Whether it is the misheard lyric from One Republic’s song Apologize as, “It’s too late to order fries” or Sir Mix-A-Lot’s Baby Got Back as “I like big butts in a can of limes” the human brain has a remarkable capacity to selectively interpret lyrics. The results of this phenomenon, known in psychological terms as “mondegreen,” has resulted in some of the funniest song lyrics ever heard.
The term mondegreen came about in 1954 when in an article penned for Harper’s Magazine by American author Sylvia Wright she revealed that she had misheard the lyrics of the folk song The Bonnie Earl o’ Moray. The original lyrics described how the Earl of Moray had been slain and how he was “laid on the green.” What Wright heard however, was a line about the Earl and the “Lady Mondegreen.” In the year 2000, the term was added to Webster’s Dictionary and the phenomenon, although termed by an American actually occurs across all cultures and in all languages.
According to a recent poll by BlinkBox Music there are some musical artists that are consistently misheard including Lady Gaga, Bob Dylan, Ozzy Osbourne and Prince – or as some know him, the artist formally known as “Prince” and now known by a symbol that cannot be translated into a word. In effect, what Prince did with his media stunt was to change his name from “Prince” to “The artist formally known as Prince.” Brilliant? Maybe not. It is doubtful Prince or, “untranslatable symbol guy” ever thought the lyrics to his song Delirious would include a breakfast cereal as in, “I get the Cheerios.”
Similarly Anna Kendrick and her delightful song Cups which was featured in the 2012 movie Pitch Perfect likely never thought tacos would play into the song’s theme of being missed. The actual lyric is “miss me by my talk” but with a vocal “Oh!” at the end of the phrase, it soon became “you’re gonna miss me by my taco.”
The reason for these misheard lyrics has much to do with the mumble and whine of artists like Bob Dylan and the screaming distortion of words by heavy metal rockers or, in the current music culture “Screamo” which is the hardcore version of the sad sack “Emo” music that plagued the early 1990s. However, in addition to enunciation flaws, the misheard song lyrics phenomenon also happens because some listeners have less life experience and less cultural reference to put the correct lyrics in context. Thus, they will fill in the lyrics with a cultural or life reference that they do have.
In addition, the current concerns of the listener whether it be hunger pangs or an impending break up, will influence the brain’s interpretation of less than clear lyrics. This does not exactly explain however why the song Dancing Queen by the band ABBA is the number one commonly misheard song with the lyrics misheard as, “see that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen.” However, the human brain is known for its ability to create order out of chaos and if a lyric cannot be fully heard, the brain will find a way to interpret the word, even if in the context of the song, the word only makes marginal sense.
Misheard lyrics from songs like Smashmouth’s remake of the Monkees, I’m a Believer that was featured in the movie Shrek in which people heard, “then I saw her face, now I’m gonna leave her” are a great source of entertainment. The funniest ones can be found in list compilations on the internet and it is interesting to note how many people have misinterpreted lyrics in the same way. One parent from the 1960s explained to his daughter that he misheard the lyrics to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s song There’s a Bad Moon on the Right as a “bathroom on the right” because he figured the artists were stoned when they wrote the song.
According to a comprehensive internet site called “KissThisGuy” that catalogs misheard lyrics, one person reported that a friend heard the lyrics from Eddie Money’s Two Tickets to Paradise as “two chickens to paralyze” which caused him to laugh so hard he snorted his beer out of his nose.
Perhaps these misheard song lyrics have resulted from a psychological phenomenon where upon hearing a poorly enunciated word people simply want to create order out of chaos. Alternatively, perhaps the confusion does come from a lack of cultural context and life experience. Either way, the misheard song lyrics are some of the funniest ways to take a closer look at the human condition and thankfully, musicians, who seek to entertain with their complex lyrics and vocal stylings, are a gift that keeps on giving.
Opinion By Alana Marie Burke