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Top 10 Universally Famous Songs With Deceptively Dark Undertones

by Jonathan Blaauw
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Music is a universal language that can elicit any number of strong emotions in the listener. Like any art form, it is always subject to interpretation. In certain instances, a closer look at your favorite song can unveil what countless casual listens over the years have failed to expose. Sometimes, these hidden depths are decidedly creepy.

Spanning a wide array of unnerving topics and featuring references both subtle and overt, some of the best-known songs of all time may be about more than you might think at first. Whether through deceptively disturbing lyrics, emotion-evoking musical accompaniments, or a clever combination of both, these 10 well-known songs contain dark depths that you probably haven’t noticed.

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Top 10 Songs With Dark Back Stories

10 “In The Air Tonight”
Phil Collins

Phil Collins – In The Air Tonight (Official Music Video)

“In the Air Tonight,” the monster hit from Phil Collins’s 1981 album Face Value, is undoubtedly a musical masterpiece that went on to define an entire generation. Anyone familiar with the number, however, may have noticed that it has a distinctively dark undertone, both musically and lyrically.

The lyrics are open to interpretation. But upon close inspection, it’s clear that the song is about someone who once committed some unspecified unspeakable act that was unknowingly witnessed by the singer at the time.

During the song, Phil is supposedly addressing this individual, revealing what he knows about him, and preparing for some long-overdue act of retribution. This is evidenced by the chorus line, “I’ve been waiting for this moment for all my life.”[1]

The music itself adds to the tense, atmospheric feeling of the song as described in the title. Having used minimal percussion throughout, the explosive drums introduced after the second verse bring the building tension to a dramatic climax. The vague, somewhat ominous lyrics and the obscure climax add to the overall spooky feeling of the song.

9 “Hotel California”
The Eagles

“Hotel California,” the title track from The Eagles’ fifth album, is a musical tour de force featuring contrasting styles, the best guitar solo of all time, and, yes, rather creepy lyrics.

In subsequent interviews, the band sought to put to bed the wild speculation about the lyrical contents of their biggest hit by claiming that it dealt with the hedonistic life of excess they were living at the time. Many believe, however, that the truth is somewhat darker.

The song concerns a traveler in the California desert who chances upon an unusual hotel. His strange experiences there seem likely to be about devil worship.

Feeling unable to address the subject head-on, the band supposedly made the song as a metaphoric allusion to Satanism with plenty of clues for those who care to look. The album cover is said to depict Anton LaVey, who founded the Church of Satan in California in the 1960s. (Some people mistakenly believe that the Church of Satan was established in 1969, the very year mentioned in the song, but it was actually launched in 1966.)

The travelers remark upon arriving at the hotel that “this could be heaven or this could be hell.” A later reference to stabbing but being unable to kill “the beast” provides further clues. The final line of the song, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave,” can be interpreted as a description of the irrevocable act of selling one’s soul to the devil.[2]

8 “Jeremy”
Pearl Jam

“Jeremy,” a classic Pearl Jam song, deals with a troubled youth who is bullied at school and emotionally neglected by his parents at home. Lead singer Eddie Vedder says the song was inspired by the true story of 16-year-old Jeremy Delle. In 1991, he committed suicide in front of his class and teacher in Texas. Having read the story in a newspaper, Vedder was so moved by the account that he proceeded to write a song about it.

What makes “Jeremy” particularly chilling, however, is not just the story that inspired it but the way the song unfolds. The majority of the song appears to be primarily from the perspective of one student who bullied the boy and the guilt the bully feels in having played a part in events that would follow as he “[tries] to forget this.”

The chorus, “Jeremy spoke in class today,” can be seen as a metaphor for the boy’s suicide. He spoke in the sense that he finally made a drastic statement and his actions bore out feelings that he couldn’t put into words. While the song does not refer to the suicide itself, knowing the story behind the lyrics makes it decidedly chilling.[3]

7 “Paint It Black”
The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones – Paint It, Black (Official Lyric Video)

“Paint It Black,” an early Stones’ masterpiece, is a classic example of style variations within a single piece of music. The slow, heartfelt, sitar-driven parts are interspersed with catchy, upbeat interjections, all overlaid by Mick Jagger’s soulful vocals. More than just an infectious tune, however, the song’s lyrics provide a vivid depiction of depression and the colorless worldview that accompanies it.

One could argue, though, that the color black is more commonly associated with evil than depression and that the song more accurately describes the innate evil that exists within us all. “I see the girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes, I have to turn my head until my darkness goes” is one such line that gives credence to this notion.[4]

The associated uses of “Paint It Black” in film further support this point of view. The song famously plays over the closing credits in The Devil’s Advocate after the final twist of the movie reveals the ultimate triumph of evil. An instrumental version also features in Season 1 of the TV series Westworld where it provides background music to a particularly gruesome and violent gun battle.

6 “Hey Joe”
Jimi Hendrix

Jimi Hendrix Hey Joe

“Hey Joe,” the song that launched Jimi Hendrix’s incredible career, is an all-time classic. Yet the subject matter of the song is surprisingly disturbing. The lyrical contents concern a man who discovers his wife’s infidelity and decides to murder her. Later, we hear an account of the shooting. The song finishes with the man’s apparent plan to flee to Mexico to evade the authorities.[5]

What makes the song even more creepy is the casual nature in which the whole issue is addressed, as if in a friendly conversation between friends. The song starts with the singer asking, “Hey Joe, where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?” The man being addressed reveals his murderous intentions in a rather offhanded reply.

