Readers recommend: songs that aren't what they seem | Peter Kimpton

Ambiguous, misunderstood or misappropriated, suggest your selection of works with words taken the wrong way either by accident or on purpose

“I am just a soul whose intentions are good. Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”

Nina Simone, who sang the original of this song, also popularised by the Animals and others, appears to be making a clear statement. Or is she? Is this song about something deeply personal, or does it really refer to the civil rights movement? And is the Beatles’ Blackbird really about a sweet-singing winged creature? And just who, or what, is Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds? And in what famous song did John Lennon supposedly write a form of the communist manifesto?

From the double hemispheres of the brain to the formation, evolution and variants of language, and especially in modern politics, ambiguity seems very much part of any culture. “Read my lips: no new taxes,” said GW Bush in 1988. It seemed a successful, clear message, but really it was just a soundbite saying “vote for me”. In the same way “the big society”, “back to basics” and “family values” are examples of equally vacuous, ambiguous phrases.

Yet it is ambiguity that essentially brings colour and life to so many songs, as well as any literature, art or film, all kicking out conundrums, sometimes intentionally, over meaning. All great works reverberate with nuanced interpretation. But perhaps the most famous political example of misappropriation is Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA, from 1984, used by the Ronald Reagan bandwagon as a patriotic song of American pride, when it is really a bitter cri de coeur about the shameful treatment of Vietnam veterans. The same patriotism has also been appropriated the world over, as far away as Men at Work’s Down Under.

Some songs then perhaps did not set out to be ambiguous but are simply misused. The Cure’s Killing an Arab (a literary reference to L’Etranger by Camus) and the Clash’s Rock the Casbah (reportedly about Iranian pilots defying a ban to play music in cockpit radios) were both taken as anti-Arab anthems, the latter as a rallying cry for the 1991 Iraq war.

Clash of meaning? Joe Strummer and friends.
Clash of meaning? Joe Strummer and friends. Photograph: Fraser Gray/REDFERNS

By contrast some artists set out to be deliberately satirical, and by attracting controversy, succeed, just like the explosive results of the great Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, in which Swift deliberately lambasted the treatment Irish famine victims by suggesting his countrymen should solve the problem by eating their own babies. So then, in song, reaction to the Dead Kennedys’ Kill the Poor was certainly rich, and Randy Newman’s Short People resulted in the ire of people who might not necessarily be short, but almost definitely thick.

Love is, of course, is a guessing game, and that is why ambiguity thrives in the thrill of the chase, but some love songs in turn are not always as they seem. Bryan Adams seems to display a wistful nostalgia about The Summer of ‘69, a landmark year for space, music and culture, but could he really be referring to steamy season in whch a certain sex position featured prominently, and in a later year? What is “the trick” in the Cure’s lauded love song Just Like Heaven? Is there anything love-filled about REM’s The One I Love, or the very opposite? And is Donovan’s To Try for the Son really a gay anthem? Babybird’s You’re Gorgeous is often picked up as an end-of-evening Valentine’s last dance, but its photographic context is anything but romantic.

penguin chicks
These baby birds are gorgeous, but what about the song by Babybird? Photograph: Frederique Olivier/BBC/John Downer Productions

Is there anything happy in Goldfrapp’s Happiness? ABC’s The Look of Love may also not quite be the look many of us crave. Percy Sledge’s When a Man Loves a Woman might make many a rosy playlist, but watch out for the thorns. And Nina Simone, who made more famous the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song I Put a Spell On You, only adds to the ambiguity of just who exactly is under the spell here. “Because you’re mine?” Really? Well that’s a minefield.

The hedonistic side of music can also add even greater depth and darkness to certain subjects. Just how perfect is Lou Reed’s Perfect Day? Who or what is Mr Jones in the song by Talking Heads? And the Shamen’s Ebeneezer Goode, is, quite clearly, not about a loveable roguish character as played in the music video by Jerry Sadowitz.

What kind of a day is Lou Reed having? Perfect? Perhaps not.
What kind of a day is Lou Reed having? Perfect? Perhaps not. Photograph: Sipa Press/REX

So then, please not only name songs that you feel are deliberately, or by accident, ambiguous or misinterpreted, but also ones that have fooled you, oh wise reader. Clever nominations are good, but honest I-was-taken-in offerings are more than welcome too.

This week’s master of misinterpretation and umpire of ambiguity is the brilliant Barbryn. Place your songs unambiguously in comments below and optionally in the Spotify list. Deadline is unequivocally this Monday 14 December at 11pm UK time, for results published next Thursday 17 December. Or is it? Yes it definitely is.

To increase the likelihood of your nomination being considered, please:

• Tell us why it’s a worthy contender.
• Quote lyrics if helpful, but for copyright reasons no more than a third of a song’s words.
• Provide a link to the song. We prefer Muzu or YouTube, but Spotify or SoundCloud are fine.
• Listen to others people’s suggestions and add yours to a collaborative Spotify playlist.
• If you have a good theme for Readers recommend, or if you’d like to volunteer to compile a playlist from readers’ suggestions, please email
• There’s a wealth of data on RR, including the songs that are “zedded”, at the Marconium. It also tells you the meaning of “zedded”, “donds” and other strange words used by RR regulars.
• Many RR regulars also congregate at the ‘Spill blog.


Peter Kimpton

The GuardianTramp

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