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The Set List

Music: Top 5 Songs Whose Meaning Eluded Us

We've all had them - songs where the lyrics passed you by in a blaze of blissful ignorance, until one day you stopped and suddenly heard, as if for the first time, the surprisingly different words that the singer was singing all along. Here, in no particular order, SPB documents our five most confusing songs whose meanings eluded us the longest.


Frank Loesser - Baby It's Cold Outside

frank-loesser.jpgI wish I had never read the lyrics to this song. Sure, nowadays we treat Frank Loesser's 1944 tune "Baby It's Cold Outside" as a Christmas standard (despite actually having nothing to do with the holiday), but the song is quite different in tone than you'd expect. The source of it's popularity, the 1949 romantic comedy Neptune's Daughter, provides some enlightenment: it's about sexual coercion. Of its two appearances in the film, the duet between Red Skelton and Betty Garrett makes the original intent all too clear, as Garrett forces herself onto Skelton despite his numerous protestations. The line "Say, what's in this drink?" has to take the cake for sketchiest lyric. The score for the piece actually provides further enlightenment--the two voice parts are scored for 'wolf' and 'mouse'. Maybe it's just a generational thing, but with no less than eight different versions of the song recorded by popular artists that year, you think someone would've pointed out how incredibly unromantic this song actually is. (Matthew Sarah)


Lola – The Kinks

kinks.jpgThis one is pretty obvious, really. Just a couple sample lyrics: “she walked like a woman and talked like a man” or “Girls will be boys and boys will be girls” get the point across rather directly. But, let’s tie in perspective. I was a young lad, 7-8 years-old and listening to my first cassette purchase, Dare to Be Stupid by Weird Al Yankovic. His parody version, “Yoda” was my introduction to the melody and, despite the repeated plays on the Oldies station throughout my youth it never really sunk in to actually listen to the original lyrics. That took until re-discovering The Kinks over the past few years. It turns out that the song is really about hooking up with a crossdresser. Classic stuff, Mr. Ray Davies. Classic stuff. (Loren)


Nirvana - Pennyroyal Tea

nirvana.jpgFor years and years I thought Nirvana lyrics weren’t all that deep. Maybe it was a result of the 1991 media campaign that whined about Cobain’s inarticulate pronunciation (see Weird Al’s “Smells Like Nirvana” for example: “It's hard to bargle nawdle zouss with all these marbles in my mouth”). Anyway, I long thought this song was a somewhat whimsical ballad that rhymed words like “laxative” and “antacid,” making it a tongue in cheek song about taking a crap or something. Lo and behold, a 20-something me discovered the term elsewhere and I put it all together, drastically giving the song a somber angle that I’d never really picked up on. Pennyroyal tea, for everyone else in the dark out there, is essentially a homemade concoction devised to induce an abortion. I no longer hear “that kinda weird slow song,” I hear a sad reflection and a standout political track from a group who usually didn’t push such subjects to the forefront.

And, yes, I did mention Weird Al twice in one feature. (Loren)


The Jimi Hendrix Experience-Purple Haze

jimi.jpgOkay, maybe this one has been done to death, but in 6th grade I really did think he said "Excuse me while I kiss this guy." And it wasn't so much the meaning of that one line that eluded me, as much as it was the whole song. But mostly I just wanted to know what the heck purple haze was. I liked Prince, but if it was anything like purple rain, that would have only added to my confusion. I had no idea (and still don't) what that’s all about. I asked my mother what purple haze was. She told me it was a Jimi Hendrix song. Ahh, gee mom, thanks for the help. So I asked my dad one day while we were driving across country. He had been to Woodstock; certainly he must know. He replied, "Purple Haze? Ahh, it's an acid rock thing. You won't understand now, but you will someday." He paused for a moment, as if having a flashback, and then continued, "It's, you know, really head-y stuff." And as he said this he lifted one hand from the stearing wheel to the side of his head and made an egg-beater motion. Err, okay? I eventually moved on to punk rock and rap, and forgot about Hendrix or "Purple Haze" or any "head-y stuff" until several years later. One night in a nebulous college dorm room with Jimi on the stereo I finally figured it all out. Ohhh, he's saying “THE SKY," not "this guy." And at that very moment, about an hour into my first experience with a mind-altering acronym—kissing the sky, if you will—I finally figured it all out. "Purple haze all in my brain..." (Nathan)


Outkast - Hey Ya!

outkast.jpgThe first time I heard "Hey Ya!" all I could listen to was the mesmerising synth hook in the chorus, and the infamously-epic breakdown with the "polaroid picture" refrain. Upon examining the lyrics a littler closer, however, I discovered a pop record whose glossy upbeat tone was undercut with a tragic second verse, hinting at existential confusion, romantic alienation and the misery of the entertainer, whose audience "don't want me here, you just wanna dance". Andre 3000 buries one of the most poignant, heartwrenching lyrics in a protective wall of repetition and backing vocals, so the delivery of the line "if what they say is 'nothing is forever', what makes love the exception?" becomes understated and subtly depressing. In the song's latter half the breakdown tries to ramp things back up, making it easy to miss the challenge of the middle, but I'll never forget the way I felt when I realised that what I'd always thought was a bouncy slice of singalong R&B was in fact an elegy to lost love and failed romance. (Matt)


Words by Aaron on March 19, 2012, 8:17 a.m.

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Top 5 Songs Whose Meaning Eluded Us

Posted by Aaron on March 19, 2012, 8:17 a.m.

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