Written by 4:35 am News

What Did That Song Say?

Paul Wilson muses on decipherability and pop music…

“Boy the way Glen Miller played / Songs that made the hit parade” were the first two lines from the theme song of one of television’s most iconic situation comedies. Developed by Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, “All In The Family” first premiered on January 12, 1971. Sung by the two principal cast members, Caroll O’Connor and Jean Stapelton, the theme song was about Archie Bunker’s (O’Connor’s character) frustration at how he longed for times remembered. The song highlighted that frustration and set the tempo for the show. Only one problem – in the high pitched voice Stapelton used to play her character, Edith Bunker, some of her lines in the song were hard to understand. The second to last line was almost undecipherable – sparking, at the time, much debate about what the line actually said.

AR-hearing22.jpgMisunderstanding lyrics in songs is hardly new, in fact it has happened for decades. Take for instance the line from Elton’s John’s hit song, “Tiny Dancer”  – “Hold me closer Tony Danza” sometimes mistaken for “Hold me closer tiny dancer.” Or the one from the Billy Joel song, “Piano Man” – “Sing us a song for the yellow man” instead of the obvious lyric, “you’re the piano man.” Then there is the really confusing one, “Like a virgin, touched for the thirty first time” as opposed to “Like a virgin, touched for the very first time.” I’d venture to guess that even Madonna must have found that one amusing.

Because all of these examples are from music that have been around for a long time, we now have the luxury of being able to snicker at the fact that any of these lyrics were misunderstood in the first place. Having now heard them many times, and even having had the opportunity, if interested, to read the lyrics, we obviously know the correct phrasing from the incorrect.

Just because these examples are decades old don’t for a minute think that it is still not happening in modern times. For instance, in “Blank Space” released by Taylor Swift, the line “Got a long list of ex lover’s” has sometimes been confused with “Got a long list of Starbucks lovers.” I suppose this means Ms. Swift leaves coffee lovers in her wake.

AR-Hold-Me-Closer.jpgWhat may be the reason that song lyrics are sometimes misunderstood? I get a mental image of some guy belting out his rendition of “Hold me closer Tony Danza” in the shower and his wife thinking “what on Earth is he singing about?” Could these mistakes be the product of bad hearing? Or are they perhaps because someone doesn’t fully understand English? Maybe they heard the song on the radio and the reception was not very good. Maybe, perhaps even quite likely, it is the audio system.

It is certainly disingenuous to think that song lyrics won’t be confused and misquoted both now and in the future. Let’s face it, sometimes people just get things wrong. Discovering the reason why such mistakes take place at all will likely have varying paths. But you can be sure that the audio system is in some way responsible.

AR-Archie-Bunker.jpgAll of this leads up to what, by now, must be the obvious point – a high performance audio system with excellent clarity and a high degree of resolution will go a long way towards helping the listener understand the actual, correct lyrics. This will hopefully lead to less misunderstanding, fewer mistakes and greater insight into what the artist was trying to say. Hopefully, it will ultimately lead to a better musical experience. At the very least, your better half won’t think you’ve lost your mind because you’re running around the house singing about Tony Danza. Oh, and that line from the All In The Family theme song?

Gee our old La Salle ran great.”

Yep, those were the days. 

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