11 '90s Pop Songs With Meanings That Went Right Over Your Head As A Kid
It was a crazy decade, so it probably won't come as a surprise to hear that there are so many '90s pop songs with deep meanings, and even less surprising that you didn't realize how deep they were when you first heard them. To be fair, if you didn't figure out the song's true meaning, that may have had something to do with age. It's hard to wrap your tiny mind around the fact that so many of those sugary-sounding songs were about serious subjects AIDS or drugs or becoming a father for the first time.
The funniest part of this is that, often, the sweeter a song's melody, the darker its lyrical content. Who knew that the likes of Len and Third Eye Blind were peddling fables about overconsumption of narcotics? Your younger self probably didn't.
It's OK if going through this list makes you view current sugary pop music with suspicion. Is Rihanna's DJ Khaled collab "Wild Thoughts" not about getting a little flirty in the summer sunshine with someone you're really into and actually about depression? Is Carly Rae Jepsen's feel-good summer hit "Cut To The Feeling" secretly about serial killers? Well, no and no, but this list will really make you question everything.
1. "Closing Time" By Semisonic
You thought this one was about the end of the night at a club, right? Wrong. It was actually about singer Dan Wilson becoming a dad. He explained the misleading lyrics to NPR:
"Closing time, open all the doors and let you out into the world, like you're being, you know, born, you're being letting out into the world. Turn all of the lights on over every boy and every girl, you know, like the bright operating room where the baby comes out is brightly lit. You know, this is a bit of a stretch."
"But, like, one last call for alcohol, so finish your whiskey or beer, it's kind of like being cut off, you know, your umbilical cord is going to get cut off and, you know, you're done here. You don't have to go home but you can't stay here in the womb."
2. "Wannabe" By The Spice Girls
So, most of this song is pretty much what you think it is: a meditation on friendship and fun. But, according to Metro, Mel B's "Wannabe" rap has a totally different meaning than you think it does:
"A spicy insider has revealed that the lyrics ‘we got G like MC who likes it on an…’ reference Mel C and Geri Halliwell ‘enjoying sex whilst on ecstasy, if you listen carefully’... In a smart move, Scary Spice never explicitly references E, but does so by never completing the sentence and instead rapping straight into the next line which begins with the phonetic E."
Look, re-read those rap lyrics and see what you think:
"So here’s a story from A to Z, you wanna get with me you gotta listen carefully,
We got Em in the place who likes it in your face,
we got G like MC who likes it on an…
Easy V doesn’t come for free, she’s a real lady"
Besides which, zig-a-zig-ah reportedly references an unpopular guy who shared the same studio toilets with the girls and had a bad habit of smoking cigars on the toilet. His nickname was "sh*t and cigars" and the same unnamed insider speculates this was the subconscious inspiration for "zig-a-zig-ah."
3. "Semi-Charmed Life" By Third Eye Blind
Don't let the sunny backing melody fool you. According to lead singer Stephan Jenkins's Billboard interview, "It's a dirty, filthy song about snorting speed and getting blow jobs." He explained later in another Billboard interview that the real meaning of "Semi-Charmed Life" was an audio representation of the drug speed: "The music that I wrote for it is not intended to be bright and shiny for bright and shiny's sake. It's intended to be what the seductiveness of speed is like, represented in music."
4. "Good Riddance (Time Of Your Life)" By Green Day
It's a classic slow dance number at proms, according to publications like PopCrush. Which makes even stranger that this song is all about a break up. In Billie Joe Armstrong's Guitar Legends interview in May 2005, he stated:
“At the time I wrote 'Good Riddance', I was breaking up with a girl that was moving to Ecuador and I was trying to be as understanding about it as I could. I wrote the song as a kind of bon voyage. I was trying not to be bitter, but I think it came out a little bit bitter anyway…I thought that calling the song “Time of Your Life” was just a little too level-headed for me, so I had to come up with something different”
So, that song you're smooching to? Yeah, it's all about the dissolution of a relationship.
