Friday, October 10, 2008

The Most Amusingly Misunderstood Rock Songs

Have you ever seen a TV commercial using a song that made you laugh because you knew its message was so completely wrong for the product it was being used to sell? Or even funnier, that it was actually celebrating illegal activity? I'm sure we all have, yet somehow these guys on Madison Avenue keep licensing songs that are just completely inappropriate. Here's a list of some of them - along with a few other songs that have been jacked for non-commercial uses completely opposite to their intent. I'll bet at least a few of them you didn't know about before.


The (mis)understood meaning: I want candy!

The real meaning: I want sex and/or drugs!

This one's probably my favorite, simply because it's often used to advertise to children. So wrong!

The original 1965 version, by The Strangeloves, was clearly a song about sex. Remember, this was 1965 - you didn't just come right out and say it back then. "Candy" was a euphemism for bumpin' uglies. Read up:
"Candy on the beach, there's nothing better
But I like candy when it's wrapped in a sweater
Some day soon I'll make you mine,
Then I'll have candy all the time"

By 1982, times had changed and everybody assumed that the version made famous by Bow Wow Wow (as seen above) was now referencing drugs, specifically coke. That may or may not have been the intent, but it's well-known that sexy little Annabella Lwin and the rest of the band were heavy drug users early on.

In either case, they certainly were not after "candy", as in the sugary food item you buy at grocery store checkout counters.

The song appeared in a 1990's Pringles ad, as well as an episode of "The Simpsons". It seems to be in about ten different local ads in my area at any given time. It was also on the soundtrack to Sofia Coppola's "Marie Antoinette", which is surprisingly a lot more befitting.


The (mis)understood meaning: It's a perfect day.

The real meaning: It's an awful, awful day.

I saw this one in a car commercial, used without irony to illustrate a "perfect day" of bright sunshine and blue skies. Ha!

Lou Reed intended it as a sarcastic song about a relationship gone bad. "You just keep me hangin' on". "I thought I was someone else, someone good". "You're going to reap just what you sow." These sound like words about a sunny day to you?

The song appeared in one of my favorite films, "Trainspotting", to illustrate a heavy hit of heroin. Now that's a pretty perfect use of the song. Not a fucking car commercial.


The (mis)understood meaning: Down with war!

The real meaning: Up with Communism!

This one's misunderstood both in the commercial world and among the masses.

Yes, it's a song about peace. But it's really a song about Communism. No religion. No possessions. No countries. No war.

That's the last stage of Communism.

Don't believe me? John Lennon himself called it "virtually a Communist Manifesto".

Communism itself is misunderstood in this country, in that most people only know of the first stage - revolution. But the final stage, once the entire world had converted to communism, was Utopia - government melting away and the world living in peace, as one, in complete freedom. It was a nice idea, but it could never work in practice because of that pesky first stage of violently forcing every other country in the world to go along with the ideal.

I've always thought it was strange that so many companies have been after this song as a commercial jingle for so long, given that it probably would have gotten a company blacklisted in the 1950's.


The (mis)understood meaning: I'll love you forever.

The real meaning: I am going to stalk you until you are dead.

I've never seen this in an ad, but it's still so heavily misrepresented in pop culture that I can't not bring it up. "P. Diddy" or whatever the hell he's calling himself these days even sampled it for "I'll Be Missing You", a song that manages not only to be almost completely uncreative, but also gets fundamentally wrong the meaning of the lyrics it lifts.

"Every Breath You Take" is not a love song. It is an angry song from the point of view of a stalker. It is about following somebody around, watching their every move, and not being pleased.
"Every move you make
Every vow you break
Every smile you fake
Every claim you stake
I'll be watching you"

In what sense are these happy lyrics? Hell, in what sense are these even sad lyrics? Sadness is at least benevolent. No, these are scary, angry lyrics. This is a song that's a prelude to violence.


The (mis)understood meaning: I'll love you forever.

The real meaning: I am going to kill myself.

And if I bring up "Every Breath You Take", I need to bring up this. Because it's a similar deal.

Listen. It's not "I can't live without you". This is not a guy who's just lovelorn for a lost companion. No, it's "I can't live with or without you". This is a guy who's saying "I need you but YOU DON'T GIVE ME ENOUGH." It's a guy who's needy and conflicted to the point of contemplating suicide.
"My hands are tied
My body bruised, she's got me with
Nothing to win and
Nothing left to lose"

Guys, please think twice before dedicating this song to your girlfriend who just dumped you. You may have nothing left to lose, but you've got nothing to win, either.


The (mis)understood meaning: USA! USA! USA!

The real meaning: This country sucks.

It should be obvious at this point, but you'd be amazed if you did some YouTube surfing and saw the number of patriotic videos still being set to this song.

Hint: this is not a patriotic song.


The (mis)understood meaning: Kill yourself.

The real meaning: Love is eternal, give comfort to the dying.

This is one that even I misinterpreted when I first heard it 20 or so years ago. It's a tricky one, but we have the original source on record to tell us what it means.

And of course, nowadays it's so closely associated with the famous SNL Cowbell sketch that even those who know it well think of it more for comedy than its original meaning anyway.

On first listen, it sounds like a song about suicide.
"Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity
40,000 men and women everyday...Like Romeo and Juliet
40,000 men and women everyday...Redefine happiness
Another 40,000 coming everyday...We can be like they are
Come on baby...don't fear the reaper"

But Buck Dharma, who wrote the song, says otherwise. He was horrified to learn that millions of the song's fans assumed it was encouraging suicide. He says it's a song about eternal love - about not fearing death when it comes, because you'll be together in it. But the song says nothing about killing yourself.

