Pop culture references that mean the opposite of the conventional wisdom

There are certain references ingrained in US popular culture that mean exactly the opposite of what most people think they mean. Let’s explore that niche…

For instance, the Police’s “Every Breath You Take”. Possibly the most ubiquitous wedding song and/or bride & groom dance song out there. The conventional wisdom (CW) apparently considers this a powerfully touching love song, a paean to romantic devotion.

record scratch It’s a STALKER SONG! It’s CREEPY! Sting himself is appalled that people us it to represent true love and devotion! Stop using it!
Another example is Howard Beale’s “I’m mad as hell” rant from the film Network. CW sees this as a giant middle finger to corporate media control, a “free yourself from media bondage” tour-de-force.

This is a little more nuanced than “Every Breath You Take”, but it’s still not what people think it is. Howard Beale is nuttier than a pecan orchard. He hears voices. Not only does he hear voices, he does what they tell him! His rant may actually sound like good advice, a great call to arms. But it doesn’t lead to anything. Beale is eventually co-opted by his corporate employer. His “mad as hell” revolution never actually happens…instead, it leads to his news show becoming a sideshow.

Last example, from the musical Gypsy!. The scene at the train station when Mama Rose sings “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”. Way too many productions play this scene as a great, rip-roaring celebration of optimism, and the song in popular culture follows that lead. “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” just when everything looks bleak.

However, it’s not optimism. It’s pathology. Mama Rose is so far gone in delusions of showbiz success that, having just lost the only elements of her troupe with real talent (in the world of this musical, anyway), she’s prepared to try to mold her remaining daughter, whom she’s been disparaging for her lack of acting talent the whole rest of the show, into a vaudeville star. Despite the fact that both that daughter and Rose’s lover, Herbie, are clearly appalled by the idea and had expressed an interest in retiring from the business when told that June had eloped and run away. The train station scene is a portrayal of a dominating personality running roughshod over her own loved ones’ wishes in order to keep alive her dreams of living the vaudeville life vicariously through her daughters.

So, who has more?

This is hardly well known enough to count as “pop culture”, but the end of Porgy and Bess is a lot like your description of the scene from Gypsy. Porgy basically rides off into the sunset with the very triumphant and joyous sounding I’m on my way. Happy ending, right?

Except that he’s a crippled guy in a goat cart trying to go all the way from some dirt poor Southern village in the 1920’s, which is all he’s ever known, to New York City, where he believes he will be able to rescue the drug-addicted woman he loves. There’s no way in hell it’s going to be a happy ending, but you wouldn’t know that from the music.

Oh, that’s a great example! Of course, it’s an opera…happy endings are forbidden… :wink:

Born in the USA, of course. Used as an anthem for Reagan in the Eighties, but the only part of the song people paid any attention to was the chorus, thus missing the entire point of the song.

You mean the sun’s not gonna come out tomorrow?

Similarly, the GOP always used the Guess Who’s “American Woman” as theme music for Laura Bush, expecting to convey the message that she’s the ideal paragon of modern, post-60s, post-feminist America.

Read the lyrics sheet to American Woman.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone” is viewed as a happy, inspirational song, suggesting that you’re NOT alone, and that you’re surrounded by friends who’ll help you.

But it’s really saying that you ARE all alone- it just isn’t so bad if you can find a tiny bit of hope in your heart.

I never could get what big sacrifice Jesus made, at least in the Christian religions. Jesus was God and God knows all. So Jesus-as-God knew he was going rise up in three days.

Jesus-As-God gave up a weekend for my sins. Big Whoop.

Apart from being snide and ridiculously wrong-headed, this has absolutely NOTHING to do with the topic.

Please try again.

This is not exactly what the OP meant, but the song “On the Good Ship Lollipop” has nothing to do with a boat. The Good Ship Lollipop is an airship – a plane.

I’m not sure if this is what the OP is looking for but here it goes:

So I’m watching **Scent of a Woman **the other day. So basically the crux of Col Slade’s (Pacino) rant is that Charlie (O’Donnel) is noble because he isn’t informing on the three douchebag rich kids who fucked up the deans car and that the Baird school is creating the wrong kind of leaders if they punish Charlie for withholding information.

I’m sorry, what is the lesson? Protect your cronies from the consequences of their actions so as not to break the “code of silence”? What kind of leadership is that?

But basically, I think he had them at “flamethrower” anyway.

Any “underdog” sports movie (with the possible exception of Rudy). In all of these movies, the morale is that a team of out-of-shape slacker goof-offs misfits can compete against a stronger, better disciplined, better prepared, more athletic team and come out ahead on nothing but a last minute pep-talk, heart and gumption.

Pretty Woman - Of course that prostitute doesn’t love you for your money. Because you are rich and look like Richard Gere.

John Mellencamp’s “Little Pink Houses”. I read somewhere years ago that Reagan wanted to use the song; Mellencamp politely declined saying, “I didn’t know whether to be more embarassed for myself or for the president…he obviously didn’t understand the song.”

Reagan, like any number of dumbasses, just picked up on the chorus, “Ain’t that America, the home of the free…” without listening to the context and the intentional sarcasm.

I’ve seen some commercials that use “Feelin’ Alright?” as an upbeat song about people feeling better. They ignore the fact that it’s a question, but do have the sense not to play the next line: “I’m not feeling too good myself.”

Maybe to old for “Pop” status, but “The luck of the Irish” was meant as a sardonic reference.

Locked your keys in the car in a freezing rain on New Year’s Day when even AAA is closed? You mut have the Luck of the Irish!

Over the years, I’ve seen three separate commercials for some brand-name pasta sauce that use the Habanera from Carmen as background music. The message they seem to be trying to send is, “you can tell our sauce is authentically Italian, listen to the opera music.” The thing is, Carmen is a French opera, set in Spain. There’s nothing Italian about it.

Good thread. I think we did something like this a while ago but specifically to do with song lyrics that were commonly misunderstood (like the ‘Born In The USA’ and ‘Every Breath You Take’ examples already cited).

All I can offer is the Heart anthem ‘All I Wanna Do Is Make Love To You’. It’s commonly taken to mean ‘You’re so amazing I don’t want to do anything in life except make love to you’. It actually means, ‘I don’t want to have any sort of meaningful relationship with you or any kind of involvement at all, apart from the sex’.

To clarify the intent of the OP, I’m talking about situations where the conventional wisdom (i.e., the general understanding by regular people) of a pop culture reference (a song or an iconic film or tv moment or something like that) is the exact opposite of what the item referenced actually means.

Annie, I love ya, but your entry wasn’t really pop culture…it’s in Cafe Society for a reason.

Similarly, the examples where a political figure or corporation are using a song to mean something opposite don’t count, because they’re one particular entity that misunderstood the song…I can pretty much guarantee you that the conventional wisdom on Iggy Pop doesn’t consider “Lust For Life” to be the theme song for carefree cruise vacations.

Not to pick on Bruce Springsteen, but any time I hear “Glory Days” used in an anthemic way, I just want to cry.

My understanding of “Luck of the Irish” is some minor bit of fortune in the midst of absolute disaster. In your scenario, the person is just unlucky. But if, while sitting in a puddle on the pavement, they find a shiney new quarter, then that is the luck of the Irish.

CCR’s “Fortunate Son,” was on that Wrangler commercial a while back, sounding all “Yay! America!” All they played was the part about, “Some folks are born, made to wave the flag,” completely missing the “it ain’t me!”