On the Meaning Behind Misheard Lyrics

It’s the lyric misheard around the world. No matter which way you shake it, Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” sounds like the pop sensation has penned a song involving two “Starbucks lovers,” leading many to ask, “What in the hay-ho are Starbucks lovers?”

New York Magazine and numerous other publications have dedicated varying digital space to mulling over how the actual lyric, “I’ve got a long list of ex-lovers,” sounds nothing like what Swift sings. Some listeners hear, “All the lonely Starbucks lovers”; while for others it sounds more like “Look at all the Starbucks lovers”; and I guess I’m perpetually the cheese standing alone, because I swear it’s “We get along like Starbucks lovers.” (In fact, so much has been made from the phrase ‘Starbuck lovers’ it’s become an oft-lampooned social media bit, especially in Vine land.)

The point being that a vast majority of Swift’s listeners – fans or otherwise – all hear the same thing, but not the true lyric Swift wrote.

There’s an actual scientific term for this phenomenon called “Mondegreen,” which came about thanks to writer Sylvia Wrath’s 1954 Harper’s article, “The death of Lady Mondegreen.” In the piece, Wrath explains how she misheard a key lyric in the song, “The Bonny Earl O’Morray.” Instead of the lyric, “They have slain the Earl O’Morray/and laid him on the green,” Wrath for many years believed it was, “They have slain the Earl O’Morray/and Lady Mondegreen.” Makes sense. A murder’s location becomes double homicide all thanks to the many tricks ears play on the brain.

Within my family, perhaps the most famous Mondegreen took place one weekend when my parents came to visit me in college. While taking them to Momo’s, the local pizza place where I worked, I introduced them to my manager Justin. He was busy tossing out one of the massive pies for which the restaurant was famous, and separated from my parents and me by the bar that stood between patrons and the open kitchen. So, to be fair, between the loud classic rock bursting from the speakers, the distance between Justin and my parents, and the general restaurant din, it’s no surprise that my mom misheard his name when I introduced everybody.

As we sat down at our table, she turned to me.

“What a funny name. I wonder where he’s from.”

“Who? Justin?”

“No, Illstead.”

“Who’s Illstead?”

“Your manager.”

It was the kind of admittance that earned her ripe looks of disbelief, my father’s and my eyes growing wide with the sheer hilarity of her confession. (Ten years later she has yet to live it down.) How on earth, I asked her, did you get ‘Illstead’ from ‘Justin’? It was loud, she sheepishly explained.

Mondegreens occur for several reasons, one of which being the context in which the act of listening occurs. Besides the disjunction that may take place between the physical process of hearing and the brain’s more analytical work of interpretation, it turns out that we glean much meaning from context. As science proposes, oftentimes how we hear things depends entirely on the situation in which we hear them. Or, to put it another way, context helps guide acts of listening during moments where such acts might be more difficult due to modes of interference (other noises, loud settings, etc.). For example, if you and your friend pony up to a loud bar, and they shout, “Whaddya think?” without your hearing the question’s specificity, it’s understandable if your brain replaces ‘think’ with ‘drink’ because of the context.

When it comes to Mondegreens, the brain functions in such a marvelous way that even when it knows the truth, it may continue mishearing lyrics because of its neural plasticity and the training it received the first time (or times) you misheard a song. It’s true. To this day, no matter how much I preemptively think, “I’ve got a long list of ex-lovers” upon listening to “Blank Space,” I inevitably hear, “We get along like Starbucks lovers.” That may be because Mondegreens also arise thanks to a listener’s expectations.

“Blank Space” doesn’t provide the context that should support the misheard phrase. Nothing else in the song leads listeners to believe that Swift is singing about the global coffee chain, let alone any lovers who happen to meet at one of its many locations, but still the misheard lyric makes complete sense to me. In this instance, my expectations are fully satisfied with my brain’s interpretation of the music. “We get along like Starbucks lovers” seems plausible, because – join me on this rabbit trail into my brain – Starbucks is a company well known for Mondegreens. Those poor baristas just can’t seem to get people’s names right. John becomes Jane; Melissa becomes Maurice; Susan becomes Swifty. We’ve all been there.

So if two people get along like “Starbucks lovers,” their love is forever at odds with modern-day problems plaguing communication. If what one says is forever (or usually) misheard by the other then how can a relationship function let alone succeed? (I told you it was a rabbit trail.) The lyric embodies the problem of communication in today’s day and age by way of the Starbucks phenomenon of forever mishearing customers’ names. The lyric’s Mondegreen is about Mondegreens!

