It’s time for us to take a second look

Times change. Tastes change. Social mores change. What was once taboo is now OK. What was once considered harmless is now objectionable.

Have you watched TV lately? Have you heard some of today’s Top Ten hits? Wow. Dialog and lyrics, and the subjects they explore now, go places nobody dreamed of 40, 50 years ago. From “The Handmaid’s Tale” to Cardi B’s “WAP,” we’re clearly in radically new territory here.

These days, too, everyone seems so damn touchy, so quick to find offense. There’s also this phenomenon that some call “cancel culture,” where something that’s been around a long time is now seen in a new light, and someone wants something physically removed or digitally deleted. Is it justified? Is it overkill? Well, one man’s ceiling is another man’s floor.

It’s my view that pop/rock song lyrics that condone or even celebrate violence, racism and misogyny should be held up to a bright light and exposed for what they are. You can make a case that today’s lyrics, especially in the hip-hop genre, are WAY beyond what most people find acceptable, but if you go back to tunes from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, there are some pretty glaring examples from that time of songs that cry out for re-examination.

I’ve selected 15 songs — hit singles and album tracks — from decades ago that, on second look, leave me speechless as to how they were ever given the green light. You might not agree with me, but for what it’s worth, I’m suggesting a reassessment is in order.

There’s a Spotify playlist at the end so you can give these tracks a fresh listen.

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“He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss),” The Crystals, 1962

The sad irony behind this apparent endorsement of violent relationships is that it was co-written by Carole King, who later endured repeated physical abuse by her third husband, Rick Evers, during their marriage in the late 1970s. King wrote it back in 1962 with her first husband and songwriting collaborator Gerry Goffin after their babysitter, “Little” Eva Boyd, told them she’d been beaten by her boyfriend for seeing another guy. The song was recorded and released by The Crystals as their third single, but it never charted because of a backlash from listeners and radio stations. King has often said she wished she had never had anything to do with the song.

“This Girl is a Woman Now,” Gary Puckett & The Union Gap, 1969

Puckett teamed up with a songwriter/producer named Jerry Fuller, who seemed to write only about girls he couldn’t have. Fuller’s songs ended up as hit singles for Puckett — “Young Girl,” “Woman, Woman,” “Lady Willpower,” “Over You,” “Don’t Give In to Him” — but they had an undeniable creepiness factor that bordered on obsession. Perhaps most egregious was “This Girl is a Woman Now,” in which the narrator boasts about deflowering a young virgin. Songwriters Victor Millrose and Alan Bernstein were responsible for this overreach: “Our hearts told us we were right, and on that sweet and velvet night, a child had died, a woman had been born, /This girl is a woman now, and she’s learning how to give…”

“Cruisin’ and Boozin’,” Sammy Hagar, 1977

Let’s talk about drunk driving, shall we? Innocent people die every day at the hands of people who get behind the wheel while hammered, or even drink while they’re driving. (I confess I used to be one of them.) Do we need songs that condone this destructive behavior? Classic rock artists didn’t make it a dominant theme, but still, there are examples like Hagar, never one of my favorites, who wrote a drunk driving anthem called “Cruisin’ and Boozin.'” It wasn’t a hit, but the lyrics clearly celebrate what is both illegal and stupidly dangerous: “We got JD in the back seat, we drink nothin’ but the best, /Pump a buck in the gas tank, oh, we’ll drink up the rest, yeah, we’ll drink up the rest, /Cruisin’ and boozin’, trying to have a good time…”

“All in the Name Of,” Motley Crüe, 1988

The dudes in glam heavy metal band Motley Crüe — Nikki Sixx, Tommy Lee, Vince Neil and Mick Mars — were known for, and brazenly promoted, their image as druggy sex fiends, so perhaps it’s silly to call them on the carpet for over-the-line lyrics. The thing is, most of their material was arguably within most people’s idea of acceptable, but there’s at least one track that goes too far: “All In the Name Of” from their 1987 LP “Girls, Girls, Girls.” Sorry, but there’s no way Sixx and Neil can justify lyrics like these: “Says to me, ‘Daddy,
can I have some candy? /Wanna be your nasty anytime you want, /You know you can have me’… /She’s only fifteen, she’s the reason, the reason that I can’t sleep, /You say illegal, I say legal’s never been my scene, /I try like hell, but I’m out of control, all in the name of rock and roll…”

