Mar 09

The Mood is Wrong, the Song is Right

FT27 comments • 699 views

I find it interesting when a song has an “actual” meaning completely other than that which it has for a particular person. The most obvious examples of this are all the songs like ‘Angels’ or ‘Perfect Day,’ ‘Nothing Compares 2 U,’ ‘Eternal Flame’ etc. which get played at weddings despite they’re about drugs and/or one night stands and/orSinead O’Connor’s dead mum but radio segments where listeners can call in with a story and get “their song” played demonstrate that this isn’t isolated to soppy balladry and indeed, for every song there is someone, somewhere, misinterpreting it, probably to the chagrin of others.

I don’t get particularly annoyed by people “misinterpreting” songs (instead, I get annoyed at them using rubbish and generic songs at their weddings) since surely they mean whatever you think they mean, etc. but I do, as I said, find it interesting. Partly, probably, in a completely vain way because I’ve realised as I’ve got older there are a hell of a lot of songs I heard as a child and completely misunderstood. For instance: ‘Rock The Casbah’ is not quite the same as ‘Kajagoogoo’ in the ‘senseless party songs’ stakes and ‘Eye Of The Tiger’ is not actually about an actual tiger, not to mention all the countless song’s I’ve had the “hang on a minute, this is about shagging!” shock moment about. 

There are, though, the songs you attribute meaning to that probably (or in fact definitely) isn’t anything to do with the intent of the original songwriter but which has nothing to do with a basic misunderstanding. I was thinking about this last night, whilst listening to ‘Flamboyant’ by the Pet Shop Boys on repeat because somehow, it felt like it was dealing with the sadness/frustration I was feeling regarding an elderly relative’s decline.

Clearly, this is absolutely not what a song about a flamboyant young person is about but somehow the meter and key of the synths serves to represent frustrated sadness to me, with the lyrics blurring into insignificance (indeed, the entire vocal line essentially being mentally lifted and removed from the song) in comparison to the beat, which it occurred to me actually sounds like a chorus of life support units in places, although I’m not sure that was any conscious or unconscious factor in my feelings about it.

This wouldn’t really differ from the first, mistaken, sort of interpretation of a song except that I know perfectly well what ‘Flamboyant’ is about and that it has no connection to my current situation. I suppose this is a question article, because I don’t actually understand this myself at all; whilst I know it’s to do with the synaesthetic appreciation of the song, which is to say the way the particular notes and tones associate for a particular person but it’s odd that it’s possible to override known associations for a song (“dance pop extravagaza re: showing off”) with completely different ones (“3am no sleep distressed anthem”) without feeling any particular jarring in the juxtaposition.

Possibly it’s just that ‘Flamboyant’ caught me at the right minute and any song could have fitted at the time but I’m sure I’ve done this with other things, too and that other people have done it far more. The thing I find odd is the conscious replacement of one attribute of the song with a tertiary one, which by some thought shouldn’t really be particularly possible or at least is psychologically dubious.

I don’t particularly have a conclusion here, I’ve realised (yes, it took me that many paragraphs) but rather more an open invitation for yr thoughts on the matter. Am I a raving mentalist or does everyone do this? Is it a purer (ugh word alert) form of music appreciation than when we try to ‘understand’ the song or is it just emotionally impulsive bollocks? Does anyone other than me find it even remotely interesting? etc.


  1. 1
    Kat but logged out innit on 23 Mar 2009 #

    When I was a teenage indie snob I remember trying to find deep & meaningful stuff in Elastica songs where there clearly was none (other than ‘sex woo’ or ‘drunk argh’, neither of which I had experienced at the time) with the sole aim of impressing my mates who were into SRS METAL. I definitely made up a significant amount of bollocks about Elastica’s complicated songwriting techniques.

    But yeah, my whole ignoring-lyrics thing leaves me wide open to the sort of misinterpretation you describe – too many examples to mention here!

    (Good first article btw!)

