Artists Finally Reveal Who Triggered Their Revenge Songs
A common piece of advice aspiring musicians receive is to “write what you know,” and from the sounds of it, some of them know a lot about being scorned. This makes betraying an artist a risky proposition because there’s a good chance someone’s hurtful actions will be aired out in public and make that artist even more successful in the process.
But while some artists who pen revenge songs make the subject of them obvious in the lyrics, others are a little coyer about the ones who wronged them. But eventually, eager fans will find that if they wait long enough, they’ll get an answer to their theories.
Shakira – “Out Of Your League”
After Latin pop star Shakira’s well-publicized breakup with soccer star Gerard Piqué following his alleged infidelity, she released “Out Of Your League.” Based on references to sports championships and the age of Piqué’s next girlfriend, Clara Chia Marti, fans were immediately convinced the revenge song was directed at him.
And the singer would confirm this was true in an Instagram statement, which read, “What for me was a catharsis and a discharge, I never thought I would get straight to number one in the world at 45 years old and in Spanish.”
Carly Simon – “You’re So Vain”
In the decades since Carly Simon’s 1973 hit was released, fans have endlessly speculated about which male celebrity Simon considered vain enough to think “You’re So Vain” was about him. Some theories pointed to Mick Jagger as the one who mistreated Simon in her youth, but the most popular candidate has always been Warren Beatty.
And while Simon maintained that the song was about multiple people, The Los Angeles Times reported in 2015 that she finally confirmed the fans were at least partially right. In Simon’s words, “I have confirmed that the second verse is Warren.”
Taylor Swift – “All Too Well (10 Minute Version)”
Although fans had long speculated that the original version “All Too Well” from Taylor Swift’s 2012 album Red was written after she felt used by ex-boyfriend Jake Gyllenhaal, her extended version in 2021 further confirmed these theories.
That was because it referenced a scarf Swift was confirmed to wear at the time of dating Gyllenhaal. While he has denied the song is about him while talking to Esquire, his sister Maggie suggested it’s “totally possible” during an interview with Andy Cohen.
The Notorious B.I.G. – “Kick In The Door”
The Notorious B.I.G.’s album Life After Death features a song titled “Kick In the Door” that saw the rapper take various others to task for disrespecting his reign as the self-proclaimed King of New York. However, these rappers are not named in the song, referred to only as “you, you, you, and you.”
Yet in a 2017 YouTube interview with Genius, the song’s producer DJ Premier explained that the song was partially inspired by Jeru the Damaja. But as he said, “He didn’t just get at ‘Ru, he got at Nas, he got at Rae and Ghost (Raekwon and Ghostface Killah) on the third verse.”
John Lennon – “How Do You Sleep?”
After apparently hearing some lyrics on Paul McCartney’s album Ram that he felt were directed at him, John Lennon wrote this revenge song that strongly implied McCartney hadn’t written anything worthwhile since “Yesterday.”
And it didn’t take long for Lennon to confirm who “How Do You Sleep?” was about. As NPR quoted him as saying, “If I can’t have a fight with my best friend, I don’t know who I can have a fight with. I think it’s quite funny, and I was laughing when we were making it and listening to it.”
Ed Sheeran – “Don’t”
The 2014 Ed Sheeran song “Don’t” is clearly about a breakup that stemmed from his former partner’s alleged infidelity. But the details of the lyrics made fans confident that it was about a tryst between English pop singer Ellie Goulding and former One Direction member Niall Horan.
And before the year was out, Sheeran confirmed who the song was about after being asked if he had forgiven Horan. As Metro quoted him as saying, “I guess. I got over the anger the moment I wrote the song. That’s the end of it. I’m grateful I could get a song out of it, to be honest.”
Beyoncé – “Sorry”
Although her husband Jay-Z’s infidelity looms large over Beyoncé’s entire Lemonade album, her anger over this behavior comes through particularly strongly on “Sorry.” And in addition to fuelling rumors that Jay-Z cheated on her, the song had fans wondering who “Becky with the good hair” was.
