As anyone who's ever swooned to The Police's "Every Breathe You Take," only to later to discover it's actually a pretty disturbing song about stalking, can tell you -- pop songs aren't always what they seem.
Musicians love a good juxtaposition and dose of irony, and many of them seem to enjoy making music that's not nearly as pretty as it sounds. Creeps.
Here are some of our favourite peppy little numbers that are really freaking dark when you take a minute to stop singing along and actually listen to the lyrics:
fun., "We Are Young"
At worst, Fun.'s seemingly anthemic song about the power and potential of youth is set against a backdrop of an old abusive relationship. At best, it's about a broken relationship that didn't involve physical violence. Either way, the song hinges on a pretty powerful juxtaposition of past regret and future promise and, despite its singalong chorus, it's also kind of a bummer. <em>"My seat's been taken by some sunglasses asking 'bout a scar, and I know I gave it to you months ago I know you're trying to forget"</em>
Foster The People, "Pumped Up Kicks"
The casual shuffling beat and delivery of "Pumped Up Kicks" might be downright jaunty, but the lyrics, which detail the thoughts of a homicidal young man named Robert, are anything but. "I was trying to get inside the head of an isolated, psychotic kid," songwriter and frontman Mark Foster told Rolling Stone about the song. "It's a 'fuck you' song to the hipsters in a way -- but it's a song the hipsters are going to want to dance to." In other words, it's basically a danceable version of Pearl Jam's "Jeremy." "All the other kids with the pumped up kicks You better run, better run, outrun my gun All the other kids with the pumped up kicks You better run, better run, faster than my bullet"
The Beatles, "Run For Your Life" (Also, "Happiness Is A Warm Gun," and "Maxwell's Silver Hammer")
The fab four were masters of making the macabre sound delightful, what with the adorable "cheat on me and I'll kill you" tones of "Run For Your Life," and the sweet, dulcet tones of "Happiness is a Warm Gun." But the perkiest and most malevolent of all their songs just might be "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," a rollicking tune in which the titular Maxwell manages to bludgeon his girlfriend, a teacher and a judge. <em>"Bang! Bang! Maxwell's silver hammer Came down upon her head. Clang! Clang! Maxwell's silver hammer Made sure that she was dead."</em>
The Boomtown Rats, "I Don't Like Mondays"
If you only listen to the chorus, "I Don't Like Mondays" probably sounds pretty unassuming and innocuous. But this isn't a song about a working for the weekend type who casually loathes the start of another week, it's actually about Brenda Ann Spencer, a 16-year-old girl who shot up a San Diego playground one morning in 1979, offering no explanation for her actions beyond "I don't like Mondays. This livens up the day." <em>"All the playing's sopped in the playground now She wants to play with her toys a while And school's out early and soon we'll be learning And the lesson today is how to die" </em>
KISS, "Detroit Rock City"
"Detroit Rock City" sounds like another classic KISS anthem dedicated to drinking, partying and rock and rolling, right up until you hit the final verse about plowing head first into another car. The song was written for an actual fan who died on his way to a KISS concert. <em> "Twelve o'clock, I gotta rock There's a truck ahead, lights starin' at my eyes Oh my God, no time to turn I got to laugh 'cause I know I'm gonna die"</em>
Third Eye Blind, "Semi-Charmed Life"
Third Eye Blind's debut single bounces along like your average peppy alternative pop/rock song about slacking and ennui, right up until the point when you realize that it's actually detailing the narrator's descent into crystal meth addiction and potentially questionable sexual activities. <em>"Feel myself head made of the ground I'm scared, I'm not coming down, no, no And I won't run for my life She's got her jaws now locked down in a smile But nothing is all right, all right" </em>
