In my seventeen years of music consumption, I have discovered two types of people: those who delve into Genius.com and learn the meaning behind every lyric of every song and those who hum along blindly to the songs they listen to. Whether you learn for yourself or someone tells you the meanings you may have missed, you’re bound to find songs that defy your expectations. Sometimes sad songs sound happy, or sometimes angry sounding songs aren’t mad at anything. Tvtropes.com calls this phenomenon “lyrical dissonance,” and it occurs when “the lyrics and music are going in opposite directions.” Lucky for you guys, I am a member of the pretentious lyric definers, so I’ve scoured the inter-webs for the real meanings behind happy sounding songs so you don’t have to.
“Every Breath You Take” – The Police
If you didn’t pick up on the cringe-worthy meaning behind this song you’re living in impressively blissful ignorance. Sure, it sounds sweet as the speaker laments his lost love with yearning lines like “How my poor heart aches with every step you take” or “I feel so cold and I long for your embrace.” Yet, the song’s intent is not quite as innocents as it seems. The speaker is clearly taking the role of a stalker with the primary message of the song being “Every move you make…I’ll be watching you.” If you take the song at face value it’s understandable that it would come across as a touching, lovelorn ballad. However, a closer look will let the eerie tone shine through. Think about this the next time you hear “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and you’ll never be able to see it the same way again.
“Pumped Up Kicks” – Foster the People
This 2011 hit probably slid under the radar for most people, but the true meaning of “Pumped Up Kicks” is actually incredibly disturbing. The song tells the story of a troubled kid named Robert who snags a revolver from his dad’s closet and tries to shoot up his school. He does so out of jealousy for “all the other kids with the pumped up kicks” or rather all the kids with more money than him. With such light sounding lyrics and upbeat music it’s hard to catch the dark meaning of the song, but some radio stations did. In response to the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December of 2012, L.A.’s top radio station KIISS-FM banned “Pumped Up Kicks” from their rotation. A topic as alarming as this one must be handled with care after the devastating massacre, but the song itself makes the meaning difficult to identify. The lively percussion and upbeat base is easy to enjoy despite the violent message.
“Escape: The Pina Colada Song” – Rupert Holmes
Holmes’ hit is a throwback classic enjoyed by all but understood by few. Many people fail to pay attention to the story that is being told beneath the belt-able lyrics. The song is created from the point of view of a man who is tired of his relationship. He develops an eye for other ladies and reaches out to an ad in the paper from a woman looking for a lover. When the speaker and this woman meet, however, she turns out to be his own girlfriend. They laugh it off and the recognizable refrain plays the song out, alcoholic exclamations and all. If it’s analyzed by the refrain alone, which is about as far as most listeners care go, the song is a nonsensical strain of random acts of leisure (pina coladas, getting caught in the rain, but definitely not yoga). Yet, when looked at as a whole, it becomes a story about a broken relationship saved by both partners’ adulterous actions. But hey, all’s well that ends well!
“Bear” – The Antlers
With a bright introductory melody, “Bear” opens with a tune that strongly resembles “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” This provides the song with a false sense of childlike security which establishes the irony between the music and lyrics. The song is about an abortion, and a “bear” is used as an extended metaphor for a child. The comparison of a baby to a beast shows the speaker’s bitterness to the unborn, making it out to be the villain of the unexpected pregnancy. The speaker’s attitude toward aborting the child is as nonchalant as the melody, revealing the darkness and lack of empathy that is actually expressed within the lyrics. True lyrical dissonance is created as the familiar, reassuring sounding music contradicts with the apathetic stance against childbearing.
“The Gardener” – The Tallest Man On Earth
Tallest Man has one of the most innocent, smooth sounding voices in the music industry. His folksy style feels intimate and real and far from threatening. The story of “The Gardener” contradicts this image. Kristian Matsson adopts a murderous persona through dramatic monologue and extended metaphor. He directs the song toward a woman he’s clearly infatuated with, describing his flaws as men who are trying to expose his ugly secrets. The first man he sees is a “runner in the garden.” To get rid of this threat and to stay perfect in the eyes of his lady, Matsson’s character kills the runner and buries him in his garden beneath a bed of flowers. This idea is repeated throughout the song as more “men” attempt to show Matsson’s woman all his flaws, and his garden grows with death and deceit. All the while, the song keeps its lighthearted sound with acoustic guitar and Tallest Man’s usual bright voice.
Now I apologize if my lyric-obsessive explanations ruined some of your favorite jams by making you think about them, but it becomes an addiction. Step up your music game by looking into some of your favorite songs so you can simultaneously impress and annoy people with lyrical dissonance too.