What do songs mean? It’s not always obvious. Some songs are deliberately cryptic or ambiguous, perhaps because the writer wishes to tease or perplex, or encourage differing interpretations. And some songs have simply been misunderstood, for a variety of reasons.
Lack of background knowledge. An American review of Thom Yorke’s album The Eraser expressed some puzzlement over the meaning of the song Harrowdown Hill.
In this case it is entirely forgiveable that a foreigner, who possibly doesn’t follow British current affairs in detail, is not aware of the case of Dr. David Kelly, and therefore doesn’t grasp the significance of lines like “Did I fall or was I pushed, and where’s the blood? Don’t ask me, ask the Ministry”.
Selective listening. U2’s One is consistently misinterpreted, people simply singling out the lines they feel are inspiring, like “One love, one blood, one life, you’ve got to do what you should”, conveniently ignoring the fact that, as Bono himself has explained, this is a song about a gay man dying of AIDS, trying to make his peace with his homophobic father (see lines like “you act like you never had love, now you want me to go without”, or “did you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?”). And apparently this song is one of the most requested at weddings…
Simply not listening. This is something of which I myself am particularly guilty. The words are not usually the first thing that attract my attention in a piece of music, and it can often take a while and repeated listens before I pay attention. Imagine my shock when, some months into listening to Bjork’s sublime Vespertine album, I finally realised what Cocoon is all about. It’s filthy!
Maybe I was better off not knowing.