Mark Runyon | ConcertTour.org
Admit it. You have mindlessly sung along to songs without realizing what they were about. It’s okay, we’ve all been there. A few years back, I was singing along with Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” (so damn catchy!), then realized I had been singing joyfully singing the phrase, “You better outrun my gun.” What?! Upon researching the song, I discovered there was something more unsettling going on than I realized. In the interest of providing you with a few a-ha moments such as mine, I bring you a list of ten popular songs with discreetly dark lyrics. How many of these have tricked you?
“Baby It’s Cold Outside” by Frank Loesser
This song’s meaning has been widely debated over the years; one side believes the song is about date rape, and the other side believes it is a simple romantic holiday tune. While it is true that Frank Loesser wrote and performed this 1944 hit at social events with his loving wife, there are a few moments during the duet that are somewhat unsettling.
I ought to say no, no, no sir
(Mind if I move in closer?)
At least I’m gonna say that I tried
(What’s the sense of hurtin’ my pride?)
I really can’t stay
(Oh, baby, don’t hold out)
Ah but it’s cold outside
(Baby, it’s cold outside)
In the context of Loesser and his wife’s mutual love for one another, the song emits a playful cheery banter between the two singers. Stripped of its context, however, the call and response duet seems as if the female is being coaxed (and perhaps forced) into staying the night. At one point, she even asks, “Say, what’s in this drink?” possibly suggesting drugs are involved. Comedians Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele parodied the song on their Comedy Central show Key and Peele, exploring and satirizing the song’s darker elements by writing their own version called “Just Stay for the Night.” Iconic musicians such as Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Ray Charles, Idinia Menzel, and Michael Buble (among many others) must not have gotten a creepy vibe from the song, as they all performed their own cover versions over the years.
“Run for Your Life” by The Beatles
The Beatles’ 1965 hit “Run for Your Life” is a catchy pop classic, but underneath its pretty packaging is a blatantly threatening set of lyrics:
Well I’d rather see you dead, little girl
Than to be with another man
You better keep your head, little girl
Or I won’t know where I am
You better run for your life if you can, little girl
Hide your head in the sand, little girl
Catch you with another man
That’s the end ah little girl
I would hate to be that girl… If anyone could make threats catchy, it was the Beatles. John Lennon later mentioned his distaste for the track, specifically its violent message, but fans ate it up. The Beatles could release a burp and it would sell millions of records.
“Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones
The Stones’ 1971 hit starts off with an infectious, upbeat blues-rock guitar riff that gives way to shockingly vivid lyrics:
Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in the market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ all right
Hear him whip the women just around midnight
Brown sugar, how come you taste so good
Brown sugar, just like a young girl should
Mick Jagger took credit for the song’s lyrics, but often maintained their ambiguity. Although thinly veiled, the themes of slavery, rape, heroin use, and sexual promiscuity still peek through the song’s shiny rock ‘n’ roll exterior. The instrumentals distract from the darker imagery, making it a tune to dance to absentmindedly. In his 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger explains that “brown sugar” is heroin, also going on to say, “God knows what I’m on about on that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go. I didn’t think about it at the time. I never would write that song now. I would probably censor myself.” Jagger got away with writing these uncensored lyrics, as the song instantly became a #1 hit in the U.S. and Canada, and it is still regularly played on classic rock radio stations.
“My Sharona” The Knack
The Knack’s 1979 debut single reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart and stayed there for six weeks. During those six weeks, did anyone happen to pick up on the creepy, pedophilia vibe of the song’s narrator? Doug Fieger, the band’s lead singer and rhythm guitarist, penned the song when he was 25 as a declaration of love to 17-year-old Sharona Alperin. While the pair dated for a while, these lyrics don’t quite sit right:
Come a little closer, huh, a-will ya, huh
Close enough to look in my eyes, Sharona
Keeping it a mystery, it gets to me
Running down the length of my thigh, Sharona
Never gonna stop, give it up, such a dirty mind
I always get it up for the touch of the younger kind
This is yet another song where disturbing lyrics get overshadowed by sheer catchiness. You can’t tell me you haven’t had the infectious “Muh-muh-muh my Sharona” phrase stuck in your head before.
“Every Breath You Take” by The Police
A popular first dance choice among newlyweds, “Every Breath You Take” echoes a sentiment quite the opposite of romantic. In interviews, Sting has revealed that this 1983 hit was penned with the notion of control and jealousy in mind. “I think the song is very, very sinister and ugly,” he told BBC Radio. The smooth, pop ballad does a great job distracting people from the themes of possessiveness and surveillance, but read the lyrics on their own and prepare to be unsettled:
Every breath you take
And every move you make
Every bond you break, every step you take
I’ll be watching you
Every single day
And every word you say
Every game you play, every night you stay
I’ll be watching you
Oh, can’t you see
You belong to me?