“A Man Needs a Maid,” Neil Young, 1972

It’s hard not to interpret the lyrics to this tune from Young’s #1 album “Harvest” as pretty chauvinistic. He has tried to defend it over the years by saying he has always struggled with personal relationships and that maybe he’d be better off living alone and just hiring someone to cook and clean. Well, if she remains an employee, I suppose that’s acceptable, but he ends the song by asking “When will I see you again?” which can be interpreted as carrying on a romantic relationship with her as well. It all sounds a bit too misogynistic for my tastes: “I was thinking that maybe I’d get a maid, find a place nearby for her to stay, /Just someone to keep my house clean, fix my meals and go away, /A maid, a man needs a maid…”

“Sweet Little Sixteen,” Chuck Berry, 1958

When rock ‘n’ roll was in its infancy, most song lyrics were geared toward the intended audience — teenagers, and their school woes, their first loves, their cars, their dreams. Berry, one of the chief architects of the new genre, wrote some beauties (“Maybellene,” “School Day,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Johnny B. Goode”). One of his biggest, “Sweet Little Sixteen,” appears sketchy now for a couple of reasons. He was already 32 when he wrote it, and not long afterwards, he was arrested and convicted for sex with an underage girl, which makes lines like these seem disturbing: “Sweet little sixteen, she’s got the grown-up blues, /Tight dresses and lipstick, she’s sportin’ high-heeled shoes, /Oh, but tomorrow morning, she’ll have to change her trend and be sweet sixteen, and back in class again…”

“Illegal Alien,” Genesis, 1983

The members of Genesis have protested that “Illegal Alien” is a sympathetic satire of the plight of the undocumented immigrant’s challenges, but under closer examination, that just doesn’t wash. The speedy Gonzales-type accent Phil Collins uses as he sings, the litany of disrespectful Mexican stereotypes found in the lyrics (even a line about “I’ve got a sister who’d be willing to oblige“), and the cheesy costumes worn by the band in the accompanying music video all combine to create a racist portrayal of the immigrants in question. Critics called the lyrics “misguided” and “confusing and confused” and described the video as “seemingly well-intentioned” but ultimately “a train wreck.”

“Run For Your Life,” The Beatles, 1965

To their fans, John, Paul, George and Ringo could do no wrong. We wouldn’t learn until much later about Lennon’s traumatic childhood and emotional issues regarding anger management and abandonment. He apparently hit his first wife Cynthia more than once, and his second wife Yoko as well, before coming to terms with it through intensive therapy. In his song “Run For Your Life” from the group’s 1965 “Rubber Soul” LP, Lennon’s narrator warned his woman not to make eyes at anyone else or she might meet a violent end: “Let this be a sermon, I mean everything I’ve said, /Baby, I’m determined and I’d rather see you dead, /You better run for your life if you can, little girl, hide your head in the sand, little girl, /Catch you with another man, that’s the end of little girl…”

“Every Breath You Take,” The Police, 1983

Interestingly, Sting fully acknowledges that the lyrics to this massively popular song (#1 in a dozen countries in 1983) are sinister and passively intimidating. “It’s clearly about an obsessed former lover who is jealously stalking his ex,” he said, adding that he was disconcerted by how many people regard it as a love song. “One couple told me, ‘Oh, we love that song! Its was the main song played at our wedding.’ I said, ‘Really? Well, good luck.’ It’s not a love song, it’s quite the opposite.” The dark theme is undeniable: “Oh can’t you see you belong to me? How my poor heart aches with every step you take, /Every move you make, every vow you break, every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you…”

“Ahab the Arab,” Ray Stevens, 1962

I can hear some people scoffing at this choice, saying, “Oh come on, it’s a novelty song, a parody done for laughs, and it was friggin’ 1962!” That’s all true, and overall, it didn’t present a derogatory image of Arabs (although all the stereotypes are present). Still, the way Stevens imitated Arabic speech was pretty condescending, and even the title pronounced Arab as “Ay-Rab,” which is the way ignorant Americans pronounce it when they don’t think much of people from that part of the world. It’s interesting to note that Stevens took this track to #5 in 1962, one of his most successful singles in a decades-long career. I don’t know if he still performs it in concert, but perhaps he ought to consider retiring it now.

