Lost in translation: famous songs can be given whole new meaning

You think arguing over whether Annie Lennox was singing ”Sweet dreams are made of cheese / Who am I to disagree?” is just for purveyors of dairy products?
Shanghai night field

Or whether Rihanna “found Dove in a soapless place” makes any less sense than other lyrics the Bajan singer has uttered?

Ha! Get back in line.

For it’s a truth universally acknowledged that mondegreens – for that is now the widely accepted term for misheard lyrics – can be serious matters.

And not just because telling a particularly oafish fan of Cold Chisel that there’s a worrying hint of bestiality in one of the band’s best-known hits (”cheap wine and a three-legged goat”) could get your face rearranged.

A probably unscientific and definitely questionable poll by online streaming service Spotify claims that, in Britain at least, the Eurythmics mondegreen from Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) is the most misquoted lyric, ahead of Rihanna’s. And who are we to disagree? But there’s plenty more where that came from.

Most famous, perhaps, is the mistaken (or is it?) belief that Jimi Hendrix sang “scuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “scuse me while I kiss the sky”. And I suspect many people who saw the film clip with the vacant-eyed models playing around Robert Palmer thought it perfectly natural to hear “might as well face it, you’re a dick with a glove”.

But yea, verily it is written that wherever two or more words are put together, there’s every chance someone will mis-hear. Yes, including national anthems. Who knew there was a personal message in Advance Australia Fair that may or may not advise “Australians all let us ring Joyce”? Or with an alternative national song, wasn’t the bald-headed Peter Garrett asking a perfectly reasonable question in Blue Sky Mine when he sang “Who’s going to shave me?”

And can you be sure that James Reyne (famously parodied on The Late Show singing unintelligibly, except for the line ”and something about a beach”) is not actually saying “bew-be-bup pitbull” in the song allegedly called Beautiful People? You know it makes sense.

History will probably record this as apocryphal but there’s something right about the story that when non-French-speaking fans listened to the Beatles’ bilingual Michelle, instead of hearing ”Michelle, ma belle / Sont des mots qui vont tres bien ensemble / Tres bien ensemble”, what they were hearing was ”Michelle, ma belle / Some say monkeys play piano well / Play piano well”. Hey, it’s not as though Paul McCartney was a stranger to stupid lyrics even when he was trying to be serious.

Sometimes, though, it’s best just to go with the flow, to recognise the essential truth in the misheard lyric.

That’s why, if you think about the political implications of The Israelites by Desmond Dekker, a song about oppression of the black man, you really should feel that the chorus declares “oh, my ears are alight”.

That’s righteous, brother.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Shanghai Night Net.