AI: That Song Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means

There’s this one tune that people versed in jazz hear over and over. It’s a beloved standard, one every jazz musician heading to a jam session should know. It’s called “Love for Sale.” This is one of the most famous arrangements of it, played by the Buddy Rich band:

When you think of the title, you may think it’s about a man or woman who is metaphorically “selling” their love, maybe someone so lovelorn that she’s looking for love wherever she can get it, willing to give her heart away to the highest bidder, so to speak. You might be wrong about that interpretation. Here’s just a little taste of the lyrics:

Love for sale
Appetizing young love for sale
Love that’s fresh and still unspoiled
Love that’s only slightly soiled
Love for sale

Who will buy?
Who would like to sample my supply?
Who’s prepared to pay the price
For a trip to paradise?
Love for sale

This song is clearly about prostitution. Nobody really ever thinks about that when they hear the song; it’s a catchy, classic tune, and you usually don’t hear the lyrics anyway.

Cute tiger kitten or not, some of those lyrics make no sense.
I know George Hrab went on a rant recently on his podcast about the bizarre lyrics of Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” and has a great list of six classical pieces that mean the opposite of what you think. Things like this all show me that as much as we like to think music has an innate emotional message to make everyone feel close to the same way when they hear it, our actual interpretations can vary wildly. (Not to mention that many other world cultures associate certain harmonies with emotion in polar opposite ways that we do).

What songs do you know that have vastly different meanings or origins than what we ordinarily think they do?

The ART Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Mad Art Lab community. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

Ashley Hamer

Ashley Hamer (aka Smashley) is a saxophonist and writer living in Chicago, where she performs regularly with the funk band FuzZz and jazz ensemble Big Band Boom. She also does standup comedy, sort of, sometimes. Her tenor saxophone's name is Ladybird.

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  1. The two that bugs me the most is “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton and Sting’s “Every Breathe You Take.” The first is is a breakup song, not a song to get married to. The second is about stalking someone, which is very creepy to me.

  2. Paradise By the Dashboard Lights. It’s not about some guy finally managing to “get some” in a car, it’s about his living up to a commitment that he should not have made, and that he can almost not tolerate.

    “And now I’m praying for the end of time… so I can end my time with you.”

    Very sad.

  3. Couldn’t say, I don’t hear lyrics.
    …But this brings up an interesting question of how people listen to music and how that may alter their perception of a song.

    I really do not register lyrics, even my favorite songs I could do no more than give an outline of what they may be about, and if there is any hidden meaning I have missed it. I could probably quite happily sing along to a KKK initiation oath and as long as it was a catchy tune, be none the wiser.

    My girlfriend on the other hand is all about the lyrics, she won’t like a song unless she enjoys the lyrics. She is also far better at remembering lyrics than I am.

  4. Norwegian Wood. Maybe the 50th time I heard that song I realised that it was actually about a guy who didn’t get laid so he burned down her flat. Or it might not be. I suspect it’s deliberately ambiguous.

  5. Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” are my favorite examples, especially as they were both widely misinterpreted as patriotic instead of protest songs. I think they were both even used as campaign songs for right-leaning candidates. Gotta love the irony in that.

  6. People already got my two favorite examples, Born in the U.S.A. and Every Breath You Take.

    One slightly unusual example (a bit of a stretch I admit) is “Another Postcard” by Barenaked Ladies. A lot of people here the tune and singing and just stop paying attention, they assume it just another random boy band song about love or breaking up or something. However, it isn’t, it is about a guy about to go nuts because someone keeps sending him postcards with random pictures of chimpanzees on them.

    Another slight stretch “Joy to the World”, by Three Dog Night. Everyone assumes it is about drugs. It isn’t. In fact, it isn’t about anything at all. The guy who wrote the music was more concerned with the tune, so he just threw together some random stuff, and the band went with it to boost morale.

    My sister pointed this one out to me: They Paved Paradise by Counting Crows. It sounds like an environmental protest song, but it’s actually about regretting letting a relationship fail.

    The Boys of Summer is actually about growing up and entering middle age.

  7. @dpeabody – That IS an interesting question. In fact, one time in a jazz theory class I took, the professor asked the students to take a poll in which they had to choose one element of a song that they usually heard first: lyrics, melody, harmony, or rhythm. I would have thought most people would choose lyrics or at least melody first (maybe with some harmony for the rhythm section players in the class) but to most people’s surprise, it was pretty evenly split.

  8. @theblackcat “They Paved Paradise” is actually called “Big Yellow Taxi,” and the Counting Crows covered it, as it was originally by Joni Mitchell. Apologies for the music nitpicking, but EVERYBODY should know Joni!! Go check it out! 🙂

    I don’t know, I kind of interpret that song to be mostly about the environment (it was written in 1970, anyway), with an extra verse at the end tying it in with love.

  9. Oh not specifically to any band, but it’s amazing how often when a rock band is talking about. “The love of their life, their one and only, the person that makes them feel complete… & so on.” They are not talking about their girlfriend/Boyfriend… They are talking about Jesus -.-

    I was channel hopping and I caught a Billy Graham evangelical rock festival. After every song I was left speechless, I had just assumed all those songs were “boy meets girl, let me sing about how awesome our 5 minute romance is”, nope it’s all about the jebus.

  10. @Smashley – Personally, what I hear from music really depends on the song. Sometimes I’ll fixate on the bass line if it’s walking something fierce (Jackson 5’s I Want You Back, sometimes the drum beat if it’s really pounding (Led Zeppelin’s When The Levee Breaks) or funky and syncopated (N.E.R.D.’s Don’t Worry About It), or the melody if it’s interesting or soaring (Theresa Andersson’s Birds Fly Away).

    Other times I focus on the lyrics, but for different reasons. Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen get me goosebumpy from the poetry and power of the words (because it’s obviously not the quality of their voices). Whereas Eminem’s chorus on “Forgot About Dre” is enthralling (for me) because of the flow, diction, and the sound of the words, devoid of their semantic meaning. Billy Joel was on an episode of “Inside The Actor’s Studio” and talks about creating “vowel movements” in his lyrics. He uses the example of “Satisfaction” by the Rolling Stones, which he says is so great because of the vowels shaped by the words in that chorus.

  11. Reading the start of this post I thought ‘oh, Love for Sale isn’t about prostitution?’ It never would have occurred to me that it was about anything else.

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