“Everyone’s Gone to the Movies,” Steely Dan, 1975

The captivating, compelling music that Donald Fagen and Walter Becker created for the Steely Dan catalog is often accessible, sunny pop, but if you delve into the lyrics, you’ll find serial killers, outlaws, drug dealers and even pedophiles. In this track from their 1975 LP “Katy Lied,” they sing of a creepy dude named Mr. LaPage, who evidently invites neighborhood teens into his house to…watch porn movies? Expose himself? It’s not crystal clear, but there’s no question there’s some creepy shit going on. Did they go over the line with this one? Maybe: “Kids if you want some fun, Mr. LaPage is your man, /He’s always laughing, having fun, showing his films in the den, /Come on, come on, soon you will be eighteen, I think you know what I mean, /Don’t tell your mama, your daddy or mama, they’ll never know where you been…”

“Johnny Are You Queer,” Josie Cotton, 1981

This notorious tune, written by Bobby and Larson Paine, was intended for two audiences: young women who had dated guys who turned out to be gay, and interestingly, the gay community, who appreciated the punk-rock attempt to win back the ironic use of the word “queer” from the bigots and homophobes. The Go-Go’s sang it live, but it was a new talent named Josie Cotton, managed by the Laine brothers, who made a record of it in 1981. The song never did much on the US charts because the radio stations were afraid of it or disapproved, but the gay clubs loved it and it went Top Ten in Canada. The evangelicals went ballistic, and the haters laughed and held it up to derision, posing the question menacingly to gays: “Oh, why are you so weird, boy? Johnny, are you queer, boy?…”

“Hot Child in the City,” Nick Gilder, 1978

Gilder, a native of Vancouver, Canada, had been in the glam rock band Sweeney Todd but went solo in 1977 and scored a Juno Award (like a Canadian Grammy) for “Hot Child in the City,” which also reached #1 in the US. Said Gilder, “I’d seen a lot of young girls, 15 and 16, walking down Hollywood Boulevard with their pimps. Their horrible home environment drove them to run away, only to be trapped by something even worse. It hurt to see that, so I tried writing a pop song from the perspective of a customer.” Gee, thanks, Nick — not sure we needed this: “So young to be loose and on her own, /Young boys, they all want to take her home, /She goes downtown, the boys all stop and stare, /When she goes downtown, she walks like she just don’t care, /Hot child in the city, hot child in the city, runnin’ wild and lookin’ pretty…”

“Used to Love Her,” Guns ‘n Roses, 1988

A hard rock band like Guns ‘n’ Roses, aiming to follow in the footsteps of The Stones and Zeppelin, offered lyrics that painted themselves as bad boys, capable of anything. Well, fine, I guess, but yikes, surely there are limits. I thought I’d found their most offensive lyrics in “One in a Million,” when they railed against “immigrants and faggots…starting some mini-Iran or spreading some fucking disease…” But then I found another one called “Used to Love Her” that’s totally beyond the pale: “I used to love her, but I had to kill her, /I knew I’d miss her, so I had to keep her, /She’s buried right in my back yard… She bitched so much, she drove me nuts, and now I am happier this way…” Both tracks appear on their “G N’ R Lies” LP, which reached #2 and sold five million US copies.

“Brown Sugar,” The Rolling Stones, 1971

It’s one thing for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to push the envelope of what a pop song might be about by focusing on interracial sex, S&M, oral sex and hard drug use. We can at least assume (or pretend) that everything is between consenting adults. But I submit that slavery and rape never were and never will be appropriate subject matter for the Top 40, let alone the #1 song in the country for multiple weeks. How did this one get by? Simple — Jagger blurred his pronunciation so most listeners really didn’t know the words. Bet you never actually read the lyrics before: “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, sold in a market down in New Orleans, /Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright, hear him whip the women just around midnight…”

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We’re gonna find out what it’s all about

Since we first heard songs on the radio as kids, we would enjoy them without knowing what the lyrics were about. Sometimes we’d even sing along but be clueless as to what the words really meant.

Nothing wrong with that. Sometimes, pop music used nonsense words that meant nothing (“Whomp bomp a loo bomp, a -whomp bam boom!” “Sham-a-lang-a ding dong,” “Be-bop-a-lula”). Sometimes you couldn’t really make out the words because of deliberate slurring of words or muddled production/mixing, but that didn’t stop us from just making up words based on what we thought we heard.

But then there were times we heard every word they were singing but still weren’t sure what the lyrics were about.

Some of these were songs that have become such an integral part of the pop culture that we might want to finally learn what the author (lyricist) intended. Whereas many songwriters preferred to stay tight-lipped and let the songs speak for themselves, others haver no qualms about discussing the words, particularly many years after the fact.

Here are eight songs you always wondered about — songs that were huge hits on the US Top 40 charts which had lyrics that are, at the very least, open to interpretation. Through interviews, biographies and magazine articles, I have researched the meaning behind these songs. I hope you find my findings enlightening.

