The Meaning Behind the Van Halen Hit “Panama” May Not Be What You Think

Oh, Panama. The gorgeous stretch of lush green country that bridges Central and South America is more than deserving of a song or two. However, the Van Halen hit, “Panama,” is not one of them.

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In fact, the meaning behind the glammed-up hard rocking 1984 classic is a thundering ode to something very different.

The Origins

The Van Halen tune was born from a dare of sorts. The band’s frontman David Lee Roth had reportedly been criticized by a member of the press for his sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll repertoire, and said the rocker only ever sang about women, parties, and fast cars. But wait, Roth realized he had never written a song about the latter, so he decide to pen one.

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The song is said to have been inspired by a car he once saw at a drag race, a car christened the Panama Express. However, the song’s lyrics—full of engines revving, pistons firing, and wheels burning— harbor plenty of innuendoes (It wouldn’t be a Van Halen song if it didn’t), and the “car” may just be a vehicle to sing about…

The Lyrics of “Panama”

Opening with an instantly recognizable guitar riff, à la Eddie Van Halen, “Panama” rumbles to life. Jump back, what’s that sound? Roth’s voice sneers out the first verse. Here she comes, full blast and top down / Hot shoe, burnin’ down the avenue / Model citizen, zero discipline / Don’t you know she’s coming home with me / You’ll lose her in the turn / I’ll get her

They could be racing for pinks, but in the Van Halen fashion of mixed metaphors and double entendres, they could also be trying to take a woman home. Either way, the tune fires into the iconic chorus, Panama, Panama / Panama, Panama!

Ain’t nothin’ like it, her shiny machine, another easily misconstrued lyric sounds off against a pulsating bet and screaming strings. Got the feel for the wheel, keep the moving parts clean / Hot shoe, burnin’ down the avenue / Got an on ramp comin’ through my bedroom – not sure why you would need to drive a car into your bedroom – Don’t you know she’s coming home with me / You’ll lose her in the turn / I’ll get her… queue chorus.

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Yeah, we’re runnin’ a little bit hot tonight, the next verse fires away in the growl of a revving engine, I can barely see the road from the heat comin’ off of it / Ah, you reach down, between my legs and ease the seat back / She’s blinding, I’m flying / Right behind the rear view mirror now / Got the feeling, power steering / Pistons popping, ain’t no stopping now.

One can interpret that how they will. We’re just here for the chorus. Panama, Panama / Panama, Panama!

Photo by Chris Walter/WireImage

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