Decoded: Songs and their meanings

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Jay-Z has written a book about his lyrics – but others aren't so clear cut

For some, a song is all about the melody, the lyrics merely an "added extra – like a conservatory or a patio", as Jarvis Cocker once claimed. But for many others the words touch the heart and the soul, even if we're not exactly sure what they mean. Consider "A Whiter Shade of Pale", "Hotel California" or even "Do Wah Diddy Diddy". Inability to grasp what a songwriter truly means has led to confusion, hilarity and occasional heated exchanges. The more famous the song, it seems, the more intense the – often inaccurate – speculation about its meaning.

For listeners who misheard Madonna's line "Like a virgin, touched for the very first time" as "Like a virgin, touched for the 31st time", hilarity and confusion go hand in hand. Meanwhile the line "No dark sarcasm in the classroom" in Pink Floyd's song "Another Brick in the Wall" perplexed those who misheard it as "The ducks are hazards in the classroom".

Urban legend has it that "Puff the Magic Dragon" by Peter, Paul and Mary, a seemingly innocent song that hit the UK charts in 1963, was really about recreational drug-taking – a claim strenuously denied by the writers, it must be stressed.

Some artists revel in the ambiguity of their work. Coldplay's Chris Martin readily admits that he has no idea what inspired him to write the words to the band's chart-topping tune "Yellow" and claims to ponder its meaning every day, while others offer up only tantalising glimpses into the inspiration of their hits.

The rapper Jay-Z has gone the whole hog and this month published a new tome – Decoded – which provides a detailed breakdown of the meanings behind many of his most provocative songs. Here The Independent on Sunday aims to provide a similar service, taking some of the world's best-known songs and sifting the myth from the reality.

'What Katie Did' The Libertines (2004)

Myth It's all about Pete Doherty's ex-girlfriend, Kate Moss.

Reality The Libertines' frontman didn't even meet the supermodel until 2005. The song is, apparently, about Katie Lewis, another of his exes. He went on to write "What Katy Did Next" for Babyshambles. That's Katy with a Y. This is about Moss, recounting the stormy relationship.

'I Kissed a Girl' Katy Perry (2008)

Myth Mrs Russell Brand's raunchy pop hit was about a lesbian kiss.

Reality Despite getting radio producers in America's Bible belt very hot under the collar, Perry has candidly said that her debut single was about heterosexual friendships between women and that it was deliberately sexed-up to sell records.

'Downtown' Composed by Tony Hatch, originally sung by Petula Clark (1965)

Myth The song is about oral sex.

Reality Tony Hatch claims it was written during his first visit to New York. Staying at a hotel on Central Park and wandering down Broadway to Times Square, he thought he was downtown, forgetting that in New York downtown is a lot further away. "I loved the whole atmosphere there and the song came to me very, very quickly," he said.

'The Drugs Don't Work' The Verve (1997)

Myth This melancholy ballad, released at the height of the Verve's career, was about lead singer Richard Ashcroft's own drug use.

Reality When Ashcroft was 11 his father died of cancer – which is what the about.

'Revolution 9' The Beatles (1968)

Myth Some regard the eight-minute track of noise and tape loops as a work of genius, but others see it as a dull joke. The track played a key role in a rumour that Paul McCartney had died shortly after its release. The loop of "number nine" sounds like "turn me on, dead man" when played backwards, and the hotchpotch was described as sounding like a car crash and someone screaming "let me out!".

Reality In Life magazine, the Beatles insisted they did not plant clues in the song to perpetrate a hoax about McCartney's death, and that "turn me on, dead man" was a coincidence.

'Brown Eyed Girl' Van Morrison (1967)

Myth The song is about taking heroin. The word "girl" is interpreted as drugs that work on the brain's hypothalamus region. "Slippin' and a-slidin'" means using a needle to inject heroin, which is usually brown.

Reality Morrison says that the song was originally called "Brown Skinned Girl" and was about an inter-racial relationship. He changed it to make it more palatable to radio stations.

'Stairway to Heaven' Led Zeppelin (1971)

Myth In 1982, it was alleged on a TV programme that the lyrics contained hidden references to Satan when played backwards.

Reality The band called the claims "ridiculous". Singer Robert Plant said the song was about "some cynical aside about a woman getting everything she wanted all the time without giving back any thought or consideration".

'Born in the USA' Bruce Springsteen (1984)

Myth The song is often interpreted as a patriotic anthem and was hijacked during Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign – much to Springsteen's chagrin, as he is a liberal.

Reality The song is about a Vietnam War veteran's struggle to readjust to life as a civilian.

'Smells Like Teen Spirit' Nirvana (1990)

Myth Grunge frontman Kurt Cobain came up with the song's title when his friend Kathleen Hanna, lead singer of the punk band Bikini Kill, spraypainted "Kurt smells like Teen Spirit" on his wall. Hanna says she meant Cobain smelt like the deodorant Teen Spirit, which his then girlfriend, Tobi Vail, wore.

Reality Cobain claimed he was unaware of the deodorant until months after the single was released. Hanna sprayed the slogan during a discussion about anarchism and punk rock; therefore Cobain interpreted the slogan as having a revolutionary meaning.

'Umbrella' Rihanna (2007)

Myth Considered Rihanna's signature tune, the song's lyrics are said to refer to the devil possessing the singer. The repeated references to the number six – a figure frequently associated with the devil – in the song and the video reinforced the belief.

Reality The song, according to the singer, is about two people who still love each other despite things driving them apart. Rihanna is also a Christian.

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