- “Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind With its utterly singable “do-do-do” chorus and melody, this may be one of the catchiest songs to come out of the 90s–but did you know it was about a struggling meth addict? I certainly didn’t until I sang it at karaoke night in a bowling alley (I mean…something less depressing?) and read all the lyrics for the first time. Lines like “Doing crystal meth will lift you up until you break / It won’t stop / I won’t come down” and “We tripped on the urge to feel alive / But now I’m struggling to survive” reveal the painful hopelessness that comes with crippling drug addiction. Uplifting, right? Some more dreary lyrics: ”She’s got her jaws now locked down in a smile / but nothing is alright, alright…”
- “Slide” by The Goo Goo Dolls: At first blush, this might sound like a run-of-the-mill catchy love song, with charming lyrics like “And I’ll do anything you ever dream to be complete /…/ Put your arms around me / What you feel is what you are, and what you are is beautiful / Oh May, do you want to get married, or run away?” If you take a closer listen, though, a darker undercurrent is revealed: “Don’t you love the life you killed / The priest is on the phone / Your father hit the wall / Your ma disowned you” suggests that the song is really about a young Catholic woman dealing with an unplanned pregnancy. This interpretation was confirmed by songwriter and Goo Goo Dolls frontman Johnny Rzeznik during a VH1 performance.
- “Drops of Jupiter” by Train: According to Pat Monahan, lead singer of Train, Drops of Jupiter is about the passing of the artist’s mother and his effort to overcome the loss. He stated that the lyrics “She’s back in the atmosphere” came to him in a dream, and are meant to represent the concept that his mother returned to him spiritually after leaving for a while. He explained in a VH1 special, “Obviously, loss of the most important person in my life was heavy on my mind, and I thought of, ‘What if no one ever really leaves? What if you just kinda…you’re here, but different?’ you know, and the idea was, ‘She’s back. Here, in the atmosphere.’” Heavy, man. But on the bright side, if you want to interpret this track as a simple love song, there’s always the Taylor Swift cover.
- “Paper Planes” by MIA: Gunshot sound effects make up the majority of the “Paper Planes” chorus, hinting at the morbidness of the song’s themes. Still, the fun hook and danceable beat makes it easy to overlook the extent to which this pop hit deals with violence and drug dealing culture. Lyrics like “sticks and stones and weed and bombs / Running when we hit ‘em / Lethal poison through their system” and “Some, some, some I, some I murder / Some I, some I let go” are explicitly violent, and the disturbing levity of M.I.A.’s tone contributes to the overall darkness of the track.
- “If I Had $1,000,000″ by Barenaked Ladies BNL weaves a fantasy world in which the male protagonist outlines what he’d buy if he were to receive a million-dollar windfall. Whimsical and goofy, right? Well, on the surface, yes: potential purchases include the remains of the Elephant Man, a mini-fridge (filled with pre-wrapped sausages) and an exotic pet (like a llama, or an emu). Sadly, though, everything he would buy is for a woman who doesn’t seem to love him back. This refrain reveals the misery underlying this song: ”If I had a million dollars / I’d buy your love.” Unrequited love is among the cruelest of life’s trials, and one could speculate that his riches would be of little comfort to him without this dream woman. And if numerous pop idols are to be believed, money can’t buy love. Sorry, BNL.
Can you think of any more? Let me know in the comments!