5. "Waterfalls" By TLC
This is more inspiring than weird, but it nonetheless falls into the category of things you never realized about a pop song. On the surface, the TLC song is a feel-good pop hit, but, according to Mic, "Waterfalls" is actually about HIV and AIDS. They referenced the way the girls had vocally supported safe sex from the beginning and how: "Fans would come up to the TLC members at shows and tell them how much it meant that they were discussing AIDS and contraception when no one else was. The girls found this very moving and wrote 'Waterfalls' as a tribute to those fans." Still don't believe it? Check out lyrics like the following:
"One day he goes and takes a glimpse in the mirror,
But he doesn't recognize his own face.
His health is fading and he doesn't know why.
Three letters took him to his final resting place."
6. "MMMBop" By Hanson
It's a funny, silly, goofy song that's not about much, right? Nope. When interviewed by Songfacts and asked what the real meaning of "MMMBop" was, Zach Hanson explained it was all about "the futility of life." What the what? He said:
"What that song talks about is, you've got to hold on to the things that really matter. MMMbop represents a frame of time or the futility of life. Things are going to be gone, whether it's your age and your youth, or maybe the money you have, or whatever it is, and all that's going to be left are the people you've nurtured and have really built to be your backbone and your support system."
So, there you have it. It's actually a tribute to the transience of your existence.
7. "Steal My Sunshine" By Len
If you assumed that this song was about emotional vulnerability and a guy asking the girl he's crazy about to not break his heart, you were wrong again. According to Len's founding member Marc Costanzo's interview with The Guardian, the meaning of "Steal My Sunshine" is far deeper:
"We were at this huge three-day rave and I ended up partying, partying, partying. We went back to my house and Brendan Canning from Broken Social Scene was DJing and played More, More, More by Andrea True Connection. I ended up sampling it that morning and looped it, it sounded great. Somewhere in the next couple of days I recorded it, I know Deryck Whibley from Sum 41 was there in the room when I put down the lyrics. It's just a song about what happened that night of the party."
So yeah, this song is about the Len musician partying with a guy from Broken Social Scene and guy from Sum 41 (which is a weird image to begin with). And when you know this and re-read the lyrics, you're going to see a lot more lines that could be interpreted as drug references (for example "My mind was thugged all laced and bugged all twisted wrong and beat").
8. "Mambo No. 5" By Lou Bega
When Bega spoke to MTV about what "Mambo No. 5" really meant, he had a surprising reveal: that five isn't random at all. “There’s five continents, you know. So it’s for example, No. 1 in Africa, South Africa, and all over Africa, so that means these people like it as well as people in Europe and Americans are liking it to[sic].” So, the song's actually about people on different continents liking mambo... not just some dude listing all the women he's into.
9. "Blue (Da Ba Dee)" By Eiffel 65
This is hands down the spaciest pop song of the '90s, so it's hard to imagine that the actual meaning could be deeper than what you're already envisioning. Except wait, it is. When band member Jeffrey Jey was asked what "Blue (Da Ba Dee)" meant, his answer was recorded for posterity in 1000 UK #1 Hits:
"I started thinking about this character I invented called Zoroti and the lifestyle he led, from the way he would buy his house, pick his girlfriend, his job or the neighborhood he would live in. Then I came up with a color, a color I thought described the way he saw things."
This makes literally no sense. Who's Zoroti and why is he so obsessed with blue? Maybe it was better not to know the meaning behind this one.
10. "...Baby One More Time" By Britney Spears
According to the book The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory, the real meaning of "...Baby One More Time" is one of linguistic confusion. The track was written by Swedish songwriters Max Martin and Rami Yacoub (and who, therefore didn't speak native English), and it was meant to be about a girl begging her ex boyfriend to call her back.
Yeah, phone her, not hit her. As E! News put it: "Apparently those Swedish guys thought that 'hit' was American slang for 'call.' "That would mean that... the song is really just about something that every single woman has gone through: Waiting for a man to call you back."
11. "2 Become 1" By The Spice Girls
With lyrics like "Come a little bit closer, baby, get it on, get it on," it becomes painfully obvious when re-listening to this as an adult, that this song isn't a sappy ballad but is actually a safe-sex anthem that's all about covering your monkey before you get spunky.
In short, the mainstream pop of the '90s is a lot more interesting than you ever knew (or those major chords led you to believe). Make some time to listen to all of these songs again, if you haven't already. You might find you have a radical new take on an old favorite.