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Lyrical Accidents: When Pop Music Vocab Goes Wrong

"In the mood for dance"? "My heart bleeded"? While creating vocabulary lists of unusual words found in pop music, writer and linguist Adam Cooper ran across some words that go beyond peculiarity and into the realm of error.

When it comes to pop music, we don't always listen to the words. Most of us are in it for the music, slaves to the rhythm, and the lyrics go by so fast it's difficult to catch them. But as I picked apart and listened carefully to a bevy of pop music to find words for "Lyrical Vocabulary List Volume 1" and "Volume II," I found myself encountering words that were not just unusual, they were downright wrong. 

A good rule for life is undoubtedly, "It is always dangerous to pretend you know what someone else is thinking."  I will break this rule repeatedly in my presentation of some of the Preposition Problems, Invented Words, and Meaning Mistakes I found in my foray into pop music.

Preposition Problems

In Tom Waits' "Jockey Full of Bourbon," he sings:

I'm in the corner / On the pouring rain

While "in the corner" is fine (of say, a boxing ring), "on the pouring rain" alerts us to the possibility that prepositions have been switched around. So many singers have been left in the pouring rain before, or they just hang out on the corner, that we are primed for these phrases. The evidence that the disruption of this normalcy may be intentional is that Waits repeats this phrase as is, and thematically, the song is about dislocation, desperation, and things not working, so the inverted prepositions may fit well in this larger picture.

A Preposition Problem that appears not be intentional as it involves a nuance of English overlooked by non-native English speakers occurs in ABBA's classic "Dancing Queen," where the quartet sings:

You're in the mood for dance

For is simply the wrong preposition here. The only time "for dance" would be acceptable as a phrase is if dance was short for a "dance class" you were looking forward to, the way you're in the mood for English or the mood for Gym. The song "Dancing Queen" is all about dancing in a club, thus I submit that the correct preposition here is to, giving us "You're in the mood to dance," which would fit the meter of the song just fine. This is a pretty obscure part of English prepositional grammar, though, so we may not want to hold it against ABBA.

Invented Words 

Justin Timberlake is guilty of using one in his song "What Goes Around…Comes Around":

When you cheated girl / My heart bleeded girl

The past tense of bleed is bled. Bleeded, although it has the regular English past tense ending -ed, is not a word. There are some cases where both an irregular past ending and the regular one co-exist, the most famous being dived and dove, but to my knowledge bleeded/bled isn't one of them. A lot of stuff rhymes with bled. Given the subject matter here, what about bed? I don't mean to tell anyone how to live their multimillion dollar lives, I'm just pointing out that he's using words that don't exist. 

On "'03 Bonnie & Clyde," Jay Z uses the word thoroughest.

But today, I got my thoroughest girl wit me / I'm mashin' the gas, she's grabbin' the wheel, it's true to the heart

The rule of thumb here, and it's more like a tendency than a rule, is that the more syllables a word has, the less likely it is to take the -er or -est suffixes. So one-syllable words like brave producing braver and bravest are fine, but three-syllable words, like sensitive, producing sensitiver and sensitivest sound awkward to the point of being ungrammatical. Thorough has two syllables, and there are plenty of two-syllable words that are acceptable (stupid, stupider, stupidest) but thoroughest sounds closer to the sensitivest side of the scale to my ears. 

Meaning Mistakes

There is a line between artistic license and total nonsense, and when it seems that an artist is less than sure what a word he's using means, that line has been crossed.

Faith Hill's "This Kiss" contains the phrase "centrifugal motion" in the line:

It's the way you love me / It's a feeling like this / It's centrifugal motion / It's perpetual bliss

Centrifugal means "away from a central point." One might assume Hill's song was looking for cetripetalor "motion towards a central point," given it's all about kissing and getting closer. There aren't a lot of happy relationship songs about getting farther away, but centrifugal motion suggests the kiss in question would do just that. It is possible that "centrifugal motion" was meant to suggest "spinning motion out of control" because "this kiss" is so amazing, but that, again, is not what centrifugal motion means. 

In R.E.M.'s "You are the Everything," the singer implores his audience to "eviscerate your memory."

Eviscerate your memory / Here's a scene / You're in the back seat laying down (say, say, the light) / The windows wrap around

Eviscerate is no doubt bold-sounding, but that doesn't mean it makes sense. The key to evisceration is the removal of the inside of the viscera, which are the blood and guts of something, and it's important to leave a hollow shell behind. While one might, metaphorically, eviscerate your diary or a photo album, ripping out the interior pages and leaving the husk of the covers, memories don't have insides. They just aren't structured that way, even metaphorically. 

