• September 2, 2015

There Must Be Some Misunderstanding

Unintelligible rock lyrics can teach us what we think


Harry Campbell for The Chronicle Review

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Harry Campbell for The Chronicle Review

It’s noise. A racket. Screaming (or howling). Mumbling. Gibberish.

That’s what detractors have been calling it for at least 60 years now. Me: I call it rock and roll. My parents and I didn’t actually disagree—I just wanted to add a few adjectives. At its best, it’s glorious noise, a defiant racket, impassioned screaming, sublime mumbling. My parents’ descriptions were right; it’s their valuations that were wrong.

My title phrase was sung by Phil Collins, a man who has never mumbled a word in his singing career. (Sure, you might think you’d misunderstood "Sussudio," but you didn’t.) In the song, Collins plays the part of a jilted lover ("I waited in the rain for hours / You were late"), but with the wisdom of the divine fool, Collins is on to something much bigger than he perhaps realizes. He’s also articulating a theory of rock lyrics and rock singing—that there must be (and often is) some misunderstanding, some kind of mistake.

There are many levels on which a song lyric can be misconstrued. A song’s ironic strategies can misfire, sometimes spectacularly. Or a song may play more subtly with a listener’s expectations. Employing flirtatious calypso rhythms and tapping into romantic pop conventions, the Kinks’ "Lola" pulls The Crying Game trick, rendering the sex and gender of the love object impossibly ambiguous: "Well I’m not the world’s most masculine man / But I know what I am and I’m glad I’m a man / And so is Lola." (Lola’s glad? Or Lola’s a man?)

But also, and much more commonly, rock lyrics are misunderstood on the purely psychoacoustic level—not for what they mean, but for what they literally say. Creedence Clearwater Revival never advised, "There’s a bathroom on the right" (though, arguably, "There’s a bad moon on the rise" makes little more sense), and in "Bullet the Blue Sky," Bono sang "I can see those fighter planes," not "spider veins." And let’s pause to read into the record here pretty much the entire first decade of the Stones and R.E.M. catalogs.

I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the important role that misunderstood lyrics play in the way rock music works. The problem is especially pointed in the case of the post-punk Gang of Four because they saw much of their music as a political intervention in the events of their day (the late 70s through the early 80s). But how can rock really "rage against the machine" if no one’s quite sure what it’s saying? What can it mean that a band that put a great deal of emphasis on its songwriting—pop songs as political theory—actively resisted making that theory more intelligible? Resisted to the degree that even smart and sympathetic critics have sometimes badly misread the work?

One answer involves taking the "mondegreen" seriously.

For better or worse, we seem to be stuck with the term that was coined in 1954 by the writer Sylvia Wright, in a piece in Harper’s Magazine. That the word is about the same age as rock and roll itself is a fitting coincidence. In her mother’s recitation of the ballad "The Bonnie Earl of Murray," Wright as a child misheard the phrase "laid him on the green" as "Lady Mondegreen" and wove a coherent narrative around the mistake, or "mondegreen."

The phenomenon is familiar, even if the (somewhat awkward) name is not. Another more helpful description might be "’Scuse me while I kiss this guy," the legendary misunderstanding of the chorus of Jimi Hendrix’s "Purple Haze."

This is one of the signature malaises of music in the age of mechanical reproduction: Words that are unintelligible in a recording often remain unintelligible, or indeed harden in our memories into the misconstrued forms in which we’ve stored them away, through multiple listenings. If a line or a word is difficult to decipher, it remains so through multiple "performances" of the recording; for when listening to a song, we hear what we think it says.

William S. Burroughs and Laurie Anderson (echoing Burroughs) have warned us that language is a virus; but utterance that hovers at the margins of intelligibility is perhaps even more seductively virulent. In his short book Louie Louie, Dave Marsh tells the secret history of the Kingsmen’s only hit, a story concerned entirely with that song’s unintelligibility. When it was written in 1956, it was intended as a kind of sea shanty, but the Kingsmen’s slurred 1963 version—the singer was wearing braces at the time—was interpreted as an X-rated ballad and eventually became the subject of an FBI obscenity investigation.

Marsh closes his story with a conversation with John Lydon (the erstwhile Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, and leader of Public Image Ltd) about the incomprehensibility of Nirvana’s massive 1991 hit "Smells Like Teen Spirit." Having studied the song carefully, Marsh is sure that the chorus opens with the line "Well the lifestyle it was dangerous" (rather than "With the lights out it’s less dangerous"), and that it concludes "with two thoroughly incomprehensible lines in which he [Kurt Cobain] could be hollering anything: ‘It’s an idol,’ ‘I’m in denial,’ or ‘revival,’ or ‘I’m on vinyl,’ followed by ‘I’m a Beatle.’ … " Whereas any semi-obsessed fan knows that the words are "a mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido: yeah."

