Saturday, May 15, 2010

Magically Misunderstanding Music

Nothing gets misunderstood like a song. I’m not just talking about mondegreens (where you mishear a lyric, e.g. in Purple Haze when many people hear “’Scuze me while I guess this guy!”), but what you might call general mondegreens: that is, when you misunderstand the entire point of the song.

Here’s an example:


A favorite of prom night, the critical realization to make here is that this song is actually about Sting stalking his ex-wife during a nasty divorce trial. Suddenly that awkward slow dance is…much more awkward.

Here’s another example:


I bet all the Dave Matthews fans didn’t realize that he’s signing about blow jobs. Suddenly the song is…much nastier to listen to. Key tip to singers everywhere: it’s fun to receive blow jobs, not sing about them.

Here’s a slightly more subtle version:


Now sadly the video gives away the answer to this question, but here’s the rhetorical question anyway: who does this song? If you just heard the audio, you probably think Bob Dylan. I mean, similar sounding voice, similar use of the guitar in a folksy way, some vivid lyrics…(type “catch the wind” into YouTube, and one of the top options is “catch the wind bob dylan”)…but you’re wrong, of course. Dylan actually thought Donovan (the dude who did this song) ripped off his style, which is not an unfair perception to hold, but there’s the key difference. Dylan was obviously a top-rate lyricist, but his imagery was rarely clear and vivid; instead he was a first-rate surrealist or metaphorical writer. The lyrics in here like “when the rain has hung the leaves with tears” or the refrain of “ah, but I may as well try to catch the wind” have a concreteness and relationship to everyday life that Dylan often doesn’t have (when he does, he’s usually insulting you, e.g. “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” or “Idiot Wind”)

So. Songs are frequently misunderstood. This is true of most media, I’d wager. There are enough people who are foolish or hasty that there will be people who can misunderstand just about anything. But I think it’s more frequent for music because it’s heard so quickly, and lyrics are often selected just as often for sounding cool as actually making sense (the Red Hot Chili Peppers are the most frequent practitioners, but surprisingly Thom Yorke of Radiohead admitted in a Chuck Klosterman profile to doing exactly the same thing.) It’s not a surprise, then, that a song about stalking your ex-wife would turn into the soundtrack to many a magically awkward moment.

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