By: Dani Kessel
Have you ever listened to a song a hundred times without actually processing the lyrics? Usually, I’m the first person to listen to lyrics in a song. It goes hand-in-hand with being a singer-songwriter. There are times that I even miss the dark meaning though.
I’ve compiled a list of upbeat, catchy songs with macabre meanings. A few of these songs, I can look past the lyrics. Most are just too messed up to ignore though. Ready to have your favorite songs potentially ruined? Here we go!
Pumped Up Kicks – Foster the People
This is a song I absolutely cannot forgive. Pumped Up Kicks tells the story of a homicidal kid with revenge fantasies about shooting up a school. Though the band says they wrote the song to get in the head of a “psychotic, isolated kid” (their horrifying words) and promote change, the lyrics romanticize the idea of gun violence. Furthermore, it vastly misunderstands the psychology of the issue. The lyrics perpetuate the myth that mental illness and isolation and bullying cause school shooters. That is entirely false. This narrative cuts.
Blurred Lines – Robin Thicke
I loathe Blurred Lines. The messages in the lyrics blatantly ignore the ideas of consent and sexual safety. From my lyrics read-through, the narrator says that the woman was being suppressed by a man who wants to domesticate her, but then he calls her an animal, says he is going to take her, and says that there are blurred lines on whether she wants him or not. It leans heavily into predatory and date rape themes. The lyrics mimic things that women actually hear as victim-blaming excuses. And even if you disagree about the rapey nature of the song, it’s clearly misogynistic and objectifying. All around GROSS!
Every Breath You Take – The Police
My sisters and I jokingly call this the creepy stalker song. People romanticize it all the time, but even Sting, the songwriter, calls the song lyrics controlling, sinister, sadistic, and stalkerish. It’s not a love song!
Semi-Charmed Life – Third Eye Blind
It was so sad to include this song on the list! I love this song. I listened to it a lot in the early noughties. I still do. But, the fact is…this song is about using crystal meth. The band is pretty open about where the song came from. They said to Rolling Stone, “It’s about a time when my friends and I were at a Primus concert and somebody brought speed. No one had done it before, and, like, three weeks later all of my friends were addicted.” Lead singer, Stephan Jenkins, explained on the show Reverb that the upbeat alluring nature of the melody is meant to mirror the dangerous draw-in of speed. The lyrics even explicitly state by the end, “Feel myself, head made of the ground / I’m scared, I’m not coming down / No, no / And I won’t run for my life / She’s got her jaws now, locked down in a smile / But nothing is alright, all right.” The reason I’m willing to forgive this song is because the songwriter clearly isn’t glorifying the drugs. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Neunundneunzig Luftballons – Nena
The lyrics to Neunundneunzig Luftballons versus 99 Red Balloons are very different. Thematically, they are similar; however, they aren’t the same. So, I want to be clear that I’m referring to the original German version. Neunundneunzig Luftballons was written as a protest song against the Cold War. The German lyrics tell a story of 99 balloons being mistaken for a UFO. When a squadron of fighter planes investigate the situation, they discover no threat. But, the other government took the squadron as a threat. A raging war sends nuclear missiles back and forth until everyone is destroyed, leaving only an apocalyptic hellscape. It’s a bleak story, but a really good example of wartime protest songs.
Can’t Feel My Face – The Weeknd
Most people believe The Weeknd wrote this song using a destructive woman as a metaphor for drugs, specifically cocaine. (Cocaine has a numbing effect, hence “I can’t feel my face when I’m with you.”) The lyrics of a later song, Reminder, almost definitely confirm this when saying: “I just won a new award for a kids show / Talking ’bout a face coming off a bag a blow.” Can’t Feel My Face previously was nominated for the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Award. The lyrics flow through feelings of desperation, happiness, loneliness, fear, and impending doom. The narrator really seems to realize that the addiction will destroy and kill him but can’t seem to get away.
Love Song – Sara Barellies
In her book Sounds Like Me, Barellies explained that Love Song was written as a pushback against the forced co-writing sessions her label wanted. She was only just discovering herself as an artist, and those sessions dulled her authenticity. She left with upset, negative, sour feelings. Thus, she wrote this defiant ballad.
