Artists like Journey, Miley Cyrus, John Lennon, and Madonna mythbust their own lyrics — and forever change how we’ll interpret their songs.
Sometimes songs don’t mean what we think they mean. And most of the time, what they actually mean is way less cool.
For this list, I found 11 songs that were ruined (or, at least, altered from their perceived meaning) all because the artist, or lyricist, or, in one case, underage sexual partner, started talking. Prepare to have your mind… well, not blown. Imploded, maybe.
Songs forever ruined when their true meanings are revealed
1 | Don’t Stop Believin’ – Steve Perry admits there’s no such thing as “South Detroit”
In an interview with New York magazine, Steve Perry recognized that there couldn’t be “a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit”… because it doesn’t exist. South of Detroit is a river, and south of that is Windsor, Canada. (Yes, it’s a spot where Canada is south of the U.S.) And Don’t Stop Believin’ is NOT about a Canadian. God forbid.
But Steve went with South Detroit because…
I ran the phonetics of east, west, and north, but nothing sounded as good or emotionally true to me as South Detroit. The syntax just sounded right. I fell in love with the line. It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve learned that there is no South Detroit. But it doesn’t matter.
Just another thing to add to your list of Journey psyche outs.
2 | Party In the U.S.A. – Miley Cyrus admits she’s never heard a Jay-Z song
In an interview with Miley, she said:
I’ve never heard a Jay-Z song. I don’t listen to pop music and I, like, it’s not even my style of music, that song.
Next you’re going to tell me she doesn’t actually call cab drivers “taxi men.”
3 | Like a Virgin – Madonna’s songwriter admits it’s about a man getting over a breakup
Billy Steinberg wrote the lyrics to Like a Virgin. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times he said…
I wasn’t just trying to get that racy word ‘virgin’ in a lyric. I was saying… that I may not really be a virgin — I’ve been battered romantically and emotionally like many people — but I’m starting a new relationship and it just feels so good, it’s healing all the wounds and making me feel like I’ve never done this before, because it’s so much deeper and more profound than anything I’ve ever felt.
Which means THE song that launched Madonna’s entire “taboo sex queen” persona — which, decades later, would involve her as a fifty-something repeatedly flashing her breasts on stage — is actually about a man.
4 | My Sharona – Sharona admits it was written for her as an underage girl
Sharona Alperin was the girl who inspired The Knack’s Doug Fieger to write My Sharona. And “girl” is the operative term. Sharona confirmed in an interview…
We were both in relationships when we met. I was maybe 16, 17, he was about nine years older than me  and was introduced to me at that time by a girlfriend. When he met me, I remember him gasping. And before you knew it, he told me that he was in love with me. He ended that relationship, but it took me one year to leave my relationship.
Sharona is a real estate agent now and uses the domain MySharona.com. Fieger died from cancer in 2010. If you want to see one way the world has changed in the past three decades, imagine how people would react now if a 25-year-old singer was with a 16-year-old groupie.
5 | (You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party) – The Beastie Boys admit it was supposed to mock party anthems
(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party) holds two distinctions. One, it’s recognized as one of the greatest party anthems of all time. And two, as far as I know, is the only song that uses separate parenthetical phrases at the beginning and end of the title. Only one of those things was on purpose.
In the book Beastie Boys: The Complete Guide, Mike D talks about the song…
The only thing that upsets me is that we might have reinforced certain values of some people in our audience when our own values were totally different. There were tons of guys singing along to Fight For Your Right who were oblivious to the fact it was a total goof on them.
And because of that, they stopped performing the song live in 1987.
6 | Tutti Frutti – Little Richard admits it’s about anal sex
I packaged this list as songs “ruined” by artist revelations; this is a case where the revelation makes the song SO much better. You know the lyrics of Tutti Frutti as just random sounds strung together, almost Adam Sandler style. “A whop bop-a-lu-mop, a whop bam boo. Tutti frutti, oh Rudy.” That’s not what Little Richard initially wrote.
He was quick to share the first draft…
A wop bop a loo mop, a good goddam
Tutti Frutti, good booty,
If it don’t fit, don’t force it,
You can grease it, make it easy.
