From American Pie to All Too Well: the most debated lyric mysteries ever

A radio staple the world over, Don McLean’s American Pie cemented itself into the ears of listeners thanks to a melodic journey that tells a story of America and, presumably, a loss of innocence that was roiling the country during the time of its 1971 release. But what the singer-songwriter was actually trying to convey has been up for debate for the past half-century, with generations of fans and critics dissecting every nuance of its nearly nine-minute runtime. It’s a discussion that has stretched into the current age, with the song, and McLean himself, the subject of the new documentary aptly dubbed The Day the Music Died: American Pie.

American Pie isn’t the only song in the vast history of popular music that has been picked apart word-by-word as if they were biblical text. Examined for double, or even triple, meanings, they’re the smash hits chock-full of metaphors, allusions and allegories that rocked the charts and, as a result, ingrained themselves in culture.

Taylor Swift – All Too Well

It’s the most recent example of a song with more layers than an onion, with fans happily picking apart each piece. The 10-minute version of Taylor Swift’s All Too Well, an epic soliloquy about a relationship that goes south that subsequently resulted in a short film, spurred an avalanche of discussion with Swift’s legion of fans attempting to decode the track line by line. Was the song actually about the star’s real-life relationship with the actor Jake Gyllenhaal? Which lines are fiction and what’s fact? And whatever happened with her infamous red scarf? After all, Swift has built her career on dropping clues, hints and puzzles both in the form of lyrics and promotion to her rabid Swifties. As a result of the hoopla, last autumn the track became the longest-duration No 1 hit in Billboard history.

Don McLean – American Pie

“I wanted to write a song about America, but I didn’t want to write a song about America like anybody ever wrote before,” Don McLean says in the aforementioned documentary, directed by Mark Moormann. McLean did just that, though he didn’t set out to paint a rosy, patriotic picture in the vein of George M Cohan. According to the track’s producer, Ed Freeman: “For me, American Pie is the eulogy for a dream that didn’t take place. We were witness to the death of the American dream.”

While its lyrics center on the tragic February 1959 plane crash that took the life of rock’s earliest stars Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Richie Valens, listeners have debated who and what else the song is referring to since the 70s. For starters: no, Janis Joplin wasn’t the “the girl who sang the blues” and Elvis wasn’t the “king” MacLean was talking about. According to Spencer Proffer, the documentary’s producer: “Every time you listen, you think of something else.”

Leonard Cohen – Hallelujah

Ironically the subject of another new documentary in the form of Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, what became Leonard Cohen’s trademark track has captivated listeners thanks to a seemingly holy quality that gives the song a deep resonance. It’s perhaps no surprise then that Cohen first studied poetry and literature before his towering career in music, with the song’s lyrics reading like a rich novel, complete with references to biblical characters (David and the Lord) and modern allusions (including tying oneself to a kitchen chair).

It’s all another hotly debated, musical Rorschach test. Christians who have taken the song as their own may be surprised to learn that Cohen was actually deeply passionate about his Jewish faith. “The word Hallelujah appears across religions and faiths,” explained author Alan Light, who wrote a book about the song. “People take what they need from it and what they want it to be. I think that’s why it’s played everywhere from weddings to funerals and births.”

Beyoncé – Lemonade

As the globe patiently awaits the release of Beyoncé’s seventh studio album Renaissance this Friday, one can’t help but recall the conversation and speculation around her fifth. Part-confessional therapy session, part-rumination on modern culture, politics and racism, the artistry of 2016’s Lemonade shook the world, with listeners combing over each of its acclaimed 12 songs, lyric by lyric.

Conceived as both an audio and visual album, listeners and critics have dissected it all: from the personal allusions (like the mysterious identity of “Becky with the good hair” on Sorry, the woman who allegedly was Jay-Z’s mistress), to its political and social ones (with the anthem exploding the minds of countless political pundits and the song becoming an instant protest anthem as a result). No wonder the layered entirety of Lemonade is still considered the singer’s best.

John Lennon – Imagine

One of the most acclaimed and often-played songs in music history is also the most widely misunderstood. The most successful single of John Lennon’s solo career, Imagine is played during times of tragedy and triumph and has been discussed and dissected as everything from a patriotic ode and a spiritual testament since its 1971 release. Even President Jimmy Carter went so far to once note: “You hear John Lennon’s song Imagine used almost equally with national anthems.”

Carter himself might be surprised to hear that Lennon once described the track in no uncertain terms as, well, downright communist: “‘Imagine that there was no more religion, no more country, no more politics,’ is virtually the Communist Manifesto, even though I’m not particularly a communist and I do not belong to any movement,” he once said. That didn’t stop the past 50 years of listeners from taking a microscope to potential meanings, or worse, inserting their own. According to Lennon: “The World Church called me once and asked, “Can we use the lyrics to Imagine and just change it to ‘Imagine one religion’?” That showed me they didn’t understand it at all. It would defeat the whole purpose of the song, the whole idea.

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