A great song is felt as much as it is heard. With just the poetry of words and the perfect placement of chords and notes, musicians can bring to life the moments and memories that plucked the strings of their souls. These masterpieces — these pieces of the musician — stay with us for a long time.
More often than not, the most beautiful songs to bless radio waves around the world were inspired by real people. But who, exactly, was capable of so deeply affecting the planet’s most talented musicians? Grab your headphones and fire up these beloved tracks — they won’t sound the same once you know who they’re really about!
1. “Isn’t She Lovely” by Stevie Wonder (1976): The sweet song that asks, “isn’t she lovely, made from love,” is about the birth of his daughter Aisha Morris! The extended version of the song opens with a recording of Ashia crying.
2. “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond (1969): For 45 years, people thought the song was about Caroline Kennedy. But the inspiration behind the song was really his ex-wife Marsha — her name just didn’t fit the melody. Sweet Marsha…line BUM BUM BUM.
3. “Sweet Child o’ Mine” by Guns N’ Roses (1987): Axl Rose heard Steven Adler and Slash warming up and, inspired by the music, started to write some lyrics. While the music sparked his creative flow, his girlfriend Erin Everly and her hair, was the real inspiration.
4. “Uptown Girl” by Billy Joel (1983): The melody was inspired by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, but the lyrics were inspired by not one but two super models: Joel’s then-girlfriend, Elle MacPherson, and his next supermodel girlfriend, Christie Brinkley.
5. “Hey Jude” by The Beatles (1968): After John Lennon and Cynthia Lillian divorced, Paul McCartney visited her and her son Julian because he missed their friendship. On the way over to the house, he composed “Hey Jude” for Julian.
6. “Maybe I’m Amazed” by Paul McCartney (1970): Apparently riding a wave of creativity, McCartney wanted to write a song for his beloved wife Linda after the Beatles split. This song thanked her for her support in his solo career.
7. “Candle in the Wind” by Elton John (1997): Many people think it was written specifically for the late Princess Diana after she died in a car crash, but the song was originally released 24 years prior as a tribute to Marilyn Monroe. After the passing of Princess Diana, Bernie Taupin revised the lyrics to reflect the new circumstances.
8. “The Hurricane” by Bob Dylan (1975): The popular song was written in protest about the boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, as Dylan believed racism led to the athlete’s arrest. Columbia Records made him tweak the lyrics because they originally referenced two witnesses to the murders of Alfred Bello and Arthur Dexter Bradley.
9. “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton (1973): She earned her big break with country singer Porter Wagoner. When she wanted to start a solo career — much to Wagoner’s disapproval — she wrote this song to express her appreciation for him.
Country at its finest / YouTube
10. “My Sharona” by The Knack (1979): Doug Fieger wrote this song and others about falling hard for his, at the time, 17-year-old girlfriend. He said that falling in love with Sharona Alperin was like getting hit with a baseball bat in the head.
11. “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones (1971): Mick Jagger dated Marsha Hunt briefly, but they had a child together, Karis Jagger. Hunt claims the song was about her, but singer Claudia Leenear told BBC Radio 4 that the song was written about her.
12. “Hey There Delilah” by Plain White T’s (2005): After seeing American distance runner Delilah DiCrescenzo, Lead singer Tom Higgenson, thinking she was the most beautiful girl in the world, wrote this song to impress her.
13. “You’re So Vain” by Carly Simon (1972): She admitted the second verse was about actor Warren Beatty. As for the rest of the song? James Taylor and Mick Jagger were all contenders that Simon shot down. Her publicists said it was about a man named David.
14. “American Pie” by Don McLean (1971): Written in memorandum of Jiles Perry Richardson Jr., Buddy Holly, and Ritchie Valens, who died in a plane crash in 1959, the song acknowledged the huge loss to rock ‘n’ roll.
15. “Killing Me Softly” by Lori Lieberman (1971): The singer admitted the song was inspired by a poem she wrote about the song “Empty Chairs” by Don McLean. McLean was flattered to find out he inspired this iconic song.
16. “Walk Away Renee” by The Left Banke (1966): Bass player Tom Finn’s girlfriend, Renee Fladen-Kamm, inspired this song, but he didn’t write the song about her — keyboard player Michael Brown was infatuated with her and wrote it!
17. “Jersey Girl” by Tom Waits (1980): While Waits was working on the soundtrack for the movie One from the Heart, he met musician Kathleen Brennan, a Jersey girl. They got married the same year this song was released.
18. “Lady in Red” by Chris de Burgh (1986): So that he’d never forget the time he met the beautiful woman in red, Diane Davison, de Burgh wrote this piece. More specifically, the song refers to the night they first met.
19. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” by Pink Floyd (1975): After Syd Barret, front, left the band for a number of personal reasons, he still had a huge influence on the band; David Gilmour, Roger Waters, Richard Wright wrote the song for him.
20. “Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper (1983): Fans were dying to know who this song from her debut album She’s So Unusual was about, so she revealed her manager boyfriend, David Wolff, inspired the track. The song’s music video featured him.
