Monday, June 30, 2008

Scott on Improving Songs Through Misheard Lyrics

[Guest Blogger Scott discusseds misheard lyrics, which he rightly notes persists in songs while is instantly erased in reading. I give a few of mine and Sara's at the end.]

The misheard lyric is a somewhat unique pheonomenon; while it is certainly possible to misread (literally misread as opposed to misinterpret) a line of poetry or mishear a line of dialogue from a movie, when we read the poem or view the movie a second time, we correct ourselves. With song lyrics, however, once we hear a lyric one way we tend to hear it that way every time until we are corrected (sometimes even after). For example, with Coldplay's new single, "Viva La Vida", everytime I heard the chorus I thought Chris Martin was singing "Roman Catholic choirs are Singing" when the actual lyric turns out to be "Roman Cavalry choirs are singing." This sort of thing is always going to occur most frequently with popular music since a singer's inflection and the added distraction of the music will make this kind of mistake much more common with this form than any other.

Now, we all know the silly misheard lyrics and have heard the most popular ones countless times and probably have a few of our own, my personal favorite being the fact that I thought "She's gonna turn on the juice, Boy" in Motley Crue's "Looks That Kill" was "She's gonna turn you all Jewish, boys." This of course makes no sense and, when it comes to these lyrics, we always know that they're wrong so when we are informed of the correct lyric we are usually more than happy to admit that it makes more sense. However, for the purposes of this post, I don't want to talk about the silly lyrics but I want to focus on something that happens to me on occasion: when we like our misheard lyric better than the actual lyric; when we're actually disappointed to do discover what the actual lyric is because it's somewhat disapointing or takes some meaning away from the song that we had placed in it.

Here are a few of mine:

Bruce Springsteen- "For You"
Actual Lyric: "And they're waiting for you down at Bellevue with their oxygen mask"
My version: "And they're waiting for you down at Bellevue with their Rock surgeon mask"

I like my version better because I like the idea of "Rock Surgeons"... ie Rock N' Roll Surgeons... I thought it was a nice way of saying Rock and Roll saved the girl... or that she was waiting for Rock to save her.

Cheap Trick- "The Flame"
Actual Lyric: "You Were the First, You'll Be The Last"
My version: "You were the First TO be the last"

I like mine better because it's much more toungue in cheek, since he's saying she was "first to be the last" he's implying that there will be others to be last as well or, at the very least, she wasn't the first just 'the first to be the last'. At the very least, it is implying that there were others before her... but she was 'the last.' Which is kind of sweet... in a much less maudlin way than the actual lyric.

REM- "Let Me In"
Actual Lyric: "I've got tar on my feet and I can't see"
My Version: "A guitar on my feet and I can't see"

Knowing this song was about Kurt Cobain, I always assumed he had a 'guitar' on his feet... like the weight of his success or the burden of his rock stardom, both represented by the guitar, were pulling him down... or the weight of his art. I thought it was a much stronger image than "got tar on my feet" which sort of says the same thing but much less artfully.

And, lastly:

Smashing Pumpkins- "Disarm"
Actual Lyric: "Inside of Me is such a part of you."
My Version: "Sodomy is such a part of you"

Now, sodomy definitely makes this a much darker song about a much more messed up relationship, perhaps even one with an anti-child abuse message a la Suzanne Vega's "Luka" (you can imagine my shock when I heard this was inspired by Billy Corgan's relationship with his father... and my subsequent relief when I found out my mishearing was incorrect) Anyway, In this case... I'm not sure my version was really all that much better so much as it was much scarier.

Some of yours?

[Sara has a good one from her childhood:

Louis Armstrong's "Wonderful World"
Actual Lyric: "The dark sacred night"
Sara heard "the dogs say good-night"

That is adorable.

This is not a song lyric but there is a famous story about a little girl who thought God's name was Howard, because she misheard "Hallowed be thy name" in the Lord's Prayer.

There is actually a whole book of misheard lyrics called "'Scuse Me While I Kiss this Guy" -- a famous mishear of Hendrix saying "Kiss the Sky." Other examples from the book include

"The ants are my friends/They're blowin' in the wind" ("The answer my friend/Is blowing' in the wind"-Bob Dylan)

"Sweet dreams are made of cheese" ("Sweet dreams are made of this"-Eurythmics)

"The girl with colitis goes by" ("The girl with kaleidoscope eyes"-The Beatles)



Andrew said...

Hi Scott (and Geoff). I've been hanging around a bit and decided to take the plunge into starting to comment.

I remember back in the 1990s when Seal's "Kiss from a Rose" was a hit and all I could hear was "I've been kissed by Thoreau's Uncle Dave." I was encouraged in my hearing because Seal claimed in one of his album liners (can't recall which one right now) that he didn't print lyrics because he didn't want to destroy the meaning of a song for a listener who heard the lyrics a different way.

English, though, is a notoriously difficult language to set musically and is difficult to understand no matter what style of music sets it. Some languages flow naturally in the Western musical system, but not so much English. I'd be curious to hear what others around here thought was a successful musical style in allowing a listener to actually hear the lyrics (or conversely, is there something about most of our music that encourages bad diction).