  2. 2
    koganbot on 23 Mar 2009 #

    As for your first category, people who get the song wrong because they don’t know, e.g., let’s say because they are Republican wingnuts and fundamentally obtuse, we were just talking about this in regard to Martina McBride’s great, searing, ambivalent “Independence Day” (if you haven’t listened to it, you must), which incredibly was used by the Republican National Committee in introducing Sarah Palin and has been used by right-wing Fox news commentator Sean Hannity on his show (presumably in each case only snippets from the chorus) and which (in case a Republican wingnut happens to come across this post someday and doesn’t know) is a song about a MURDER-SUICIDE, a woman’s only way out of an impossible situation – the irony of the song being the parallel drawn between this self-immolation and the United States’ celebration of its actual independence on Independence Day.

  3. 3
    The Intl on 24 Mar 2009 #

    I hate it when artists say “the song means whatever you want it to mean.” Bullshit. Of COURSE there’s a certain meaning, they’re probably just ashamed of its utter lameness.

  4. 4
    piratemoggy on 24 Mar 2009 #

    The Intl- I think it’s generally a bit rich for people who aren’t the artist, ie: me to go ‘ooh but you’re interpreting it ALL WRONG here’s my interpretation, which is totally right’ though.

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    Mark M on 24 Mar 2009 #

    Re 4: In very loose terms, that’s the difference between what I was taught in the sixth form (some bloke – using closel textual analysis or a bit of crude biography or psychoanalysis or Marxism – tells you that the indisputable meaning of a Shakespeare play is x) and what I was taught at university (while the person who wrote this thing had some meaning in mind – which may have been shaped by external forces rather than their inner artistic processes – but how you use the song/book/film is rather up to you). God knows what they’re teaching these days. I lean towards the latter with the caveat that writers still have the right not to have their work plain appropriated by a political or other cause they don’t agree with.

    Also, this open-interpretation approach hasn’t stopped me from being occasionally mortified when I realise after twenty years that what I thought was a really sweet song is obviously meant to be about S&M, or whatever.

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    wichita lineman on 24 Mar 2009 #

    From the writer’s perspective, getting remixes back is an intriguing insight into how people interprete your work. Though, of course, if you choose the remixer you’ll have your own preconceptions of what they might do with it. Nought to do with the lyrics, but it can certainly end up with the writer cooing “ooh, you understand the song better than we do” and meaning it.

    I haven’t read This Is Your Brain On Music but I’m guessing it might explain that we all hear things slightly differently, even Ebony And Ivory.

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    Alan on 24 Mar 2009 #

    This is Your Brain on Music is very bitty and has no big messages as such.

    “but how you use the song/book/film is rather up to you” is normally not left so wide open – there are usually ’empiricist’ caveats about over-interpretation and paying attention to all the words.

    the above is about filtering out everything but the words written in 72pt chorus lettering, or to that effect.

    which is fine by me. most songs have too many words for my liking.

  8. 8
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 24 Mar 2009 #

    meaning is determined socially whether artists (and indeed critics) WANT it to be or not: i just finished subbing a piece where the writer completely misused a word — ie she thought it meant [x] when it means [y]; it’s not up to her to say “i meant it to mean [x] and you’re just misinterpreting!” bcz we bring the meaning of the words with us…

    since even indie rockbands are not hiveminds, the contributions of the [however any people involved] will all bring different strands,as often as not pulling or seeming to pll in difft directions; this is partly the point, and the compactness of a song (as opposed to a novel or a film) allows for meaning to arise out of quite crunhcy juxtaposition (viz sad words with pretty happy tune; gloomy tune with sparkly beat; etc etc)

    when i’m writing there occasionally passages — or more likely sequences of passages — where i want some strong sympathetic reader to “tell me what i’m talking about”; what this generally means is “seeing the wood for the trees” — i have a strong sense that “all this stuff” somehow goes together, but not yet very clearly why…

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    vinylscot on 24 Mar 2009 #

    As far as I am concerned, each listener can form their own interpretation of any song, whether that interpretation is “right” or “wrong”.

