Many will agree that musicians have a particular image in mind when playing their music, explaining why some of the most beautiful songs were inspired by real events. So let’s discover the backstories of those of these famous songs and discover what inspired these artists.
So are you ready to discover some of the moments in history and the people who inspired some of the most amazing songs of all time? If yes, then read on.
“Blackbird” by The Beatles (1968)
Whether you’re broken-hearted or looking for love, we’re sure you know this Beatles ballad by heart. But don’t let the singing bird sampled on the symbolic track mislead you: It’s actually about us humans!
Paul McCartney wrote the song while The Beatles were in India for a meditation retreat in 1968. While he has given many explanations for the song over time, the one he most regularly mentions is that he was referring to the Black Power movement in the US at the time. It’s also important to note that ‘bird’ means ‘woman’ in English slang.
“American Woman” by The Guess Who (1970)
Women from America, admit it: you’ve thrown your hair and proudly danced to this song in the bars. But once you learn about the song lyrics, you’ll realize this rock anthem is rather far from admiring you. In fact, the band is actually making fun of you!
Rock legend The Guess Who hails from Canada, which suddenly makes it clearer that they’re poking fun at their southern neighbors! Apparently, when they were invited to play at the White House, First Lady Pat Nixon specifically requested one of their other songs!
“Total Eclipse of the Heart” by Bonnie Tyler (1983)
Welsh diva, Bonnie Tyler, has an instantly memorable raspy voice, That, combined with some of the most moving song lyrics of the decade, turned “Total Eclipse of the Heart” into a power ballad. But what was going on in that strange music video? The truth lies in the song’s origins.
This song was originally written as a ballad from a part in a musical about vampires. Composer Jim Steinman, who has worked with artists like Meat Loaf, intended for the song to be in a show about Nosferatu. Eventually, the show did appear on Broadway in 2002 but it was an absolute failure.
“In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins
Many people think this song is about Phil Collins unable to save a man from drowning, but they’re wrong. Weirdly, Eminem also took the song lyrics at face value when he referenced it in “Stan”. However, it turns out that the popular myth surrounding the song’s origin has all been a misunderstanding.
Phil Collins has gone on record (no pun intended) over the past few years to put the rumors surrounding this song to rest. He’s claimed that he was going through a bad separation at the time that he wrote the tune, and he directed some of that anger into some songs. Even he doesn’t know the meaning!
“Imagine” by John Lennon (1971)
“Imagine” is one of the most recognizable songs on the planet. With its gentle melody and plea for peace, it’s hard to forget how politically laden the song lyrics are. And that’s specifically what Lennon wanted.
The message within “Imagine” is incredibly anti-capitalist, also singing against religion and nationalism. Therefore, its critics enjoyed pinning the legend as a Communist. Lennon clarified that he did not associate with any political movement, but that aspects of the song were actually a rewording of the Communist Manifesto. Find out more about The Beatles here.
“Every Breath You Take” by The Police (1983)
One of the best-selling songs of the 1980s, “Every Breath You Take” succeeded in distracting its listeners from the actual message. It’s nowhere near as romantic as people think. This tune by The Police is actually about a stalker who watches his idol. Sting even rolls his eyes when people tell him they played at their wedding!
During a time to escape the press scrutiny of his romantic life, Sting went to Jamaica. While staying at James Bond author Ian Fleming’s house, he wrote of a lover driven mad by an obsession with an old partner. Enjoy your next slow dance.
“Angel” by Sarah McLachlan (1997)
“Angel” is one of the most moving, evocative songs ever written. It is driven by soft piano and Canadian Sarah McLachlan’s bright voice. Featured in City of Angels with Nicolas Cage and Meg Ryan, many people linked it to the film’s story where an angel falls in love with a human.
Actually, the song’s history is truly tragic. Sarah McLachlan dedicated the anthem to the keyboardist for The Smashing Pumpkins. At the time, he had just succumbed to substance abuse. Its lyrics are intended to explore the dark feelings of weakness and isolation that could lead a person down that terrible road.
“The One I Love” by REM (1987)
Sure, the title and first line of this smash hit by REM could make the listener believe that this song is another romantic ballad. But yet again, it’s time to listen closely to the song lyrics and its overall tone. The song is actually undeniably bleak.
Its viewpoint on romance reduces the partner to an insignificant accessory. Singer Michael Stipe has maintained in interviews that the song is “incredibly violent” and ruthlessly honest in its outlook. Because so many listeners don’t hear the message, he’s also admitted that perhaps people should just continue believing what they want when listening to songs.
