One of the best things about music is the unique impression it leaves on every listener. Everyone ends a song in a different mood, hearing different pieces, and with a different takeaway on what the song was truly about. Songwriters often use this narrative nebulousness to sneak in concepts they wouldn’t dare make plain. Whether through ambiguous wording, hidden and overlooked lyrics, or deceptively upbeat production, writers can get away with hiding a lot in their songs. And a lot of what they hide can be dark, dirty, or downright disturbing. Though plenty of songs make their ugliness their beauty and proudly show it off (looking at you, “Polly”), here are ten songs that hide something dark behind an innocent exterior.
10 Semi-Charmed Life by Third Eye Blind
This is a pretty well-known example of the ‘catchy melody/dark lyrics’ phenomenon, mainly because the darkness isn’t hidden at all within the lyrics. One read through the lyrics and you’ll know what truly lies beneath that absurdly earwormy chorus. It barely even uses metaphor. One line just reads, “Doing crystal myth will lift you up until you break.”
But what’s notable is that still, so many people have no idea what “Semi-Charmed Life” is about. For many, probably most, the song is just that ‘doo doo doo, doo daDO doo” song. The fact that the song is so ubiquitous, having dug its way into virtually every pop, ’90s, and even some classic rock stations, makes it even easier for the meaning to hide in plain sight; it’s not often you take a close look at the thing that’s all around you all the time.
9 MMMBop by Hanson
Few songs are as hated as this one. And it won’t be defended here. But it is perhaps just a touch deeper than you would imagine. “MMMBop” tries its absolute hardest to get you to disregard its lyrics entirely, with a chorus that is essentially just a string of nonsense syllables (which only add to the band’s perception as baby-pop). I mean, the lyrics “Mmmbop / ba duba dop / Ba du bop / ba duba dop / Ba du bop / ba duba dop Ba du / oh yeah” don’t exactly invite you to pore over their every nuance. Side note: saying “oh yeah” at the end of that chorus is like spiking a football after being sacked for a ten-yard loss.
But the verse lyrics are not as Teletubby-ish as their choral companions. Some of the very first lines are “You have so many relationships in this life / Only one or two will last / You go through all the pain and strife / Then you turn your back and they’re gone so fast” and “When you get old and start losing your hair / Can you tell me who will still care?” Yikes.
8 Beautiful by James Blunt
Most people think “Beautiful” is just another on-the-nose saccharine love song like “When I See You Smile” and “You Were Meant For Me.” This is primarily because the song’s not-so-dynamic nature encourages listeners to tune in and out, only hearing a few select lines. “I saw an angel” …something… She smiled at me on the subway…” …something something… “You’re beautiful / You’re beautiful / You’re beautiful, it’s true.”
James Blunt actually hates this half-listened misinterpretation, saying in an interview with the Huffington Post, “’You’re Beautiful’ is not this soft romantic f—g song. It’s about a guy who’s high as a f—g 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.” Reading through the lyrics, it’s clear that is, indeed, the narrative. But while the lyrics paint one picture, the song’s (semi)enduring reputation has painted another.
7 Hey Ya by Outkast
“Hey Ya” rules. Let’s get that out of the way. The song is an absolute bop and will be until the eventual heat death of the universe. “Hey Ya” took whatever love OutKast had built for themselves in the Atlanta hip hop scene and extended it out to the general music scene everywhere. Its infectious melodies, snap-along rhythms, and supremely inviting call-and-response components make the song a charismatic staple at karaoke, sing-a-longs, and even still in clubs. And with a chorus that mainly just repeats “Hey ya” again and again, most listeners find themselves content to enjoy the music without digging deeper.
Heck, it’s so catchy that even when you do discover the darker lyrics, you’re probably still too enamored to care. But they’re there, telling the story of a young couple unable to find happiness and unwilling to fix it. One verse reads, in part, “We get together / but separate’s always better when there’s feelings involved… Nothing lasts forever / Then what makes love the exception? / So why are we still in denial when we know we’re not happy here?”
6 Pumped Up Kicks by Foster The People
“Pumped Up Kicks” is another catchy little number. Enough to make Foster the People a nearly-household name for a few years in the early 2010s. Though the band would never recapture its success, the song has survived well, still finding play often on pop radio and the background of every Gap. Perhaps its most appealing asset is the surprisingly simple bass walk-up/walk-down that underlies THE ENTIRE SONG. Seriously, it never changes by even a note. But that worked, and the song was a hit.
