Sometimes, the meaning of a popular song is fairly obvious. When Kesha wrote “Tik Tok” after a night of partying, she didn’t try to hide her experience with metaphors; she basically jotted down the first words that came into her (pounding) head, which led to literal lyrics that, by her own admission, “kind of sucked.”
But some songs become massive hits without actually saying much of anything—or, at least, anything obvious. Sure, you know Toto’s “Africa” is about something, but you don’t really know what songwriter David Paich was actually trying to say (more on that in a moment).
Obsess over the lyrics of your favorite Top 10 hits, and you’ll probably end up wearing a tinfoil hat, singing the melody at the top of your lungs, and throwing spoonfuls of cat food at your neighbor’s house. Fortunately, we’ve got internet lists like this one to break the code.
1. Toto’s “Africa” is a mix of bad geography, ridiculous hyperbole, and one of the longest metaphors in music.
By any measure, “Africa” is an absolute jam. It has an awesome synth line, a great chorus, and one of the coolest rhythm tracks of any ’80s pop hit. The lyrics, however, are a bit weird.
Paich told The Guardian that “Africa” seemed to come from a higher place; he’d purchased a new keyboard, and as soon as he sat down, the song poured out, including the iconic chorus.
“‘Hang on,’ I thought,” he told the paper, “I’m a talented songwriter, but I’m not this talented!”
He’s pretty humble, too. Anyway, Paich describes the song as a love letter to the idea of traveling the world.
“One of the reasons I was in a rock band was to see the world. As a kid, I’d always been fascinated by Africa,” he said.
His childhood teachers, who’d served as missionaries on the continent, told him that the people of Africa would bless the rain that fell on their villages—an obvious inspiration for the song’s hook.
There was just one problem: Paich hadn’t really been to Africa, so he tried to imagine himself as a lonely missionary writing about a place he’d never visited. For the imagery, he wrote about scenes he’d seen in National Geographic.
That helps to explain one of the weirdest lyrics in pop history:
I know that I must do what’s right / As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti
The second half of that lyric isn’t just a strained (21 syllables!) metaphor, it’s also confusing to Tanzanians. Generally speaking, you wouldn’t see much of Kilimanjaro from the plains of the Serengeti; they’re a good distance apart. Still, if the song’s about a lonely traveler thinking about a place he’s never visited, we can forgive the (again, 21-syllable) turn of phrase.
2. If you’re like us, you never really thought about the lyrics to Outkast’s “Hey Ya.”
Granted, you’ve shouted out “ice cold!” with everyone else at your aunt’s wedding reception, but you probably think of the 2003 hit as a light-hearted love song. That’s why it’s so fun to dance to, right?
Look a little closer at the lyrics, however, and those good vibes change in a hurry:
We’ve been together / Oh, we’ve been together / But separate’s always better / When there’s feelings involved
Okay, that doesn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of a relationship. Let’s continue:
If what they say is “Nothing is forever” / Then what makes love the exception? / So why are we so in denial when we know we’re not happy here?
Granted, we cut out a bunch of repetitions of “what makes” and “why-o why-o,” but those are the cripplingly dark lyrics that get everyone on the dance floor. The entire song’s about the slow, inevitable death of a relationship.
Then again, André basically tells you that you’ll ignore the real meaning right after the second verse:
Y’all don’t want to hear me / You just want to dance.
3. “Total Eclipse of the Heart” is like something straight out of Twilight.
Released in 1983, this power ballad never fails to tug at heartstrings, and it takes all our willpower to not sing along. …
One more fun fact: After the North American solar eclipse in 2017, “Total Eclipse of the Heart” logged its biggest week of digital sales ever. People must really love vampires.
4. Blues Traveler’s “Hook” mocks its audience for its entire duration.
Blues Traveler is one of those bands that you either love, hate, or vaguely remember from that ’90s-themed party you threw in college.
They’re best known for their hit song “Runaround,” but their 1994 track “Hook” also charted, attaining modest success on pop radio while viciously mocking anyone who enjoyed it.
If you never listened closely, allow us to expose singer John Popper’s lyrics to the cold, hard light of day:
It doesn’t matter what I say / So long as I sing with inflection / That makes you feel I’ll convey
Some inner truth or vast reflection / But I’ve said nothing so far
Granted, he sang with plenty of inflection, so we didn’t notice the satire. These lines from the second verse are even more on-the-nose:
I am being insincere / In fact I don’t mean any of this
The entire song is a parody of pop music, right down to the hook—oh, “Hook,” right, we just got that—and the whole thing is set over the same chord progression as Pachelbel’s “Canon in D,” which can also be heard in Green Day’s “Basket Case,” Aerosmith’s “Cryin,” Vitamin C’s “Graduation,” and about a million other songs.
Ironically, while the songwriting is purposely cliche, Popper’s vocal part is extremely challenging. In 2017, he told JamBase that it’s one of the most difficult tunes in Blues Traveler’s set.