Inspired songs can be a force for good in the world, and songs like “Strange Fruit'” by Billie Holiday prove it: Before becoming an iconic political anthem, this song began as a poem by Abel Meeropol protesting racially motivated lynchings. Meeropol set it to music soon after, and Billie’s rendition made it an iconic tune.
“Thunderstruck’ by AC/DC: Rock and roll ain’t noise pollution — in fact, it’s good for you. Researchers at the University of South Australia found that playing this AC/DC tune during chemotherapy actually slowed down the growth of cancer cells. Now that’s a discovery worthy of a guitar solo!
Good Times Go Good
‘Fight the Power’ by Public Enemy: Written for Spike Lee’s film Do The Right Thing, this Public Enemy song celebrated African-American culture while condemning widespread oppression. Its radical message marked possibly the biggest civil rights statement in hip-hop music.
‘Looking for Freedom’ by David Hasselhoff: Though the Baywatch star is somewhat of a punchline on American soil, he’s a total phenomenon in Germany. Not only did this synth-stravanganza top the charts, but it also served as the German soundtrack during the final weeks of the Berlin Wall.
‘Get Up, Stand Up’ by Bob Marley and The Wailers: In this song, Marley urges listeners to recognize the injustice around them and stand up for their natural rights. It was also the last song Marley ever performed in concert.
‘Same Love’ by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, featuring Mary Lambert: Many contemporary music artists seem less willing to make political statements than in the past. However, this trio made a huge leap in 2012 with this poignant ode to marriage equality.
‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ by Sam Cooke: At the risk of losing his primarily white fanbase, Cooke penned this 1964 number about his own experiences with racial injustice. Ever hopeful, he promises his people a better future, despite generations of persecution.
Wall Street Journal
‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ by The Beatles: This 1964 rocker put them on the map as the biggest group in the world. About 73 million people watched the Liverpudlians make their debut on The Ed Sullivan Show, many of them tuning in just to see the weird mop top haircuts.
‘War’ by Edwin Starr: This unforgettable protest track finally answers what exactly war is good for: absolutely nothing! Interestingly, Motown group The Temptations put out the first version of this anti-Vietnam scorcher, but Starr’s frantic version topped the charts.
‘Black or White’ by Michael Jackson: The King of Pop’s message was pretty clear in this 1991 smash. His plea for racial equality reached even more fans with its star-studded music video, which featured Jackson dancing with Zulu warriors and Macaulay Culkin shredding on the guitar.
‘Do They Know It’s Christmas?’ by Band Aid: Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof wrote this 1984 anthem, which rose to one of the best-selling singles ever. He called upon an all-star lineup — including Sting, Phil Collins, and George Michael — to raise $24 million for famine relief.
‘9 to 5’ by Dolly Parton: The Queen of Country released this fun, yet groundbreaking tune about women working and supporting themselves. Parton also teamed up with Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda in a satirical film that shared the song’s title and theme.
‘Imagine’ by John Lennon: With his political phase in full swing, the ex-Beatle’s hit encouraged humanity to live peacefully as one group. Its message only became more touching after Lennon’s shocking murder in 1980. Today, it continues to be the go-to song for moments of strife and tragedy.
YouTube / TheBeatlesAtTheStudio231
‘The Times They Are a-Changin’ by Bob Dylan: The young folk sensation effectively introduced 1960s counterculture with this record. His lyrics announced sweeping, generational change and calls upon everyone to join the movement. Dozens of artists have covered the timeless song since its 1964 release.
Legacy Recordings / Elliott Landy
‘I Am Woman’ by Helen Reddy: Frustrated by the lack of positive songs about women in pop music, this Australian singer went out and wrote her own. The empowering track hit number one in 1972, and prominent feminists and everyday women alike have roared it ever since.
‘Sunday Bloody Sunday’ by U2: Condemning British forces who shot 28 peaceful protestors in Northern Ireland, the track soon became a staple of U2’s concerts. It also laid the groundwork for Bono’s later activism.
‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by The Specials: Music fans all over the world heralded the 1984 tune, and six years later their wish came true. Mandela got his prison release and immediately set out to dismantle South African segregation.
‘God Save the Queen’ by The Sex Pistols: Released in 1977 to coincide with Queen Elizabeth’s Silver Jubilee, this inflammatory single ripped apart the British monarchy. Young listeners flocked to its irreverence and cynicism, and the song’s popularity brought punk to mainstream music.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ by Nirvana: ‘Teen Spirit’ introduced the American public to grunge and established Nirvana as the fastest-rising rock band of the ’90s. Kurt Cobain actually felt uncomfortable with the song’s success and often refused to play it after its release.
‘Panama’ by Van Halen: This rock banger is actually about the car, not the country. Still, that didn’t stop American soldiers from blasting it outside of deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega’s hideout. Several days later, the demoralized leader finally gave himself up.
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Not every song can change the world, but any song can change your mood. These popular songs wormed their way into our ear canals and never left — but their original artists despise them!
