The '80s and '90s were a dark time, especially in music. Heroin chic was a coveted look. Deadly rap rivalries were beginning in earnest. Few kids likely stopped to think about how deeply unsettling the songs they heard on the radio, through their parents and from the rooms of their older siblings, actually were.
The songwriting may have been slightly more subtle. In terms of overt mentions of sex and sexuality, they were. Realizing a radio hit like the Weeknd's "I Can't Feel My Face" is about some sort of numbing nose candy does seem far easier than realizing Third Eye Blind's subtle "Semi-Charmed Life" is all about crystal meth. Or maybe young kids just don't look at lyrics the way older, jaded folks do.
It's time to tarnish that nostalgic '90s glow — or complicate it in an interesting fashion, depending on your view. Here are 11 songs whose meanings you completely missed while bopping around to them in your PJs.
1. Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life" is about crystal meth.
Back in the '90s, most people probably listened to this bright little ditty on a thing called the radio. That radio-edited version was a lot more squeaky clean than the original. Listen to an unedited version of Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life" and it becomes immediately clear what the song is about: "Doing crystal meth, will lift you up until you break," Third Eye Blind's Stephen Jenkins sings.
Most radio stations at the time backmasked those lyrics. Some cut out the second and third verses entirely, but kept all the rest of the sunny pop. However, that bright and shiny sound was also intended to represent something far darker as well. "When I wrote 'Semi-Charmed Life,' the guitar riff was intended to have this sort of bright duh-nuhnuh-nunt, this shiny thing, because that was a feeling of speed," singer Stephen Jenkins once explained. "You know, it's sort of a bright, shiny drug."
2. Hanson's "MMMBop" is about dying loveless and alone.
In spite of it's nonsensical chorus, Hanson's "MMMBop" has a lot of wisdom to drop. It's specifically of the sobering, uncomfortably real variety, like everybody dies and everybody poops. "You have so many relationships in this life," the flaxen-haired Hansons sing in the first verse. "Only one or two will last." It's somewhat bleak but likely true.
It only gets worse: "When you get old and start losing your hair," the boys sing. "Tell me who will still care/ Can you tell me who will still care?" The most agonizing part is that the Hanson brothers' answer to all these uncomfortable spiritual questions is an unintelligible garbage word "Mmmbop," which, to add insult to injury, they begin using to mock the fragile human condition: "In an mmmbop they're gone/ In an mmm bop they're not there." Fucking brutal.
3. The Goo Goo Dolls' "Slide" is all about abortion.
Musically, little about the Goo Goo Dolls' "Slide" suggests there's any high stakes, potentially life-altering decisions being made in the lyrics. It sounds similar to every '90s alt-rock ballad, with a particularly chipper strumming pattern during the song's chorus. The good humor hits the wall in the second verse though, when singer John Rzezik asks a very jarring question, "Don't you love the life you killed?"
"The priest is on the phone," Rzezik continues. "Your father hit the wall/ Your ma disowned you." As if it wasn't clear enough, he also spoke about during a performance on VH1 Storytellers in 2002. "The song is actually about these two teenage kids, and the girlfriend gets pregnant, and they're trying to decide whether she should get an abortion, or they should get married or what should go on." At the time it just seemed a good anthem to slide across the hardwood floor in socks to.
4. The Beatles' "Ticket to Ride" was about the life of prostitutes in Hamburg.
While it's not a '90s tune, it's a song many were likely raised on. The most straightforward interpretation of the "ticket" is a train or plane fare that the woman will be using to take a ride out of the singer's life. However, John Lennon offered another, far more scandalous interpretation of the song he once described as "one of the earliest heavy-metal records made."
Lennon once told journalist Don Short that the "ticket" in the song was a reference to the cards medical authorities in Hamburg would give prostitutes to prove they had a "clean bill of health." "I was with The Beatles when they went back to Hamburg in June 1966 and it was then that John told me that he had coined the phrase 'a ticket to ride' to describe these cards," Short once said, according to Steve Turner's A Hard Day's Write. "He could have been joking — you always had to be careful with John like that — but I certainly remember him telling me that."
5. Dave Matthews Band's "Crash Into Me" is about a peeping Tom.
Most of the lyrics of Dave Matthews' "Crash Into Me" suggest that it's an easy, breezy love song. However, lyrics like, "Hike up your skirt a little more/ And show the world to me" are a lot creepier when you realize the man saying them is spying on the object of his affection from the other side of a window.
Matthews described the man as someone "you'd call the police on," in a 1999 appearance on VH1 Storytellers. He jokingly added that his licentious voyeur character was a way for him to channel some of his own instincts. "I wrote this song about it rather than peering in the window for fear of being arrested," he told the crowd. You will never look at Dave Matthews the same way again.
6. Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69" is not about the summer of 1969.