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The Animals in 1964 (L-R): Hilton Valentine, Eric Burdon, John Steel, Chas Chandler, Alan Price

“The House of the Rising Sun,” The Animals, 1964

Historians have studied this classic for nearly a hundred years. Its melody is a traditional English ballad that morphed into an African-American folk song recorded as early as the 1920s by a guy named Texas Alexander. It was later recorded by other greats like Leadbelly, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan (on his debut LP) and Nina Simone in 1962 before it became the #1 hit with a rock arrangement by The Animals in 1964. Ah, but what is “the House of the Rising Sun”? While there is no definitive answer, there are two prominent theories. The first says it was a brothel in New Orleans in the 1860-70s, run by Madame Marianne LeSoleil Levant (French for “rising sun”). The second maintains it was the Orleans Parish Prison, which had an entrance gate adorned with rising-sun artwork. The line about “wearing that ball and chain” could be literal, in a prison, or metaphorical, in which the narrator has become a prisoner to the lifestyle of prostitution, gambling and alcoholism. In either case, the song is clearly a cautionary tale in which the narrator advises the listener not to “spend your life in sin and misery” as he has done.

The Eagles in 1977: Randy Meisner, Glenn Frey, Don Henley, Don Felder, Joe Walsh

“Hotel California,” The Eagles, 1976

The most popular, most overplayed, most brilliant song in The Eagles’ catalog has been the subject of speculation from the day it was released in December 1976. “Is it a real place?” “Whose mind was ‘Tiffany-twisted’?” Guitarist Joe Walsh, who had just joined the band before the album’s release, had this to say: “The funny thing was, nobody in The Eagles was from California. Everyone was from Ohio, or Michigan, or Texas. California at the time was like this big hotel, a big melting pot of musicians with talent, trying to fit in. That’s what we meant by Hotel California.'” Musically, the song was born from chord changes conceived by guitarist Don Felder, who submitted them to chief songwriters Don Henley and Glenn Frey, whose reaction was, “I like it. It’s kind of a Mexican reggae vibe.” Lyrically, it’s one of Henley’s finest moments, writing cryptically about the hedonistic life that California offered, and how it ended up being a trap for a lot of people: “We are all just prisoners here of our own device… Last thing I remember, I was running for the door… You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave..

The Stones in 1971: Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Billy Wyman, Mick Taylor

“Brown Sugar,” The Rolling Stones, 1971

It was classic rock and roll, and it was radio-friendly accessible pop as well. Mick Jagger was singing and strutting at his very best at this point, and Keith Richards laid the foundation with another of his uncannily catchy riffs. With a killer sax solo by the great session man Bobby Keys, it all adds up to a big #1 single for The Stones. Ah, but have you ever listened, really listened, to the lyrics? Good Lord, it’s amazing that this song got anywhere near Top 40 playlists, but because Jagger mumbles the words just enough, you’re not entirely sure what he’s singing about. Well, here’s the scoop: They’re singing about a grab bag of scandalous topics, including slavery, rape, interracial sex, sadomasochism, oral sex and hard drug use, all pretty much taboo on pop radio in 1971. Consider the opening stanza: “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields, sold in a market down in New Orleans, scarred old slaver knows he’s doing all right, hear him whip the women just around midnight…” And then there’s the title, which some thought meant heroin but instead refers to a black woman’s private parts and how good they taste. Wow. Just wow.

The duo behind Steely Dan, 1977: Walter Becker and Donald Fagen

“Deacon Blues,” Steely Dan, 1977

By 1976, after five solid albums had brought fame and fortune to Steely Dan, the songwriting duo of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen were chilling at a Malibu beach house writing songs for their next LP. Fagen had been amused when he heard the nickname “Crimson Tide” for the University of Alabama football team, which he thought very flamboyant and arrogant, and he came up with “Deacon Blues” as the flip-side of that coin (“They got a name for the winners in the world, I want a name when I lose…”). Fagen told Rolling Stone, “Walter heard that and said, ”You mean it’s like, ‘They call these cracker assholes this grandiose name like the Crimson Tide, and I’m this broken man living a broken life with broken dreams, so they call me this other grandiose name, Deacon Blues? Cool!’ So we made the protagonist a wanna-be musician who hopes to play the sax but is just a hopeless drunk.” He’s full of “crazy schemes” that go nowhere: “My back to the wall, a victim of laughing chance, /This is for me, the essence of true romance, /Sharing the things we know and love with those of my kind, /Libations, sensations that stagger the mind…”

