We all know those song lyrics that people have famously gotten wrong — “Scuse me while I kiss this guy” instead of “Scuse me while I kiss the sky” (Hendrix) or “Like a virgin, touched for the thirty-first time” instead of “for the ‘very first time’,” (Madonna) or “Hold me closer, Tony Danza” instead of “tiny dancer” (Elton John). But, what of the whole songs people get wrong? The classic example is the Police’s “Every Breath You Take” — which some people play at their weddings. I guess if you quit at the title and never actually listened to the lyrics, you might think obsessing on every breath the object of your desire takes is, um, romantic. The song’s about a stalker. That doesn’t require a whole lot of “textual analysis” to get to.
Every move you make
Every vow you break
Every smile you fake
Every claim you stake
Ill be watching you
Every vow you BREAK? Every smile you FAKE? Wait — isn’t this a wedding song? “I’ll be watching you” sounds a little like the character in Randy Newman’s song “You Can Leave Your Hat On”. Although at least that guy seems to have a modicum of consent on his side.
Since you’ve gone I been lost without a trace
I dream at night I can only see your face
I look around but its you I can’t replace
I feel so cold and I long for your embrace
I keep crying baby, baby, please…
Relationships are tricky things, true, but, surely people understand the difference between a guy suffering an emotional breakdown with a groom. In a similar vein — where people find something in a song that the song’s writer never put there — Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”. Now, “Hallelujah” also gets dragged into solemn occasions and weighty moments with religious overtones. It was used repeatedly during Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremonies. But that’s really only because of the song’s title (and its chorus): “Hallelujah”. If you read the lyrics, it’s right there — what the song’s about — and it’s brilliant.
“Hallelujah” is the best song ever written about the agony and ecstasy of love. The song flirts with the darkest cynicism about love — and it’s the religious framing that makes it work so brilliantly. Love is like a religion. REM’s equally brilliant “Losing My Religion” goes right at it — the feeling of being spiritually lost when love falls apart. We build temples around love. We ache for its transcendence but settle for its quotidian challenges. Love (like religion) can make one cynical. In fact, when Leonard Cohen first recorded the song, he made the song’s tormented cynicism crystal clear — listen to how he performs the song’s very first line, especially the question “Do ya?”
Also confounding people — and giving them the impression the song’s somehow “religious” — Cohen uses Biblical words and references; he alludes to the Biblical King David obsessing over Bathsheeba — bathing on the roof, overthrown by her beauty and the moonlight.
Your faith was strong but you needed proof
You saw her bathing on the roof
Her beauty and the moonlight overthrew her
She tied you to a kitchen chair
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah
Then, mixing in a little Samson & Delilah, Cohen ties the lover to a kitchen chair, totally powerless. The “Hallelujah” she draws from his lips may be ecstatic, but there’s agony on the horizon. And, as we all know, the agony parts always last way, way longer than any ecstasy parts.
Baby, I’ve been here before,
I’ve seen this room, I’ve walked this floor.
I used to live alone before I met ya.
Well, I’ve seen your flag on the Marble Arch,
And love is not a victory march –
It’s a cold and it’s a broken “Hallelujah!”
Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah…
“It’s a cold and it’s a broken ‘Hallelujah’.” Wait, didn’t I see that once on the back of some divorce lawyer’s business card?
The Daddy of all “Songs People Get Wrong” is Randy Newman’s iconic “I Love LA” which, ironically, LA has embraced though — if you read the lyrics — they shouldn’t. “I Love LA” is not a love song to the city of angels. It’s poking fun at us, at how shallow we are.
Yes, there’s this part of it — which is all sweeeeeet! —
Rollin’ down the Imperial Highway
With a big nasty redhead at my side
Santa Ana winds blowin’ hot from the north
And we was born to ride
Roll down the window, put down the top
Crank up the Beach Boys, baby
Don’t let the music stop
We’re gonna ride it till we just can’t ride it no more
From the South Bay to the Valley
From the West Side to the East Side
Everybody’s very happy
‘Cause the sun is shining all the time
Looks like another perfect day
But, the punchline to all the sweetness is this —
Look at that mountain
Look at those trees
Look at that bum over there, man
He’s down on his knees
Look at these women
There ain’t nothin’ like em nowhere
Century Boulevard (We love it)
Victory Boulevard (We love it)
Santa Monica Boulevard (We love it)
Sixth Street (We love it, we love it)
We love L.A.
Wait, wait? How can we focus on all the good-looking women with “bums” in our field of vision, down on their knees, in homeless camps that grow larger and more ubiquitous daily? How can we focus on streets as banal and characterless from one end to the other as Century Boulevard or Sixth Street when we’re worrying about someone else’s human plight? Trust me, everyone who isn’t an Angeleno, there’s NOTHING to love about any of the streets mentioned in the song. THAT’S THE JOKE!
Alas, even most Angelenos don’t “get” the joke. Oh, how Randy Newman must chuckle at us (Angelenos) as the money for that song keeps pouring in.
All the people in New York City may “dress like monkeys”, but it’s we Angelenos who act like monkeys as we cheer ourselves to that song.
And, while we’re at it? Newman’s “Sail Away” covers American racism from the other side. Think of the lyrics as a wry commentary on racism — how a racist slave trader might try to pitch slavery to potential slaves on a recruiting poster.
“We’re just gonna sing about Jesus and drink wine all day… It’s great to be an American!”