You know how sometimes you’re out at karaoke with your friends, your song comes up, you get on stage, take the mic in your hands …and suddenly realize you only know about three words of the song?
Yes, some of the world’s most popular songs are ones that everyone’s heard but nobody’s listened to. Sometimes, really sitting down with the lyrics to a song you thought you knew can be a real education, providing layers of meaning to something that once seemed straightforward. You doubt?
Here are five well-known songs that go deeper than most fans realized.
Bruce Springsteen: “Born in the U.S.A.”
“Born in the U.S.A” is one of the most famously misunderstood songs of all time, which is allegedly why reason the Boss doesn’t perform it live as much these days. While the song is often used as a soundtrack for fireworks shows and political rallies, “Born in the U.S.A.” was written as a scathing critique of the Vietnam War and the nation’s treatment of veterans.
M.I.A: “Paper Planes”
A refugee herself, M.I.A. has always advocated for just treatment of people fleeing war and violence in their home countries and stood against the racism and antagonism those people face in other countries. Her “Paper Planes” classic sounds like an anthem to behaving badly (“some people I murder, some I let go”) until you realize the song is a razor sharp satire of British stereotypes about immigrants.
Kendrick Lamar: “Swimming Pools”
Kendrick’s first hit single has a classic chorus about getting drunk in “pools full of liquor,” which isn’t exactly something we’d advocate for. And actually, he doesn’t advocate for it either. The verses contain a furious back and forth between Kendrick and his conscience, which is begging him to “listen! If you do not, you will be history, Kendrick!” Far from an entreaty to get wasted, “Swimming Pools” captures a young artist’s attempt to master the temptations of money and fame.
Similarly, Sia’s hit anthem for party girls everywhere and its infectious “one, two, three, one, two, three: drink!” sounds like a soundtrack to a night at the club (that is, when it’s not the soundtrack to one of the best music videos of the 2010s). But a closer listen reveals that it finds Sia struggling with substance abuse and desperately trying to stop drinking. (Which she’s done.)
Outkast: “Hey Ya!”
Maybe the best pop song of the 2000s is mostly known for shaking it like a Polaroid picture and reminding everyone what’s cooler than being cool, alright alright alright (8x). But the verses find Andre 3000 in the throes of heartache after losing someone he lost, thanking God for giving him a good model of fidelity in his parents. (In 2013, Andre 3000 said that “Thank God for Mom and Dad” was actually the song’s early working title).