“Oh, I would love to go back in time and beat the s*** out of myself, and say, ‘Do you know you’re going to be singing this for 30 years?’” he said. “Once I do ‘Hook’ each night, my voice is different after that. It’s such a beating.”
5. Sam and Dave’s “Hold On, I’m Coming” seems pretty straightforward, but its origin story might be our favorite.
Songwriters Isaac Hayes and David Porter were working on the tune when David Porter excused himself to go to the bathroom. After Porter had spent a few minutes, uh, powdering his nose, Hayes spoke up.
“I had a groove going and I was getting impatient,” the legendary soul musician told The Washington Post in 1995. “And David said, ‘Hold on, I’m coming.’”
Hey, when you’ve got to go (write a song), you’ve got to go (write a song).
“And that was it,” Hayes recalled. “He came running out of the restroom pulling up his pants, saying, ‘That’s it, I’ve got the title!’”
We tried to find any evidence of the song’s unusual origin in its lyrics, but unless “in a river of trouble and about to drown” implies a plumbing misadventure, we’d say that the toilet humor stopped when the songwriters started penning the words.
6. Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” is about…well, a man encased in iron.
Okay, stay with us here, because we realize that sounds obvious. The metal classic isn’t about the comic book character of the same name, and the lyrics tell a remarkably deep story. Sort of.
The songwriting process started the same way it started for so many other timeless songs: Ozzy Osbourne stumbled into the room, said something stupid, and left.
“I can’t exactly recall what Ozzy said, but it was something like: ‘Why don’t we do a song called Iron Man, or maybe Iron Bloke,’” Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler told Louder in 2016. “That got me thinking about a lump of metal, and then putting it all into a science-fiction context. It all flowed from there.”
Butler’s song is about a man who travels to the future and sees a disturbing apocalypse. He travels back to Earth to warn everyone, but along the way, he becomes encased in iron.
Upon his arrival, he’s unable to speak, so everyone just sort of makes fun of him. He turns on them, causing the same apocalypse he’d foreseen.
“He still has a human brain, and wants to do the right thing, but eventually his own frustrations at the way humanity treats him drives this creature to taking extreme action,” Butler explains. “It’s almost a cry for help.”
Granted, the titular character could have, oh, we don’t know, asked for a pen and a piece of paper instead of destroying all human civilization, but hey, we’re not science-fiction writers.
7. Fastball’s “The Way” is based on a surprisingly dark story.
With an incredibly catchy chorus, Fastball’s “The Way” is an absolute gem. It topped alternative rock charts in Canada and the United States in 1998, and if that’s not enough, it was eventually covered by The Chipmunks. …
Bassist and songwriter Tony Scalzo penned the lyrics after picking up the newspaper and reading about Lela and Raymond Howard, an elderly couple who disappeared during their annual drive to the Pioneer Day festival in Temple, Texas.
“I looked in, right away this story sort of struck me,” Scalzo told an ABC affiliate in Austin, Texas. It was sort of an ongoing story: ‘Still no developments in the case of the missing couple.’”
Raymond, 88, had recently undergone brain surgery; Lela was showing signs of dementia. During the 15-minute drive to Temple, they apparently got lost; they were eventually found in the vehicle at the bottom of a 25-foot cliff. Sadly, they’d passed away.
Scalzo, who’d followed the story carefully, wrote “The Way” as a tribute to the Howards, imagining them as a happy couple looking for one last adventure.
Once you understand the story behind the song, it’s impossible to read the lyrics without getting a little misty-eyed:
Anyone can see the road that they walk on is paved in gold / And it’s always summer, they’ll never get cold / And never get hungry, never get old and grey
You can see their shadows wandering off somewhere / They won’t make it home but they really don’t care / They wanted the highway, they’re happier there today, today
“I think it’s one of the best things I’ve done,” Scalzo said. “At the same time, I think a lot of its power comes from the story behind it. And I somehow put together this musical piece that was enhanced by the story, and I also believe the story, for the family and the people involved, was enhanced by the song.”
The Howards’ family appreciated the tribute—particularly when they found out that the song was climbing the charts. “I liked it, really. I liked the song,” Hal Ray Copeland, Lela’s son, told ABC.
“I was just blown away, I just couldn’t believe somebody would do something like that for my grandma,” Lela’s grandson, Randy Alford, said. “Powerful, very powerful.”
8. TLC’s “Waterfalls” made waves for its catchy chorus, not its harrowing lyrics.
Even if you blare this ’90s hit at every barbecue, you’d be forgiven for missing the second-verse reference to the HIV crisis.
One day he goes and take a glimpse in the mirror / But he doesn’t recognize his own face / His health is fading and he doesn’t know why / Three letters took him to his final resting place / Y’all don’t hear me.
Indeed, we didn’t really hear the message.
“The video spoke for a whole epidemic,” TLC member T-Boz told Fuse. “We used to have so many patients come up and say, ‘Thanks for being our voice and getting the message out there to let people know how easily this is contracted.’”