If R.E.M. felt fine about the end of the world, then Prince felt positively euphoric about it. 1999 is all about partying in the face of adversity, millennial angst and apocalyptic threats. All of which became disturbingly appropriate in the actual 1999, as the specter of the Y2K bug, computer revolt and post-apocalyptic warfare loomed over all of our otherwise fun New Years 2000 plans. <em>"Yeah, everybodys got a bomb, We could all die any day But before I'll let that happen, I'll dance my life away" </em>
Bobby Darin, "Mack the Knife"
This Kurt Weill-penned murder ballad from The Threepenny Opera has become a popular jazz and pop standard, covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald to The Doors, The Psychedelic Furs and Robbie Williams, but perhaps the most deceptively sinister of the bunch is the version that was recorded by '60s pop heartthrob Bobby Darin. The "Splish Splash" singer made Mack's murderous exploits sound downright adorable. <em>"Now on the sidewalk Sunny mornin' Lies a body just oozin' life ... eeek! And someone's sneakin' 'round the corner Could that someone be Mack the Knife?"</em>
Nena, "99 Luftballons"
German pop rock act Nena's 1983 protest song, in both its English and German language versions, is probably the punkiest, peppiest song you'll ever hear about a Doctor Strangelove-esque mess of misunderstanding and war-lust that leads to a nuclear holocaust. <em>"Ninety-nine dreams I have had Every one a red balloon Now it's all over and I'm standin' pretty In this dust that was a city"</em>
Carrie Underwood, "Two Black Cadillacs"
It's probably wise to stay on Carrie Underwood's good side. Cheat on her and the seemingly sweet country darling will mess you up, and she'll probably sound so adorable doing so that everyone will take her side. If you're lucky, you'll get off easy, like that two-timer whose car she trashed in "Before He Cheats." But if you really tick her off, you might end up facing some "Two Black Cadillacs" -- level revenge. The song, which tells the story of a wife and a mistress who team up to kill their no good, two-timing man, is the bounciest country murder ballad to come along since the Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earle." "Two months ago his wife called the number on his phone Turns out he'd been lying to both of them for oh so long They decided then he'd never get away with doing this to them Two black Cadillacs waiting for the right time, right time"
Lady Gaga, "Just Dance"
Lady Gaga is a master at making dark material sound playful and poppy, with songs like "Bad Romance" and "Paparazzi" in her catalogue. But the most twisted Gaga song of all might be the seemingly straightforward pop number "Just Dance." The most innocent interpretation of the song, as the singer explained it to HX Magazine is that it's about the sensation being so high "that it's, like, scary, the only way you can deal with it is not to deal with, so you just kind of dance through the intoxication." But it could be more complicated than that. According to some interpretations, the Lady's inebriated state, combined with Coldy O'Donis's potentially predatory verse, suggests that the song is actually about date rape. Gaga's reference to the song in "Monster" ("I wanna Just Dance/ But he took me home instead/ Uh oh! There was a monster in my bed") would seem to support that theory. Or maybe it's just an Illuminati thing. <em>"And I ain't gonn' give it up, steady tryna pick it up like the car I'ma hit it, I'ma hit it and flex until the til done until tomorr' yeah. Shawty I can see that you got so much energy. The way you twirling up them hips round and round There's no reason, why you can't leave here with me"</em>
Florence And The Machine, "A Kiss With A Fist"
Singer Florence Welch insists that "Kiss With a Fist" is not about domestic violence. "It is about two people pushing each other to psychological extremes because they love each other," she wrote in a 2008 blog entry, insisting that "There are no victims in this song." Even if all of the hitting, smashing and arson in the lyrics is metaphorical and mutual, though, "Kiss With a Fist" is still a pretty twisted love song delivered with the sort of rapid-fire giddiness that's usually reserved for far sunnier and more conventional romantic sentiments. "You hit me once I hit you back You gave a kick I gave a slap You smashed a plate Over my head Then I set fire to our bed"
Katy Perry, "E.T."