And yet, the entire song is about a mentally ill teenager who decides to commit a mass shooting at a school. “He found a six-shooter gun in his dad’s closet, in a box of fun things and I don’t even know what / But he’s coming for you, yeah, he’s coming for you” then “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks / You better run, better run, outrun my gun” and then “I’ve waited for a long time / Yeah, the slight of my hand is now a quick pull trigger.” Maybe a little too delicate a topic for a snappy radio hit.
5 Slide by Goo Goo Dolls
Have you ever heard the chorus to this song? It’s so sweet. “And I’ll do anything you ever dreamed to be complete / Little pieces of the nothing that fall / Oh, May, Put your arms around me / What you feel is what you are and what you are is beautiful / Oh, May, do you wanna get married or run away?” And you’d have to assume the verses are adorable, too. Then again, maybe not.
“Don’t you love the life you killed? / The priest is on the phone, your father hit the wall, your ma disowned you / Don’t suppose I’ll ever know what it means to be a man / It’s something I can’t change. I’ll live around it.”
What in the…? According to writer Johnny Rzeznik, the song is about a young couple in a strict Catholic environment deciding whether to abort the child and if doing so would mean abuse and exile. Did I already use yikes? I should have saved yikes for here.
4 99 Luft Balloons by Nena
West German band Nena had a smash hit with their song “99 Luft Balloons.” So much so that it got American kids in the ’80s to sing with each other in German. And that is really the crux of why this song’s true meaning is hidden; millions of people became familiar with the original German version and then disregarded the later English translation. Even if they hadn’t, the English translation changes the original song’s meaning to obscure the actual story.
The German version tells an almost poetic narrative about a group of balloons that are misinterpreted as an aerial threat by fighter pilots, which cascades into a cold-war-esque game of nuclear chicken, eventually leading to a full nuclear holocaust that destroys the Earth and all human life. But hey, that Goldfinger cover is pretty rad.
3 I’ve Been Everywhere by Johnny Cash
About 99% of Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere” suggests that it’s a simple novelty tune. It tells the story of a hitchhiker who regales a trucker about all the places he’s backpacked across the Americas. And it’s an impressive list; he’s been everywhere from the southern tip of South America to the syrup-strewn hockey rink of a country that is Canada, stopping at dozens of cities in-between, from tiny southern U.S. towns to major coastal cities.
It’s quite the life, the true dream of the nomad. Except for one itty-bitty tiny little detail. Stuck right at the end of a list of cities is the hitchhiker’s confession: “I’m a killer.” That makes it a bit more worrisome that he’s been everywhere.
2 You Are My Sunshine by Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell (Probably)
One of the most famous lullabies and children’s songs, “You Are My Sunshine” is beloved for its simple melody and warm, innocuous lyrics. It’s the sonic version of getting a hug from grandma. It’s like fresh muffins for your ears. It’s sweet and loving, and that’s the end of the story.
That’s not the end of the story. Usually, only the chorus is sung, and when the verses reenter the picture, they change the song’s tone dramatically. “The other night dear, as I lay sleeping, I dreamed I held you in my arms / But when I awoke, dear, I was mistaken so I hung my head and I cried.” That’s how the whole thing starts. The whole thing continues on in its self-pitying way, but one more verse bares typing: “I’ll always love you and make you happy, if you will only say the same / But if you leave me and love another, you’ll regret it all someday.” Nothing like the threat of murdering your ex to really round little Billy’s night-night song.
1 At Least It Was Here by The 88
You probably know this song as the theme to the tragically defunct NBC sitcom Community. Like almost every sitcom theme you can imagine, it pulls you in quickly with a light, romping melody that lends itself to being chopped into thirty-second bits. It’s airy and light, major-keyed, and lets its arrangement speak louder than its lyrics. In short, it does what sitcom themes do and feels good. Then you actually learn the lyrics. The full lyrics to the shortened-for-TV version are “Give me some rope, tie me to dream / Give me the hope to run out of steam
/ Somebody said it can be here / We could be roped up, tied up, dead in a year / But I can’t count the reasons I should stay / One by one they all just fade away.” In practically any context, combining ‘rope’ and ‘not having any reason to stick around’ is a recipe for tragedy. And I’m not even touching the ‘tied up and dead’ part. Somehow that was the lead-in for pillow forts and paintballs.