“Iron Man” by Black Sabbath (1970)
With its elevating series of four face-melting chords, Black Sabbath taught the flower power generation that not everything was rosy. In fact, the godfathers of heavy metal and headbanging showed us it was a great way to get out your angst. However, it doesn’t mean what we think it is.
The song title and meaning have nothing to do with everyone’s favorite Marvel superhero even though Stan Lee and his collaborators had created him just a few years before. The song is about an alienated man traveling from the future to warn mankind of their impending apocalypse. After being ignored, he’s the one who lashes out in anger and destroys the world.
“Bad Reputation” by Joan Jett (1980)
With this song and its cruel song lyrics, former Runaways member Joan Jett exploded into the music scene and proved she was a real star. The thing is, she wasn’t just trying to dazzle listeners with a bad girl image. She was writing from experience about a music industry that didn’t want her.
Jett had tried hard just to get her album released, being rejected by 23 record companies. Following the enormous success of her timeless hit “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” the following year, she released a video to “Bad Reputation” making fun of the record labels who had turned her down.
“Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by The Beatles (1967)
Yes, we get it. It was the ’60s and everyone was expanding their minds with drugs and psychedelics. So it’s understandable why many listeners heard this weird song with its whimsical lyrics and assumed it was about more than meets the eye. The truth is a lot more sobering.
It turns out that Julian, John Lennon’s three-year-old son, had been in nursery school one day. He came home to his dad and drummer Ringo Starr and showed them both a picture he had drawn. Julian explained that it was his classmate Lucy, flying across the sky with diamonds. John loved the sound of it and wrote a song about it.
“I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton (1974)
Whether you prefer Whitney Housten’s cover or not, you can’t deny that the song is historic in its popularity. While most of us think about her performance from The Bodyguard, it’s actually Parton who has the better story.
Dolly Parton wrote the hit about a non-romantic breakup she had experienced. She had made the choice to part ways professionally from her long-term mentor, Porter Wagoner. They had partnered with each other as a musical duo for seven years. Parton wanted to make sure he knew she still admired him and honestly wished him the best.
“Semi-Charmed Life” by Third Eye Blind (1997)
Few songs from the 1990s can be as light and carefree as this original hit of the radio. As catchy as the tune is, the original meaning of the song lyrics was something more ominous. Fans had no clue what was actually the intent behind the writing process.
Songwriter and lead singer, Stephan Jenkins, was horrified to see how many of his friends had fallen victim to substance abuse. In the original draft, he even wrote some explicit references to it. The song’s meaning, therefore, was diluted when it was filtered up to be made more marketable to wider audiences.
“MMMBop” by Hanson (1997)
During the explosion of boybands and teenage pop of the ’90s these three teenaged brothers from Oklahoma let out a ray of sunshine. Then, all of a sudden just as quickly disappeared after a massive hit. But what was that unusual word they had built a song about?
After hearing the brothers explain the meaning, the song lyrics become somewhat less confusing. They had made up this word “MMMBop” to describe a measurement of time, similar to a flash or a jiffy. The message is about living the best life you can in the time you have. The original YOLO, perhaps?
“Poker Face” by Lady Gaga (2008)
Did you honestly think this song was entirely about card games? One of Lady Gaga’s earliest smash hits, “Poker Face” remains one of her most successful and beloved songs. We’ve all had to put up our own poker faces occasionally, but hers has a particular reason.
We can understand from the song’s lyrics that maybe Gaga is trying to satisfy a male partner while hiding her true feelings. The song is a way of Lady Gaga expressing her bisexuality, catapulting her as a gay icon for millions of LGBT teens.
“Like A Virgin” by Madonna (1984)
Madonna entered the start of her career with this hit. The provocative star would get on stage and sing this pop hit wearing a wedding dress during her show-stopping performance at the MTV VMAs. Actually, it turns out the song was never supposed to be sung by a woman.
“Like A Virgin” was written by two men, Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly after they started a newfound relationship. When it was written, Steinberg had just started a new romantic relationship after leaving a collapsing one with a woman. He wrote it from the bottom of his heart, rather than to shock people.
“Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen (1984)
With that huge American flag backdrop and the bright uplifting melody, you would surely think that this iconic anthem was a cry for patriotism. Indeed, many elements surrounding President Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign didn’t quite hear the chorus and so were tricked. Let’s examine the song lyrics more closely…
The catchiest part of the song is written with sharp irony. “Born in the USA” actually critiques the American society and values. It seeks both to understand the negative impact the Vietnam War, but also highlight the American public’s attitude and treatment of veterans upon their return to the country.
“Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” by Green Day (1997)
It graced generations of school graduations and is classified as a tearjerker. Its nostalgic tone and melody cause the listener to reflect back on a joyful time in their life. But this wasn’t its intention.
Green Day singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong waited a full seven years before releasing the song. This is because it contrasted with his band’s other material so much. It was actually written during quite a bitter moment in his life. His girlfriend had ditched him back in 1990 to move to Ecuador. Good riddance, indeed!
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nivana (1991)
With just two chords played side by side, Nirvana redefined the music world and to give a voice to a whole generation. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” is – without a doubt – one of the best-known songs on Earth. However, are we sure we know what it’s about?
Is it a song about teenage angst, or about something more? Is it about a teenage rebellion, as the music video would suggest? Some have even suggested that it’s about Kurt Cobain’s relationship with his former partner. Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl has told listeners not to think too much about the lyrics. Perhaps the song has no message at all.
“Rock The Casbah” by The Clash (1982)
Punk band The Clash had been asked by their manager to compose shorter songs. Most of Rock The Casbah was written by drummer Topper Headon. However, singer Joe Strummer threw the original lyrics out the window. His inspiration for a new song came after hearing about the radio ban in Iran following the Islamic Revolution.
He had been told by someone he worked with that owning a disco record in fundamentalist Iran could result in the owner getting 20 lashes. So, while adopting words from a variety of Middle Eastern languages, he wrote a song about a king’s unsuccessful attempts to prevent his subjects from listening to music.
“You’re Beautiful” by James Blunt (2005)
A few years after his actions as a captain in the British Army during the Kosovo War, James Blunt’s hit song and its video of him undressing in a snowstorm were an instant hit. But if we look into the song lyrics, we’ll notice more than meets the ear.
Blunt himself rushes to point out that his primary intentions for the song were not to write a romantic ballad. Even though we interpret this as a sad story of a man who can’t marry the girl he loves, the lyrics highlight a guy who’s stalking a girl. Ouch.
“S&M” by Rihanna (2011)
It’s easy to listen to the lyrics and watch the video and think that S&M is about S&M. Well, Rihanna has said that it’s all just a metaphor. She explains that she is playing on words to highlight a point she’s making. It’s not about various ways of experiencing pleasure — it’s about the mainstream media and fake news.
Rihanna says that the hit is inspired by the relationship between celebrities and the media. She notes how she, and others, often rely on the attention that the press give them. However, it can turn into a love-hate relationship that hurts both parties.
“Closing Time” by Semisonic (1998)
It’s pretty easy to listen to “Closing Time” and take it on face value. We can imagine the shining lights being turned on in the early hours of the morning once the bar is closing for the night. It turns out the true meaning is very different.
Dan Wilson, Semisonic’s lead singer, used the metaphor of closing bars to write about something else. He wrote the song as he waited for fatherhood. His first daughter, Corazon, was about to enter his life and the song is about being pushed out into the world.
“Wake Me Up When September Ends” by Green Day (2004)
Green Day’s American Idiot album blasted on to music scene like a rocket! To this day. It’s considered one of the largest artistic critiques against the Bush administration and the Iraq War. The music video for “Wake Me Up When September Ends” depicts a couple torn apart when the man decides to enlist in the war.
In fact, the song’s original meaning has nothing to do with that! The song lyrics are, in fact, an ode to singer and guitarist Billie Joe Armstrong’s late father. He had passed away from cancer when the frontman was only 10 years old. Of course, it was in the month of September.
“Hey Ya!” by OutKast (2003)
This is by far one of the most successful songs of the new millennium. This anthem remains a staple on dance floors all over the world. But in between all those beats about shaking it like a Polaroid picture, or being cooler than cool, the song’s rhythm tells a shockingly sad story.
The speaker of the song sings a depressing scenario, whereby he is stuck in an unhappy relationship he wants to leave. He even mentions his parents as a touchstone, noting that at least they were able to stay together despite issues.
“Mother and Child Reunion” by Paul Simon (1972)
It would be easy to assume that “Mother and Child Reunion” was about a mother and child. Is her child coming home from college, the doctor, or the army? Maybe a nice summer in Europe? Not even close.
According to Paul Simon, he was inspired by a meal from his local Chinese restaurant! The dish comprised of chicken and egg that was humorously called “Mother and Child Reunion.” When Simon saw the name of the dish he remembered it for a future song. Inspiration can be all around us!
