Have you ever sung a song, one you know very well, one pretty much everybody knows, and stopped to consider the lyrics. There are some very strange traditional songs out there – Ring-A-Ring-A-Roses with its supposed allusions to the plague or the last line in the first verse of the Dutch national anthem which makes every patriotic lowlander pledge allegiance to, um, the King of Spain… whilst singing as William of Orange. Wait, what?
Here we have a list of lyrics in popular songs, rather than traditional ones. From the intentionally offensive to the bizarrely philosophical, these songs show that popular music doesn’t need to be all about love, money and fast cars. Sometimes they can confuse the hell out of you.
10 ‘Plush’ by The Stone Temple Pilots
Ah, Grunge. Not exactly the most upbeat musical genre ever, but it does get the blood pumping. This song, however, with its slow-build-to-soaring lyrics and guitars that don’t sound like their being dragged through a sack of pennies like in other grunge tracks, sounds kind of upbeat… until you read the lyrics.
It seems to be about a guy who has kidnapped and murdered a little girl. Unfortunately for lovers of this smile-making bit of 90s nostalgia, that is indeed what the song is about. Or is it? Lead singer Scott Weiland told VH1: “A girl was kidnapped and then later found tragically murdered back in the early part of the Nineties. So it gave me fuel to write the words to this song. However, this song is not about that, really; it’s sort of a metaphor for a lost, obsessive relationship.”
So the lines ‘And I feel, and I feel/When the dogs begin to smell her/Will she smell alone’ is a metaphor? Whatever you say, Scott.
9 ‘Cola’ by Lana Del Rey
How offensive could a song about a fizzy brown beverage be? Turns out, pretty damned offensive. Based on a quote about American women by her Scottish boyfriend, the Californian songstress released this single from her 2012 album ‘Born to Die’. Her boyfriend had told her that he believed that American women “walk around as if your pussies tasted like Pepsi-Cola, as if you’d wrap yourself into an American flag to sleep”. Fair enough.
Another inspiration for the lyrics was, more worryingly perhaps, the now-infamous Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The lines “I got sweet taste for men who’re older/ It’s always been so it’s no surprise/ Harvey’s in the sky with diamonds/ And it’s making me crazy/ All he wants to do is party with his pretty baby” don’t quite sit right in the wake of Weinstein’s crimes coming to light. Lana Del Rey has since retired the song from public performances. Probably a wise move.
8 ‘He Liked to Feel It’ by The Crash Test Dummies
This alt-rock band from Winnipeg, Canada are used to recording some pretty weird songs. Their big hit released in 1993, ‘Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm’ (catchy title!), included lyrics about children with various physical deformities and ailments and one kid whose parents drag him along to a Pentecostal church. Pretty odd. But their 1996 single ‘He Liked To Feel It’ is even stranger because it is more vague.
The song tells the story of a kid who enjoys taking his teeth out. He first pulls out a tooth by tying some string around it and attaching it to a doorknob. The kid also likes to show his friend and tells them that he: ‘liked to feel it when it came out’. He then moves on to a more creative means of dental extraction by tying it to his dog and throwing a stick for the pooch to chase. But before he can enact this plan, his dad shows up with some pliers and angrily yanks his son’s tooth out himself. ‘That wasn’t how he liked to have his teeth pulled out/He wouldn’t tell us how it felt when it came out’. Compulsive, exhibitionist self-mutilation from a child, coupled with some parental abuse? The video is weird too. So is Brad Roberts’ deep baritone vocals in an indie folk/rock group. That was pop music in the 90s, kids.
7 ‘The Macarena’ by Los Del Rio
Every wedding staged between 1993 and around 2005 included a dance floor full of drunken guests, mainly over the age of 50, fumbling around in an attempt to recreate the famous dance in the music video for this Spanish novelty track. This tradition was probably more prevalent than cake and white dresses during this era. But what are the two old Spaniards singing about in the annoyingly catchy chorus? If you don’t speak Spanish, you probably don’t know. Brace yourselves:
‘Macarena has a boyfriend who’s called…
who’s called the last name Vitorino,
and while he was taking his oath as a conscript
she was giving it to two friends …Aaay!’
Soooooo… Macarena isn’t just the name of a dance, it’s the name of a girl whose boyfriend is off in the army. And she cheats on him with two of his pals.
6 ‘Angel of Death’ by Slayer
Yes, metal bands are no strangers to controversial, gory and explicit lyrics. It would be really rebellious if some Norwegian black metal band released a song about buttercups, but hey, conformists will conform! The weird thing about this song is, given the title and the era, you’d expect it to be about the devil, maybe even devil-worship, or the battle in Heaven.
No, it’s about the Holocaust.
Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman is a real history buff. His very particular (and as far as I can tell, sole) area of interest is Germany from the years 1938ish to 1945. So, Nazi stuff. He collects artefacts and antiques that can be described as a bit right-wing, and has penned a couple of songs inspired by leading Nazi figures – this particular thrash metal classic was about Josef Mengele, the evil doctor of Auschwitz. Jewish groups were outraged, the album, ‘Reign in Blood’, was dropped by DefJam before release and all because of a misunderstanding regarding the song’s intent. The suggestion was that Slayer were condoning and even supporting Nazi-style anti-Semitism:
‘feeding on the screams of the mutants he’s creating/pathetic harmless victims left to die/rancid Angel of Death flying free’.