    The only one who can say clearly what was meant is the writer, but even that doesn’t disqualify listeners from extracting their own meanings. (Paradoxically, I do think writers have the right to deny meaning – especially when their work is hijacked for purposes/causes alien to that writer)

    Journalists, bloggers, and other so-called writers (including some who post on here) are especially guilty of attributing meaning, mysticism, genius, irony, understanding, allegory or depth where none was intended. Many of these refuse to accept anything outside their own interpretations, and this is clearly wrong (sometimes even after the writer has denounced their theories).

    I am reminded of English teachers attaching endless meanings to pieces of literature; meanings which were often mutually exclusive, or at least condradictory; meanings which were anachronistic; and meanings which were just plain wrong. It doesn’t actually matter whether these meaning were intended, if they do it for you, and if you can back them up if required, then they are valid.

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    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 24 Mar 2009 #

    i think fundamentally the idea of “private meaning” is incoherent — the author-at-work (which is almost invariably collective anyway when it comes to music) is establishing meaning in “internal” conversation with his/her/their understanding of social (ie external) conventions and dynamics (even if they’re ironising or otherwise dissenting from same; or deliberately being coded or trying otherwise to dodge easy meaning); and plus the author’s understanding of the project may well evolve over time; and indeed be contradictory itself, or at least conflicted

    interpretation is always an argument — and it’s always a bit daft for interpreters to make a powergrab for “their” version as the only correct, since they’re immediately vulnerable to the next powergrab along the line (which often takes the interpretive form of “so-and-so insists the song actually means THIS, but they only say that bcz they are totally a TWUNT”)

  11. 11
    Pete on 24 Mar 2009 #

    I am often a little surprised about the general “anti-lyrics” stance of many on FT, words are amazingly important to me in a song. Nevertheless I am quite happy with everyone having their own interpretation of said lyrics, with a couple of caveats.

    I am happy to say that the songwriter has a priviliged interpretation, much like parents have more effect on how their children grow up. Say the songwriting is analagous to giving birth, the DNA of the song (its key, it tempo, its lyrics) are set at that point. What happens to the song afterwards may be out of the control of the songwriter, BUT they will still have the priviliged position to influence how the song is interpreted by virtue of how they can licence it, play it and talk about it.

    I am also not going to accept the “anything goes grab-bag” of interpretation. “Ticket To Ride” may have a variety of interpretations, but somewhere along the line those interpretation will have to make a good fist of
    a) why she has a ticket to ride
    b) why my baby don’t care
    c) why the lyrics are being ignored to make your interpretation. Pirate Moggy does exactly that in her appreciation of Flamboyant above, and I feel it is necessary. Just because there may not be an objectively right interpretation of a song, does not mean taht some interpretations aren’t worth more, and are more justifies than others (and some, as per what Frank says above above misapprpriation of Independence Day, can be said to be wrong). Its this battle where a lot of the fun in writing about music comes from.

  12. 12
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 24 Mar 2009 #

    haha the parents metaphor is excellent (cz y’know FVCK YR PARENTS © all rock songs evah)

    if a song gets “misappropriated” (as per ‘independence day’), why isn’t this simply a failure on the songwriters’ part to deliver a better ( ie unmisappropriatable) song, if that’s what they’re antsy about

    songs that get their force from being ambiguous get their force from being ambiguous: if the ambiguity is resolvable it’s not an ambiguity — the tension in springsteen’s “born in the usa” or n.young’s “rocking in the free world” is between the words on their own and the musis on its own; these are making different kinds of claim on us… so if bruce or n.young are going to say (i don’t know if either did), “AHA you misunderstood”, why isn’t the follow-up question “THEN WHY WEREN’T YOU CLEARER?”

    “it means whatever you want” is what artists say when they want people to stop ASKING what it means, as if it’s just a crossword clue where the answer is the meaning (admittedly the better answer here is “it means what it says and does”; but just bcz you good wth words and music in a song doesn’t mean yr good with words when you deal with annoying fans!)