Later, Joe gives a straightforward account of the murder by saying, “Yes, I did, I shot her.” This exhibits an apparent lack of remorse and macabre pride in his deed.

Additionally, the music retains an overall upbeat, positive feel which contrasts starkly with the business of premeditated murder. Perhaps, the song suggests that such things are necessary from time to time and are even a cause for celebration.

10 Incredibly Dark Stories Behind Influential Songs

5 “Don’t Pay The Ferryman”
Chris de Burgh

Chris de Burgh – Don’t Pay The Ferryman

“Don’t Pay the Ferryman,” Chris de Burgh’s 1982 hit single, doesn’t seem like a song that contains any creepy content when given a casual listen. The tale told therein concerns an individual who wishes to cross a river. He is warned to refrain from paying the ferry operator until the service has been performed and he is delivered safely to the other side.

The darker nature of this song stems from the fact that the aforementioned ferryman is likely a reference to Charon, the hooded figure who ferries the dead across the river Styx that divides Hades from Earth in Greek mythology. The punishment for refusing Charon the required gold coin as payment is to be denied access to the underworld and forced to remain forever a ghost.[6]

Multiple lyrical references throughout the song support this notion, which means that the perspective portrayed is that of a dead person consigned to an eternity in Hell. He is cautioned that he can’t let Charon swindle him in the bargain lest he suffer the consequences. An undeniably creepy point of view.

4 “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper”
Blue Oyster Cult

Blue Oyster Cult – (Don’t Fear) The Reaper (Audio)

“(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” Blue Oyster Cult’s famous hit single, deals with the issue of death. As such, it has gone on to feature prominently in many horror films and books. Although many believe that the song deals with the inevitability of death and how it should not be feared, the lyrics could be interpreted as promoting suicide.

The lines “Romeo and Juliet are together in eternity . . . we can be like they are” appear to suggest that premature death is a means of evading the harsh reality of life and forever reuniting with loved ones. After all, Shakespeare’s famous young couple did commit suicide together.

Beyond the first two verses, played in A minor, the music takes a dramatic turn into a hauntingly wailing guitar solo. This appears to represent the reaper himself and contrasts starkly with the supposedly optimistic lyrics previously expressed.

Interestingly, when the music reverts to the style present in the first part of the song for the final verse, a distinctive feedback whine from the solo can still be heard in the background, a possible suggestion that the threat of death lingers always.[7]

3 “Under The Bridge”
Red Hot Chili Peppers

Red Hot Chili Peppers – Under The Bridge [Official Music Video]

“Under the Bridge” was the first mainstream hit by Red Hot Chili Peppers and possibly their greatest ever song. A complete departure from the band’s known upbeat funk sound, this song is a slow, sad ballad further enhanced by John Frusciante’s unique guitar style.

Inspired by a poem that lead singer Anthony Kiedis composed while driving one day, the song conveys his growing feelings of loneliness and isolation from the band. It also serves as a heartbreaking reflection on the life of former Peppers guitarist Hillel Slovak, who passed away in 1988.[8]

What makes this song particularly chilling, though, is the last part that mentions the bridge beneath which Kiedis frequently used drugs. Considering that he was in the grips of addiction at the time of writing and that Slovak’s death was the result of a drug overdose, the lyrics “under the bridge downtown, I gave my life away” become a hauntingly accurate description of the self-destructive nightmare of drug addiction from which it can often feel like there is no escape.

2 “Fade To Black”

Metallica – Fade to Black

“Fade to Black,” another ballad somewhat out of character compared to the band’s previous offerings at the time, is one of Metallica’s best-known songs. In fact, it is a staple of their live sets to this day.

The lyrics were written by James Hetfield after his favorite guitar amp was stolen in 1984. Dealing with the pain of loss and accompanying depression, the song seems to be about someone whose agony invites suicidal contemplation.[9]

Heavy on poetic, depressing sentiments like “emptiness is filling me to the point of agony,” the eerie lyrics conclude with the singer’s apparent suicide as he says, “Death greets me warm, now I will just say goodbye.”

The gentle acoustic verses are separated by a musical interlude full of Metallica’s heavy power chord–laden guitar riffs, an apparent contrast between the singer’s inconsolable misery in the verses and his inexpressible rage at his hopeless situation.

1 “Iris”
Goo Goo Dolls

Goo Goo Dolls – Iris [Official Music Video] [4K Remaster]

Written for the 1998 movie City of Angels starring Nicolas Cage, this beautifully tragic song seems to be about unrequited love. While open to interpretation, the lyrics could be seen to convey a somewhat darker sentiment, however.

“Iris” is from the perspective of an individual deeply in love with someone completely unaware of his existence. The description provided could be taken as that of an obsessive stalker, though. Furthermore, the line “you bleed just to know you’re alive” indicates that this supposed stalker is perhaps not entirely mentally stable.[10]

The fact that the band almost certainly didn’t intend for their song to carry such dark undertones is interesting in itself. It just goes to show that the line between love and obsession can easily become blurred and is often simply a matter of perspective.

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fact checked by Jamie Frater