Christian said...

Fall Out Boy has made a career out of misheard lyrics.

I guess My Bloody Valentine should be somewhere in the Top of Band Who Have Misheard Lyrics. Could probably be attributed to the fact that the vocals are used as an instrument for them.

Of course, I can't remember any of mine at the moment.

scott91777 said...


I'd heard the "Howard Be Thy Name" story before which reminds me of a story a woman at my Church growing up told about how her son thought "Round 'Yon Virgin" in "Silent Night" was "Round John Bergen"... It's even funnier if you picture this jolly, heavyset dude just kinda hanging around the manger.

Also, for the longest time I thought the chorus to Beck's "Where It's At" was saying "I got two Dirt Devils and a Microphone" instead of "two turntables and a microphone"... someone told me "How could you think that? It makes no sense?" My response, "Have you ever listened to Beck's lyrics? They usually don't."

Oh, and one of my students gave me the sequel to Kiss This Guy called He's Got The Whole World In His Pants.

Björninn said...

"The penis, mighty earth and this horde."

Not really a misheard lyric, but close enough.

This is one of those things, it's always happening but the only example I can think of is this one:

Radiohead's Black Star, actual lyric:
"What am I coming to?"

My version:
,,But I'm a comet, too."

It seemed like an over-the-top show of optimism, a feeble attempt to rebound, making the whole situation that much more depressing. I guess the rest of the song could have clued me in, but that's kind of the point, no?

Incidentally, I remember reading about Radiohead changing the lyrics to some of the songs on OK Computer after seeing misheard lyrics posted on the internet before actually recording the album. Don't know if it's true but it should be.

Voice Of The Eagle said...

So Alice in Chains have that songs that have the lyrics "Into the Flood Again."

For the longest time I honestly thought it was "Hail to the Flutterkin."

So naturally I wondered what the hell the Flutterkin was and why they were hailing it.

Paul said...

We used to joke in college that Bjork's "Venus As a Boy" was misheard as "Penis Acid Boy".

scott91777 said...

A roomate of mine in college used to hear the line from Nirvana's Heart Shaped Box "She loves me like a pices when I am weak" as "She Loves me like a passing elf. I am weak."

Anonymous said...

Fist off, I too thought right up till now that Louie Armstrong sang “Dogs say Good night”

I have two that I think are better lyrics.

Duran Duran sings: Her name is Rio and she dances on the sand.
I thought they said: Her name is Rio and she dances like a man.

The Wight Stripes sing: I’ve been thinking my door bell. When you going to ring it
I thought they said: I’ve been thinking of my Love bell. When you going to ring it.

I really like the idea of a love bell. That when it is rang it is an invitation for some loving. Not to get too personal but there are time when I will say to my wife. “Baby when you going to ring my love bell

The Dyslexicon

Josh Hechinger said...

The only one I can remember right now is Los Campesinos' "Sweet Dreams, Sweet Cheeks".

I thought the background chorus bit was: "If you're jaded, faded, can't curse me too".

ended up being:

"If you're trading papercuts for splinters."

In my defense, they're Welsh and I'm dumb.

Christian said...

Los Campesinos! are fucking great, and I'm glad not to be the only one listening to them. But then again I think I told you the same thing over at P&P at one point. That makes it you, me, Kieron Gillen and most of the British population of the BKV Castaway Board.

I misheard like half their lyrics. At least. Good stuff though.

And Eels' My Beloved Monster:

Misheard "My little monster is tough/If she wants she will disrobe you/but if you lay her down for a kiss,/ her little heart it will explode" as "My little monster is tough/If she wants she will destroy you/but if you lay her down for a kiss,/ her little heart it will explode."

Just a single word, but dramatically changes the song. In the original, it's implied that she is idiosyncratic, but in mine she is literally a protector.

Faur said...

When the song "Tubthumping" by Chumbawumba came out, when it was becoming a big hit but not yet a staple at sporting events, I thought the words to the chorus were:


sara d. reiss said...

faur: bwahahahahahaha, that was HILARIOUS!!!! exellent mishear.

David Golding said...

U2 - "Sunday Bloody Sunday"
Actual lyric: "And its true we are immune / When fact is fiction and tv reality"
My version: "Yes it's true we are immune / We practice fiction and superiority"

Which was my motto for a while. :-)

Kyle said...

I prefer to hear Seger's "Her Strut" as "they do respect her butt! They love to watch her strut," instead of the backpedaling, "they do respect her, but... They love to watch her strut." Little nuances change the tone a lot. Though perhaps the original is a more nuanced portrayal of the onlookers. In a creepy-dude-excuse way.

scott91777 said...


I think yours is my most favorite of all :)

David Golding said...

I'm sure no one is still reading these comments, but for the record let me say that I only recently discovered:

Sir Mix-A-Lot - "I Like Big Butts"
Actual lyric: "But that butt you got / Makes me so horny"
My version: "That butt you got / makes mean salami"