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    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 24 Mar 2009 #

    shorter the above: words don’t automatically trump the music, meaningwise

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    Pete on 24 Mar 2009 #

    Agreed, though there is a point in the ambiguous song when let say Springsteen should have just been saying to Reagan and the millions of right wing buying singing along “Ha ha, you fell into my trap”. Juxtaposition of bombastic song and anti-bombastic lyrics being exactly that.

    Of course its not like a trap in say a dungeon, so as traps go its a bit rubbish. Springsteen should have perhaps spent more time designing spiked pit traps at the Grammy’s than making Lucky Town.

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    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 24 Mar 2009 #

    ambiguity that’s a TRAP isn’t really ambiguity either — but i think there’s a reverse-slipknot (©g.marcus) thing going on, where the people seizing on the idea (in the wrong sense) are actually being seduced into the embrace of the wider social fact of ambiguity

    (viz that the idea of “independence day”, say, means more than you think it does: it is richer and more contradictory — so the sngwriter is saying that such-and-such a concept has force and value precisely because it’s polyamorous of meaning) (with all the heart-ache and confusion that polyamory can lead to)

    but “saying lots of things, some contradictory” isn’t the same thing as “saying anything” (of course “saying whatever you like” strips out the potency of the contradiction; as i say, i think this is just an evasion, for whatever reason, and never a declaration of actual semantic principle)

  16. 16
    Martin Skidmore on 24 Mar 2009 #

    There’s a great bit on the Who’s BBC sessions album where Pete is being interviewed by some posh presenter about their current single, “I’m A Boy”. The interviewer is saying something like “Some critics are reading very serious meanings into this,” and Pete is saying “No, no, it’s just a bit of fun – it doesn’t mean anything.” My mental response to that is a) not believing for a second that he meant that, he just didn’t want that conversation in that forum with that person, and b) that’s what you think, pal.

    I am only willing to give a qualified privileging to the writer’s intent: for a start what they say their intent is may be dishonest or deluded, and for another thing we are entitled to decide that whatever they produced does not at all fulfil that intent. Not music, but there are Barnett Newman paintings (monochrome with a single thin vertical line somewhere) that he said were “about” the Holocaust. He’s one of my favourite painters, but I fail to see any connection between these works and their claimed subject.

  17. 17
    Pete on 24 Mar 2009 #

    In that final case Martin, to what extent could we say that Barnett Newman saying the paintings are about the holocaust are part of the art itself (albeit via an attempt to mediate between viewer and art – especially in the world of abstract art).

    Equally people don’t generally argue about the meaning of “She Loves You”, as there is absolutely no ambiguity there at all.

  18. 18
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 24 Mar 2009 #

    as martin points out, saying “all painters are honest in their quotes” is like saying “all plumbers are honest in their quotes”: you are takin yrself for a ride if you convince yrself of this

    the issue about “she loves you” is, is it or isn’t it a parody of oversimple silly lovesong lyrics? so yes, of course there’s plenty of ambiguous

    there is — as derrida demonstrated* in signature event context — no way for it ever to be established definitively where any given object is itself straight or itself in quotes (because these two states have to remain ambiguous for the object to enter non-private discourse)

    *or did he? it might just have been a joke!

  19. 19
    Mark G on 24 Mar 2009 #

    Well, so many of those songs you might have, as schoolboys, put smutty associations to, only to find that you might have been right all along.

    e.g. “Please please me” being a request for Oral Sex, boy stating that as he does this for her, she should return the favour…

  20. 20
    lonepilgrim on 24 Mar 2009 #

    there are some songs which are gloriously (virtually) meaningless in terms of the lyrics – Marc Bolan springs to mind – and it’s just the sound of the words and music and the quality of the performance which involve me as a listener.
    I enjoyed ‘Tumbling Dice’ by the Stones for years without having any clear knowledge of the lyrics.
    Some, if not all, of the songs I enjoy the most have lyrics which I still couldn’t tell you what they mean after years of listening. But there are also songs where the vagueness or clunkiness really grates.

