Dec 072015
 

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.

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  12 Responses to “Every Word You Say: Matching Words and Music”

  1. I’ve always thought that Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love” did a good job combining lyrics and music. The lyrics imply something sort of perverse and forbidden while the music manages to combine sleaze and electro-cold. Think of it as a porn soundtrack for illicit robot sex.

  2. BigSteve

    Prosody is really more about the rhythmic pattern of the words. For example, saying that Hamlet is written primarily in iambic pentameter would be concerning yourself with prosody. It seems like you’re really more interested here in the meaning of the words and whether they fit the emotions implied by the music.

  3. cherguevarra

    And that’s a cover! Then we get into the realm of covers where a change in musical approach, feel and arrangement, implies a different lyrical meaning. Words, melody, chords, all the same. Make me think of Robert Palmer’s “I didn’t mean to turn you on,” which was originally sung by a woman.

  4. cherguevarra

    Right. My understanding that there were several elements to prosody, and that rhythm as well as accommodating proper pronunciation are part of that. But even if my use of the term prosody is incorrect, you are right in that I am interested in the relationship between the meaning of the words and the nature of the music.

  5. XTC’s “Train Running Low on Soul Coal” is a good (in my opinion), obvious example of what I think cher is getting at. Even better is John Cale’s “Fear Is a Man’s Best Friend,” especially the way the guitar puts a weird slide/vibrato on that one hanging note in the verses.

  6. ladymisskirroyale

    I might be throwing myself at the RTH wolves out there, but I was (embarrassingly recently) shocked to realize that Elvis Costello’s “Alison” could have multiple interpretations, one being very sinister.

  7. cherguevarra

    After your post, I went looking around and found some posts about Allison. I have to admit, I never really thought about that lyric too deeply, especially about the idea that perhaps she is pregnant.

    Regarding songs with deeper meanings that you might realize, Dan Wilson says that the Semisonic song, “Closing Time” is actually about being born. (Also, he knows that it is a dumb song!)

    Another song where the lyrics don’t match is “Pumped Up Kicks.” What a nice, snappy pop song. Except the lyric is, “all the other kids with the pumped up kicks better run, better run, outrun my gun… …better outrun my bullet.” Should this song have a lighter lyric – or more menacing music?

    Not getting much traction on this subject. Oh well!

  8. This discussion got off to a funny start and now seems tempted to head into a backstory-related direction. I started thinking about the time I heard Bono interviewed, for instance, and explain that “Mysterious Ways” was about our inability to figure out the Middle East. You would have thought the vaguely “Eastern” music and belly dancer in the video would have tipped me off, but it didn’t, so perhaps the music did not do all that it could have done for dense me. However, once the connection was made, I began to really like that song.

  9. BabaOLewie

    The disconnect in “Pumped Up Kicks” is 100% intentional and what, in my opinion, makes the song pretty great.

    “Mysterious Ways” I think is different — the sound is a rock band’s techno dance song, which makes it seem like it should not have much meaning at all. But I think the lyrics have surprising depth and are subject to multiple interpretations, and whatever Bono says he meant is only part of the story. Until I heard other explanations, I always thought the song was intended to be about God as a woman and/or the spirituality of women (“she moves in mysterious ways”, “come and take a walk with your sister the moon,” “if you want to reach the sky, better learn how to kneel — on your knees boy,” repeat of “she moves me” at the end). Often great lyrics have multiple meanings to different people, of course. Personally, although it is not that close to the classic U2 sound, I think it’s a really great U2 song — but I’m a big U2 fan.

    “Born the U.S.A.” is a backfire of intentional disjoint between lyric and music. It’s typical Springsteen anthemic, but then famously misappropriated by Reagan and middlebrow America to be a patriotic song, when the lyric is obviously as much of a protest song as anything Springsteen ever wrote. Thinking about it now — the conventional wisdom is that he was screwed by the Republicans who stole it — to some extent it’s Springsteen’s own fault for making the song sound like something you should sing loudly in a bar in Munich with 25 other idiot Americans to proclaim your patriotism (which I witnessed embarassingly in 1986). That same backpacking trip I heard Stanley Clarke and his funk trio play his version of the song to a room of about 300 in a tiny town called Imst, in Austria, alongside some Tyrolean friends I made that day who seig heiled throughout the concert. Yes, it was as weird as it sounds. I have no idea what the funk-rock version was supposed to convey, but I did meet Stanley that evening at the only bar in town and got his autograph and told him we share a hometown. And School Days was awesome. So that was nice.

    The upbeat rocking of the Springsteen song “Cadillac Ranch,” however, does an awesome job of disguising with the music the fact that it’s really about death (the cadillacs are hearses). That song in concert during the River tour (one of cdm’s favorites) was as upbeat and as much of a party song as anything else he played during those monster concerts, with coreographed guitar moves and Bruce jumping all around and people rocking out and doing their Bruce fist pumps. Took me 10 years to figure out it’s about death; I think I just thought the cars were a metaphor for fun. But actually it mocks death, sort of, which is what makes the song fun and great.

    Got the River tour — old and new — on my mind, could not pony up the money this time (tix here went on sale today). Hoping to run into the man at the Marah show tonight at the Stone Pony. Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuce!

  10. cherguevarra

    Born in the USA is a great example! Talk about a song that gets misinterpreted.

    I didn’t know the John Cale song Mr. Mod mentioned, but I checked out that album today and it’s really really good. Thanks for that!

  11. I LOVE that Cale album (and he doesn’t have too many albums that I wholeheartedly love, in fact, only a couple that like and find interesting/great at points). Glad I could help.

    The militaristic vibe of “Born in the USA” is a bit like Edwin Starr’s “War,” which Springsteen was covering around that same time. What I misinterpreted was the steroid-fueled production of that record. Eventually, however, I came to like that song and, especially, “Dancing in the Dark,” another song whose production, at first, really turned me off.

    The Kinks do a lot of songs in which the music clearly props up the lyrics, especially on the Arthur album. I guess the military songs like “Yes Sir, No Sir” came to mind as I thought about “Born in the USA.”

  12. ladymisskirroyale

    Speaking of The Kinks, I just heard (for the first time!), their song, “People Take Pictures of Each Other” which fits in that “Pumped Up Kicks” vein: cheery music, not so cheery music. PTPoEO also made me realize how much Blur owes to the Kinks.

 
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