The old joke has it that the title of R.E.M.’s debut album should have been not Murmur but Mumble. Mumble would also be a fitting title for rock and roll’s Greatest Hits compilation. When Marsh learns the "true" lyrics of "Teen Spirit," he insists that "what I imagined was quite a bit better (at least, more gratifying) than what Nirvana actually sang. The story I constructed made sense out of both the restless noise the group created and their own rebellious, self-immolating posture in the face of fame."

The real and ever-present danger with Gang of Four, as with any group with political goals, was always their propensity to preach: Rock audiences for the most part don’t appreciate being lectured to. Could the mondegreen, then, represent listeners’ unconscious resistance to dogma—the way our minds turn something rigid into something malleable, something a fan can work with rather than simply obey? A way to make the experience of listening to rock truly interactive, rather than simply assimilative?

Perhaps the synergy between my Anglophilia and lead singer Jon King’s (and especially guitarist Andy Gill’s) educated British mumbling created, in my mind at least, productive ambiguities, the perfect conditions by which to tease out my own unarticulated (and largely inchoate) political and cultural agenda. Maybe the mondegreen itself is a kind of Rorschach’s inkblot of ideological critique.

I misheard a good deal of Entertainment! (1979), it turns out, and those misunderstandings hardened into dogma as I rehearsed the errors in my head. What’s surprising to me, though, is how often, even though I had the letter of the song wrong, I got its spirit just right.

A great example is the closing lines of Entertainment!’s opening track, "Ether," as chanted by Gill: "There may be oil / Under Rockall." What’s Rockall? I’d never heard of it; and never having heard of it, I couldn’t hear it in Gill’s singing either. "Rockall" simply didn’t exist for me as a lexical possibility. For those of you as ignorant as I was, Rockall is a barren chunk of granite less than two-tenths of an acre in size, doused continuously by waves, in the middle of the North Atlantic. It was claimed by Great Britain in September 1955, the last expansion, to date, of the British Empire.

For the first 25 years of my life with Entertainment!, however, that’s not how the song went—and to tell you the truth, I’m still not entirely convinced. To me, it was clear that Gill was suggesting the possibility of rich undiscovered oil reserves under the British coalfields: "There may be oil / Under our coal." Given all those pesky British miners’ strikes down through the years (the one in 1974 essentially brought down the Tory government)—well, maybe that was a good thing, right?

Oil under coal: it all made perfect sense to me. Or at least I made it make sense. The lines as I heard them were a vaguely ironic kiss-off to the working classes, delivered in Gill’s Humorless Voice of British Authority: "Screw you, you irksome coal miners, with your demands and your needs. We’re going deep!"

However, in my darker moods, I’ll admit, I heard still other words: "There may be oil / Under f*** all." My mistake, trivial in itself, does suggest something important about the capacity of rock music (in which marginal intelligibility is not just an accident but rather a constitutive element) to do significant political work. For my misreading, I’d suggest, wasn’t random free association. In important, if largely subconscious and unconscious ways, what I understood of the lyrics, and the politics of the sound of the song itself, conditioned me to fill in the blanks in my understanding from among a fairly limited range of possibilities.

The mumbly bits actually provide moments where I can become co-creator of this aggressive, political music.

In music as powerful as this—and for a listener as powerfully in its thrall as I was, as I am—the mumbly bits actually provide moments where I can become co-creator of this aggressive, political music along with the band. And that, I would submit, is powerful political pedagogy. The songs on Entertainment! don’t teach me what to think: They teach me how to think. The proof is in my mondegreens.

My mishearing the line wasn’t simply an error, then—or if an error, it was a productive one. Sylvia Wright insisted that "the point about what I shall hereafter call mondegreens … is that they are better than the original." Dave Marsh maintains that his lyrics to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" are better than Cobain’s. What I heard at the end of "Ether" may not have been what King and Gill meant; but having my interpretation revealed through my misreadings tells me something about where my mind prefers to go. And that is precisely the work of ideological critique. "Ether" taught me not, or not only, about Gang of Four’s politics: More powerfully, it also taught me about my own.

Mondegreens force us to confront ourselves, to come clean with regard to our own hidden agendas. Brian Eno hits the nail on the head: "The important thing about lyrics is not exactly what they say, but that they lead you to believe they are saying something. All the best lyrics I can think of, if you question me about them, I don’t know what they’re saying, but somehow they’re very evocative. It leaves a space in which the listener can project his or her own meaning into."

So if a rock or pop song is going to succeed in a political aim, it’s best served by performing, rather than preaching, its politics. It must dramatize the process of political analysis—force its listeners into making choices wherein our most deeply held political beliefs are revealed in the cold light of day.

Kevin J.H. Dettmar is chair of the English department at Pomona College. This essay is adapted from his new book, Gang of Four’s "Entertainment!" (33 1/3 series, Bloomsbury).

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