Most songs are reasonably straightforward. They are about sex. But sometimes it’s a little trickier to figure out the meanings behind your favorite tunes. Sometimes it takes a little research and scrutiny to truly understand a song. And sometimes, when you finally achieve that understanding, you will regret it with every fiber of your being. Here are 5 such songs that will give you a very different perspective.
[Song#5] “Heroes” by David Bowie Is About A Man Cheating On His Wife
The exact meaning of Bowie’s “Heroes” seems fairly obvious. It’s about people being heroes, if just for one day, right? So it was plenty appropriate when the Thin White Duke did a live performance of it as a tribute to 9/11 first responders at Madison Square Garden. Or perhaps not, since the song is in truth about making out with your side piece.
When “Heroes” was released, Bowie stated that it was about two lovers kissing in front of the Berlin Wall whom he spotted outside the window of his recording studio. The lyrics directly reference this moment when Bowie mentions “lovers” who are “standing by the wall.” And even making out is a little bit heroic when you’re doing it in sight of the dreaded communists, right?
But the song omits some key facts about the identity of the lovers, and Bowie would not reveal it for years. These weren’t two heroic Germans protesting the division the wall represented by shoving their tongues down each other’s throats; it was his producer, Tony Visconti, making out with his mistress. Bowie didn’t want to reveal his buddy’s infidelity to the world, so he omitted the identity of the “heroes” in the song. It wasn’t until years after Visconti divorced his wife that Bowie let the cat out of the bag.
So, it’s probably better for all parties involved that we ignore the “cheating on your wife” thing, lest we confront the fact that we’ve been equating first responders to cheaters.
[Song#4] “Rock The Casbah” by The Clash Is NOT Anti-Arab
In the 1990s, the Clash’s single “Rock The Casbah” became wildly popular among a certain kind of people who reflexively enjoy things only because “the Sharif don’t like it.” Obviously, a British anarchist punk rock band was not on the side of the American military-industrial complex, so how did this happen?
In 1991, during Operation Desert Storm (the prequel to Iraq War: The Never-ending Story), “Rock The Casbah” became a massive hit with U.S. military forces. Popular U.S. Army DJ Rick Yanku frequently played the song during his morning radio show from his base in Saudi Arabia, and the soldiers took the Clash’s mention of dropping bombs “between the minarets” as a literal pro-war, anti-Arab statement — again proving that musicology should really part of the core syllabus at West Point. After the war, the conservative magazine National Review included it in their “Top 50 Conservative Songs of All Time” list. We assume the remainder was country.
However, someone wasn’t a big fan of the song’s resurging popularity: the Clash themselves. The band hated that they’d provided the unofficial anthem for invading military forces, which front man Joe Strummer called “just typical and disgusting.” Not only was it easy to debunk the anti-Arab myth based on the song’s content, it’s even easier when you inconveniently omit the release date. The zealots that want to label the song anti-Arab to rally the troops around the Persian Gulf conflicts have to first completely forget that the song was released in 1982. The song was intended as a middle finger to Iran for banning Western music after the Islamic Revolution. It’s all about the power of artistic expression and common people resisting the oppressive militarism of the 1 percent trying to keep them down.
[Song#3] “Sign Of The Times” by Harry Styles Is About A Dying Mother
At first glance, Harry Styles’ 2017 hit “Sign Of The Times” seems a bit light on meaning. There’s a mandatory “baby, it’ll be alright” pop ballad insert, and a lot of references to bullets. Some think it’s a political protest, while others believe it’s a gay anthem. But none of them are right, because it’s about dead moms.
According to Styles, the narrator in the song is a woman who has recently given birth, and she’s about to die due to complications. Styles narrates the last things the mother says to her newborn baby before passing, which for some reason she does in pop-sensible rhyme form. Despite this downer theme, Styles insists that there’s ultimately a positive meaning: Times can be tough, but we have to be brave and “just stop your crying.” Stop crying, newborn baby.
[Song#2] “Mahna Mahna” by The Muppets Originally Came From A Porno
“Mahna Mahna” has been covered by many different artists – including Cake, The Fray, Cee Lo Green, and Mickey Rooney – for reasons beyond the limits of human understanding. But despite the many tributes, it will always be a Muppets song. Which is awkward, because the song has more pornographic symbolism than Gonzo’s nose.
“Mahna” first appeared in an Italian porn film called Sweden: Heaven And Hell, a documentary-style exploitation flick focused on sexuality in Sweden. “Mahna Mahna” was only one of composer Piero Umiliani’s hastily-cobbled together tracks, meant to accompany statuesque Scandinavian babes frolicking around nude. Not a very Muppet-appropriate scene, unless Swedish Chef was somewhere in the background doing some not-kid-friendly things to pay the rent.
After the release of the film, the song became a minor hit in the States, reaching #55 in the charts — high enough to catch the attention of young puppeteer Jim Henson. Henson thought the song would be great for one of his skits, so he made a puppet called “Mahna Mahna” to gruffly sing the tune, accompanied by two very feminine Muppets called “Snouths.” Henson’s “Mahna Mahna” debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show, and it was such a hit that they had him do it again for the first season of Sesame Street — as in for kids aged 2-7, “Brought to You by the Letters C and N, and by the Number 6” Sesame Street. Now the song is so closely associated with the Muppets that there’s hardly any of its original sexiness left. Unless you’re into anthropomorphic animal puppets, in which case you’ve found your new anthem.
[Song#1] “Mellow Yellow” by Donovan Is About A Vibrator
Released over 50 years ago, Donovan’s sleepy little slice of psychedelia “Mellow Yellow” has found fans in every generation. The version that features in the Minions soundtrack currently has over 16 million views on YouTube.
As with any psychedelic folk song, people figured that “Mellow Yellow” was some kind of reference to drugs. Extremely stupid drugs, at that. Rumors swirled that the song was about getting high by smoking banana peels, an actual urban myth at the time (as if it was so hard to score weed in the ’60s). But the song is, in fact, pretty easy to understand. All you have to do is focus on this particular lyric: “Electrical banana / Is gonna be a sudden craze / Electrical banana / Is bound to be the very next phase.”
According to Donovan, he was inspired to write the song after seeing a print advertisement for a yellow dildo called “Mellow Yellow.” So the “electric banana” that’s “bound to be the very next phase” is a not-so-subtle reference to a very futuristic (by 1967 standards) vibrator. And now there’s a song about a vintage sex toy on the Minions soundtrack. Then again, those little yellow guys in that movie kinda seem like freaks, so maybe it was all intentional.