But while songwriter Diana Gordon revealed to Entertainment Weekly that Becky isn’t a reference to any specific person, Jay-Z would confirm his misdeeds in his own album 4:44 a year later. As he told The New York Times‘ T Magazine, “The hardest thing is seeing pain on someone’s face that you caused, and then have to deal with yourself.”
Miley Cyrus – “Flowers”
According to Forbes, “Flowers” by Miley Cyrus song broke a Spotify weekly streaming record upon its release. That success was at least partially fueled by persistent rumors that it’s a revenge song aimed at ex-husband Liam Hemsworth.
But while Cyrus herself has been coy about the song’s inspiration, her sister Brandi has added her own fuel to this theory. As she told Wells Adams on the Your Favorite Thing podcast, “The song did come out on his birthday — was that on purpose? I don’t know. Can’t say. Genius, though.”
Kendrick Lamar – “King Kunta”
“King Kunta” was one of the singles from Kendrick Lamar’s acclaimed 2015 album To Pimp A Butterfly and contained a section decrying a specific rapper for using a ghostwriter.
Although the rapper has never directly named the target of this song, New York radio station Hot97 described a long history of subliminal disses between him and Drake. A pointed impression of the Canadian hitmaker during a performance of the song on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert further supports this theory.
Halsey – “Without Me”
Judging by the details in the lyrics to this Halsey breakup song and a music video actor’s resemblance to rapper G-Eazy, it didn’t take fans long to speculate that her revenge song “Without Me” was about him.
And the artist confirmed as much in an interview with Glamour, where she said, “The biggest lesson I learned was to make art, not headlines. Because it can become quite easy, in the social media generation, to go from being a musician to becoming a personality.”
Joan Baez – “Diamond and Rust”
In 1972, folk legend Joan Baez penned “Diamond and Rust” about an unemotionally unavailable partner who used his talent for turns of phrase to keep their relationship intentionally vague.
And while Baez had apparently revealed this before, she confirmed to HuffPost that the song was about her time with Bob Dylan. That wasn’t originally the case, but the meaning of the song changed when he called her on a whim. In Baez’s words, “He read me the entire lyrics to “Lily, Rosemary, And The Jack Of Hearts” that he’d just finished from a phone booth in the Midwest.”
Lauryn Hill – “Lost Ones”
Lauryn Hill’s sole studio album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, begins with “Lost Ones,” which accuses her former romantic and collaborative partner of allowing money and his ego to ruin their relationship. Given these specifics, fans figured the song was aimed at her former Fugees bandmate Wyclef Jean.
But while she’s never explicitly confirmed, her other former bandmate Pras confirmed that he and Jean share this suspicion in an interview with DJ Vlad. In his words, “When that record came out, I remember him saying…I mean, obviously, he thought it was about him. But I think he just kinda shrugged it off. ‘It’s whatever.'”
Tupac Shakur – “Hit ‘Em Up”
The mystery behind the blistering diss track “Hit ‘Em Up” doesn’t concern who the rap legend was angry at, as Tupac Shakur’s lyrics made it abundantly clear that his main target was The Notorious B.I.G. But what puzzled Shakur’s friend-turned-rival at the time was why he wrote the song in the first place.
Yet as Biggie Smalls’ ex-girlfriend and fellow rapper Charli Baltimore said in a YouTube interview with The Art Of Dialogue, “Pac mistakenly thought (the Biggie song) “Who Shot Ya” was directed at him when “Who Shot Ya” was actually written before [everything].”
Nick Cave – “Scum”
Indie music legend Nick Cave once lived with NME journalist Mat Snow and considered it quite the betrayal when Snow described his band’s album The Firstborn Is Dead as disappointing in a review.
As he later confirmed to Interview Magazine, this led him to write the song “Scum,” in which he called his then-unnamed target a traitor, among other, more vulgar things. As Cave said, “As I do, I stewed on that and sat down and wrote this bilious song about him because I had lived with him.”