Small Bump – Ed Sheeran
The song starts out as a love letter of sorts to an unborn child. The parent is pouring their plans, future, and hope into this child. But, by the end, the child is lost via a miscarriage. Ed Sheeran confirmed with Interview magazine that he took on the story after his friend lost a child at 5 months pregnant.
Jump – Van Halen
Eddie Van Halen wrote this Jump after seeing a news report where someone threatened to commit suicide by jumping off Arco Tower. Knowing that really changes the way the lyrics come across.
Kiss With A Fist – Florence and the Machine
Okay, depending on whether you go off of what Florence Welch says or what the lyrics appear to say, Kiss With A Fist is either about a love that’s so intense it emotionally destroys both people or it’s about domestic violence. Welch is absolutely adamant that the imagery is simply a way to express how intense chaotic relationships are. She wrote about the song’s background in a since-deleted Myspace blog post. She claimed there were no victims in this coupling because both individuals liked the destructive nature of the relationship. The lyrics themselves show a toxic pair who continually abuse each other. Regardless of which you go by, neither of these interpretations is a good thing!
Follow Me – Uncle Kracker
This is another early noughties song I thoroughly enjoyed until I listened to the lyrics. It is such an easy going melody. But, the lyrics clearly describe adultery. Seriously! The whole second verse is about how he doesn’t care that she is wearing a wedding ring, he doesn’t think it hurts anyone so long as they don’t know, and they shouldn’t feel guilty. It’s clear through the phrasing that this isn’t consensual non-monogamy; it is lying and cheating. As a married person, I’m disgusted by the whole thing.
Body – Julia Michaels
Julia Michaels got really raw when she wrote this internal monologue. She described it to Teen Vogue as a toxic relationship with oneself. The narrator has such low self-esteem that she berates herself, tears herself down, isolates herself. Only after all that, does she try to make up with her vulnerable mind.
Hot Child in the City – Nick Gilder
This horrifying song was written about the child prostitution Nick Gilder saw in Hollywood in the 70s. It starts off talking about how dangerous child prostitution is, and by the end he is propositioning her. Who the heck okayed that idea? Not okay!
Dead Girl Walking – Heathers the Musical
I kind of give a pass to Dead Girl Walking because it came from a dark comedy musical based on the cult classic movie Heathers. Anyone who has seen the movie knows that any musical version is still going to involve high school hierarchies, bullying, sex, and the homocidal JD. This song would actually be mildly empowering of woman sexuality EXCEPT that there is never a clear consent established between Veronica and JD. Veronica breaks into his house, tells him they are having sex, tells him to shut up and go along with it. He just keeps saying, “okay, okay,” as if he feels pressured into the situation. Just because we know JD is a homicidal, mildly sociopathic, and vengeful doesn’t mean that his consent or lack thereof can be ignored.
I Can’t Decide – Scissor Sisters
Am I completely off here, or is this about someone contemplating murder? Mind you, I take it as extremely tongue in cheek. But still, it’s a song about murder!
UGH! – The 1975
UGH! draws you in with a catchy funk, synth tune, then the lyrics tell of a struggle with cocaine addiction. Specifically, Matthew Healy wrote the song about the terrible feeling of coming down from a coke high. He isn’t not shy about his drug problem and has confirmed this many times.
A Little Bit Longer – Jonas Brothers
This song has a really heartbreaking origin. Nick Jonas wrote this song about his constant struggle with Type 1 diabetes. He wrote it on a really bad day when his blood sugar was out of control. Since the song came out 11 years ago, Nick Jonas has expressed how many people struggling through chronic illness that his lyrics helped.
Little Talks – Of Monsters and Men
This is a song I enjoy, despite its really sad meaning. In Interview Magazine, Of Monsters and Men singers told the story of this song. Nanna Hilmarsdóttir said, “It’s about a couple and the husband passed away and it’s from the conversation between the two of them. We don’t know if she’s going crazy or if someone’s actually there.” The song was inspired by a real life old couple they knew. The lyrics display the grief of losing a loved one. This can be seen with the words, “I don’t like walking around this old and empty house…Some days I can’t even dress myself…All that’s left is a ghost of you.” Clearly, the singer is deep in the midst of despair.
There you go!
These are all songs with darker implications than their melody lets on. They will likely get stuck in your head. Hopefully, this didn’t completely ruin your enjoyment of the music.
Surprised to learn about some origins and meanings of these songs? Let me know in the comments section below. What songs would you add to the list?