Misunderstood: Lyrical Losses

Years ago, a friend and I got over our strange addiction to the movie The Rules of Attraction by acquiring a new drug, by becoming obsessed if only briefly with the movie Napoleon Dynamite, a wan and delicate movie whose humor still gets me to this day and whose repeatability (for me) has been bested only by that greatest comedy of the modern era, Office Space.  Part of what I liked about the movie was the use of music in the prom scene where a few of the corniest songs seem almost profound.

But the song that got me the most was “The Promise” by When in Rome

This song is high-80s invasion nonsense, but it is really cool-sounding and has a chorus that you want to sing along with if you can somehow figure out all of the words. Here are the lyrics if you can’t figure them out:

I’m sorry, but I’m just thinking of the right words to say
I know they don’t sound the way I planned them to be
But if you wait around a while, I’ll make you fall for me
I promise, I promise you I will

How can someone fit all of these words in that chorus? How can you do it well? One thing about this song, is that you can actually understand the words. This is something I was thinking about when I found the list from Spotify via the Huffington post. We all, I think, have songs we love but whose lyrics remain mysterious to us. And, more often than not, the process of demystification (when you learn the lyrics) kind of ruins the song for us. For instance, when I learned that the words starting the chorus of “Super Bon Bon” (Soul Coughing) were “Too fat, fat you must cut lean” I was disappointed. I wanted them to be more profound. I still don’t know what they mean but they sound less cool now that I know what they are.

So, any way, Spotify listed the top misunderstood song lyrics as follows:

1. Blinded by the light…wrapped up like a douche when you’re rollin’ in the night / Blinded by the light, revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night (Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, Blinded By the Light) – 52%

2. ’Scuse me, while I kiss this guy / ‘Scuse me, while I kiss the sky (Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze) – 19%

3. Rock the cat box / Rock the Casbah (The Clash, Rock The Casbah) – 14%

understand4. Hold me closer Tony Danza / Hold me closer tiny dancer (Elton John, Tiny Dancer) – 13%

5. There’s a bathroom on the right / There’s a bad moon on the rise (Credence Clearwater Revival, Bad Moon Rising) – 12%

6. Take me down to a very nice city / Take me down to paradise city (Guns N’ Roses, Paradise City) – 10%

7. Animal! / Panama! (Van Halen, Panama) – 9%

8. Like a cheese stick / Like a G6 (Far East Movement, Like a G6) – 8%

9. Don’t go Jason waterfalls / Don’t go chasing waterfalls (TLC, Waterfalls) – 7%

10. I blow bubbles when you are not here / My world crumbles when you are not near (Macy Gray, I Try) – 4%

Some of these are typical (No one understands “Blinded by the Light”; everyone knows someone who has mistaken CCR’s lyrics for directions to the bathroom); but some are just straight up stupid. Who misunderstood “Waterfalls” or “Paradise City”? (Morons. That’s who.)  But two songs that I think should be on this list but aren’t are “Still” by Dr. Dre and “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5.

Back in 1999 when this song came out and after when I learned to love hip-hop, I remember having several conversations where we tried to figure out exactly what it was that Snoop Dog was saying in the chorus. Now, to be fair, this was before Rap-Genius existed and the debate occurred among mostly white hicks and suburbanites, but, for the best of our analysis, we couldn’t make any sense of lyrics that turned out this way:

I’m representing for them gangstas all across the world
Still hitting them corners on the lo-lo’s, girl
Still taking my time to perfect the beat
And I still got love for the streets, it’s the D-R-E

We never figured out the second lines because we didn’t know what lo-lo’s were, therefore, the song seemed senseless to us. The other song that I have mentioned before, is “Move Like Jagger” by Maroon 5 (I thought it was about moving my jacket). The truth is that this is not at all mysterious if you see the video. But, on the radio? It is just strange.

What about you, my brother, any songs that have surprised or defied you?

12 comments on “Misunderstood: Lyrical Losses

  1. theyoungerj says:

    Most Pearl Jam Songs, all rap songs of the modern era and almost every hardcore metal song I’ve ever heard. Recently, I learned that was “Where is my Mind” is about scuba diving, not potentially losing your mind. That shouldn’t have been a surprise but it was.

    • theelderj says:

      Ah, but the “Where is My Mind” issue isn’t about hearing the words and making them out, it is about taking something literal as something metaphorical (which is another thing altogether).

      I guess I was concerned with literally not understanding what a singer was saying as when I thought that Maroon 5 was singing “move my jacket” instead of “move like jagger”.

      Your concern is one you should just do away with, in my ever so humble opinion. Who cares if Black Francis meant “Where is my mind” to be about scuba diving? Can’t Scuba diving be a metaphor for changes in perception? Does an audience have to use a singer’s words the way he means them to be used?

      • theyoungerj says:

        Solid Point

      • theyoungerj says:

        So I will retract that statement and say that to this day, Nirvana’s “Smells like Teen Spirit” has made little sense to me.

      • theelderj says:

        Yeah, you’re right. That song makes no sense.

        People have written about Cobain’s great lyrics. I think that he was just putting together words that sounded cool. He wrote, let’s call it, ‘impressionistically”

      • theyoungerj says:

        I’m actually working on a not so popular Nirvana playlist now and the more I listen, the more I agree with you.

  2. T.A. Gerolami says:

    Classic from my brother: “White Rabbit”: “When you go chasing U-boats, you know you’ve gone to far.”

    This is also the man convinced that “turn around bright eyes” from Total Eclipse of the Heart is about the end of Planet of the Apes…

  3. I thought #7 was “Enema!” 😉

  4. […] hear a band’s other non hit songs, it’s hard to really gauge if you like them or not. “Smells like Teen Spirit” is certainly an awesome song, but we have all heard it about a million times now and it’s […]

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