Have you ever thought about song lyrics that people mishear? Have you ever wondered about what such accidental reinterpretations might say? Have you ever had one of these occasions become an inside joke or other bonding experience?
The title of this post comes from one such bonding experience where a companion of mine misheard Lucinda Williams’ “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road” as “Gonorrhea on a Gravel Road.” This accidental reinterpretation has provided a lot of laughter over time, and sometimes some of us actually sing along this way for the fun of it when the song comes on in a car, coffee shop, or other venue. As someone who often studies and writes about both relationships and the ways people talk, I find this dynamic – one that I’ve seen play out with many different misheard lyrics over the years – rather intriguing.
This is, of course, only one of numerous ways people have misheard song lyrics and found joy in sharing these experiences. There are occasional blogs about examples of the phenomenon, and I’ve enjoyed reading more than my fair share of discussion boards where people share examples. People might talk about Jimi Hendrix saying “excuse me while I kiss the sky,” but being heard as “excuse me while I kiss this guy,” for example, or Pat Benatar’s “Hit me with your best shot” becoming “Hit me with your pet shark,” or Kiss’ “I wanna rock and roll all night, and party every day” might become “and part of every day.” There are many more, google mondegreens for some fun examples.
While these are often fun on their own, they can become even more fun when tied to specific relationship contexts. I remember a couple who spoke a set of misheard lyrics to each other at their wedding because the laughter that erupted the first time they both misheard the song was an early moment in their life together they both treasured. I remember the friends who would turn up the same song when they saw each other every few years, and laugh about the ways they re-wrote it together, intentionally later, accidentally at first, with new lyrics about their lives. I’ve often wondered what we might learn about relationships by exploring the meanings people attach to these types of moments.
I’ve also often wondered what these experiences might say about us. Considering that we tend to interpret people, places, things, and anything else based on the experiences, emotions, identities, and memories we hold dear, I wonder what parts of our selves show up in the ways we initially hear – accurately or otherwise – song lyrics. Do our interpretations, whether misheard or heard as intended, reveal parts of our stories, lives, and experiences that others might not guess, and if so, in what ways? If so, how does this process work? What does it say about us and our interpretative endeavors in more serious scenarios? What does it mean when seven people listen to the same song and hear seven different lyrics at a place in the same song where the vocal is not quite as clear as other places? I feel like exploring these questions might lead to some interesting answers about meaning, interpretation, and memory.
On the other hand, I might just enjoy driving down the road yelling gonorrhea on a gravel road and laughing so hard I might cry while doing so. So, what do you think, what do misheard lyrics mean, and what are your favorite examples?
J.E. Sumerau is an Interactionist assistant professor of sociology and director of applied sociology at the University of Tampa. They are also the author of over 50 academic works in journals and edited collections as well as the author of two forthcoming scholarly research-based books, and of the novels Cigarettes & Wine and Essence. For more information, visit their website at http://www.jsumerau.com or follow them on instagram @jesumerau; Facebook @jesumerau; or twitter @jsumerau.