Swift’s song aside, it nonetheless prompted me to think about the many other times I’ve misheard lyrics. Despite my fervent passion for music, I’m more of a melody and rhythm gal. I dearly love lyrics that speak to my experience and the greater experience of being human, but I usually come to them when I’m reading liner notes, or when the singer is a clear-voiced songwriter partnered only with her guitar. If there’s a lot taking place onstage instrument-wise, it’s hard to decipher what exactly is being sung, especially if I’ve never heard the band before. One of the few exceptions to this rule took place when Field Report recently opened for Phox at prominent Champaign venue The Highdive. Having never heard the band before, I was taken aback when they performed “Michelle” off their sophomore album Marigolden. Second verse in, songwriter Chris Porterfield sings, “Oh Michelle, I went looking for the river/ But I only made it to the railroad bend.” It came across so clearly – and so struck me – that I remembered it for days thereafter. But generally lyrics are mumbly at best live. So there you have it. My great music journalist shame.

Still, I wondered, what can Mondegreens teach us about ourselves, especially if we have a penchant for mishearing lyrics?

Famed neuroscientist Oliver Sacks observed in his book Musicophilia that brain worms, those pesky bits of music that get stuck in your head for hours or days on end, might actually provide greater psychological insight. If we stop to consider why a certain strand of music pops into our head at a particular moment, perhaps we would learn something more. Would it be some unknown desire? Some unmet need? Some long forgotten memory resurfacing thanks to a combination of melody and lyrics? Who’s to say. But the possibility exists that our brain uses music to get our attention, to teach us about our inner goings-on.

In that same vein of thinking, could not Mondegreens perform a similar function? This is not to suggest that by mishearing lyrics we’re always in tune to some untapped psychological insight, but perhaps we are hearing something meaningful for a reason. When we mishear things, could we not actually gain greater insight into how our brain formulates meaning, and why that meaning means something to us?

There are two prominent Mondegreens in my life, misheard lyrics that continually turn over in my mind for their particular depth.

The first Mondegreen occurred in 2008, when a group of grad school friends and I gathered to make the 90-minute trek to St. George Island, a lovely beach on the Gulf famous for its mango daiquiris and fresh oysters. On the way there, piled five-deep into my friend Scott’s SUV, Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” came on. In it Marley sings, “My feet are my only carriage,” but in that moment I heard, “My fear is my only courage.” I wasn’t the only one. Scott asked his passengers if that’s what Marley sang. This was before the time when smartphones sat ready and waiting with the answer in everyone’s pockets, so we tabled the inquiry until we got back to our computers. Both Scott and I had misheard Marley, but we weren’t alone. A quick internet search quickly revealed just how many people thought the line to be, “My fear is my only courage.” For me, it’s a stunning thought. In the moments when I am fearful, I am most courageous. I depend upon that fear to keep me moving forward. It’s one of those moments where you wish (and this is simultaneously blasphemous given Marley’s lyrical prowess and utterly egotistical on my part) it was the actual lyric. It was a poetic moment on the part of my brain, who wanted it – given the song, Marley’s history, and my own notions of courage – to be the case.

The second Mondegreen transpires on Ryan Adams’ “I Love You but I Don’t Know What to Say.” Despite the song title’s almost double-duty as chorus, Adams sings, “I love you and I don’t know what to say.” Without first reading the lyrics, Adams’ ‘and’ easily sounds like ‘when,’ thus functioning as an oronym, a kind of Mondegreen where a sentence could go one of two (or three) ways depending on a word’s sound similarity to another word. “I love you when I don’t know what to say” turns the chorus into an altogether different meaning. It’s a heart-melting, gut-punching, this-is-what-it-means-to-love moment that gets me every time. Every. Time. I love its potency. It takes Adams’ confession and flips it on its head. “I love you when I don’t know what to say” embodies those moments when all verbiage fails, when meaning simply cannot be expressed through words because there are no appropriate words to describe the meaning. It sublimely references those well-worn silences couples share, which carry a greater weight and meaning than those moments when each exhausts their breath expounding upon their feelings.

I can’t help but sometimes feel such Mondegreens express a superiority on my part, i.e. “This is better than the original!” But I don’t mean them in that way. Why can’t there be meaning through lyrical interpretation? Yes, lyrics exist in the world, written down as proof positive to clarify a singer’s meaning, so you can’t rightly assume they’re singing something else. Still. Much in the way that an author must let go of her writing and allow a reader to interpret it accordingly, I love thinking that we can approach songs similarly. Which isn’t to say we can rewrite them, but we can mull over our misunderstandings, and sit for a moment in their errors, learning something new all the same.

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