If you listen to the full lyrics, his explanation makes sense. There's nothing there that specifically alludes to suicide. It seems to be a song about a man comforting a woman as she's dying. Very sad, but neither sick nor offensive.


The (mis)understood meaning: You need the product we're selling. And you can easily get it at the grocery store.

The real meaning: The party's over. Also, drugs.

Another song used in a commercial (amusingly, Coke) that's at least in part about drugs. Though mostly, it's about how the excesses of the 1960's had become unsustainable. It's about the party being over. (Also not really a message Coke would want to be sending.)

It's actually got three sections, each about different subjects - love, politics, and yes, drugs. Ironically enough, though, the drug verse does contain a line about soft drinks!
"I went down to the Chelsea drugstore
To get your prescription filled
I was standing in line with Mr. Jimmy
And man, did he look pretty ill
We decided that we would have a soda
My favorite flavor, cherry red
I sung my song to Mr. Jimmy
Yeah, and he said one word to me, and that was 'dead'"


The (mis)understood meaning: Young people! In America! Fun!

The real meaning: America is a fucked up country.

This song appeared in an ad for Fidelity Investments. All anyone seems to really hear in this song is the refrain - you can actually hear it when people sing along, they go "duh duh duh duh duh YOUNG AMERICANS, YOUNG AMERICANS, duh duh duh YOUNG AMERICANS!!" Bowie sings it really fast, and there are a lot of words in there. It's hard to pick them all out. Fidelity probably chose the song because they thought it gave an aura of retro cool that their 40- and 50-something investors would understand.

They're probably not wrong if that's the case. It's pure beat poetry, straight from the street but fantastically complex. Bowie's got a lot of ideas going on in this song, all related to the angst that was early adult life in America in the 1970's.

Still, I don't think Watergate and a poor economy were the kinds of things Fidelity meant to invoke:
"Do you remember, your President Nixon?
Do you remember, the bills you have to pay
Or even yesterday?"

Not to mention lyrics that today would be considered decidedly politically incorrect:
"You ain't a pimp and you ain't a hustler
A pimp's got a Caddy and a lady’s got a Chrysler
Black's got respect, and white's got his soul train
Mama's got cramps, and look at your hands shake
I heard the news today, oh boy
I got a suite and you got defeat
Ain't there a man you can say no more?
And, ain't there a woman I can sock on the jaw?"


The (mis)understood meaning: Bomb the crap out of everybody in the middle east.

The real meaning: Don't fight - rock!

Nobody knew what the hell this song was about when it was first released. Seriously - you have to understand that this was the early 1980's. We were at the height of the Cold War - the middle east was kind of an afterthought until the Iran hostage crisis. And afterwards, it was an afterthought again. Nobody cared what some two-bit dictator could do with a few AK-47's. We were all too busy building fallout shelters and practicing hiding under our desks to avoid the blinding effects of nuclear explosions during a massive surprise attack.

Today, this is sort of an unofficial theme song for the US armed forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nevermind that The Clash have always been a leftist, anti-war band. And nevermind that this is actually an anti-war song. It's about spreading freedom and democracy through music rather than violence. I don't think The Clash themselves knew what half the references they use in the song actually meant, but the point is if you're rockin' out, you ain't fighting.
"The king called up his jet fighters
He said you better earn your pay
Drop your bombs between the minarets
Down the casbah way

As soon as the shareef was
Chauffeured outta there
The jet pilots tuned to
The cockpit radio blare

As soon as the shareef was
Outta their hair
The jet pilots wailed"


The (mis)understood meaning: Rock and roll will live forever (definitely)!

The real meaning: Rock and roll is dying (maybe).

This is one of the great rock and roll anthems. Along with its acoustic doppelganger "My My, Hey Hey", it's the song that told us that it's better to burn out than to rust, or fade away. It's a song about rock and roll never dying and being here to stay. It's a song that both personifies and celebrates everything that's great about rock music. Right?

Well, not exactly.

See, Neil Young wrote this song when his own sales were way down, when punks like Johnny Rotten were giving up, and a new generation of more corporate controlled music was taking over. The song is more about asking questions than making bold proclamations. Neil was questioning his own relevance, and wondering how rock music would survive when it seemed that everything that could be done in the genre had already been done.

And that defiant line about it being better to burn out than to fade away? Most misunderstood line of all. He's not being defiant there - just the opposite. He's saying that rather than rehash the same stuff over and over forever into obscurity - as he was worried he was doing - he'd rather leave it all out there on stage and then quit. This could have been his swan song.

Thankfully, it wasn't. And maybe it's a good thing that the song was misunderstood, because he needed an anthem at that time in his career.

I gotta say I always laugh a little at the second verse, which I've always thought was just about really bad customer service:
"Out of the blue and into the black
You pay for this, but they give you that
And once you’re gone, you can’t come back
When you’re out of the blue and into the black."

So you buy something, but they give you the wrong thing at the register, and then once you leave the store, no returns!!

No, it's really a verse about "fading away" as an artist after your audience abandons you.

Of course, there's kind of a wounded animal feeling to all these lyrics, like he's lashing out in fear. And he probably was, and his fans - and rock fans everywhere - latched onto that, because they felt the same way. This is a genre of music that's constantly under siege from all sides. So maybe it's a pretty good anthem after all.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous5:37 AM

    "XTC versus Adam Ant
    I can't tell you why
    Even the singer from Bow Wow Wow
    Can't make up her mind"


About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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