And last, we come to Billy Joel. "Summer, Highland Falls" earns Joel a place on the Mount Rushmore of Ten Dollar Words in Pop, if only because of its use of euphoriaWhere he goes wrong, however, and where a skeptic might begin to doubt the whole confessional enterprise, is the phrase "respective similarities." 

And as we stand upon the ledges of our lives, / With our respective similarities... / It's either sadness or euphoria.

Respective means "to oneself, considered individually." Similarities, which are the result of comparing one thing to another, cannot be the outcome of things considered individually. The phrase contradicts itself. It would be one thing if the entire song were filled with other contradictions, then one could argue that in the grand scheme of the song, Joel was successful. The song doesn't contain other contradictions though. It's filled with choices: "reality and madness," "sadness or euphoria." In this case, then, I find an artistic license defense hard to swallow. The line simply doesn't make sense.

But this is pop music, after all, that most wonderfully senseless of art forms, an escape from the reality of a world in which what words really mean actually matters.

For help in the discussion of "'03 Bonnie & Clyde," thanks to Andrew Carstairs-McCarthy's article, "Phonological Constraints on Morphological Rules," which appeared in The Handbook of MorphologyAndrew Spencer and Arnold Zwicky, Editors (Blackwell Publishers, 1998).


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Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects. Click here to read more articles by Adam Cooper.

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Comments from our users:

Monday August 26th 2013, 6:44 AM
Comment by: Peter C. (Santa Barbara, CA)
"You're in the mood for dance"

Isn't "dance" here being treated as a noun? Thus, "for dance" -- though admittedly "for dancing" would be the more common usage. But "dance" as a noun would indicate the thing itself, as opposed to the action, as in "dancing" -- and thus, poetically-speaking, "in the mood for dance" has more impact.
Monday August 26th 2013, 9:54 AM
Comment by: Adam C.
Peter-

You're right about "dancing" being more common if a noun were intended here, and the other reason I think it's a verb is the next line: "and when you get the chance..." which is most likely followed by the "to" form of the verb, " ...chance to dance." A nominal interpretation would be pretty surprising in this immediate context.
Monday August 26th 2013, 10:37 AM
Comment by: William C. (Carbondale, IL)
I must agree with Peter. "In the mood for dance" gives the phrase, for me, more emotional resonance, in the same way that "I'm in the mood for love" did back in my day. "I'm in the mood to love" and "I'm in the mood for loving" just would not have cut it.

And, in defense of Mr. Timberlake, is it possible that this was a spelling error and that what he really meant to say was "My heart bleated, girl?" Given the rather sheepish quality of his counter-tenor voice, the line makes perfect sense.
Monday August 26th 2013, 2:51 PM
Comment by: Seth Lee Abrams (Bigfork, MT)
"....in the mood FOR love." One is usually in the mood for love. By substituting "dance" for "love" the meaning is the heightened sense (and sensation) of what "dance" can do to (or for) oneself: it can momentarily replace love.

"Bleeded" rhymes with "Cheated," so Mr. Timberlake claims "license to rhyme" and takes the decision to make his lyrics fit his meaning rather than (in a work of "art") slavishly obey the rules of grammar.

Soul mates: people who understand their own essential characteristics and believe they share those essential defining characteristics with someone else: respective similarities.

These lines come from song lyrics which the authors may very well believe could be considered as stand-alone works of poetry. The use (or seeming misuse) of words and grammar can be meaningful in themselves. Deliberately ignoring or intentionally "breaking rules" can be social/cultural criticism.

Methinks this criticism is not unlike one in which a cubist painting is criticized for lack of clear perspective and not obeying the laws of perspective. I think in most cases the artists would claim to have known exactly what they were doing.
Monday August 26th 2013, 3:37 PM
Comment by: Adam C.
Seth-

What you're describing are similarities, deep seated, important similarities. They may be meaningful, but that doesn't make the "respective" part of the phrase "respective similarities" meaningful. The similarities aren't respective, they're just similarities.

And for the record I love cubism, and people who violate grammar rules with a purpose. I just can't see a clear purpose in these examples.
Sunday September 22nd 2013, 9:29 PM
Comment by: Kimmie
Although somewhat tangential to the topic at hand, I'd like to mention a pet-peeve of mine; one which seems to plague Hip Hop and R&B lyrics more so than any other genre. A number of song writers (I won't go so far as to attribute to them the title of "lyricists"), when in need of a line's end-rhyme, choose to simply repeat the very same word! For example, in Beyonce's track titled "Irreplaceable," the lyrics read:

"I can have another 'you' in a minute / Matter fact, he'll be here in a minute"

Clumsy, at best; lazy, at worst. Or, is it just me? ;)

Cheers!

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