Complimentary album art - Foster the People
Has there ever been a song you sang along to, not really knowing what the song was about? It was just fun to sing. Sometimes, songs can be misleading. A happy, upbeat song can seem so on the surface. One could even sing along and not know the true meaning behind the lyrics of a seemingly happy song. Some of the happiest-sounding songs can actually hold a darker meaning. We’ve collected 10 songs that fit into this category. We hope not to ruin any of these beloved songs for you!
1) "Electric Avenue" - Eddy Grant
This is a song I often associate with summer because of its groovy vibe that makes you want to dance. But its lyrics are not so party-worthy. Grant says the song refers to Electric Avenue, a real shopping area in the Brixton section of London. It tells the story of a poor man who beholds the things in life he could never achieve. The Brixton area was the setting for riots between police and protesters in 1981, which Grant refers to in the opening line, "Down in the street there is violence." The song was also a response to some of the racism that was sparked at the time when more people thought the violence was about race, when in fact most of it stemmed from poverty.
Knowing this doesn’t change the fact that it’s a catchy hit, but it might make you pause to think about the song’s roots as you groove along.
2) "The A Team" – Ed Sheeran
While on the surface, A-Team may sound like a happy song with the way Ed Sheeran sings the track, but it actually covers a deep topic. The song is a true story and was written by Sheeran after meeting a girl called Angel whilst volunteering at a crisis homeless shelter. The “A Team” refers to class A drugs such as cocaine, taken by “Angel” while she struggles on the streets to survive. Sheeran himself dealt with being homeless in the earlier years of his music career before “A Team” took him out of obscurity. He says that he also produced the song to raise awareness to people struggling on the streets. It may have darker lyrics than expected, but it still does a great job of raising awareness to the horrors of addiction.
3) "Hey Ya!" - Outkast
Anyone who’s familiar with hits from the 2000s know “Hey Ya!” This is a must-play at parties, especially at weddings these days. Why? Because it’s a fast-paced, catchy, great party song. It’s so fun to sing along to the “Hey Ya” chorus and to “shake it like a polaroid picture” that it’s easy to miss lyrics like, “If what they say is ‘nothing is forever’ then what makes love the exception?” and “why are we still in denial when we know we’re not happy here?”
So, while the song is fun to sing and dance to, it applies commentary to the trend of staying together in an unhappy relationship out of fear of being alone. The saddest part? Andre 3000, the singer of the group, even says in the song, “Ya’ll don’t want to hear me, you just wanna dance.” Even he knows that this is going to become a party track, with the true meaning looked over for the sake of good dance music. Try not to think about the impermanence of relationships next time you’re jamming out to the 2000s hit.
4) "Help" – The Beatles
Most people think “Help” is just a fast rock ‘n roll song. But John Lennon has been quoted saying, “I was actually crying out for help. I didn’t realize it at the time; I just wrote the song because I was commissioned to write it for the movie. But later, I knew I really was crying out for help.” So, why did Lennon need help? Well, he said the quick success of the band was overwhelming, and they felt like the industry had a hold on their songwriting content. Although originally conceived as a ballad, The Beatles performed ‘Help!’ faster in the studio, as they had done with ‘Please Please Me’, to satisfy the group’s commercial instincts.
It’s been said that there were darker versions of the song that never made it to recording, so they took the upbeat route to make the record company happy. And the happy-sounding song became a hit, with a lot of fans having no idea just how much the writer behind the song needed help.
5) "Camisado" – Panic! at the Disco
Panic! at the Disco is known for their upbeat songs, and the album that “Camisado” comes from has an alternative rock meets cabaret style that’s very fast-paced and uplifting. Granted, not every song on the album Pretty Odd is fast-paced, but this is one of the tracks that fits this category perfectly. It’s upbeat and very fun to sing along to, but the lyrical content is quite heartbreaking. Ryan Ross, a member at the time, wrote this song to unpack his relationship with his father who was a violent alcoholic. Ross had to take care of him when he would "relapse.” There are many lines displaying the addiction such as "sit back and relapse again" and “you've earned your place atop the ICU's hall of fame. The bruises and contusions will remind me what you did when you wake.” It’s such a sad subject matter decorated in a fast-paced happy track until you realize what the lyrics are about.
