Deciphering the True Meanings of Song Lyrics

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In my Atlantic advice column, What's Your Problem?, I grapple with one of the more important issues facing humankind. Here is the letter that prompted the discussion:

Do you remember the scene in Meet the Parents in which Ben Stiller shocks Robert De Niro by telling him that "Puff, the Magic Dragon" is really about marijuana? Well, I'm that Robert De Niro character. For some reason, I don't get the hidden references of important songs. For instance, I was shocked to learn that the Rolling Stones' "Start Me Up" is about a vibrator. Could you tell me what else I'm missing in famous pop and rock songs?

B.F., Philadelphia, Pa.

My answer:

Dear B.F.,

You are missing quite a bit. While the lyrics of many songs are fairly straightforward--the AC/DC canon contains little in the way of ambiguity or poetic complexity, and 2Live Crew's "Me So Horny" is about a man who is, in fact, very horny--I myself am continually surprised to learn the hidden meanings embedded in other works. For instance: Bob Dylan's "Tambourine Man" is actually a Minnesota Vikings fight song. "Heart of Gold," by Neil Young, is about the boutique allure of midget porn. The entire Justin Bieber oeuvre concerns the secret shame of knowing that he is a terrible musician and, never theless, fabulously wealthy. Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" is about heroin. Pink Floyd's "Comfortably Numb" is about heroin. The Beatles' "Hey Jude" is about heroin. Lou Reed's "Heroin" is about cocaine. Eric Clapton's "Cocaine" is about the earned-income tax credit. If you play Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" backward, it asks you to subscribe to The Atlantic. The Nirvana song "Smells Like Teen Spirit" is about carbohydrates ("Here we are now/ with potatoes/ with a Mars bar/ and potatoes"). "Stairway to Heaven" is not about anything.
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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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