At first blush, "E.T." sounds just like every other Katy Perry song about sunshine, lollipops, rainbows and whatever else it is that makes her bras explode in a flurry of high fructose ecstacy. The doe-eyed singer's inspiration for the tune, which is basically "what would happen if really hot aliens came to eart to flirt with me?" certainly sounds innocent and playful enough. But "infect me with your love and fill me with your poison?" "Wanna feel your powers, stun me with your lasers?" Is this sexy alien trying to seduce her so that he can make sweet love to her, or abduct her so that he can probe her in a far less fun way? Or maybe it's an Illuminati thing. <em>"Take me, ta-ta-take me Wanna be a victim Ready for abduction" </em>
Melodically, this tune bounces around like another "Pon de Replay" or "Please Don't Stop The Music" club hit, but the Rihanna of "Disturbia" has far more important things on her mind than the volume or frequency of music on the dance floor. Chock full of paranoia, anxiety and confusion, it might just be the most banging mental breakdown ever. <em>"It's a thief in the night To come and grab you It can creep up inside you And consume you A disease of the mind It can control you It's too close for comfort"</em>
Foul-mouthed and foul-minded sing-talker Ke$ha is, of course, speaking metaphorically when she refers to herself as a cannibal in this song. She's just a maneater in the Hall and Oates sense, not in the sense that she actually eats menfolk. But that's a cold comfort when you've got a freaky pop star talking about anuses and blood drinking and giving a shout-out to one of the most notorious serial killers of the twentieth century in her trademark flippant vocal delivery. <em>"Use your finger to stir my tea And for dessert, I'll suck you teeth Be too sweet and you'll be a goner Yup, I'll pull a Jeffrey Dahmer"</em>
Lily Allen, "Smile"
Compared to the insanity, devastation and murder that makes up the rest of this list, Lily Allen's foul-mouthed ode to an old flame's current miseries might seem a bit tame, but there's something about the casual, cheery way that she details the happiness she feels in response to his misery that elevates the song to a darker level. It's easily the spunkiest and most joyous song about schadenfreude this side of Avenue Q. Allen gets downright evil in the video for the song, in which the cheeky pop star pays people to beat up her ex and destroy his records, among other things. <em>"At first when I see you cry, yeah it makes me smile, yeah it makes my smile At worst I feel bad for a while, but then I just smile, I go ahead and smile" </em>
The Scissor Sisters, "I Can't Decide"
Disco glam pop rockers the Scissor Sisters gleefully detail their burgeoning hatred for an enemy and then go about weighing their various murder and torture options in this insanely catchy ditty. Drowning, live burial and even poisoned birthday cake are all flippantly listed as potential options in this regard. It's a number so excitably and unabashedly malevolent that Doctor Who's most evil and campy nemesis, The Master, liked to dance around to it in his spaceship of torture and doom when he enslaved the universe that one time. <em> "I can't decide Whether you should live or die Oh, you'll probably go to heaven Please don't hang your head and cry No wonder why My heart feels dead inside It's c!old and hard and petrified Lock the doors and close the blinds We're going for a ride" </em>
The La's "There She Goes"
"There She Goes" is a song that sounds so sweet and innocent that even Christian rockers Sixpence None The Richer thought that it was a good idea to cover it. But the "she" that races through the narrator's brain, pulses through his vein and heals his pain is not so much the heroine of the song as she is actual heroin. <em>"There she blows There she blows again Pulsing through' my vein"</em>
Tom Jones "Delilah"
The Welsh crooner's boisterous, flamenco-flavoured ditty might sound like it's another love song designed to get the ladies throwing their panties on stage at his shows, but it's really quite a detailed story of a spurned lover stalking his lady friend as she cheats on him. Then he goes crazy and stabs her. "She stood there laughing I felt the knife in my hand and she laughed no more"
Gotye, "Someone That I Used to Know"
Most people express their heartbreak, angst and passive-aggressive hurt through a mix of furious yelling and slow tempo emo wallowing, but not Gotye. The Australian singer-songwriter prefers to detail the breakup at the heart of "Somebody That I Used to Know" in all of its estranged glory while a xylophone tinkles adorably in the background. <em>"But you didn't have to cut me off Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing And I don't even need your love But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough" </em>