You can clearly see the sexual innuendo. At the time, it seems, Little Richard was having a lot of sex with men, and wrote this song about it. (Although in recent interviews he says he’s not gay anymore, but he was then, “I love gay people! I believe I was the founder of gay.”)
7 | In the Air Tonight – Phil Collins admits it wasn’t to expose a murder, it’s just random cool shit
The conspiracy theory on In the Air Tonight was that Phil Collins saw a murder and wrote the song. Then he saw the murderer at a concert, performed the song, and badass drum soloed the guy right into a confession. Eminem popularized that theory to a new generation by shouting it out in Stan.
Phil Collins isn’t sure of the genesis (pun SO VERY INTENDED) of that theory. In the Air Tonight isn’t about a murder he witnessed… or a murder at all… or, ya know, anything. It’s just some random cool shit he spewed out to match a creepy sound he’d made on the drums and keyboard. In an interview with Jimmy Fallon, On VH1 Storytellers in 1997, he gave the real back story…
Let it be said, right here, right now, anything you hear about this song is not true. We just got this drum machine… and I set up this drum pan. And straight away that created an atmosphere… then I set up a sound on the keyboard, so it was a good start… and I liked [those] chords… so all those words came out at that time.
So take a lesson, kids. That’s what happens when you create the greatest five-second drum solo ever and try to retrofit a song around it. Magical pablum. Lots and lots of magical pablum.
8 | Summer of ’69 – Bryan Adams admits it was about the sexual position
This song that’s an iconic celebration of Americana (or, I guess, Canadiacana)? Total window dressing for Bryan Adams’s passion for simultaneous oral sex. In an interview in 2001, he revealed the truth…
Some parts [of the song] are autobiographical, but the title comes from the idea of 69 as a metaphor for sex. Most people thought it was about the year 1969.
For what it’s worth, Bryan Adams was 10 years old during the actual summer of 1969.
9 | (Untitled) How Does It Feel – D’Angelo admits it’s not about sex, but about his grandmother’s cooking
The video for (Untitled) How Does It Feel remains an iconic piece of music video history. Mostly because it’s the only successful video that primarily features an artist’s seven-minute abs singing a song. It’s considered one of the sexiest non-Barry White songs of all time. Which turns out to be a wild swing-and-a-miss.
Because earlier this year, the director of the video revealed that D’Angelo’s asking “how does it feel” about… his grandma’s cooking.
Most people think the ‘Untitled’ video was about sex, but my direction was completely opposite of that. It was about his grandmother’s cooking… I was like, ‘Think of your grandmother’s greens, how it smelled in the kitchen. What did the yams and fried chicken taste like? That’s what I want you to express.’
Unfortunately, he liked it a little too much… and eventually ballooned up to 300 pounds. (He’s slimming down for a comeback.)
10 | Friday – Rebecca Black admits she knew the lyrics were nonsensical madness
Part of the fun of Friday (remember Friday?) was the belief that Rebecca Black was taking what she was singing seriously — even though they were lyrics that make a Fergie song seem Paul Simon-esque. So it’s kind of disappointing that Rebecca Black knew she was belting out gibberish.
In an interview last year after Friday blew up, her mother revealed their conversations about the song.
A few times, when I heard some of the lyrics, I was like, ‘That doesn’t make sense,’ Kelly recalled. Rebecca said, ‘I sang it as they wrote it, Mom.’ So I didn’t micromanage it.
I only give that quote two out of four “funs.”
11 | Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds – John Lennon admits it’s not about LSD, it’s about his kid’s painting
In several interviews, John Lennon swore The Beatles didn’t create Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds to be about LSD — even though, ya know, they loved the stuff — it was based off a painting his son Julian did in art class.
I swear to God, or swear to Mao, or to anybody you like, I had no idea it spelled LSD… My son Julian came in one day with a picture he painted about a school friend of his named Lucy. He had sketched in some stars in the sky and called it ‘Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.’ Simple.
Also, I’m going to assume Day Tripper isn’t about acid, Come Together isn’t about simultaneous orgasms, and Paperback Writer isn’t about why someone should kill J.D. Salinger.