With the ever-present and all-encompassing nature of tools like radio stations and online streaming services, listeners have unprecedented access to any and all types of music they could possibly desire. When planning a wedding, private party, corporate gathering, or any other kind of social event, having a variety of music is key. But, along with the sound of the songs, there is another important aspect that is often overlooked: the content of the music, specifically what the lyrics of the songs might be saying to the listeners.
Some songs are easy to understand, but lots of music features lyrics that are sung so quickly or take such a back-seat to the overall sound of the song that most folks miss the “real meaning” of the experience entirely. For every obviously-apparent song like David Allen Coe’s “Take This Job and Shove It” (which I do not recommend playing at corporate functions, for the record), there are a slew of songs whose true meanings aren’t so readily apparent. In addition to questions about lyrics, many popular songs have back-stories about the how/where/why the songs were written that may not be entirely accurate (but the stories sound good and help to sell copies). Take, for example, Eric Clapton’s classic ballad “Layla;” while it seems readily apparent that the song was written about a lady in Clapton’s life, it was actually inspired by a classic Persian poem from the 12th Century that Clapton thought would make a good story in song. I’m sure the mysterious-girl/heartbroken-singer angle sold many more records, though.
In my years of DJ work and music management, I’ve discovered lots of interesting tidbits about many songs that might just surprise you (or at least give you some nuggets of trivia for the next time you’re out at the bar with your friends). I’ve listed five well-known examples below, and as you’re planning your big event, I recommend that you take the time with songs you might not be familiar with and explore their lyrics and/or back-story in a little greater detail. By utilizing sites like Lyrics.com and other online resources (as well as consulting directly with your friendly neighborhood DJ), you’ll be able to avoid potential blunders: since approximately 94% of Taylor Swift songs are about break-ups, maybe her songs are not the best picks for your Must-Play list at your wedding, am I right?
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World” IZ
We’ll start with a widely-believed “deeper meaning” that actually isn’t accurate. Hawaiian-born Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole, better known simply as “IZ” to the world outside of the island state, became famous worldwide when his 1993 album, Facing Future, was released and featured the now-iconic medley of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World.” The acoustic-ukulele song sung and performed by IZ has since been featured in several films, TV shows, commercials, and more; IZ holds the distinction of being the first Hawaiian-born musician to have a platinum album, although the honor sadly came years after his death due to obesity in 1997. It’s often talked about and believed by many casual listeners that the medley was created by IZ while he was dying as something for his daughter to remember him by; sadly, this appears to be one of those tales that “sounds nice” but isn’t accurate. The song was released four years before he passed away, and the producer of the album has actually stated that the song was a last-minute addition to the record in order to (hopefully) boost recognition and sales. The “daughter/tribute” story sounds lots better, though, doesn’t it? Let’s just pretend that’s the real reason.
“Gangnam Style” Psy
This one may not necessarily be a “deeper,” but since the lyrics are predominantly sung in Korean, most of the English-speaking world is left to wonder what exactly Psy is singing about in his very catchy song – and the singer’s crazy horse-dancing antics in the song’s video don’t exactly shed a lot of light on the subject. The explanation is actually a simple one: Gangnam is the name of a very wealthy and trendy district in the city of Seoul, South Korea, so “Gangnam Style” is meant to convey an aura of hip-ness and a lavish lifestyle. The American equivalent would essentially be a song called “Beverly Hills Style.” The refrain of the song, “Oppan Gangnam Style,” roughly translates from Korean as simply “I am Gangnam Style,” with Psy self-referentially poking fun at himself by saying that he is being trendy while doing such idiotic things in the song’s video. As he himself said in a recent interview with CNN, “People who are actually from Gangnam never proclaim that they are – it’s only the posers and wannabes that put on these airs and say that they are ‘Gangnam Style’ – so this song is actually poking fun at those kinds of people who are trying very hard to be something that they’re not.”
“Semi-Charmed Life” Third Eye Blind
If you spent any of your teen or twentysomething years in the late 1990s or early 2000s, you are undoubtedly familiar with 3EB’s insanely catchy rock-pop anthem, and let’s be honest, you’re probably already repeating the doo-doo-doo, doo-duh-doo-doo chorus in your head (if you weren’t before, you are now – you’re welcome). But once you get past the upbeat melody and have a chance to slow down those quick-fire lyrics, you’ll start to see that the actual content of the song is not all sunshine and roses. With versed content like “Chop another line like a coda with a curse,” “I was taking sips of it through my nose,” and the just-in-case-you-were-confused “Doing crystal myth, will lift you up until you break // And then I bumped up, I took the hit that I was given Then I bumped again, then I bumped again I said…,” very little is left to the imagination here. Lead singer Stephan Jenkins has said that “Semi-Charmed Life” was written as a response to Lou Reed’s classic 1970s song “Walk on the Wild Side,” whose lyrics spoke in detail about drugs, prostitution, and sex, among other taboo topics. It’s important to note that Jenkins was not necessarily talking about his personal experiences with drug use; regardless of the inspiration, the song is a great example of deeper meanings in lyrics that are just waiting for the “average listener” to glaze over them.
“Hotel California” The Eagles
On the surface, this classic ‘70s rock song describes the title establishment as a high-class resort where “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” The lyrics of the song seem to illustrate either the mental state of travelers who enjoy luxury accommodations on their vacation and will never forget how great the experience was, or a tall tale about a fatigued traveler who becomes trapped in a nightmarishly-extravagant hotel. According to multiple interviews and retrospectives from the band members, however, the song is an allegory about hedonism, self-destruction, and greed in the music industry of the late 1970s. In an interview with Rolling Stone, lead singer Don Henley called the song “our interpretation of the high life in Los Angeles” (none of the members of the band were originally from California) and later reiterated “it’s basically a song about the dark underbelly of the American dream and about excess in America, which is something we knew a lot about.”
“California Girls” The Beach Boys
At the risk of hitting you with too much to do with The Golden State, a song as well-known as this one simply has to make the list. After all, it is not only one of the Boys’ most famous songs, but both The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Rolling Stone has listed “California Girls” on their (separate) lists as One of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. The tune was primarily written by lead singer Brian Wilson during his first LSD trip, but that in itself isn’t the most intriguing part of the song; we’ve all probably heard it played countless times, but I’m not sure that most of us realize what the song is actually saying. The song’s hook, “I wish they all could be California girls,” is most easily interpreted as the band professing how much they love their home-state gals and how much they would like all the girls of the world to be just like their West-Coast versions. But maybe – just maybe – the true meaning of the song is the exact opposite; what if the Boys are really indicating that they don’t like the ladies in their area, that every other part of the globe has far more awesome girls and the band wishes that all those gals lived closer to them? The lyrics in the rest of the song certainly are confusing, as some verses sing the praises of females in other geographical regions but other lines profess the band’s love to get back home to “the cutest girls in the world.” So, which is it? Well, according to separate interviews with Wilson and Mike Love, it’s a little of both; says Love in a 1992 interview for Goldmine, “We’d been to Hawaii, we’d been to Australia. We’d been all around the [world] and I just thought the neat thing about the United States was that all these girls from all over the world were living here. And that was the premise of the song. Some people confuse it with thinking that we were extolling the virtues of simply California girls but if you listen to the lyrics it’s about girls from all over the [country].” So, there you go – USA! USA!