The title of Bryan Adams' "Summer of '69" is its most misleading feature. That pesky apostrophe gives the impression that the song is about the events of the summer of 1969. However, in that year, Adams would have only been 7 yearsold, a little young to be spending his evenings down at the "drive-in" with "six-string" in hand.
In truth that "69" was actually a reference to that other 69, which most kids likely didn't learn about until they at least entered middle school. "A lot of people think it's about the year," Adams said on The Early Show in 2008, "but actually, it's more about making love in the summertime. It's using '69 as a sexual reference."
7. Naughty by Nature's "O.P.P." is about penises and pussies.
Naughty by Nature was hardly subtle when sharing the definition behind "O.P.P," their hugely popular debut, with the American listening public. However, it seems most Americans hadn't quite figured out how to parse out hip-hop's dense rhyme patterns.
"The O is for 'other,' P is for 'peoples','" Naughty by Nature MC Treach raps to kick off the first verse. "The last P, well that's not that simple/ It's sort of like, well, another way to call a cat a kitten." The second verse focuses on a different p, a word that "rhymes with 'meanness' or 'cleanness.'" However, because the group never used those dirty, dirty words themselves, the song could still get played on the radio and at high school dances.
"It's a call-and-response song and we're talking about fuckin' other niggas' bitches," Treach told Rolling Stone earlier this year. "The record probably would have been banned if radio had known what we was talkin' about. It took them a year or two to figure out what it meant. If you weren't listening or weren't really into hip-hop, it wasn't easy."
8. Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue" aimed to vindicate rioters in Brixton, United Kingdom.
The political message behind Eddy Grant's "Electric Avenue" likely went over the heads of most American audiences just looking for a feel-good dance tune. However, the song is far more than a reggae prequel to the "Electric Boogie." Its lyrics are all aimed at explaining the motivations behind the Brixton riots, a series of conflicts sparked by several incidents of racially motivated police brutality in the London neighborhood of Brixton.
Rioters, primarily from the local African-Caribbean community, burned and looted buildings and clashed with police. A lot of press at the time painted the rioters in an unfavorable light. Grant tried to add context. "Workin' so hard like a soldier," he sings, attempting to explain the conditions that would motivate human being towards violence. "Can't afford a thing on TV/ Deep in my heart I'm a warrior/ Can't get food for them kid, good God." Most listeners, young and old, likely just shuffled along to the infectious chorus.
9. TLC's "Waterfalls" is about drug trafficking and the AIDS epidemic.
"The arrangement and instrumentation is absolutely fantastic — if a bunch of great melodies had an orgy, the result would something a little like this," Nick Butler of Sputnik Music once wrote in review of TLC's "Waterfalls." It's a resonant simile, but one that fits oddly with the thrust of the song, which is primarily focused on discouraging promiscuity and informing listeners about the dangers of AIDS.
"His health is fading and he doesn't know why," TLC sings on the track. "Three letters took him to his final resting place." The group told VH1 they made a concerted effort to try to keep the song from being too "preachy." The balance they struck could serve as a model for every pop star looking to make socially conscious records. The song gained a wide audience despite its challenging and troubling themes, which likely went over most every '90s kid's head at the time.
10. Garbage's "Cherry Lips" is about a young transvestite or transgender prostitute.
Garbage based their biggest hit off the novel Sarah by JT Leroy. In the book, a young, neglected boy begins to dress up like his mother, who is a "lot lizard," or truck-stop prostitute. Garbage's lead singer Shirley Manson sings about the boy's transformation in the second verse. "With your cherry lips and golden curls," Manson sings. "You could make grown men gasp when you'd go walking past them ... Because you looked just like a girl."
The song dealt with the difficult series of emotions individuals go through while facing such profound identity struggles. "You're such a delicate boy," she sings. "In the hysterical realm/ Of an emotional landslide/ In physical terms." It's unclear whether Manson's character is going through a full transition. However, her delivery can still transport listeners into the song's celebratory mood, whether or not they know what they're actually celebrating.
11. Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" is about heroin addiction.
There is no way to listen to this song today and not see all of the caged and sad puppies that used to appear with it in those tortuously long animal cruelty commercials. Even Sarah McLachlan changes the channel when those commercials come on. However, when she first wrote the song, animal cruelty was not on her mind. It was the '90s trendiest drug — heroin.
She had been reading about a series of articles in Rolling Stone about musicians who had turned to heroin for relief. "I felt really great empathy in some way for these people," she told CMJ, "I've been in that place where you've messed up and you're so lost that you don't know who you are anymore, and you're miserable—and here's this escape route. I've never done heroin, but I've done plenty of other things to escape." In the minds of '90s babies, though, the song will always be about a very different sort of empathy for abused creatures who couldn't possibly understand such a terrifying and debilitating drug.