Monday, 14 June 2010

Soul-Pipping My B.L.A?: The Pleasures of Misheard Lyrics

(Antony singing ... something.)

Watching Dar Williams's expert, carefully crafted lyrics to "Southern California Wants To Be Western New York" appear on the screen (see previous post), I got to thinking about how very different the experience of reading a song as you listen to it is from the experience of "just" listening to it. Dar's diction is fairly clear throughout the track but, without the lyrics on hand, there are still some ambiguities that a listener might run into. What does it mean to hear "SUNY student" as "Sony student," for example? Or to decipher the closing line "it's tres Western New York" as "extra Western New York"? (No car buff, the "Miata" reference was definitely a challenge for this listener upon first hearing the song.)

“An old horse dying/Gets me going in the morning.” An intriguing lyric, I remember thinking, when listening to a track from Rufus Wainwright’s Want Two album a few years ago. It was several listens in before I checked the track-list and found that what Wainwright and Antony were actually - or allegedly - singing was “Old Whore’s Diet.” Antony provided me with a similar sense of disillusionment-mixed-with-pleasure again, when I discovered that a track from The Crying Light (2009) was not, as I'd decided, a patient-to-psychiatrist love song featuring lines like “Jung will repair me…/Jung will take of me” but instead an address to a more generalised father-figure (or perhaps to time itself): “Aeon.” And I remember being quite convinced that Lucinda Williams was drawling something about "eagles" on "Lonely Girls," the opening track to her 2001 album Essence. “Sparkly rhinestones /Shine on bald eagles”; quite an image.

I enjoy mishearing lyrics; it’s one of my favourite things about experiencing music, in fact. Despite the obvious, much-celebrated necessities of clear diction, ambiguous articulation can prove far more fascinating, I find. It can move a potentially banal statement into profundity, take it beyond realism into impressionism, abstraction or (more often than not) absurdism. Glenn McDonald describes Emmylou Harris’s sublimely murky vocals on Wrecking Ball (1995) thus: “When she sings she brushes lightly across words, sketching their shape without necessarily articulating every bend and spike in the letters. This acts like a layer of gauze stretched over these songs, or a sepia tint applied in the processing.” "Swallowed syllables," McDonald goes on, "involve the listener in replacing them, and lead to heard phrases that, though different from the words nominally being said, aren’t necessarily wrong."

I think McDonald is exactly right: in the gap between what’s said and what’s heard, between sound and sense, signifier and signified, multiple meanings may emerge. It’s one of the reasons I enjoy Tori Amos’s work so much; Amos's tendency to shift and re-shape syllables as she sings, to make homonyms out of words that once seemed only distantly related to one another, is an endless source of delight and absorption to me, and an integral part of the richness of her music. The lyric sheet tells us that on the bridge to “Bouncing Off Clouds” Amos is singing “I think fate is now…/Waiting on us.” But, almost every time, I hear the line as “I think we design/Where we take our lives”; two great, miraculously complementary statements there. More typically, Amos's articulation produces marvellously surreal effects. On another American Doll Posse (2007) track, “Big Wheel,” the (mis-)heard line “soul-pipping my B.L.A” is more interesting, I'd argue, than what the lyric sheet tells us is “so baby maybe I let your…”; it's also a pleasingly acronymic precursor to the “M.I.L.F” bridge in that song. Amos is a highly sophisticated lyricist whose best work reads well on the page, so the many resonances that she gets from her idiosyncratic prounciations just add more and more layers to her music. There are other lyricists, in contrast, whose work always sounds much more intriguing than its reads to me.

Mishearing lyrics could be described as a post-structuralist's delight, one that highlights the slipperiness and "free play" of meaning, the indeterminacy of interpretation, the disjunction between what's said, what's heard and what's meant. It's also great fun.

Any other favourite examples of misheard lyrics that you’d like to share, people out there?


  1. Excellent idea for a post, Alex! I've always been fascinated by this phenomenon as well, the way some singers choose not to correct or clarify the moments of blurry diction in their songs. I remember Seal (of all people) saying in an interview that he refuses to print lyrics in the booklets of his CDs for this very reason; he explained that he loves having his own alternate "meanings" for the lyrics in some of his favorite pop songs, and he doesn't want to take that often rewarding experience away from his listeners.

    I've had many of these moments of recognition myself, when a phrase that I've heard sung a million times suddenly presents its own intended wording through the haze of muddled vocals. The one that I remember best is from Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" (somewhat embarrassingly!); the "correct" lyric goes, "They follow the pattern of the wind, you see." For years I thought that he was singing, "They follow the pattern of the window sill." That image works just as well in a quirky way, and I almost like it better! I think that Michael Jackson was someone who often allowed his diction to get intentionally unclear in his songs, a way to stamp his own vocal character on them (for better or worse), and to subliminally draw the listener in closer.

    As for Antony, my favorite review of him ever was in TimeOut London when his second album came out: "Some people say that Antony Hegarty sounds like Billie Holiday. I say Antony sounds like a billygoat." It's sort of mean, but also hilarious and a fairly accurate description at times.

    And "Bouncing Off Clouds" is one of my favorite Tori Amos songs, too!

  2. Great MJ example! And a pretty good description of Mr. Hegarty's singing at times, I have to agree!

  3. PS. Dar's "Teen For God". "The boy's skin dries in the sun". Or "the foreskin dries in the sun"?

  4. Now, I heard this song in my sister's car, so no judging too harshly for listening to it, ha.

    Lady Gaga's "I don't want to be friends" I always hear as "I don't want to be French." It makes me smirk everytime.

    Can't think of others, though I'm sure there are plenty. I usually always "read" a song.

  5. Nice example! Though personally I'd prefer it as "I *want* to be French". ;)

  6. I just realized another lyrical mix-up today when my iPod played a song on shuffle...

    From Stephen Bishop's "Separate Lives" (which was featured in that '80s Barishnikov movie White Nights): I've always heard the line as "Love leads to our salvation," when in actuality it's "Love leads to isolation."

    Oh boy!

  7. P.S. HA, and I just noticed your "foreskin" comment above! I've know all about Freudian slips, but that's like a Freudian mis-hearing! ;)

  8. Love it! These mis-hearings seem to be proving somewhat self-revealing, don't they?

  9. Maybe even a bit more than somewhat self-revealing?

    Ooops, I just noticed that there's a typo in my previous comment. It should read, "I know all about Freudian slips." I wish there was a way to correct it now, but oh well.

    AGH! Perfectionism sucks! :)

  10. OK, maybe, a bit. ;)

    As for perfectionism:

    "Ring the bells that still can ring
    Forget your perfect offering
    There is a crack in everything
    That's how the light gets in."

    Ah, the wisdom of ol' Lenny Cohen...

  11. Wow, I love that stanza about perfectionism! I've never heard it before, but will apply it to myself when I'm being too hard on myself. Thanks for posting that, Alex!

  12. I love that Leonard Cohen song as well. I remember when I accidentally dropped and scratched one of my CDs (lightly) and was despairing over it, a friend of mine said, "Jason, scratches are part of the universe." It's very true, and good advice!