What do songs mean? It’s not always obvious. Some songs are deliberately cryptic or ambiguous, perhaps because the writer wishes to tease or perplex, or encourage differing interpretations. And some songs have simply been misunderstood, for a variety of reasons.

Lack of background knowledge. An American review of Thom Yorke’s album The Eraser expressed some puzzlement over the meaning of the song Harrowdown Hill.

In this case it is entirely forgiveable that a foreigner, who possibly doesn’t follow British current affairs in detail, is not aware of the case of Dr. David Kelly, and therefore doesn’t grasp the significance of lines like “Did I fall or was I pushed, and where’s the blood? Don’t ask me, ask the Ministry”.

Selective listening. U2’s One is consistently misinterpreted, people simply singling out the lines they feel are inspiring, like “One love, one blood, one life, you’ve got to do what you should”, conveniently ignoring the fact that, as Bono himself has explained, this is a song about a gay man dying of AIDS, trying to make his peace with his homophobic father (see lines like “you act like you never had love, now you want me to go without”, or “did you come here to play Jesus to the lepers in your head?”). And apparently this song is one of the most requested at weddings

Simply not listening. This is something of which I myself am particularly guilty. The words are not usually the first thing that attract my attention in a piece of music, and it can often take a while and repeated listens before I pay attention. Imagine my shock when, some months into listening to Bjork’s sublime Vespertine album, I finally realised what Cocoon is all about. It’s filthy!

Maybe I was better off not knowing.


3 thoughts on “Lyrical

  1. jagosaurus December 20, 2007 / 2:24 pm

    Bjork sneaks up on you sometimes with her lyrics.

    And then of course there is the persistent belief that the Police’s Every Breath You Take is a sweet love song. Um, not so much.

    Somehow I knew about Dr. Kelly but hadn’t tied it directly to Harrowdown Hill. I might never have were it not for you.

    Oh! They talk about Every Breath You Take in that article regarding One. Good. The more opportunity people have to find out what the song is actually about the better. Also, the fourth comment on that page is hilarious.


  2. tinafrench December 20, 2007 / 6:43 pm

    Jag, you beat me to mentioning Every Breath You Take. Apparently Michael Jackson’s Dirty Diana should be on the list too.


  3. V-Grrrl December 22, 2007 / 11:07 pm

    I enjoy songs with a story line, (think Bruce Springsteen or the Dixie Chicks), but many of my favorite songs “don’t make sense” in a conventional way. The richness of the imagery and the language helps me find different meanings in them at different times in my life. They resonate over the long term because they speak to the feelings I can’t verbalize. Many U2 songs are like that for me, Counting Crows, Neil Young, Lyle Lovett, Sheryl Crow.


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