“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
—Inigo Montoya, in The Princess Bride (1987), screenplay by Willam Goldman
What the Lyrics Say
When we listen to popular music, we may not bother paying attention to the lyrics at all. If we’re mainly focused on cool guitar leads or Beach Boys “wall of sound” harmony, we may not care. But human beings are rational animals, and we can’t escape the words forever. Eventually, we’re going to wonder what the singer is talking about. And when that time comes, it’s a good idea if the lyricist has put something into them that satisfies us.
Of course, making out the words in the first place isn’t a trivial task. There are songs I’ve puzzled over for years, and others where it only dawned on me decades later what the singer was saying. “Louie Louie” (1955) is famous for its unintelligible lyrics, to such an extent that according to Wikipedia, the FBI conducted an investigation on the assumption the words were obscene. Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs includes an anecdote in which Barry asked the singer in his band about the words to a song they were playing, and the vocalist admitted he had no idea; he was simply mouthing nonsense syllables to match what he heard on the record.
Since sung words can be hard to make out, there are whole books’ worth of “mondegreens”—misheard lyrics. For example, when “Rudoph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” says “All of the other reindeer . . .”, one could easily hear the line as “Olive, the other reindeer.” That mishearing actually spawned a 1997 children’s book by that title, which later generated an animated special: mondegreens running wild. But that’s really another topic.
Suppose we can make out what the singer is saying. The real lyrics can still go wrong, in sense rather than in sound. And sometimes we only notice the errant meaning once we’ve heard the song umpteen times: the umpteenth-plus-one repetition makes us wonder about it. The lyricist needs to make sure that even on repeated rehearing, the words say what they’re supposed to say, and not something else—or the result may be unintentional comedy.
If the songwriter isn’t careful, the words may come out to mean exactly the opposite of what the writer wanted. A famous example also cited in Barry’s book is the Rod Stewart song “Tonight’s the Night” (1976) (lyrics / lyric video). Stewart tells the girl he’s seducing, “Just let your inhibitions run wild.” He wants to minimize her inhibitions, not give them wider scope—but the contrary connotations of “run wild” have apparently confused him.
Remember the song in the movie White Christmas (1954) where the soldiers are professing their loyalty to their general? “The Old Man” (lyrics / video) occurs first on a battlefield.
We’ll follow the old man wherever he wants to go,
Long as he wants to go opposite to the foe.
We’ll stay with the old man wherever he wants to stay,
Long as he stays away from the battle’s fray.
Because we love him, we love him,
Especially when he keeps us on the ball,
And we’ll tell the kiddies we answered duty’s call
With the grandest son of a soldier of them all.
I’ve always been baffled as to whether “opposite to the foe” means they want to follow him into battle, which would fit the mood of the song (“we answered duty’s call”) or whether it means they want to join him in running away from the enemy (“away from the battle’s fray”). For all I know, Irving Berlin intended both meanings – comedy and sentiment at one time.
There’s a more recent (2008) patriotic song from Rodney Atkins, “It’s America” (lyrics / music video), in which Atkins describes stopping at some children’s lemonade stand. He says, “They were the cutest kids I’d ever seen in this front yard.” What he meant to say, surely, is that the kids in this front yard were the cutest kids he’d ever seen. But the literal meaning of the sentence could just as well be that these were only the cutest kids in this particular front yard. How many kids has he actually seen in this yard, for purposes of comparison?
I like the Belinda Carlisle song “Leave A Light On” (1989) (lyrics / lyric video / songwriter’s explanation), but one line makes the song seem faintly silly. Carlisle tells her lover how much she will miss him, but asks him to leave the porch light on because she’s coming back. Her urgency to return is such that she says, “I’ll be there before you close the door, to give you all the love that you need.” Now, she’s just told him “I don’t know when I’ll see you again,” but apparently her absence is going to be pretty brief: he won’t even have the chance to let the door close before she pops back in. The pain of parting isn’t exactly going to be extended. I remarked to my kids years ago that apparently she wasn’t going any further away than to take out the trash; and this became the “taking-out-the-trash song” ever after.
A song called “Everytime You Go Away” (1980) by Hall & Oates, also recorded by Paul Young (lyrics / music video) isn’t a great favorite of mine, but it did stimulate what TV Tropes calls “Fridge Logic”—the afterthoughts that occur to you after you’ve finished watching a show, when you go to the fridge for a beer. The chorus repeats endlessly that “Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you.” I began to think that if she takes a piece of him with her every time she goes away, she’ll eventually be able to reassemble him in toto at the other end, once she’s brought over all the pieces. And what then? Perhaps she then transfers him back, piecemeal, to where he started from. It begins to seem more like a perpetual cycle than a loss.
Sometimes the anomaly isn’t so much a confusion of meaning, as a confusion of imagery. Metaphors, like Rod Stewart’s inhibitions, can run wild and get into trouble.
Mixing the literal with the figurative is one way to confuse the listener. There’s a bouncy pop song from 1988 called Waiting for a Star to Fall by Boy Meets Girl (lyrics / music video). The chorus opens: “Waiting for a star to fall / and carry your heart into my arms / that’s where you belong / in my arms, baby, yeah.” The conceit that a falling star carries her heart, sure, that’s cute. What throws me off is the conjunction of your heart (metaphorically) and my arms (literally). The star could carry her into his arms; it could carry her heart in some sense into, say, his heart; but carrying her heart into his arms actually begins to sound rather gruesome, if you look at it the right way. (Or the wrong way.)
