheriff.”
Paul McCartney – Hey Jude
This beloved ballad was written during a difficult time for McCartney when the Beatles weren’t getting along and he and his girlfriend were breaking up. However, he wrote it as a way to comfort and cheer up John Lennon’s five-year-old son, Jules, as his parents were getting divorced. Originally, the title was “Hey Jules” but he changed it later. McCartney said the song’s intro was “a hopeful message for Julian: ‘Come on, man, your parents got divorced. I know you’re not happy, but you’ll be OK.’”
One more interesting note to the song is that John Lennon, awkwardly, thought the ballad was about him as a blessing for his relationship with Yoko Ono.
Chicago – 25 or 6 to 4
Like other songs on this list, most believe this song is about drugs and being on LSD. Or another theory is that the title refers to route numbers on the Chicago Loop.
However, according to Robert Lamm, the song was written when they were recording songs late at night and it’s really about time. The words “25 or 6 to 4” represent 25 or 26 minutes to 4 in the morning, i.e. 3:35 or 3:34.
John Mellencamp – Pink Houses
Many people think this song is about the American Dream and being happy with your little place to call home. In reality, Mellencamp describes it’s about how the American Dream has led to poverty and wasn’t working anymore. He elaborated, “I was driving through Indianapolis on Interstate 65 and I saw a black man holding either a cat or a dog. He was sitting on his front lawn in front of a pink house in one of those cheap lawn chairs. I thought, “Wow, is this what life can lead to? Watching the cars go by on the interstate?”
On a more positive note, he went on to add, “Then I imagined he wasn’t isolated, but he was happy. So I went with that positive route when I wrote this song.” Silver lining.
Lady Gaga – Pokerface
It might come as a surprise to some of you that Lady Gaga isn’t actually a big fan of gambling or poker. Shocking, right? The reality is this hit song was inspired by Lady Gaga keeping her bisexuality hidden from her heterosexual male lover.
During one performance of ‘Poker Face,’ she paused to tell them, “You know this song is actually about when I was making love to this guy that I was dating a long time ago,” she said, adding “I was thinking about chicks every time we had sex.”
The Drifters – Save The Last Dance For Me
The beautiful song by Doc Pomus has a deeper meaning than most people realized. He wrote the song after watching his bride dance with everyone else at their wedding, but Doc Pomus was unable to dance because he had polio.
Essentially Pomes was stating that he would happily let his wife dance with whoever she wanted to, but at the end of the night, make sure to save the last dance for the one she loved and would be going home with. That’s pretty damn beautiful if you ask me.
Michael Jackson – Billie Jean
This iconic song and cautionary tale is thought to be about a girl who claimed that Jackson was the father of her child. Jackson has actually stated that the song was based on girls who had made the same claim about his older brothers when they toured as part of The Jackson 5. Though there were rumors that Jackson based it on a woman, a crazed fan who used to stalk him, writing him letters about a son she thought was his.
The actual reality is widely speculated, and Michael rarely discussed the meaning of the song to confirm or deny people’s claims and assumptions. However, Michel did specify when he wrote the song. According to Jackson he was driving his Rolls-Royce down the highway, and was so enamored by his songwriting and the song as he was hashing it out that he didn’t notice his car had caught on fire. A motorcyclist warned him about it and saved his life in the process.