While “Waterfalls” is one of our favorite songs of the ’90s, we should note that TLC might have borrowed the lyrics to the chorus. Paul McCartney also had a song called “Waterfalls,” which contained the line: “Don’t go jumping in waterfalls / Please stick to the lake.”
McCartney noted the similarities in an interview with The A.V. Club, saying that TLC took the first few lines from his song, “and then they [went] off into another song.”
“It’s like, ‘Excuse me?’” the Beatle said.
Yes, you read that right: One of the most legendary songwriters of all time found out that a group had borrowed one of his lyrics, and he reacted like a sarcastic teenager.
9. Semisonic’s “Closing Time” isn’t about leaving a bar.
Well, it is, if you take the lyrics literally, but singer Dan Wilson says that the tune has a deeper meaning.
“I was initially trying to write a song to end the Semisonic shows with,” Wilson told American Songwriter. “…I set out to write a new closer for the set, and I just thought, ‘Oh, closing time,’ because all the bars that I would frequent in Minneapolis would yell out ‘closing time,’ and I guess that always stuck in my mind.”
So far, that’s pretty much exactly what we expected. Here’s where things get—well, weird.
“Part way into the writing of the song, I realized it was also about being born,” Wilson said. “My wife and I were expecting our first kid very soon after I wrote that song. I had birth on the brain, I was struck by what a funny pun it was to be bounced from the womb.”
Wilson insisted on that interpretation when performing the song live, noting that “millions of people bought the song and didn’t get it.” Reading the lyrics, it’s hard to see how we were all so oblivious:
Closing time / Time for you to go out to the places you will be from / Closing time / This room won’t be open ’til your brothers or your sisters come.
10. Nena’s “99 Luftballons” is absolutely horrifying.
Uh … really? If you followed pop culture in the ’80s you knew that the song was about World War III. Not very insightful.
Better known in the United States as “99 Red Balloons,” this German tune was a surprise international hit. It topped the charts in the US and the UK, both in its original language and in a rewritten English-language version.
It’s a jaunty little tune, and the lyrics reflect the song’s laid-back vibe, right until the world ends via thermonuclear war.
We’ll walk you through the story, but it’s totally insane. The song’s narrator buys a pack of balloons in a toy shop, then blow them up (presumably with helium, since it’s important that they float—stay with us, here).
A government sees the 99 balloons (the German lyrics don’t note their color) floating on the horizon.
Naturally, a general assumes that the balloons are some sort of space alien. He sends a squadron of 99 jets after the balloons, and when the pilots arrived at the scene, they fire their weapons.
Later, 99 ministers of war (we’re curious as to why Nena can’t round them off to an even 100) interpret the exchange as an act of aggression. Nuclear war breaks out, demolishing most of the world’s cities, and by extension, most balloons. The song ends on a depressing note:
99 years of war / Left no place for winners / War ministers don’t exist anymore / And not one jet. / Today I stroll around, see the world in ruins / I’ve found a balloon / I think about you and let it fly.
We’ve got to say, if we’d just accidentally caused the end of the world due to a misunderstanding involving balloons, the last thing we’d do is let another balloon fly away. Balloons are clearly the enemy. That’s the point of the song, right?
As you might have figured, the 1983 tune carried more weight during the Cold War. It was a protest against NATO nuclear deployments, a sensitive issue back then; according to The Atlantic‘s David Frum, millions of Germans were marching in the streets to protest NATO at the time.
Fortunately for all of us, those protesters didn’t release a bunch of balloons.
11. Smash Mouth’s “All Star” is pretty lighthearted—and that’s precisely the point.
Over the past few years, the internet has developed a bizarre fascination with Smash Mouth’s “All Star,” with various remixes replacing all of the lyrics with a single word, distilling the melody to a single note, or even warping the vocals to fit an entirely different Smash Mouth song.
Everyone loves making fun of “All Star,” and we get it. The song’s oppressively upbeat chorus is so catchy that it’s slightly annoying. It’s worth noting that the song was almost much more depressing. In 2017, the band tweetedthe original “All Star” lyrics, which featured this grim line:
And all that glitters is gold / Wave bye bye to your soul.
The latter half of the lyric is crossed out, with “only shooting stars break the mold” written in the margins.
Why the change? According to guitarist Greg Camp, the band was slightly disturbed by some of their fan mail.
“For lyrics, I referred to some things that stood out in the fan mail,” Camp told Bearded Gentlemen Music in 2018. “I wanted to get those kids to look at themselves in the mirror and be able to see a star looking back. Yeah, it was kinda corny, but the self-affirmation thing reminded me of the song ‘I Will Survive.’ No one was doing this sort of thing at that time, it was the end of grunge era and the field was wide open so I just went for it.”
So go ahead, internet, make fun of Smash Mouth, but they wrote an optimistic, upbeat song to help young fans feel better about themselves, and that’s pretty admirable. Hipsters, try writing that into your ironic remix.