Pop song lyrics can provide good opportunities for improving your English, but they can also be confusing and hard to decipher. Part of that is because the language of a pop song is more like spoken English and recited poetry, fast and fleeting, than it is the English of essays and literature, designed to be studied at your own speed. In addition to mondegreens, here are some other things to look out for.
Borrowings from other languages
Like a magpie’s nest, English is full of things purloined from other languages, often changing the spelling or even the meaning over the years.
For example, even though English is a Germanic language, it has a lot of French in it. This witty song by the band Wet Leg says it all in the title: “Chaise Longue.” This term means the same, but isn’t pronounced the same, as “chaise lounge,” which is how most Americans would probably say it. Once you’ve heard this song, you won’t forget the more French-sounding pronunciation:
In an earlier article, Creedence’s “Fortunate Son” was cited as an example of a two-minute classic, but its lyrics also contain references that might be puzzling to non-Americans:
- “red, white and blue” — the colors of the U.S. flag
- “Hail to the Chief” — the song traditionally played when the U.S. President appears
- “silver spoon in hand” — this likely refers to the expression “born with a silver spoon in his mouth,” meaning someone born into wealth and privilege, which leads perfectly into the song’s next line, “Lord, don’t they help themselves,” with its suggestion of greedy feeding
- “star spangled eyes” — a reference to the U.S. national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner”
Creedence Clearwater Revival also did a cover of the Motown classic, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” first made famous in versions by Gladys Knight and Marvin Gaye. So what does the title mean? Well, the song makes that pretty clear, but where did the expression come from? Perhaps the resemblance of 19th century telegraph wires to a grapevine or maybe to the strings used to train grapevines.
Here’s Creedence performing this song:
“Nonstandard” pronunciation or grammar
It’s long been common in folk and country music to employ pronunciation or grammar that could be considered “nonstandard” in written English or more formal contexts. There’s probably a variety of reasons for this practice. For spoken forms of English, it might be considered more natural or folksy. Or maybe it just sounds better to the ear, particularly when sung, and allows an easier transition between syllables.
As an example, here’s a line from Bob Dylan’s song “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right”:
It ain’t no use in turnin’ on your light, babe
In written English, you might word it like this:
There isn’t any use in turning on your light, babe
Even if you’re unfamiliar with Dylan’s song, you can hear that something has been lost in the rewritten line. The hard opening vowel of “ain’t” creates a punchy, emphatic effect that the other forms it substitutes for don’t have. Same with the double negative: just in case you might have missed it the first time, here it is again: no. And dropping the trailing “g” in “turning” allows that word to be pronounced slightly faster.
Technically, Dylan’s line could be considered iambic pentameter with a feminine ending. The rewritten line is still iambic, but now it’s longer and starts to lose energy by the end.
Later in the same song we find this line:
I’m a-thinkin’ and a-wond’rin’ all the way down the road
In addition to the dropped “g” from “thinking” and “wondering,” there’s also a dropped syllable in the latter word. And then there’s the matter of the “a-” prefix added to the beginning of both verbs.
Again, this prefix is a fairly common spoken form, which serves to alter the meaning of verbs slightly. In this case, it suggests that the singer is spending some serious time pondering why he’s leaving. If you’re familiar with the musical Oklahoma! then you’ve already encountered examples of “a-verbing.”
Here’s Dylan singing this song:
Dylan is certainly not the only songwriter who can be vague and cryptic, but let’s use his lyrics as an example anyway. In his song “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” we find these lines:
When Ruthie says come see her
In her honky-tonk lagoon
Where I can watch her waltz for free
’Neath her Panamanian moon
What exactly is a “honky-tonk lagoon”? If you’re a native English speaker, when you hear “honky-tonk” you almost instinctively expect it to be followed by “saloon,” the full phrase meaning a cheap bar where music and dancing can be found. But instead the line ends in “lagoon.” Since this is a song that contains wordplay and humor, perhaps the substitution is just more of that, intended to throw the listener slightly off-balance.
Similarly, you wouldn’t associate the kind of dancing found in a honky-tonk with “waltz.” Again, is this just to upend the listener’s expectation?
And what’s a “Panamanian moon” if you’re not in Panama? Well, in this case the phrase sounds great on its own, with its alliterative m’s and n’s, and the third syllable of “Panamanian” almost rhymes with “moon.” Inside a bar, you wouldn’t be able to see the moon. So is the moon simply a stage-light, like for a singer or dancer? Or does it just go with the image of a lagoon, maybe one that’s languid and tropical?
Here’s Dylan singing this song:
© 10 Franks 2022