Hm. Not exactly glowing praise of the Nazi. Slayer’s legend of an axe-man Kerry King commented: “Read the lyrics and tell me what’s offensive about it. Can you see it as a documentary, or do you think Slayer’s preaching fucking World War II?”
5 ‘Aserejé’ by Las Ketchup
Now we can get to the Satanism. Or, at least, supposed Satanism. Even without the touted suggestion of occult lyrics, this very Macarena-esque earworm’s lyrics are pretty out there anyway.
So it seems that a guy called Diego walks into a club and : “With the moon in his pupils/and his turquoise suit/it seems smuggled/And there, where not even a soul can be squeezed in/He gets in whatever it takes/possessed by the ragatanga rhythm”.
This player comes into a club, knows the DJ who then plays his request; a ‘Midnight Hymn’… Satan, is that you?
The satanic imagery may be in there to highlight the sexy danger this Diego guy possesses, as opposed to being some nefarious call-out to devil-worshippers everywhere. Where the song does skirt closer to controversy is that Diego is referred to as a ‘Rastafarian Afro-Gypsy’, whatever that may be.
4 ‘Star Star’ by The Rolling Stones
Nothing is hidden or subliminal in this one, The Stones put it all out there with this song. When you hear the lyrics, you may wonder if there is a saltier person on earth than Mick Jagger. Maybe that’s why he is so wrinkly.
Despite the song seemingly being about a star-crazed groupie who went from guy to guy simply to bed famous people, legend has it that it’s actually about pop icon Carly Simon. Jagger had provided backing vocals to Carly Simon’s era-defining pop song ‘You’re So Vain’. Rumour has it that she and Jagger had hit it off in more than just a “You like playing Uno? Get out, I like playing Uno too!” kind of way. But it wasn’t meant to be for these rock icons, Simon instead deciding to marry soft-voiced folk singer James Taylor. Feeling a little put out by this (I mean, who turns down Mick Jagger?), the rubber-lipped singer penned a song so crude, so on-the-nose about Simon that it beggars belief. Questions remain – what trick did she do with fruit? And did she ever get to ‘meet’ John Wayne?
Despite the tasteless, mean lyrics, and despite not knowing who it’s truly about, (it’s obviously Carly Simon), it really is one hell of a jam.
3 ‘The Electrician’ by Scott Walker
Another act that includes a guy with a beautiful but unbelievably strange deep voice. The Walker Brothers, whether together or Scott Walker by himself, are no strangers to strangeness. I mean, they aren’t even brothers – ‘Walker’ is a stage surname for both Scott (Noel Scott Engel) and John Walker (John Joseph Maus… why change that?). After success in the 60s and early 70s, Scott decided to go solo. And very, very avante-garde.
This 1978 single from the Walker Brothers’ final album ‘Night Flights’ feels like a bad dream. And when you delve into The Electrician’s lyrics, you’ll know why. It’s about torture. And not any old torture, the song is from the perspective of a CIA agent/torturer in Latin America (or as some suggest, a torturer in Augustin Pinochet’s Chile). Let’s allow the lyrics speak for themselves:
‘He’s drilling through the Spiritus Sanctus tonight/Through the dark hip falls/Screaming, “Oh, you mambos/ Kill me and kill me and kill me”/If I jerk the handle/You’ll die in your dreams/If I jerk the handle, jerk the handle/ You’ll thrill me and thrill me and thrill me.’
2 ‘Australia’ by The Manic Street Preachers
When the ‘Manics’ played this song down under during the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour (A select squad of the best rugby union players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales that tour a southern hemisphere nation every 4 years), it couldn’t have been more fitting – it’s called ‘Australia’, they were in Australia, the crowd was mainly from Britain and Ireland, so really far from home, and the song is about Australia being really for away from Britain. Nice! Done and done.
But if you know the real inspiration for bassist Nicky Wire’s lyrics, it’s not exactly the advert for visiting Oz it seems to be. Wire envisioned the furthest place from the band’s native Wales he could imagine because he was really depressed and frustrated after fellow band member Richey Edwards went missing, rumoured to have taken his life by jumping off the Severn Bridge –
‘Praying for the wave to come now/It must be for the very last time/It’s twelve o’clock till midnight/There must be someone to blame/I want to fly and run till it hurts/Sleep for a while and speak no words/In Australia’.
1 ‘Witchita Lineman’ by Glenn Campbell
Don’t you think that every great song includes a healthy dose of existentialism? Correct, nobody does. This classic does, though.
The song gives us two fragmented stories – an American telephone lineman dutifully working up and down the nation – so far so Americana. The second story shows his longing for his family, imagining that he can hear his wife in the hum of the lines he’s working on. Or it may be that he’s simply listening in on fragmented conversations random people are having through the phone lines. Some think it’s an anthem to the joys of hard work in quiet solitude, others hear the melancholia of a lone man in the wide open backcountry of the US, a speck in an ocean of grass and gas stations and ghost towns. Either way, this song, seemingly unfinished, leaves the listener enchanted but also thinking ‘wait…what’s going on here?’