6) "Semi-Charmed Life" – Third Eye Blind
With an introductory “do do do,” it immediately feels like it’s a happy song. It’s a song that’s been used in TV show soundtracks for years to keep up the positive vibe. But if you listen to the lyrics, it’s not really positive at all. It’s a song about drugs taking over a person’s life and losing people because of it. It’s been said it was specifically crystal meth. The man in the song makes it clear that drugs were all he had, and he laments how taking drugs has become a chore but he’s addicted so he has to keep doing it. To quote the lead singer, Stephan Jenkins: 'It’s a dirty, filthy song about snorting speed and getting blow jobs.'" This is one that really ruined the song for me. It sounds so happy, and the chorus can be easily misconstrued to seem positive like someone is not listening to any negativity. Knowing the true meaning definitely changes things.
7) "Every Breath You Take" – The Police
On the surface, “Every Breath You Take” seems like a love song. Someone is so dedicated to the person they love, that they will be watching them. Every breath they take, every move they make. Wait. How do people see this song as romantic?? It may sound like a sweet love song, but it actually sounds like it’s about stalking someone. Although this description wasn’t confirmed by the writer at first, he acknowledged that in hindsight, that it comes off as a sinister song. It goes to show how over time, people’s ideas of how love is portrayed change. Perhaps in the 80s, it seemed romantic to have someone always watching you. Today, many people call out this sort of creepy behavior and red flags in a relationship. It’s very unsettling to listen to when you think of it from the perspective of a stalker.
8) "You’re Beautiful" – James Blunt
Yes, that’s right. The 2004 hit “You’re Beautiful” is not actually a love song at all, despite popular belief. It sounds romantic, almost like unrequited love. However, James Blunt said about the song, it's “not this soft, romantic f*cking song. It's about a guy who’s high as a f*cking kite on drugs in the subway, stalking someone else’s girlfriend when that guy is there in front of him, and he should be locked up or put in prison for being some kind of perv.” If this ruined your day like it did mine, I’m so sorry. As it turns out, the song we used to sing and think of Blunt as a hopeless romantic was actually just a song about a drug addict. I wish we could all unknow this detail.
9) "Can’t Feel My Face" – The Weeknd
The Weekend has become a well-known artist in the last decade, known for high-energy, catchy hits including “In the Night” and “I Feel It Coming.” The song “Can’t Feel My Face” sat for months on the Billboard charts, the song playing in every bar, store, and club. On the surface, it seems like a typical party song, one about a man in love with a woman. So much in love that he “can’t feel his face” when he’s with her. As it turns out, the song is not about a girl at all. It's about cocaine. It’s an ode to drugs, not to a woman. It definitely explains the strange phrasing, and once you know the context, it makes sense. Even if it is a little shocking.
10) "Pumped Up Kicks" - Foster the People
Listening to “Pumped Up Kicks” without hearing the lyrics, one would think it’s just another feel-good indie radio jam. Although it’s easy to tell (if one actually listens) that the song’s subject matter isn’t happy at all. With lyrics like “outrun my gun”, it very clearly wasn’t a positive song. After being appalled by statistics about school shootings, Mark Foster delved into the head of a troubled youth going into a school shooting. He said the song was about a kid losing his mind and plotting revenge. “He's an outcast. I feel like the youth in our culture are becoming more and more isolated. It's kind of an epidemic. Instead of writing about victims and some tragedy, I wanted to get into the killer's mind, like Truman Capote did in In Cold Blood.” Surprisingly, a lot of people have said they had no idea what the song was about when it played everywhere in 2010. Knowing the subject matter, in this case, makes the song more interesting in my opinion. The context makes it all the more powerful and interesting.
That’s our list! Are there any we missed that you think we should have included? Did you already know the true meaning of any of these songs? Let us know in the comments!
A special thanks to my sources who helped me in writing this review:
Cover image from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VUftwQKDvc0
Written by Kristen Petronio