It happens to everyone. You’re in the car with your best friend, the music is turned up loud, you’re singing along to one of your favourite tunes, it gets to that one line and you and your friend sing two completely different things. Embarrassed, your friend informs you that it’s not “I like big butts in a can of limes“.
But while mishearing lyrics is incredibly commonplace, what about totally missing the entire message of a song, even when you know or at least think you know the lyrics? Have you ever stopped to look over the words to some of your favourite pop tunes to find out if they may have some rather serious, even sinister messages behind them?
In the interest of promoting musical understanding and harmony, we’ve compiled a list of 12 songs that despite their irresistible catchiness, unforgettable hooks, and earworm refrains, actually contain some disturbing and even frightening lyrics. Check it out, there may just be a few shocks in store for you.
Foster The People – ‘Pumped Up Kicks’
Foster The People’s 2010 breakout hit provided the soundtrack to many a summer, and how could it not? It was the perfect beach or pool party song. With that infectious bass line and unforgettable earworm hook, it was a sterling piece of pop songcraft.
However, despite what might be described as one of the finest contemporary examples of upbeat musical composition, a perusal of the lyrics reveal what are in fact the homicidal thoughts of a troubled youth. Frontman Mark Foster even told CNN, “I wrote ‘Pumped Up Kicks’ when I began to read about the growing trend in teenage mental illness.”
Most Disturbing Lyric: “Yeah, he found a six shooter gun in his dad’s closet hidden with a box of fun things / I don’t even know what but he’s coming for you, yeah, he’s coming for you”
Robin Thicke – ‘Blurred Lines’
You simply couldn’t escape this song in 2013. It and its controversial music video were everywhere. However, despite the amount of eyebrows raised by the salacious clip, it pales in comparison to the song itself, which was banned at some 20 UK universities and generated a slew of editorials and criticisms from many on social media.
While the track is seemingly your typical Pharrell-produced pop tune with some fairly innocuous, if dimwitted lyrics, a closer look reveals something much more sinister. Many critics interpreted the song’s message to be a promotion of rape culture, specifically the notion of “blurred lines” and creepy lyrics like “I know you want it”, which encourage the idea that ‘no doesn’t always mean no’.
Most Disturbing Lyric: “I know you want it / I know you want it / I know you want it”
M.I.A. – ‘Paper Planes’
The track that brought a young Mathangi “Maya” Arulpragasam to the world. But just because the track, which appeared on M.I.A.’s universally acclaimed second album Kala, was a major crossover hit, appearing in films, receiving plenty of radio airplay, and netting the rapper a spot on Late Night with David Letterman, doesn’t mean that it’s any less socially aware, politically militant, or lyrically fierce as the rest of M.I.A.’s output.
The “paper planes” M.I.A. refers to in the track refer to forged visas and the track deals with the plight of immigrants in a new country hustling to make a life for themselves, and the perceptions that can form around them.
Most Disturbing Lyric: “Some some some I some I murder / Some I some I let go”
Lily Allen – ‘LDN’
Whether it’s ska, reggae, synth-pop, country, or just about anything else, Lily Allen’s songwriting muscle and her acumen for finding suitable collaborators makes any style she operates in sound fresh and modern. Case in point is her 2006 single ‘LDN’, text speak for London, and which describes a bicycle ride through the English capital on a typical day.
While the tune is cheerful and boppy, every scene of beauty or charm is revealed to be something less glamorous in the next line. A fellow in the park with his girlfriend is in fact “a pimp and his crack whore”. At one point, Allen even warns the listener, “When you look with your eyes everything seems nice, But if you look twice you can see it’s all lies“.
Most Disturbing Lyric: “When a kid came along to offer a hand / But before she had time to accept it / Hits her over the head, doesn’t care if she’s dead / Cause he’s got all her jewelry and wallet”
fun. – Some Nights’
While the rousing chorus of voices and the Afrobeat instrumentation make it seem as though this single from New York City indie pop trio fun. is the ultimate pre-drinks song, it actually tells a far darker and introspective tale then merely ‘Get ready to party.’ The song, written by frontman Nate Ruess, is a condemnation of fame and burden of notoriety.
The lyrics are littered with existential meditations, with the narrator constantly reminiscing about a home he misses. “I’m always thinking about, ‘Who am I and why did I do something like that?’ And I think then it harkens back to my family, and I have such a strong tie to them and it’s always therapeutic to sing about them,” explained Ruess.
Most Disturbing Lyric: “So this is it. I sold my soul for this? / Washed my hands of that for this? / I miss my mom and dad for this?”
