Way back before Facebook, Google search, Siri, and Alexa, people used to call radio stations – in droves. It was not uncommon to see multi-line phones in the air studio rhythmically flashing in-sync, all with someone on the other end, often with a question.
“Can you play some Fleetwood Mac?”
“Is there an opening act for the Romantics tonight?
“Am I the 9th caller?”
“Do you know if the Plymouth Salem schools are closed today?
“I was driving and didn’t catch it – what was that really cool song you were playing about an hour ago?”
“I am so bummed out tonight.”
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“When do Stones tickets go on sale?”
“Is it s’posed to rain later today?
“Is this the DJ?”
Some of my favorites are when the caller knows a piece of a lyric and/or a bit of the melody to a song they’re trying to identify or remember. That’s when the jock on the other end of the phone got to play Sherlock Holmes, trying to figure out the artist and title.
In the process, you hear some incredibly weird lyrical interpretations from callers that have to be translated to the actual title. And that’s where our imperfect brains kick in to try to hear precisely what a singer is actually playing.
If this seems like an absurdity in our technologically advanced time, it’s really no different than watching an 80’s movie where our hero can’t find a pay phone or the correct change to make a call. Yes, there were no iPhones when “Beverly Hills Cop” or the original “Top Gun” was made.
Some artists were helpful, providing their lyrics on the album sleeve or even the back cover. But there was no standard. And as a result, no official way to truly know
the correct lyrics to many songs. Back when an artist like Joe Cocker (pictured) – who notably slurred his words – was climbing the charts, nailing the actual lyrics was often like a linguistic challenge and a topic of debate around dinner tables.
Today, most of us reach for our phones where the answer is readily available – Shazam identifies artist and title without a problem within earshot of the song.
Wondering about the chorus on that new Inhaler song? Google the lyrics.
All within the sound of your own voice or the tapping of your digits on a keyboard.
But it wasn’t always this way. Regular folks (yes, us!) would hear a song on the radio, our brains would come up with a reasonable interpretation, and those odd, incorrect lyrics could stay with us for a lifetime.
That line in Jimi’s “Purple Haze” was often weirdly translated into “S’cuse me while I kiss this guy.” Or CCR’s theme in “Bad Moon Rising” often got botched into “There’s a bathroom on the right.” (Yes, my favorite.)
Now, a new research study by the WordFinder team attempts to sort out song lyric confusion, creating a bizarro Casey Kasem list of the most “misheard” songs in history. In a sample of more than 1,000 Americans, respondents heard a song hook and were asked to choose the correct lyrics among four different options.
By the way, I’ll have the most “mis-heard song” coming up in just a minute.
Yes, there are apparent flies in the ointment. When was the study done? How did they come up with that list of songs they tested? And having four preset choices perhaps isn’t the most conclusive or most accurate way to determine right from wrong.
But let’s not get bogged down by the gory details. This is the fun side of research (yes, there is such a thing), the stuff that triggers lame morning show bits. In fact, back in the day, morning shows ran games like “Say What?” where the jock played one of those unintelligible lines from a song with garbled lyrics, digging for the correct answer. Pre-Internet search, it was actually lots of fun.
It turns out there’s an actual name for this phenomenon: mondegreen
It’s the act of mishearing a song’s lyrics, coming up with something else that’s totally wrong, and adopting that misinterpretation as the real deal.
The WordFinder study clears the air in many areas, but unfortunately also raises some questions, too. For example, we learn the following:
- 61% of us report inaccurate lyrics on Spotify
- Young Thug and Mick Jagger are the hardest-to-understand artists
- Nearly nine in ten Gen Zs say mis-heard lyrics often alter the meaning of songs for them.
- Men are more likely to have incorrectly heard a song verse that changed a song’s meaning.
That #1 most mis-heard song. I’ve got that for you next.
Oddly enough, the kicker is that nearly seven in ten of us (69%) actually prefer our “mondegreen” to the original – and correct – lyrics.
To perhaps no one’s surprise, it is EDM fans most apt to prefer their own version of a song’s lyrics than the musician’s actual lyrics. Rockers, on the other hand, are the group most likely to be sticklers about the original.
So, that #1 “mondegreen” of all time, the song most often misheard by music listeners:
“Enter Sandman” by Metallica
Apparently, “Exit light, enter night” often got mashed up into “Eggs and light, end all nights.” The study has no footnotes or crosstabulations but I’d be willing to bet those EDM lovers are ahead of the pack here, likely filling out the survey after participating in an extended rave.
Meantime, check out the rest of the top 10 (pictured) and click here to see the entire story, complete with generational breakouts.
There are some songs that absolutely belong on the top 40 of mondegreens. It’s no surprise to see Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” (yes, that’s the correct title). On the other hand right above it, there’s Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”
If you’re getting those lyrics wrong, you’ve obviously been spending too much time sitting with that old man makin’ love to his tonic and gin. Or Davy who’s still in the Navy.
So, what’s your pleasure?
What’s your favorite mondegreen? And how long did it take you to figure out your lame interpretation was off-base?
That’s why there’s a “comments” section below, or hit my Facebook or Twitter pages. Maybe the radio version of mondegreens will prove to be more interesting that this WordFinders’ research.
And as John Fogarty famous said, “There’s a bathroom on the right.”
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