Led Zeppelin (“Stairway to Heaven”): While it’s easily one of the most-played and recognizable songs in music history, that doesn’t make singer Robert Plant hate it any less.
“I’d break out in hives if I had to sing that song in every show,” Plant once expressed in an interview. In other words, he pretty much wishes he could just play this funny bit from the comedy film Wayne’s World, when someone asks to hear it.
Madonna (“Like a Virgin”): You know exactly what it’s like when you’ve heard a song way too many times; it’s pretty hard to enjoy. Well, that’s how it feels for Madonna with “Like a Virgin,” one of her biggest—and most controversial—hits.
Even though it’s likely her most recognizable single of all time, the megastar just can’t seem to enjoy it the way her fans do. “I’m not sure I can sing … ‘Like A Virgin’ ever again,” she once said. “I just can’t—unless somebody paid me like $30 million or something.”
Kanye West (“Gold Digger”): In the most ironic turn of events, Kanye West once said that he didn’t even like this song from the start. But isn’t he, like, his own biggest fan? Why wouldn’t he like a song that he created?
Never one to shy away from telling it like it is, West eventually admitted why he recorded the Jamie Foxx-featuring track: money. “I get paid for doing ‘Gold Digger,’ which I never really liked that song, but I knew I would get paid for doing ‘Gold Digger,'” he told reporters.
Oasis (“Wonderwall”): Though it’s easily one of the greatest and most recognized rock-alternative songs from the past half century, Oasis has admitted that they hate pretty much everything about this track, much to the chagrin of their fans.
During a radio interview, lead guitarist Noel Gallagher admitted, “I don’t particularly like that song—I think ‘Cigarettes and Alcohol’ is a far superior song.” There’s nothing more frustrating than someone liking something that you don’t, right?
Mandy Moore (“Candy”): Those who’ve known Mandy Moore for her acting chops on This Is Us might have forgotten about this tune from the actress’s pop-singer days. And there’s something about her first hit that she wishes she could forget too…
Moore actually despises the music video for “Candy”—the one that largely kicked off her career in 1999. “My very first music video, I had to dance in it and it is abysmal,” she mentioned. “I think the powers that be realized very early on that, ‘You know what, you should just have background dancers.”
Lady Gaga featuring Beyoncé (“Telephone”): You’d think that teaming up two of the most popular and recognizable pop stars on the planet would be a surefire way to record a song that everyone loves, right?
And, of course, you’d be on to something… except Lady Gaga can’t stand it or the music video either. “Beyoncé and I are great together. But there are so many ideas in that video and all I see in that video is my brain throbbing with ideas and I wish I had edited myself a little bit more,” she recalled.
The Beastie Boys (“[You Gotta] Fight For Your Right [To Party]”): Never intended to be received with such love, this iconic party song by Brooklyn’s Beastie Boys was meant to be a tongue-in-cheek parody of similar songs from the era.
Nevertheless, the joke ultimately went over everyone’s heads—including those of many of their diehard fans—and wound of garnering the group mass attention. Soon enough, they had a somewhat-unplanned hit on their hands!
Radiohead (“Creep”): Not only has lead singer Thom Yorke gone on record as hating this “too soft” song, but the rest of the band has even joined in on the hate fest, too. How much so?
Guitarist Johnny Greenwood purposely tried to sabotage the recording by playing too harshly. Ironically, he simultaneously created the edge executives felt it so badly needed. Now when fans request to hear the track, they can expect a response like this, from a concert in Canada: “F**k off, we’re tired of it,” moaned Yorke.
James Blunt (“You’re Beautiful”): You’d imagine that the first time a recording artist hears their song on the radio, it’s probably the greatest moment of their lives. You know, having worked for it their entire lives…
Yet that’s not how it went for pop singer James Blunt. When “You’re Beautiful” was first played on the radio, he couldn’t wait until his track was pulled from the waves. “[It] was force-fed down people’s throats,” Blunt recalled. “And it became annoying, and then people start to associate the artist with the same word.”
Warrant (“Cherry Pie”): You know how they say that art requires inspiration? Well, there was none of that going on with this ubiquitous 1980s track. Seriously, not one bit!
Even though it was an instant smash-hit, the band, who’d spent years establishing themselves as a metal act, recorded it without so much as a thought when their record label demanded they produce a ballad that would appeal to the masses.
Miley Cyrus (“Party in the U.S.A.”): No matter where you were when this song was released, there was no avoiding it. It was played on just about every radio station and became a mainstay of backyard barbecues across the United States.
Yet, Miley Cyrus believes it’s a bit immature, as she feels she’s grown a lot as an artist since it was first released. That’s totally understandable, so long as you realize you’ll be playing it at every concert from here to eternity!
Lorde (“Royals”): Since this song is still relatively new, you might think that Lorde wouldn’t mind performing it. Yet the chart-topping track that launched her to worldwide recognition in 2013 is like nails on a chalkboard for the Kiwi songwriter.
Recently, she made it clear what she thinks the song sounds like: “It sounds like a ringtone from a 2006 Nokia! None of the melodies are cool or good! It’s disastrous,” the singer openly admitted.