There are certain songs that are classics, beloved by people across multiple generations despite their typical genre preferences. But how often do you take the time to explore what the lyrics to these powerful songs mean? Sometimes, song lyrics are written simply. Writing good songs is part of the job for singer/songwriters, and they may draw their inspiration from a myriad of places. For example, the chorus of Walk This Way was famously written after a viewing of Frankenstein. But other times, powerful real-life events inspire equally powerful songs. It’s one thing to listen to these songs without knowing the story, but knowing the story behind these powerful songs makes listening to your turntable even more powerful. Here are the stories behind seven of these classic songs.
American Pie by Don McLean
American Pie is one of those songs that’s hard to dissect on your own. After all, McLean sings something about a jester in a thorny crown and a marching band and the music dying. While several people have attempted to crack the code, it’s only recently that Don McLean publicly revealed the meaning of the song. It’s long been known that the day the music died referred to the day that McLean found out that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper died in a tragic plane crash. The rest of the song, McLean revealed, was a reference to the decline of morality in America.
Daniel by Elton John
Daniel is a semi-confusing song, in part because Elton John ended up chopping the final verse in the song in order to make it more compact. The last verse would have explained that Daniel is about a Vietnam veteran who struggled to integrate back into society after the war ended. At the end of the song, he decides to go to Spain, leaving his brother behind.
99 Luftballons by Nena
Few know that 99 Luftballons is a Cold War-era protest song. When you listen to the lyrics carefully, the song tells a story about 99 red balloons—an innocuous thing—triggering militaries to bomb each other and destroy the world. It’s a warning about the destructive power of militaries—far from the innocent song you might think you’re singing along to when you start humming the tune.
Smoke on the Water by Deep Purple
Deep Purple had a gig at a casino in Montreux, Switzerland. The casino caught fire during a Frank Zappa concert, and instead of playing there, they watched it burn from across a lake. That experience is what inspired the song Smoke on the Water, which sounds significantly eerier when you know the story behind it.
Polly by Nirvana
The true story behind Nirvana’s Polly is completely terrifying. Taken from a newspaper clipping, it’s about a 14-year-old girl (whose name was changed to protect her privacy) who was kidnapped leaving a rock concert and tortured. Though she escaped, it’s still a scary true story encompassed by the innocuous-sounding song.
Fast Car by Tracy Chapman
Chapman was raised by a single mom in Cleveland, Ohio, in a working-class family. While the song was not directly autobiographical, she admits to watching a lot of struggling families in the area trying to make ends meet. One of the most popular songs of all time, Fast Car is about a girl being raised by an alcoholic dad, only to leave him for a man that turns out to be just like him. It’s a heartbreaking song, and even more so when you closely listen to the song lyrics.
Tears in Heaven by Eric Clapton
Eric Clapton’s son, Conor, fell out of an apartment building in New York and died when he was four years old. Clapton’s Tears in Heaven was inspired by this tragic event. There’s little as devastating as the loss of a child, so it’s no wonder this song is so heartbreaking to listen to. Knowing the truth behind it only makes it that much more powerful.
Music is moving in its own right. The reason so many of us love music is that it can heighten our emotions and make us feel connected to the world around us. But some songs mean more than others. These seven songs were written with powerful stories behind them. Knowing these stories makes the songs feel all the more powerful when you listen to them going forward.