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Love messages hidden in pop songs

Taylor Swift – We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together

Renowned as something of a serial kiss-and-not-quite-teller, Taylor Swift has many songs rumoured to be about old flames. One of the best, though, is this love-hate number, believed by fans to be about her relationship with actor Jake Gyllenhaal (telltale clues in the video, they claim, include a scene in which the actor playing Taylor’s ex gives her his scarf to wear – Swift had been pictured wearing Gyllenhaal’s scarf in public – and a bracelet similar to one gifted to her by Gyllenhaal).

Although the power of the on-off infatuation is clear, it doesn’t paint a flattering picture: “I’m really gonna miss you picking fights and me / Falling for it screaming that I’m right and you / Would hide away and find your piece of mind / With some indie record that’s much cooler than mine.”

Swift told USA Today that the song was about an ex who “made me feel like I wasn’t as good or as relevant as these hipster bands he listened to… So I made a song that I knew would absolutely drive him crazy when he heard it on the radio. Not only would it hopefully be played a lot, so that he’d have to hear it, but it’s the opposite of the kind of music that he was trying to make me feel inferior to.”

Rick Springfield – Jessie’s Girl

Highlight of a hundred 80s teen movie nostalgia playlists, Rick Springfield’s air-punching anthem actually takes inspiration from a real-life forbidden crush, only the friend in question was named Gary, not Jessie. In fact, he wasn’t much of a friend – he was an acquaintance that Springfield briefly met while they were both, along with Gary’s girlfriend, taking a stained-glass-making class in Pasadena, California.

“I was completely turned on to his girlfriend, but she was just not interested,” Springfield told Songfacts. “So I had a lot of sexual angst, and I went home and wrote a song about it… He was getting it and I wasn’t, and it was really tearing me up. And sexual angst is an amazing motivator to write a song.”

All that pent-up frustration gave Springfield a global hit. After a few weeks the couple moved out of his life, never to be heard of again, despite his subsequent attempts to contact them.

Feargal Sharkey – A Good Heart

Some of the most intriguing secret declarations come in songs written for another artist to sing. So it is with Feargal Sharkey’s 80s monster hit, which was written by Lone Justice singer Maria McKee (of Show Me Heaven fame). The soul-tinged, synthy number, full of gentle naivety, was written about the then-19-year-old McKee’s relationship with Benmont Tench, keyboard player with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Tench also wrote a song for Sharkey’s debut album, which follows directly on from A Good Heart, striking a slightly less warm note, to say the least: “How does it feel / To make a grown man wanna die?” It was a persistent rumour that Tench’s song detailed his side of the story, but he’s since denied it was about his relationship with McKee.

Crosby, Stills & Nash – Guinnevere / Lady of the Island

The 70s LA singer-songwriter scene was notoriously incestuous and self-referential. There are particularly juicy examples on the debut album by folk-rock supergroup Crosby, Stills & Nash, which opens with Stephen Stills’s Judy Blue Eyes, a suite of songs dedicated to his soon to be ex-girlfriend, folk singer Judy Collins. Even more interesting, though, are Guinnevere and Lady of the Island, sung by David Crosbyand Graham Nash respectively about the same woman – Joni Mitchell. Mitchell had dated Crosby for a while in 1967, but when ex-Hollie Graham Nash moved to the US in 1969, she moved him into her house almost immediately. As such, Crosby’s song is more elegiac, a reflection on loves lost (“She turns her gaze down the slope to the harbour where I lay anchored / Turned out to be such a short day”), whereas Nash’s song reflects intensely on new intimacy: “The brownness of your body in the fire glow / Except the places where the sun refused to go / Our bodies were a perfect fit in afterglow we lay.”