Regardless of an artist’s real intentions for writing and producing a particular song, it will still be interpreted in many ways by tons of listeners and critics. This is exactly what happened when Holly Dunn produced her 1991 hit, Maybe I Mean Yes.

While the song brims with amazement in its musicality and arrangement, the lyrics left the audience divided with a ‘Say what now??‘ expression plastered on their faces.

A look back at the humble beginnings of Maybe I Mean Yes

The song was part of Milestones: Greatest Hits, Holly Dunn’s 1991 compilation. She co-wrote the song with songwriter Tom Shapiro and her brother Chris Waters. Shapiro also co-produced the song with her. Around five weeks after its release, the track made it to the 48th spot on the Hot Country Songs chart in August 1991. Critics described the tune as a song that “drives her scorching vocals to an all-time-high performance”. Particularly, the song perfectly dominates with its “spicy instrumentation, commanding lyrics, and a barrelling tempo conjuring a musical storm.”

How the scandal came to be

The song had such a wonderful and positive beginning during its early bouts of fame. However, controversy arose when some of the listeners took closer notice of the lyrics. Thanks to the line, ‘When I say ‘no’, I mean ‘maybe’, or maybe I mean ‘yes.’

In truth, Holly Dunn interprets the song as an optimistic, non-sexual, and innocent take on a couple taking a shot at dating. It was about a woman who would decline the offer of a first date as a way to test the determination and resolve of her suitor. She explains further that she got the idea for the song from an old Cary Grant film. The movie had a scene where the characters shared a playful and sweet banter. At the time of the song’s composition, the thought or possibility of the lyrics being interpreted in a different light than what she had originally envisioned did not even cross her mind. “We were just coming from a totally lighthearted, flirty thought. Almost an old-school relationship between men and women with that old-fashioned, flirty game-playing kind of thing that happens sometimes.”

But for the listeners, the ‘maybe I mean yes’ part of the song implied mixed signals, one that connotes date rape and the unwelcome consent being given to it. Soon, the song earned more negative than positive feedback.

Upon realizing the horrific dual meaning that the lyrics expressed to the world, Dunn took it upon herself to send a letter of request to various radio stations to withdraw the Maybe I Mean Yes. She had also decided to no longer perform the said song in any of her concerts or shows. She exclaimed, “I look back on that and think, ‘How could I?’ Because I was a fairly feminist-type thinker and still am. How could I have been so unplugged from the subject matter to miss that?’

Despite the song being withdrawn, it still managed to remain in the charts at the 53rd spot, and have a boost in airplay in the remaining stations that chose to keep playing it.