  21. 21

    (see here for discussion of different meanings of the Refusal of Meaning)

  22. 22
    vinylscot on 24 Mar 2009 #

    Re the piece on the Cutter; I don’t think that was one of your better pieces. Your writing is often very “involved” to say the least (I usually enjoy decoding it, and often find that to be worthwhile).

    Unfortunately, I found this particular piece to be more than usually wilfully impenetrable. If that was the intention, it succeeded, otherwise I can not fathom how writing of that nature is intended to convey any discernible meaning.

  23. 23
    Martin Skidmore on 24 Mar 2009 #

    Re 17, I am entirely happy for anyone to decide that is part of the work of art, but I am happy to decide that it isn’t. I had already fallen in love with Newman’s work for almost entirely formal reasons before reading that he said they were about the Holocaust or the crucifixion or whatever, so have always found it really easy to dismiss from my conception of his work. Had I heard these things first, I fear they may have become part of it, and probably ruinously so. Sometimes such things help, or are a welcome bonus adjunct or however you want to use them – I think it’s up to the consumer, really, to what use they want to put the artist’s intentions or commentary or whatever. The artist can say what they want, but they can’t force us to incorporate their views if they didn’t include them in the work.

  24. 24

    hi vinyl — it is a bit compacted i know, and some of the sentences could have done with disentangling: i wanted it published and discussable rather than just left and lost bcz i’d run out of time to untangle it (also i was holding up the queue)

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    vinylscot on 24 Mar 2009 #

    PLSC – appreciate the nod – it wasn’t meant to be a criticism, possibly more to do with my own feeble-mindedness than anything else!

  26. 26
    Alan on 24 Mar 2009 #

    “Had I heard these things first, I fear they may have become part of it, and probably ruinously so”

    yus. i’ve only been to the NY guggenheim once, and i made the terrible decision to take an audio-guide tour of an exhibish of famous modern art. the regular feeding of what ‘exhibit X means’ (sometimes in attribution from the author) was a mixture of trite and bloody annoying. i didn’t mind the historical details AS THAT IS SCIENCE.

  27. 27
    Lex on 24 Mar 2009 #

    i’m all for listeners reappropriating the songs for their own ends and to suit their own circumstances, that is what gives songs more life after all, except when they misappropriate it in such a bloody stupid way that all it proves is that they haven’t bothered listening to more than a line of the lyrics and therefore can’t be all that attached to it (unless they’re aware of this à la piratemoggy with ‘flamboyant’ and can make a decent fist of an explanation).

    people misappropriating songs like ‘perfect day’, which is so vague that it totally fails at owning its own meaning, doesn’t bother me – there’s nothing in it which would suggest that it’s about smack or whatever & it would work equally well as a sweet love song. people misappropriating that REM song whose title i forget as a declaration of true love does bother me because it is bloody stupid.

    of course there’s always the whole thing of “is the singer lying to him/herself” – is kelly clarkson really as liberated as she says she is on ‘since u been gone’, or is she just trying to convince herself that she is? (i think she’s telling the truth but i remember lots of people at the time arguing that she wasn’t) – but even then you’ve got to accept the basic premise of the situation and can’t just pretend it’s about meeting someone for the first time.

    i like it when totally different interpretations actually work w/the original lyrics. i remember after she won those gold medals, kelly holmes was interviewed about her preparations & inspirations, and she said she’d go out to the track every morning to train and listen to alicia keys’ ‘if i ain’t got you’, and for her the “you” of the song became the gold medals – obviously this is not what alicia keys was singing about but the thing is, the lyrics totally work in kelly’s context! from the people who live for fortune and fame to the line about the physical things defining you to the diamond rings (cuz what kelly wanted were OLYMPIC rings).

    i think that’s another, often overlooked form of songwriting genius – people like ne-yo can capture the specificity of a situation accurately, but alicia keys does the opposite – she goes for vague, widescreen imagery knowing that this will make her songs more universal…

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