“Harder to Breathe” by Maroon 5 (2002)
Who didn’t listen to this song during a hard break up? Getting over a heartbreak can be difficult, and music has often served as a way to cope with the intense emotions associated with it. However, this isn’t what Adam Levine is singing about in “Harder to Breathe.”
According to an interview, Levine revealed that the hit song is actually about frustration with the music label Octone Records! They asked for more songs to include on the band’s debut album Songs About Jane. Levine said they felt pressure to keep producing more music since they believed the album was finished. Ironically, that pressure led to one of their biggest hits!
“Hotel California” by The Eagles (1977)
This is definitely The Eagles’ most famous song. “Hotel California” is a thoughtful, rock single that seems to mean something different to each person who hears it. But the Eagles have been happy to settle this debate.
There are rumors that it was inspired by either The Beverly Hills Hotel or the Chateau Marmont. According to the band, “Hotel California” is just a song “to see if we could do it,” about a social commentary of the high life of Hollywood and Los Angeles as a whole.
“You Are My Sunshine” by the Rice Brothers Gang(1939)
For decades, “You are My Sunshine” has been sung as a song to express love as bright as sunshine. Unfortunately, the true inspiration behind the song’s actual meaning is quite sad.
While the first few lines, imply a song about a love the singer would like to keep, the second verse reveals what’s actually going on. The singer finds his lover has abandoned him, singing, “now you’ve left me and love another / You have shattered all my dreams.” Oh dear!
“The Girl from Ipanema” by Musicians Astrud Gilberto, João Gilberto, and Stan Getz (1964)
It began in a neighborhood of the seaside of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil 1962. The writers noticed a beautiful 17-year-old girl called Helo Pinheiro on her daily routine through the beach where she used to pass the Veloso Café and sometimes get in the café to purchase cigarettes for her mother. Her beautiful features used to capture the heart of every man who would get a glimpse of her.
Initially named “Menina que passa” (The Girl Who Passes By), this song was about the beauty of the youth and the pang of melancholy because of the thought of youth fading. This tune made Pinheiro famous and she went on to become a model and a bikini store owner in Sao Paulo. She even appeared on the cover Brazilian Playboy in the year 1987 and again in 2003 at the age of 59 years.
“Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond (1969)
Neil Diamond’s inspiration for the song Sweet Caroline was Caroline Kennedy. He saw her from the cover of the 1962 issue of Life Magazine. It was an image of Caroline Kennedy riding a horse when she was young, similar to the one below.
This image remained at the back of him so much so that five years later, Sweet Caroline hit song was born. It is after 42 years later that the composer revealed what inspired him to write the song in an interview with CBS’s The Early Show. Funny enough, he performed the song in 2007 at Caroline’s 50th birthday.
“Peggy Sue” by Buddy Holly (1957)
Buddy Holly helped out his drummer friend Jerry Allison and called the new hit song Peggy Sue, after the name of the woman that Jerry was swooning over at the time.
The song did win the heart of Peggy Sue, since Allison indeed tied the knot with her. There was a sequel song Peggy Sue Got Married which failed to hit the charts.
“Donna” by Ritchie Valens (1958)
Ritchie Valen was popular with his song La Bamba, but Donna was his highest charting song. This hit was inspired by his high school sweetheart Donna Ludwig.
This hit was number two on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the year 1959. He stayed in contact with her until February 3, 1959, when he was tragically killed in a plane crash.
“She’s Always a Woman” by Billy Joel (1977)
Billy Joel released this hit in 1977, about a modern woman whom Joel adored. It was inspired by his ex-wife Elizabeth Weber Small. She managed his career and even secured him a successful future at the time when Billy was signing bad deals.
In the hit, Billy talks about how some said he had tough negotiating skills that many saw as masculine, but not our Billy! It was those skills were making her even more of a woman. Unfortunately, they divorced in 1982.
“Wild World” by Cat Stevens (1970)
This song was a hit in 1970. Just like Patti D’Arbanville, this song was inspired by Patti D’Arbanville whom Stevens was dating at the time.
She was a model and an actress and even appeared in Andy Warhol’s Flesh when she was just 16 years old.
“Photograph” by Def Leppard (1983)
This hit was inspired by the timeless beauty of Marilyn Monroe. When she died, Joe Elliot of the rock band Def Leppard was just three years old. However, Monroe’s beauty captivated him when he was growing up that he composed the song Photograph.