Another heart goes astray in Lauren Alaina’s 2015 empowerment anthem “Road Less Traveled” (lyrics / audio / music video) The refrain breaks out with: “If you trust your rebel heart, ride it into battle . . .” It’s a nice thought: trust your independence, fight for what you believe. But the idea of riding your own heart into battle seems, if not physically impossible, at least rather peculiar. I can’t help but picture Alaina mounted atop a larger-than-life version of one of those diagrams you see in cardiologists’ offices, the four-lobed red organ with the truncated blood vessels leading out of it. That deprives the fierce encouragement of some of its force . . .
We can lay the physical image to rest in Madonna’s “Open Your Heart” (1986) (lyrics / audio), but that doesn’t get us out of the woods yet. The object of Madonna’s desire is not responding as she wishes; the song is a plea for him to open his heart. But what she tells him is, “Open your heart to me, baby, I hold the lock and you hold the key.” What’s she doing holding the metaphorical lock that closes his heart? It would seem to make more sense for him to be the lock and her the key. But I suspect Madonna just couldn’t resist the phallic imagery of turning it the other way around.
There’s a lot of unlocking to be done in love songs. Richard Marx pleads with his beloved not to let fear keep her loveless in 1991’s “Take This Heart” (lyrics / music video). In the bridge, he tells her, “Don’t keep the dream in you locked outside your door.” That’s an effective image; in fact, it’s two effective images. She could be keeping her dream locked away inside herself and not following it; or she could be barricaded against the dream that’s trying to come in to reach her. But he can’t have it both ways.
“Steppin’ Out,” from Joe Jackson in 1982 (lyrics / music video), evokes the glamor of night life in New York City. The singer persuades his girl to go out on the town with him. “You . . . in a yellow taxi turn to me and smile / We’ll be there in just a while / If you follow me.” But if they’re together in a taxi, there’s hardly much question as to whether she’ll follow him, right?
One of my favorite rousing tunes is Bon Jovi’s ”Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” from 2005 (lyrics / music video). The lyrics are cheerfully all over the place; the song succeeds on its energy and its defiantly sentimental ‘attitude’ (an attitude that’s neatly captured in the simple graphic on the album cover, shown here). The singer(s), who have traveled all over the world, declare that they can still come back to the place where “they call me one of their own.” I still think that Jon Bon Jovi and his co-writer Richie Sambora got it backwards when they tell us, “You take the home from the boy, but not the boy from his home.” Seems to me you take the boy from his home when he travels the world, while something of his home remains inside him (you can’t “take the home from the boy”). But the song is such fun that one can hardly quibble about the details.
Some songs can’t seem to make up their minds whether they’re a ‘love is wonderful’ song or a ‘please come back to me’ song. Going all the way back to 1971, the beautiful Jackson 5 number “Maybe Tomorrow” (lyrics / video) has that problem. In the first verse and the refrain, she is looking into his eyes, she is the four seasons of his life, and so forth. But in the second verse and elsewhere in the refrain, she’s left him (“Maybe tomorrow / you’ll come back to my arms, girl”). Maybe she did mean that much to him and now she’s gone; but that isn’t what the words say.
On the other hand, sometimes the “wait, what was that?” double-take is intentional. The Turtles, a popular 1960s group, were known for a subversive tongue-in-cheek style. In “You Don’t Have to Walk In the Rain” (1969) (lyrics / video), round about the second verse, we get the line, “I looked at your face / I love you anyway.” Anyway? That doesn’t sound like a compliment . . . I suspect the Turtles were just putting one over on us there.
Sometimes it isn’t so much that the lyrics don’t go together, but that they don’t go anywhere at all.
The famously obscure Backstreet Boys earworm “I Want It That Way” (1999) (lyrics / music video) falls into this category. It’s pretty, and one gets the impression that two devoted lovers are having problems, but what exactly is the desire to which the singers object so strenuously? According to this 2018 summary, and this 2011 article, apparently the mystery has something to do with the fact that the songwriter’s English wasn’t too strong at the time. But the most entertaining fact is that the group tried coming up with a version that did make sense—and everyone liked the nonsensical original better. Sometimes one’s ear and one’s brain just go off in different directions.
We get a different kind of coherence problem in which I like to call “general aspirational” songs, where the lyricist is trying to encourage or uplift without getting too specific about the moral or spiritual basis for the uplift—the content. We had a whole lot of these back in the 1960s. A more recent example is “Under One Sky” (2015) (lyrics / lyric video) by a group called The Tenors. It’s a nice song, and I like to listen to it. But I cannot make out what it’s talking about, and promising lines keep falling flat. For example: “It takes a city of dreamers”—okay, that sounds interesting, what is it that uniting a city of dreamers can do?—“to help you get this far.” Well, that finishing clause doesn’t say anything. How far is that? In what direction? Why does it take all these dreamers to help with whatever it is he’s doing? But the lyricist is already off to something else, and we never find out. I do like an overall sense of hopefulness or encouragement—but it helps if there’s at least a little content or substance to it.
Other songs makes sense syntactically, but not as a practical matter. In Train’s lovely “Marry Me” (2010) (lyrics / music), everything says the couple has a long history of deep intimacy. Until we get to the line, “If I ever get the nerve to say “Hello” in this café.” He’s never even spoken to her? That longing-from-a-distance can also be a touching story—but not the same touching story. At best, we have a really extreme case of love at first sight, as the video seems to suggest.
But these pragmatic plausibility issues really take us off in another direction, and I’ve already rambled on long enough here.
We don’t want to take our parsing of song lyrics too seriously—especially when it comes to an overliteral reading. What these silly examples show us is partly that there can be unintentional humor lurking in all kinds of places; and partly that if a songwriter wants to produce a vivid impression on the hearer, it’s necessary to pay close attention to all the angles. It takes some precision to put an effective musical story together, from the exact meaning of words to the interplay of image and metaphor. Just as when we’re choosing names for a baby, we have to think about all the ramifications of our choices, even the silliest ones.