The Funny Things that Songs do to Words

“Funny things happen to words when they’re in songs. They become more profound, or funnier…” said Simon Frith, Mercury Prize Chair of Judges, at the launch of Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature Trust’s latest campaign, Let’s Get Lyrical.

I’ve been volunteering at the City of Lit these last few weeks, mailing out bundles of promotional materials and proofing some of the website content. But even if I weren’t working there, I would still tell you to check out the Let’s Get Lyrical website and to think about writing your own story about the song lyrics that mean the most to you. Lyrics are such a huge part of our lives, whether they’re in songs by our favourite bands that we play on repeat, in catchy tunes overheard on the radio or in music added to films for dramatic effect.

The opening event for Let’s Get Lyrical was an evening of music and words entitled Why Do Songs Have Lyrics? Sandwiched between performances by King Creosote and Ziggy Campbell, the audience heard from a panel of musicians, writers and academics about the lyrics that have inspired them and about some of those funny things that songs do to words:

On the lyrics that have inspired them

Kenny Anderson a.k.a. King Creosote: Morrissey is a song writing genius. He tackles subjects head on and his lyrics make sense. Morrissey lyrics on the page look like prose.

Ziggy Campbell: Until I heard Arab Strap, I just listened to music. Arab Strap lyrics were the first lyrics that grabbed me. I think Aidan [Moffat] is an absolute genius. The lyrics to The Shy Retirer in particular are funny and visceral. He nails it at the end.

Ian Rankin told the audience how he was inspired by The Mutton Birds’ The Falls. Read the full story here.

On mishearing lyrics

Kenny Anderson : I put lyrics in album covers so that people know they’re not as bad as they think. Sometimes I am aghast by the way lyrics are misheard.  I have a song called Spystick and you can imagine how that sounds in my accent.

Ian Rankin: “I love to see song lyrics written down because if there’s any way they can be misconstrued, I will misconstrue them.” He misheard the Sex Pistols lyric They made you a moron/a potential H-bomb as They made you a moron/ touching your wife’s bum.

Simon Frith: “Mishearing lyrics can be a big problem if you’re a critic. I once wrote a review of Stop the Task Force by the Clash and that got into print.”

Which lyrics most inspire you? Which lyrics have you misheard?



9 thoughts on “The Funny Things that Songs do to Words

  1. Hey Helen,

    This is a really great idea, and it’s right that words change somehow once set to music. Not that they don’t have a music of their own, of course 🙂 I may submit something to the site, but I’d say off the top of my head, the lyrics that inspire me most are probably Regina Spektor’s, especially the first few lines of ‘Eet’, just because they’re so spot-on and beautiful.

    Also, by the by, I have just done a re-jig of my blog and you are sat v happily on my blogroll; any chance, if you like mine, you could add me to yours? Don’t worry if not.


    Lyndsay Wheble

    • Hi Lyndsay, Thanks for stopping by. Of course I will add you to my blogroll! It would be great if you would submit your lyrical story to the site. It’s been so interesting to read the stories that are up there so far and I’ve already added new music to my Spotify after hearing the songs that people have chosen.

  2. I love song lyrics. This post reminded me of a scene in the film Jumping Jack Flash where Whoopie Goldberg’s trying to write down the lyrics to the Rolling Stone’s song of the same name. I misheard most of the lyrics from the Kings of Leon’s second album, Aha Shake Heartbreak – even though the actual lyrics are quite hilarious in places!
    I love Imogen Heap’s lyrics – she often takes a stock phrase or saying – even a cliche, dare I say, but does something totally original with it in her lyrics.

    I love making up my own words to favourite songs, too! It’s a tribute of sorts. Have you seen the literal music videos on youtube? Eg:

    This is a fab post – thanks!

    • Hi Rachel, Thanks for the enthusiastic response and the link to the literal music video. I’ve seen the Total Eclipse of the Heart one before and I was laughing so hard I had tears streaming down my face. That’s a nice idea to make up your own words to your favourite songs.

    • Hi William, I’m not very familiar with Sarah McLachlan but I can see why U2 lyrics resonate strongly. I’m surprised there haven’t been that many stories on the Let’s Get Lyrical website about U2 lyrics, but it’s still early days yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s