Joni Mitchell with David Geffen, 1974

“Free Man in Paris,” Joni Mitchell, 1974

I remember when I first heard this tune from Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” album, I assumed it was an autobiographical look at the consequences of her fame, in which she describes herself (using the masculine gender) as wanting to escape “and wander down the Champs-Élysées, going café to cabaret.” Turns out I was only partially right. Mitchell did indeed feel uncomfortable with the scrutiny and stress of fame, but that served to put her in a position to accurately understand what her friend and manager David Geffen was feeling. The two of them rose up the ranks simultaneously, she as a songwriter and performing artist and he as an agent, businessman, manager and label founder. Geffen had confided in her that he felt most comfortable as “a free man in Paris,” unencumbered by the pressure of people hounding him with demands. Mitchell implies, though, that maybe he needs to bring his ego down a few notches because what he does isn’t really all that important (“the work I’ve taken on, stoking the starmaker machinery behind the popular song…”).

David Bowie in concert in Berlin, 1977

“Heroes,” David Bowie, 1977

Bowie was living in a one-room apartment in Berlin in the late ’70s when he came up with this hopeful piece about a German couple who would meet on opposite sides of the Berlin Wall every day to share a moment together. “We’re lovers, and that is a fact, /Yes, we’re lovers, and that is that, /Though nothing will keep us together, we could steal time just for one day, /We can be heroes forever and ever, what d’you say?…” In truth, Bowie was alluding to a specific couple: his producer Tony Visconti, who was in a disintegrating marriage at the time, and singer Antonia Maass, with whom he had fallen in love. He would see them from the studio window when they would secretly kiss by the Berlin Wall. “I didn’t discuss it publicly at the time,” he said in 2003, “but I can now. It was so sweet, this desperate love they had.” Thanks to Visconti, co-songwriter Brian Eno, and guitarist Robert Fripp of King Crimson, “Heroes” has established itself as one of Bowie’s most iconic tracks, a glorious celebration of “love conquers all,” sung by Bowie with almost overwhelming emotion.

David Crosby, Stephen Stills, Graham Nash, 1969

“Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” Crosby, Stills and Nash, 1969

The song that kicked off this supergroup trio’s career is in fact a tour de force showcasing the musical genius of Stephen Stills on multiple guitars, keyboards, bass and lead vocals. David Crosby and Graham Nash provide the other voices that formed the thrilling three-part harmonies which were their signature sound, but Stills deserves about 85% of the credit for how this track turned out. Most important, he found a way to merge three musical song fragments into a cohesive whole, which explains why the song’s title is “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes,” not “Sweet Judy Blue Eyes,” as many incorrectly assume. Judy is, of course, songstress Judy Collins, who was Stills’ paramour during the previous year, and the lyrics explore his feelings about the end of that relationship. Alternately heartbreaking and philosophical, Stills admits his shortcomings and tells her how he feels, and how he thinks he’s going to feel going forward: “It’s getting to the point where I’m no fun anymore, I am sorry…” “Will you come see me Thursdays and Saturdays? What have you got to lose?”

Procol Harum, 1967 (L-R): Ray Royer, Keith Reid, Matthew Fisher, David Knights, Gary Brooker

“A Whiter Shade of Pale,” Procol Harum, 1967

Keith Reid, a poet friend of Procol Harum founder/keyboardist/singer Gary Brooker, was enlisted to write lyrics for the new band’s music, and he got off to a memorable start with “A Whiter Shade of Pale,” their debut single and one of the most enduring songs of its era. Reid recalls, “I was at a party and I overheard someone to say to a woman, ‘You’ve turned a whiter shade of pale.’ The phrase stuck in my mind.” He went on to write four very literary verses that tell the evocative story of a man who pursues a young woman for a sexual encounter. The limitations of pop music in 1967 meant the song was edited down to just two verses, but if you read all four, “the truth is plain to see” — the couple danced, talked, had drinks, and “crash-dived straightaway quickly and attacked the ocean bed.” The hit single version, which includes verses 1 and 3, is more enigmatic and open to interpretation. Is the line “The room was humming harder as the ceiling flew away” a reference to psychedelic drugs? Maybe…but Reid has said, “It’s really just a song influenced by literature. It’s about a relationship. There’s characters, there’s a location, and there’s a journey.”

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The accompanying Spotify playlist includes, where applicable, additional demo versions, alternate takes or live tracks of the song in question. Interesting to compare them…