It seems like a happy-go-lucky tune. It sucks you in with a catchy rhythm. Maybe even a great video. Your favorite radio station plays it all the time. It’s upbeat and is great to sing along to……but is it supposed to be a “happy” song? Eh, not so much.
We’re talking about happy sounding songs with sad, dark, or otherwise not-happy content.
While doing research for this one, I quickly realized that I am probably the 5,000th person to write about this topic. I certainly won’t be the last, either. It’s just too good of a subject not to address.
Here are some songs that, on the surface, seem happy but are anything but. Also, I may not be spot on with the exact meanings of each of these songs. I guess music is always open to interpretation.
“There She Goes” by The La’s – 1988
At first listen, it seems like a harmless love song/one hit wonder. Maybe about a man falling in love with a woman (as they often do). When you dig in to the lyrics, you quickly learn that this song is most likely about heroin abuse. WHAT!? Lines like “There she blows again / pulsing through my veins / and I just can’t contain / this feeling that remains”. Yeah, pretty clear this is about heroin. Great song, though.
“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” by The Beatles – 1969
Abbey Road is widely viewed as the finest collection of songs ever released by The Beatles. This quirky track lays smack dab in the middle of side 1 (remember records?). It seems like a fun little tune…but Maxwell is a serial murderer. And guess what? His weapon of choice? Yep…a HAMMER. He kills his girlfriend Joan, his teacher, and then the judge who tries his case. Whistle along with it!
“Today” by Smashing Pumpkins – 1993
“Today is the greatest day I’ve ever known”…words that Billy Corgan probably uttered the day AFTER he got rid of the suicidal thoughts that inspired the song. Along with that, the band at that time was going through a pretty rough patch. Drummer Jimmy Chamberlain was battling heroin addiction; lead guitarist James Iha and bassist D’arcy Wretzky had just broken up. With all of the stuff that was going on with Smashing Pumpkins at that time, it’s a miracle their Siamese Dream album ever came out.
“Mack The Knife” by Bobby Darin – 1959
Louis Armstrong first performed the pop version of this song in 1956, but it’s popularity is credited mostly to Bobby Darin. Darin’s version has an addictive, swinging beat which is synonymous with that era. The original song, however, comes from The Threepenny Opera which debuted in 1928. It was sung by a group of rolling minstrels. They’re comparing the lead character to a shark and telling of his associations with robberies, arson, and murder. Nice, right? That’s a little deep, so thanks for staying with me. Let’s move on.
“Born In The U.S.A.” by Bruce Springsteen – 1984
President Ronald Reagan used this song in his reelection campaign in 1984. Bruce, however, is a staunch democrat and denounced any association with the Reagan campaign. All that aside, I’ve always wondered why Reagan wanted to use it. Sure, it seems full of patriotic pride. I mean, it’s in the TITLE. However, the song is actually about a severe LACK of patriotism among working class Americans.
(side note: “Born In The USA” was the first album to be released on CD as part of its original release…or so legend has it…it just depends on how you define “first”)
“The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” by Timbuk 3 – 1986
“I study nuclear science / I love my classes / I got a crazy teach who wears dark glasses / things are goin’ great / and they’re only gettin’ better” — Seems like a positive outlook on the future, right? Well, this song is actually a cynical outlook on the threat of nuclear war. It was released in 1986 during the height of cold war tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union. Considering the time frame, this one hit wonder fit in perfectly with the times. Plus, who cares if it’s dark? It’s got a great beat and you can dance to it.
“(Don’t Go Back To) Rockville” by R.E.M. – 1984
R.E.M. is notorious for unintelligible lyrics. If you’ve heard this song, chances are good that you’ve wondered what Stipe sings about in the verses. The chorus is clear: “Don’t go back to Rockville / and waste anther year”. It was written by Mike Mills. It’s the story of his then girlfriend Ingrid Shorr. He pleads for he not to move back to Rockville, Maryland to live with her parents. His pleas turn in to lyrics such as “You’ll wind up in some factory that’s full time filth / and nowhere left to go” …. and …. “At night I drink myself to sleep / and pretend I don’t care that you’re not here with me”. Wow. What a downer. It’s how R.E.M. rolls rolled, I guess.
I wrote down a few more examples:
“Silence is Golden” – by The Tremeoles: A guy sees that his crush is being mistreated by her boyfriend, but can’t decide whether or not to tell her.
“I Don’t Like Mondays” by Boomtown Rats: This one is about Brenda Ann Spencer who killed 2 people in a shooting rampage in 1979 killing 2 and injuring more at an elementary school in southern California. Her motive? She didn’t like Mondays.
“Boys Of Summer” by Don Henley: Nope, it’s not about baseball…it’s about letting go of those summers of your youth and growing up.
“Heart Of Glass” by Blondie: Behind this funky quasi-disco beat is a fragile, gentle soul who is afraid of being hurt…afraid of getting her heart broken.
“Happy Hour” by The Housemartins: Best I can tell, the main figure in the song is constantly being dragged out to the bar with his boss which becomes tiresome. Also, the chorus of this song may seem familiar to many Barenaked Ladies fans: “…’cause they speak another language and it’s never really happened to me / it’s happy hour again”. Think about it.