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17 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Popular Song Lyrics

Some songs were meant to be confusing. Others were just written by Max Martin.

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1. "...Baby One More Time" is supposed to be a totally different phrase, but was mistranslated.

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Swedish songwriters Max Martin and Rami Yacoub apparently thought "hit" was American slang for "call." That's right; Britney Spears' first big hit is supposed to be about pre-text communication.

2. The same songwriter is the reason "I Want It That Way" makes no sense.

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Backstreet Boys member AJ McLean told the Huffington Post that at one point, Jive Records staff actually had Max Martin's lyrics changed (you can see the alternate version, conspicuously lacking both fire and desire, here). But upon hearing the recording of that version, the band decided they, strangely enough, preferred Martin's lines.

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3. Similarly, Swedes were responsible for DNCE's confusing but delightful "Cake by the Ocean."

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"Working on the record, these Swedish producers that we were working with, they kept confusing 'sex on the beach' with 'cake by the ocean,'" DNCE singer Joe Jonas told MTV in late 2015. "Then, it became this kind of lyrically wacky song, and it kind of embodies the band."

4. Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff" may actually be about birth control.

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Marley made contradicting statements about the song's meaning while he was alive, but Esther Anderson, his girlfriend when the song was written, offered another perspective in the documentary Bob Marley: The Making of a Legend. Anderson says Marley was upset that she sought contraception, as he thought it was sacrilegious — hence the "seed-planting" reference. According to Anderson, the subject of the song was her doctor, who later became a sheriff.

5. "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was inspired by a friend of Kurt Cobain's writing on the singer's wall, "Kurt smells like Teen Spirit."

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Teen Spirit was the brand of deodorant worn by the Nirvana singer's girlfriend at the time, but he didn't take it quite so literally. Also, the friend who wrote on his wall was Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill.

6. The Beatles' "I Am the Walrus" was written purposely to confuse people.

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In the late 1960s, John Lennon learned about a class on analyzing Beatles lyrics at Quarry Bank High School (his own alma mater). In response, Lennon decide to write something nonsensical just to confuse people.

7. Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" was inspired by a line in Young Frankenstein.

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After seeing the film, in which Igor instructs Dr. Frankenstein to "walk this way" (the same way as he does), frontman Steven Tyler penned the song's original lyrics. He then left them in a cab, and had to do a rewrite the next day.

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8. The iconic whistling in Otis Redding's "(Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay" may have been a total mistake.

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Studio guitarist Steve Cropper claimed that Redding enjoyed ad-libbing at the end of songs — but that during this particular recording session, "Otis couldn’t think of anything and started whistling.” Producer Al Bell, on the other hand, said, “Without a question, Otis had it in his head before recording." As Redding was killed in a plane crash shortly thereafter, we may never know.

9. Sarah McLachlan wrote "Possession" in response to the letters of obsessed fans, one of whom subsequently brought a lawsuit against her.

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Computer programmer Uwe Vandrei claimed the content of his letters was used in the song, which McLachlan's handlers denied. Vandrei sued McLachlan over "damages for breach of confidence and breach of moral rights," but the lawsuit was dropped when Vandrei killed himself.

10. That sexy French voiceover in Beyoncé's "Partition"? It's weirdly similar to (translated) lines from The Big Lebowski.

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Slate translated the lyrics to "Do you like sex? Sex. I mean, the physical activity. Coitus. Do you like it? You're not interested in sex? Men think that feminists hate sex, but it's a very stimulating and natural activity that women love." In The Big Lebowski, Maude (Julianne Moore) asks The Dude (Jeff Bridges), "Do you like sex, Mr. Lebowski? Sex — the physical act of love. Coitus. Do you like it? ... You're not interested in sex? ... It's a male myth about feminists, that we hate sex. It can be a natural, zesty enterprise." Coincidence?

11. The Clash's "London Calling" was inspired by Joe Strummer's fear of drowning in the River Thames.

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Strummer was reportedly spooked by a headline in the London Evening Standard about the possibility of the Thames overflowing and flooding London, which sent him into panic — hence the concern in the song's lyrics about living by the river (and other allusions to climate change).

12. Phil Collins "Sussudio" is named that only because he couldn't think of a better word.

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No, Phil Collins didn't fall in love with the daughter of some very creative parents. Collins explained on an episode of VH1's Storytellers that he'd coined the word, which had initially been intended as a placeholder, while ad-libbing along with a drum machine. "I kinda knew I had to find something else for that word," he said. "Then I went back and tried to find another word that scanned as well as 'sussudio,' and I couldn't find one."

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13. Hanson's "Mmmbop" was originally a ballad.

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The upbeat track on the band's album Middle of Nowhere is significantly different from the the downtempo, longer version that appeared on the band's earlier Mmmbop single record.

14. Billy Joel's "Tomorrow Is Today" was inspired by a suicide attempt.

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In 1970, Joel found himself struggling personally and professionally, and attempted to end his life by drinking furniture polish. His suicide note — in poem form — later became "Tomorrow Is Today," and the Piano Man found success as a musician after all.

15. The riff for the Rolling Stones' "Satisfaction" came to Keith Richards in a dream, and he woke up just long enough to record it.

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Richards told NPR in 2010 that he worried, upon waking up a second time, that he hadn't actually recorded anything. But once he played his tape recorder back, Richards realized that the first verse was in place. "And after that," he said, "there's 40 minutes of me snoring."

16. Sheryl Crow's "All I Wanna Do" initially had totally different lyrics, but then her band found a little-known poem in a used book and adopted (almost all of) its words as the song's lyrics.

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Poet Wyn Cooper said of the song, "They went around the corner to Cliff’s Books in Pasadena, where they found a used copy of my book... They took it back to Sheryl, and asked her to sing 'Fun' to the music. I wasn’t there, but I’m told that it worked." Crow sung the poem with a few lyrical tweaks, and Cooper has collected royalties ever since.

17. The Kingsmen's version of "Louie Louie" was subject to a two-year FBI obscenity investigation, which was found to be inconclusive... but maybe shouldn't have been.

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A combination of a weirdly placed microphone, a too-loud instrumental track, and a white guy trying his hand at faux-Jamaican patois made The Kingsmen's cover of Richard Berry's song completely unintelligible. After a number of not at all weirdly repressed Americans alleged the lyrics were about (gasp!) sex, the FBI took action to find the truth (two years worth of action, during which they never actually spoke to Berry). As it turns out, the song's lyrics were in no way salacious — but if you listen closely at the song's 0:54 mark, you can hear The Kingsmen's drummer yell "Fuck!" after dropping a drumstick.

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