Queen – “Death On Two Legs”
The opening song of the landmark Queen album A Night At The Opera, “Death On Two Legs,” features lyrics expressing Freddie Mercury’s rage at the domineering and money-grubbing antics of a figure he coyly stopped short of naming.
According to Mashable, a look at the band’s history would suggest that the target was their former manager Norman Sheffield as his replacement was working to untangle the band’s contract with Sheffield’s recording studio, Trident. This suggestion would be confirmed by a defamation lawsuit Sheffield filed soon after the album’s release. The lawsuit was eventually settled out of court.
Alanis Morissette – “You Oughta Know”
One of the biggest singles of Alanis Morissette’s career is the acrimonious breakup song “You Oughta Know,” which details how mistreated she felt by her unnamed former lover. And while Morissette still hasn’t officially identified this person, Full House star Dave Coulier sees reason to believe it’s about him.
As he explained to the NME, the song and the album it came from both contain enough specific details that make it hard for him to believe they could be about anyone else. As he said, “I started listening to it, and I thought, ‘Ooh, I think I may have really hurt this woman.'”
Fleetwood Mac – “Go Your Own Way”
Although Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors album was practically defined by how it told the story of the band’s squabbles with each other, “Go Your Own Way” served as Lindsey Buckingham’s particularly bitter revenge song against bandmate Stevie Nicks, whom he accused of “shacking up” with others.
As Nicks told Rolling Stone in 1997, “Every time those words would come out […] I wanted to go over and kill him. He knew it, so he really pushed my buttons through that.”
Taylor Swift – “Dear John”
Although Taylor Swift is rarely explicit about the subjects of her many revenge songs, she wasn’t exactly eager to dispel rumors that “Dear John” was about John Mayer’s alleged penchant for younger women.
As Rolling Stone quoted her as saying in 2012, “There are things that were little nuances of the relationship, little hints. Everyone will know, so I don’t really have to send out emails on this one.” For his part, Mayer confirmed the song was about him by complaining that he felt blindsided by it.
Justin Timberlake – “Cry Me A River”
The post-breakup revenge song, “Cry Me A River,” brought Justin Timberlake a great deal of success in 2002, especially once it was accompanied by a music video that strongly implied Britney Spears had cheated on him.
But if there was somehow any doubt left that Timberlake had aimed the song at Spears, that dissipated entirely when Timberlake posted an apology for maligning her character in the song on Instagram. As he wrote, “I know this apology is a first step and does not absolve the past.”
Taylor Swift – “Bad Blood”
According to CBS News, Taylor Swift explained in 2014 that “Bad Blood” was about a singer she accused of trying to sabotage her tour by stealing her backup dancers. As usual, Swift didn’t name this person, but fans quickly assumed it was Katy Perry.
And sure enough, Perry confirmed during an appearance on The Late Late Show that she was the one, saying, “She started it, and it’s time for her to finish it.” Swift and Perry would later bury the hatchet in the video for Swift’s single, “You Need To Calm Down.”
Bob Dylan – “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright”
Although Bob Dylan’s first girlfriend, Suze Rotolo, appeared on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, their relationship would already be over by the time the album came out. After Rotolo left for Italy in 1962, Rolling Stone reported that Dylan became bitter enough to write “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” about her.
The biggest clue that the song was about her came from his reference to roosters crowing near their home, which Rotolo confirmed in her 2008 memoir.
Phoebe Bridgers – “Motion Sickness”
Although Phoebe Bridgers’ 2017 breakout single “Motion Sickness” was clearly about a relationship marred by a mistreater with a penchant for dating much younger women, it took two years before the identity of the musician who sang in a fake British accent was revealed.
According to Variety, Bridgers was among multiple women who accused indie elder statesman Ryan Adams of emotional abuse and misconduct, which filled in the blanks for fans regarding who “Motion Sickness” was about.