Sting is not trying to give off a playful, romantic, “I’ll always look out for you, sweetie” vibe. The narrator of the song has gone full on stalker. This chart topping, Grammy Award winning, best selling single of 1983 is basically a creeper’s diary entry. In the music video, Sting even looks angry (and kind of possessed) as he thumps on the standing bass. Kudos to the Police for pulling one over on a majority of the music listening public.
“Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band
“Every Breath You Take” and “Crash Into Me” have a very similar vibe, in that there is a strong sense of voyeurism juxtaposed with a soft, melodic rock sound. Dave Matthews says this 1996 Grammy nominated hit is about “the worship of women.” During his VH1 Storytellers filming, he claimed to have written this song instead of getting arrested.
Oh I watch you there
Through the window
And I stare at you
You wear nothing
But you wear it so well
Tied up and twisted
The way I’d like to be
For you, for me, come crash into me
His charming, soft voice masks the underlying creepiness very well. I have heard this song countless times over the years, but just recently realized what he was singing.
“Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind
This 1997 alternative rock hit took over the airwaves, going on to snag the #34 spot on VH1’s list of best songs of the 1990s. Again, I must have heard this song an endless amount of times without realizing it was about a druggie’s crystal meth addiction. In my defense, the more profane verses were edited out, and in the following lyrics, the phrase “crystal meth” was removed and backmasked into the song:
The sky it was gold, it was rose
I was taking sips of it through my nose
And I wish I could get back there
Some place back there
Smiling in the pictures you would take
Doing crystal meth
Will lift you up until you break
It won’t stop
The lyrics are sung so quickly that we often can’t catch the exact words. Most people only know the “I want something else, to get me through this” sing-along bit, but there was something much more disturbing going on than we all thought.
“The Wrong Way” by Sublime
The same year, Sublime was breaking ground in the ska punk rock genre. In their upbeat track “The Wrong Way,” they tell the story of a 12-year-old girl named Annie who is forced into prostitution by her family. Although she seems to be rescued by the narrator, he struggles with his inner demons throughout the song. The catchiness of the song harshly contrasts the disconcerting lyrics:
The only family that she’s ever had
Is her seven horny brothers and a drunk-ass dad
He needed money so he put her on the street
While this track isn’t necessarily discreet, its playful, sun-kissed vibe makes it incredibly listenable despite it being about something so upsetting.
“Hey Ya” Outkast
Despite the upbeat “hey ya’s” and “shake it like a Polaroid picture” lyrics, Outkast included a subtly depressing section in their 2003 Grammy Award winning hit:
Know what they say—it’s:
Nothing last forever!
Then what makes it, then what makes it
Then what makes it, then what makes it
Then what makes love the exception?
So why oh why oh
Why oh why oh why oh
Are we still in denial when we know we’re not happy here?
The repetition and stutters thrown in throughout the song distract us from a darker question: can love last forever? The cynical narrator gets us singing, “Shake it like a Polaroid picture” but the song’s insanely catchy beat never allows us to delve into the hidden gems of meaning scattered throughout the track.
“Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People
This song was the impetus for compiling this list, and rightfully so. Foster the People’s Grammy nominated hit took the airwaves by storm, and in doing so, started a conversation about bullying and gun violence. While the song emits a bubble-gum, indie-rock vibe, Mark Foster opens the song with the following lyrics:
Robert’s got a quick hand
He’ll look around the room
He won’t tell you his plan
He’s got a rolled cigarette hanging out his mouth
He’s a cowboy kid
Yeah, he found a six-shooter gun
In his dad’s closet hidden with a box of fun things
I don’t even know what
But he’s coming for you
Yeah, he’s coming for you
The echoed, slurred verses are borderline unintelligible (in an extremely appealing, catchy way), so you have to pay closer attention to hear precisely what he is singing. The song tells the story of a teen boy who is bullied to the point of seeking revenge against his classmates (the ones who wear the “pumped up kicks”). Foster the People get you tapping your toes and singing along, but that’s the most unsettling part. You’re whistling along as Robert is plotting his violent retribution: “All the other kids with the pumped up kicks you better run, better run, outrun my gun. All the other kids with the pumped up kicks you better run, better run, faster than my bullet.” Many media outlets bleeped out “gun” and “bullet.” It turns out they were preventing an important dialogue from being started, as many people misconstrued the actual meaning of the song. Without those keys words, people found it to be just another catchy indie-pop song. The message of violence hit close to home, as bassist Cubbie Fink’s cousin survived the tragic Columbine High School massacre in 1999. Having been bullied, lead singer Mark Foster notes that the song was meant to give listeners a peek into a broken person’s mind:
For me, that song was really an observation about something that’s happening in the youth culture these days. I guess I wanted to reveal that internal dialogue of a kid who doesn’t have anywhere to turn, and I think the song has kind of done its job. I think people are talking about it, and it’s become a point of conversation, which I think is a really healthy thing.