He decided to put the photo of her on the cover of the single and recruited Monroe’s lookalikes for the music video. Quite the obsession…
“Sweet Child O’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses (1987)
This song was composed by Axl Rose who heard Hollywood stars Izzy Stradlin and Duff McKagan adding up bass lines and chords. He was inspired, and started to and compose some lyrics.
Though the music which was playing downstairs was the one that inspired Rose, the true inspiration was his girlfriend, model Erin Everly.
“Jennifer Juniper” by Donavan (1968)
The Boyd sisters must have been very pretty; Jenny Boyd inspired the hit Jennifer Juniper. This was two years before Layla became a hit. Jenny was very popular at the time as a fashion model.
Donovan never had a relationship with Jenny but has a crush on her, inspiring the song.
“My Sharona” by The Knack (1979)
This hit was inspired by Sharona Alperin. Doug Fieger fell in love with Sharon when she was just 17 years, while he was 25 years old at the time. My Sharona was one of the biggest hits of his band The Knack.
Fieger even at one time stated that falling in love with Alperin felt like he was hit in his forehead. During the four years they dated, he penned a number of songs about her.
“Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel (1983)
Initially, Billy Joel had written one of his famous songs, Uptown Girl, inspired by his supermodel girlfriend Elle Macpherson who was 19 years old at the time.
After the pair broke up, Billy went on and won over the heart of another supermodel Christie Brinkley who inspired the reworked version of the song we know today. This song was originally titled Uptown Girls since he used to hang around some of the most famous women of 80’s such as Whitney Houston.
“Woman” by John Lennon (1981)
This hit was an ode to Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono. It was the main hit in the album through which Lennon and Ono collaborated.
Before his tragic death, Lennon claimed in an interview that the song was a “grown-up version” of the song Girl. One of John Lennon’s songs appeared on our list of greatest songs ever written – which you can find here.
“Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones (1971)
Mike Jagger secretly dated model Marsha Hunt and they had a daughter together, Karis Jagger. Brown Sugar was an iconic song inspired by Hunt. Hunt was the original London poster for Hair.
Even Claudia Lennear once declared in BBC Radio 4 that the iconic song Brown Sugar was about her because she was hanging with Mike Jagger.
“Oh Sherrie” by Steve Perry (1984)
This is one of the greatest songs, ‘Oh Sherrie’ was composed for the woman Steve Perry loved at the time. Sherrie Swafford was the lover of Steve Perry and she even appeared in his music video.
Even though they broke up, the legacy of the song remains, considered one of the biggest anthems of the 1980s.
“Athena” by The Who (1982)
Unrequited love has never been sweet. This is true especially when someone writes a song to a special someone and still rejected. Pete Townshend had a crush on actress Theresa Russell after meeting her at a concert of Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
He attempted to make moves on her but he was rejected. The singer originally named the song Theresa but would go ahead and change the title so that it would not appear personal when the band went to record it. Good move.
“Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney (1970)
This love song by Paul was inspired by his wife Linda McCartney. He wrote it to express gratitude to his wife, simply for being who she is.
As a beacon of support for him during the break up of The Beatles, she remained an important part of his life until her death in 1998.
“Walk Away Renee” by The Left Banke (1966)
Michael Brown admitted that during band practice he would be distracted by Renee, the girlfriend of Tom Finn when she used to sit in the studio.
Michael described how he used to feel anxious by staring the beauty, so he would come back later when she was not around to practice. The Left Banke even wrote additional songs about Fladen-Kamm, such as Pretty Ballerina, inspired by this stunning beauty.
“Candle in the Wind” by Elton John (1997)
Sir Elton had the honor of performing this song at the funeral of Princess Diana. This song was released in 1973, originally as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe.
The words of the hit were altered to fit Diana’s circumstances. This new version was very popular during the time as the world was mourning Princess Diana’s shocking death.
“Layla” by Derek and the Dominos (1970)
Do you want to win the heart of your friend’s wife? If yes, then you might consider writing her a song.
Eric Clapton did so when he serenaded Pattie Boyd who at that time was married to his friend, George Harrison. This hit was expressing his obsession with Boyd. Funnily enough, they married in 1979.
“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” by Crosby, Stills, and Nash (1969)
This hit referred to Stills’ rocky relationship with his singer-songwriter girlfriend, Judy Collins, who was popular with her piercing blue eyes.
Stills composed this, among other songs, with the help of Crosby and Nash. The lyrics described Stills’ thoughts and feelings about their imminent breakup.