“Don’t go ’round tonight, it’s bound to take your life, there’s a bathroom on the right…”
Well, up ahead there may indeed be “a bathroom on the right,” but what John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival was singing in their 1969 hit single was, “There’s a bad moon on the rise.”
When we listen to a song lyric, there are often a lot of distractions that hamper our ability to understand the words. First, there’s the recording itself. Perhaps it’s not very well produced, or was recorded or mixed in a below-average studio. There may be multiple layers of guitars, keyboards, horns, drums and more that drown out the vocals. Or maybe the vocalist didn’t enunciate clearly, either by design or because the voice just isn’t very good in the first place. And of course, the listener must often cope with ambient noise — nearby conversations, car horns and traffic, enthusiastic crowds.
In a fascinating article last year in The New Yorker, blog writer Maria Konnikova explained the science and psychology of how we listen. For instance, she points out that we tend to comprehend more fully when we can see the person who is talking; we have visual cues that help us put the words in order and assign meaning to words and phrases. The same conversation heard over the phone might require occasional clarification because the visual cues are absent.
When lyrics are sung, there are different vocal structures being used, unusual syllable stresses and a range of inflections that differ from normal speech patterns. You might be hearing the same acoustic information as everyone else, but your brain isn’t interpreting it in the same way, resulting in misunderstanding.
Oronyms are words and/or phrases in which sounds can be logically divided in multiple ways. For example: Your ears may hear the phrase “Pulitzer Prize” but your mind concludes that the phrase is instead “Pullet Surprise.” Someone may be “lactose intolerant,” but you think you’re hearing “black-toast intolerant.” A person who forecasts the weather is a “meteorologist,” not a “meaty urologist.” In the Christmas carol “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” some children think “all of the other reindeer” is instead “Olive, the other reindeer.”
These are also known as “mondegreens” — misheard words or phrases that make sense in your head but are incorrect interpretations of what was said. The term came from a 1945 misreading of a 1765 poem in which the correct line was “They had slain the Earl Amurray, and laid him on the green,” but someone heard it as “They had slain the Earl Amurray, and Lady Mondegreen.” So even “mondegreen” is a mondegreen.
So with these in mind, I did some research and have collected a couple dozen of unintentionally hilarious mis-hearings of popular song lyrics. Who knows? Perhaps you’ve been incorrectly singing the words to your favorite songs all these years:
…One of Elvis Presley’s first big hits, “Hound Dog,” included the line, “You ain’t never caught a rabbit and you ain’t no friend of mine,” but some shocked fans thought they heard him sing, “You ain’t never pornographic and you ain’t no friend of mine…”
…In 1963, Bob Dylan sang, “The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind,” but some heard it as “The ants are my friend.” When Dylan first met The Beatles and offered some marijuana to share, they were wary because they’d never tried it. Dylan replied, “But what about the line in your song — ‘I get high, I get high, I get high…’?” They explained that the proper lyric from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was “I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t hide…”
…Some listeners wondered in 1967 whether Jimi Hendrix might be gay because, in “Purple Haze,” they thought he was singing ”’Scuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “‘Scuse me while I kiss the sky…”
…The chorus of The Monkees’ #1 smash from 1967 was interpreted exactly wrong by some folks who thought “Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer…” was instead “Then I saw her face, now I’m gonna leave her…”
…In 1966, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles were singing “I second that emotion,” NOT “I suck at that emotion…”
…Elton John’s 1972 hit “Rocket Man” sang about the loneliness of the astronaut: “Burning out his fuse up here alone.” And yet some people thought he was singing “Burning up his shoes with aerosol…”
…Some predicted the current transsexual trend when they heard the lyrics from The Bee Gees’ 1978 hit as “Your man’s a woman to me” instead of “More than a woman to me…” Even their signature hit “Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive” has been mis-heard as “Sayin’ a lie, sayin’ a lie…”
…Fans of country singer Crystal Gayle must’ve wondered if she had an obsession with Krispy Kreme when they thought she was singing “Doughnuts make my brown eyes blue” rather than “Don’t it make my brown eyes blue…”
…The band Toto was singing “I bless the rains down in Africa” in their 1982 hit, but some listeners swear they heard “I left my brains down in Africa…”
…Billy Joel’s 1980 smash hit went, “You may be right, I may be crazy,” but some thought he was singing about shared cooking responsibilities: “You made the rice, I made the gravy…”
…We know Madonna was no virgin by the time she became a star in 1985 with the words, “Like a virgin, touched for the very first time.” In fact, some assumed the lyric was actually, “Like a virgin, touched for the 31st time…”
…In the 1995 #1 hit, “You Are Not Alone,” Michael Jackson was singing “Your burdens I will bear,” but damned if it doesn’t sound like “Your burgers are the best…” And diva Celine Dion seems to be more of a frankfurter fan when her line from the “Titanic” hit “I believe the heart does go on” is misinterpreted as “I believe the hotdogs go on…”
…The band 10,000 Maniacs was embroiled in a court case for a while, leading some listeners to think their rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Because the Night” included the chorus, “Because the night belongs to lawyers, because the night belongs to law” instead of “because the night belongs to lovers, because the night belongs to lust…”
…Nirvana and Kurt Cobain were singing “Here we are now, entertain us” in their 1992 hit “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” but some people are convinced he’s singing “Here we are now, in containers…”
…I have a friend whose sister Mattia thought Steven Tyler and Aerosmith were singing directly to her in “Dream On”: “Sing with me, sing for the years, sing for the laughter, sing for Mattia…” (instead of “the tears”).
…Seventies rocker Eddie Money was singing “I’ve got two tickets to paradise,” but some thought they were hearing, “I’ve got two chicks and a pair of dice…”
…There are many cases when listeners swear they’re hearing obscenities or private parts mentioned in the lyrics. J. Geils Band went to #1 in 1981 with “My angel’s in a centerfold,” NOT “My anus is the center hole…” R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” (1991) includes the line, “That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight,” and definitely not “Let’s pee in the corner, let’s pee in the spotlight…” Manfred Mann’s 1976 reworking of the early Springsteen tune “Blinded by the Light” supposedly says, “Wrapped up like a douche, another loner in the night,” when actually the lyrics are “revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night…” Robert Palmer sings the line “You’re gonna have to face it, you’re addicted to love,” but it’s been mis-heard as “You’re gonna have to face it, you’re a dick with a glove…”
…And thanks to legendary mumbler Mick Jagger, lyrics to The Rolling Stones’ songs are probably misinterpreted more than any other big-name artist. “I’ll never be your beast of burden” was heard as “I’ll never leave your pizza burnin’…” One verse of “Brown Sugar” opens with “I bet your mama was a tent-show queen,” but others heard it as “I guess your mama was The Cheshire Queen…” And a middle line of “19th Nervous Breakdown” goes, “You were always spoiled with a thousand toys and still you cried all night,” but I always thought the words were, “You were always loitering around the toilet and still you drive all night…”
Finally, a tip of the hat to Weird Al Yankovic, for deliberately reworking the lyrics to popular songs for comic effect: “Eat It” instead of “Beat It,” “Like a Surgeon” instead of “Like a Virgin,” “I Love Rocky Road” instead of “I Love Rock and Roll” and “Another One Rides the Bus” for “Another One Bites the Dust.” Frankly, I think he missed a great opportunity when he didn’t change “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” to “Someone Shaved My Wife Tonight”…