LL Cool J – “4,3,2,1”
Although LL Cool J’s 1997 posse cut “4,3,2,1” isn’t a revenge song per se, it does include a revenge verse dedicated to a rapper featured on the very same song named Canibus. Canibus mentioned borrowing LL Cool J’s microphone tattoo in his verse, which prompted a blistering response from the rapper before the song ended.
But as Redman — who was also featured on the song — told DJ Vlad, the animosity was based on a misunderstanding. As he put it, “I knew when he did that verse, it wasn’t aimed at LL. But LL is a beast.”
Evanescence – “Call Me When You’re Sober”
For months after the lead single from Evanescence’s second album came out, lead singer Amy Lee was tight-lipped about who “Call Me When You’re Sober” was written about.
However, enough fans figured out that Seether frontman Shaun Morgan was Lee’s intended target for her to admit it. As she told MTV, “I think it’s impossible to hide how obvious it is. The day that our single hit the airwaves, my ex-boyfriend said he was going into rehab and canceled their tour.”
Lily Allen – “Smile”
Lily Allen’s breakout single “Smile” was clearly a revenge song that reveled in the misery of a cheating ex, but what was unclear at the time was how autobiographical the song was.
According to the NME, however, the lyrics genuinely described the aftermath of her breakup with a DJ named Lester Lloyd. In Allen’s words, “I always thought you should write about what you know, what’s going on in your life, and this guy had taken up so much of my time and my emotions that the words just came pouring out.”
Drake – “Stay Schemin'”
After Common criticized Drake’s persona in the song “Sweet” from 2012, the Toronto rapper appeared to respond in a verse on the Rick Ross single “Stay Schemin.” Namely, by suggesting Common was using his name to sell an album.
According to Billboard, Drake spoke to hip hop blog Nah Right after the dust had settled on the beef, saying, “A guy who made such an incredible career for himself based off expressing genuine feelings about life and love is now targeting me for sharing my story.”
The Game – “It’s Okay (One Blood)”
Although The Game released many direct diss tracks aimed at other artists, the lead single “It’s Okay (One Blood)” from his second album was oddly coy about who he had in mind when he rapped, “You 38 and you still rapping? Ughhh.”
However, an appearance on Drink Champs saw The Game confirm that this line arose from long-standing quiet animosity between him and Jay-Z. He also expressed regret for writing that as someone whose rap career was still going at the age of 42.
MC Shan – “Kill That Noise”
After KRS-One accused MC Shan’s Juice Crew of erroneously claiming hip hop started in Queens in two separate songs, MC Shan appeared to respond with the song “Kill That Noise.” But while fans took it as a revenge song at the time, MC Shan never mentioned KRS-One or his group Boogie Down Productions in it.
Nonetheless, MC Shan not only confirmed he had KRS-One in mind during an appearance on Drink Champs but also that he still holds bad blood towards the rapper. As he said, “If you listen to his records and my records in your headphones, you’ll see I’m lyrically superior.”
Radiohead – “Paranoid Android”
While artists typically dedicate the entirety of their revenge songs to their targets, fans speculate that Radiohead devoted the line “ambition makes you look pretty ugly/kicking screaming Gucci little piggy” from the song “Paranoid Android” to former Spice Girl Geri Halliwell.
A 2001 concert review in The Oxford Mail explained where this theory came from, as lead singer Thom Yorke dedicated the song to her after apparently meeting her on a train shortly before singing that couplet.
Mobb Deep – “Drop A Gem On ‘Em”
After Tupac Shakur called them out on “Hit’ Em Up,” legendary Queens hip hop duo Mobb Deep released a subtly scathing response track, “Drop A Gem On ‘Em.” Although group members Havoc and Prodigy didn’t mention him by name, the song contained enough details to convince fans it was about Shakur.
And years later, Havoc confirmed they were right during an appearance on Drink Champs. He said, “Back in those days, it was all about the subs […] So, we didn’t directly say that.”