For some time, I’ve been thinking about starting a thread about prosody and the relationship of words to music. Ironically, I’ve never been sure I had a substantial premise to spur a conversation and I’m not sure what I want to say.
Recently I was in a conversation about the Police song, “Every Breath You Take,” about how the song was misinterpreted as being romantic, when really the lyric is basically about stalking. I can see how giving the lyrics less than half of your attention might lead to misinterpretation—but this is heavily aided by the lyrical nature of the music itself. Perhaps Sting abetted misinterpretation by mismatching the sentiment of the lyric to the lilting music he wrote. As little credence I give to Puff Daddy’s rap appropriation of the song, perhaps his changing of the lyric to “I’ll be missing you” is actually a better match.
Contrast this against another misunderstood song, REM’s “The One I Love,” where the music really matches the anger of the lyric and the misinterpretation come from a narrow view of noting that the singer loves someone (and the listener’s projection of this onto themselves) and disregarding everything else. Here, I pin the guilt upon those listeners.
But for my favorite example of a prosody mismatch, here’s a special nugget, which I heard on a CD handed out at the Philly Music Conference, circa 1994. This song sounded dated to me back then, the product of some suburban local band still into Scandal and Pat Benatar. To me, the combination of this (trying-to-be) strident and tense music and the serious subject matter of the lyric, leads to a tragicomedy of a chorus, where the feeling of the music undermines the lyric. Bear with this song by Keiran Kacy for 1 minute:
Oops! So painful, on several fronts.
Then there are songs where the feel of the music leads to an obvious musical direction (or v/v). XTC’s “Here Comes President Kill Again” seems to fit this model. Here, I think the songwriter walks a high-wire of having to match the music to the lyric, otherwise, they run the risk of the type of comical mismatch in Keiran Kacy’s song.