Third Eye Blind – ‘Semi-Charmed Life’
Go to your parents’ CD collection and pull out one of their cheesy Best of the ’90s compilations. Scan the tracklist and we guarantee you will find this tune somewhere, probably sandwiched between something by the Spin Doctors and something by The Wallflowers. This track was everywhere in the ’90s, even appearing on an American Express ad, which would leave viewers singing the song’s famous “doo-doo-doo” refrain for the rest of the day.
Even if you hate this song, you can’t deny it’s freaking catchy, but behind its earworm facade is a heart-wrenching ode to meth addiction. Yes, really. There’s even a line in the song that goes “Doing crystal meth will lift you up until you break“.
Most Disturbing Lyric: “The sky was gold, it was rose / I was taking sips of it through my nose”
OutKast – ‘Hey Ya’
This one was another inescapable super-hit, so much so that it basically became a pop culture phenomenon, spawning several catchphrases that no one actually uses but everyone gets, including “ice cold” and “shake it like a Polaroid picture”. Not only was the track insanely popular, but it received widespread critical acclaim as an expert piece of pop songwriting.
The thing is, while everyone was busy enjoying the catchy hook and call-and-response section or dissecting the ingenious melody, Andre 3000 was pouring his heart out and laughing at the listeners. The track in fact describes a crumbling relationship and features a jab at the audience where Andre cries, “Y’all don’t want to hear me / You just wanna dance“.
Most Disturbing Lyric: “Why you, why you, why you are we so in denial / When we know we’re not happy here”
The White Stripes – ‘Your Southern Can Is Mine’
The White Stripes were a pretty incredible phenomenon when you really think about it. While at the time we were all caught up in the unforgettable ‘Seven Nation Army’ riff and the ‘Are they or aren’t they?’ mystery surrounding the relationship between Jack and Meg White, the White Stripes, for all intents and purposes are an anomaly.
Just think about it: a gimmicky garage rock band that makes constant references to the Delta blues, while playing credible music, receiving mainstream popularity and critical acclaim, all while maintaining their creative integrity. Oh, and one of their riffs is now a popular soccer chant. Weird, huh?
Regardless, while ‘Your Southern Can Is Mine’ seems like just another one of their folksy end-of-album acoustic numbers, this cover of Blind Willie McTell is in fact a fairly brutal account of domestic violence.
Most Disturbing Lyric: “Give you a punch through that barbed wire fence / When I hit you, baby, you know I make no sense”
The Verve – ‘Bittersweet Symphony’
While anyone that is actually familiar with the lyrics wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this song deals with dark, sobering existential themes, for some reason the real message of the tune is lost on many. Yeah, we don’t know why either. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that this was a popular graduation song for many in the ’90s and 2000s, including at least one member of the Tone Deaf crew.
Despite being The Verve’s biggest hit, since its famous orchestral melody was a take on a classical reworking of a Rolling Stones song, the band was sued for royalties and the band was forced to add Keith Richards and Mick Jagger to the songwriter credits and give up a portion of the money they made – bittersweet indeed.
Most Disturbing Lyric: “Try to make ends meet / You’re a slave to money then you die”
Eddy Grant – ‘Electric Avenue’
You might know this one from its inclusion in the soundtrack to the 2008 film Pineapple Express. This electrified reggae pop song is a bonafide dance floor filler. The feel good rhythms and unmistakable hook make for one hell of a singalong in any club or party. But like the other pop bangers on this list, despite having all the hallmarks of an upbeat, feel-good tune, the song is at its heart and soul a reggae song.
Reggae, as in the Jamaican answer to the blues. Looking at the lyrics, you’ll find that the song is actually about the hardships lived by the underclasses. It even opens with the line, “Now in the street, there is violence“.
Most Disturbing Lyric: “Workin’ so hard like a soldier / Can’t afford a thing on TV / Deep in my heart, I abhor ya / Can’t get food for the kid”
Hanson – ‘MMMBop’
Go back to that Best of the ’90s compilation. If this track isn’t on it, throw it away. The curators clearly did not know what the hell they were doing. When this track first hit the airwaves, tween and teenage girls around the world didn’t know what hit them. The unbearably catchy, impossible to forget tune with the simple nonsense chorus propelled the Hanson boys to superstardom.
However, what you may not know about the song is that it was originally written as a ballad until it was reworked into its infamous sugary sweetness by producers The Dust Brothers (you might know them as the composers of the Fight Club soundtrack). The lyrics, however, are still rather ballad-worthy, describing the problems of keeping friendships and relationships alive in a world where most are doomed to fail.
Most Disturbing Lyric: “You have so many relationships in this life / Only one or two will last”
Flo Rida – ‘Whistle’
The idea of anyone being close to Flo Rida’s whistle is disturbing. Just no.
Most Disturbing Lyric: “You just put your lips together / And you come real close / Can you blow my whistle baby, whistle baby / Here we go”