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Bad Mondegreens (November 17, 1999)

In the 1950s a kid standing next to me in church was singing along with "America the Beautiful," ending with "stand beside her, and guide her, in the night, with the light from a bulb." This improvised improvement drew not only giggles but stern looks from the adjoining adults. It wasn't until a few weeks ago that I discovered that such misheard song lyrics are known as mondegreens.

Literacy in the United States has declined since the halcyon days when Gutenberg's magical invention was used to produce such masterpieces as Henry David Thoreau's "Walden's Pond," Ernest Hemingway's "The Sun Also Rises" and Vladimir Nabokov's autobiography "Speak Memory." It has declined so far, in fact, that today's behemoth book industry has been reduced to publishing irrelevant yet expensive collections of misheard song lyrics in order to get people to buy books.

Over the last few years, the popularity of mondegreens has soared and an entire series of books of misheard song lyrics has been produced by no less a publisher than Simon & Schuster which catalog dozens of mondegreens -- at $10 a pop. 

Gavin Edwards is a contributing editor at Details Magazine who has done the hard slogging of gathering and printing these ridiculous collections. Each book in the series is titled with a mondegreen -- "Sweet Dreams Are Made of Cheese," "He's Got the Whole World In His Pants," and "When a Man Loves a Walnut." These cover examples are drawing unsuspecting buyers to fork over upwards of $10 (the retail price) for a thin collection with a couple hundred mondegreens, loosely arranged with a lot of white space and silly cartoons. 

The trouble is: most of them are simply not funny. They're little more than the kind of nonsense one can easily find on the internet for nothing. 

Inane tv talk show host Rosie O'Donnell says that Edwards' book is "a funny, funny, funny, funny, funny book." But lots of repetitions of the words does not a funny book make. But then O'Donnell thinks President Groper is a great president and Barbra Streisand, one of the Groper's biggest Hollywood fundraisers, is O'Donnell's favorite celebrity. So readers can be excused for thinking that an O'Donnell endorsement is a sure sign that the book will not be funny at all.

Here are a few examples of the kind of "humor" that O'Donnell thinks is funny -- "Strangers in the night, exchanging glances" became "Strangers in the night, exchanging glasses." "Call me" became "Commie." The Grateful Dead's "She pays my ticket when I speed" became "She paints my chicken when I sleep." And so forth. Barrels of laughs. 

The kids of a woman I know thought that Neal Young's "Old Man, Take a Look At My Life; It's a Lot Like You" was "Old Man, Take a Look At My Wife; She Looks a Lot Like You." Another friend's brother always thought Carly Simon's "You're So Vain" was "You're So Lame."

According to Mondegreenist Edwards, Billy Idol's "Eyes Without a Face" has been misheard as "I Supply the Fish." But a woman I know used to love to humiliate her long-suffering single girlfriend who thought Idol was pleading for romance with the much funnier "How's About a Date?" 

Which shows that what could be genuinely funny is not the mondegreens themselves, but the situations and stories which produced them. Edwards gives us none of that, apparently that would be too much work. He just puts one or two disembodied mondegreens and a childish cartoon on each page.

The overpriced mondegreen books even come with indexes, an anachronistic feature that presumes that readers actually need a quick and convenient way to look up Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit In the Sky" lyric, "I've got a friend in Jesus," being morphed into "I've got a friend in cheese sauce."

Some of the mondegreens are so far from the original that they sound forced and intentional, not the spontaneous errors that make for real humor. It's hard to believe they are simply misheard lyrics. How could anyone think that "You're cheating like you do," sounds like "The cheese in life tastes better"?

Of course the lyrics of some rock groups are completely unintelligible anyway, so the casual listener can pretty much make up their own lyrics. The lyrics of the Doobie Brothers and the Rolling Stones are totally unintelligible, as are most rap songs. (Many recordings these days include printed versions of the lyrics -- the producers are fighting a culture that not only doesn't care much about words and lyrics but, increasingly can't even read the liner notes.)

But who really listens to pop lyrics anymore? Mostly they're just incidental and irrelevant. It's also hard to care about lyrics from today's overproduced and interchangeable and unknown pop, rap and country groups. 

Another problem is the banality and obscurity of most of today's music groups. How many people have heard of such bands as Pavement, Filter, Offspring, Temple of the Dog, Snap!, 10cc, Brewer & Shipley, Weezer, or Ace of Base? Nevertheless Edwards' collection is heavily weighted towards these groups and the younger generation which listens to them. 

What happened to the days when lyrics were romantic and artful? "Her lips were like an alabaster palace," or, "a trip to the moon on gossamer wings, " or, "even educated fleas do it," or, "Where have all the flowers gone?" or, "mere alcohol doesn't thrill me at all"? 

But then, even Jerome Kern was capable of such inane platitudes as "Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly." At least these old time lyrics didn't run much risk of being mondegreenized. 


  1. Jorge Perez October 11, 2020

    The author certainly doesn’t know much about rock music and in fact is very condescending. His list of artists feature classic artists from the seventies (10CC, Brewer and Shipley, while Pavement, Temple of the Dog and Offspring were very well known and succesful in the nineties. People who listened to rock music certainly knew them. As for the Rolling Stones lyrics being unintelligible… maybe he should listen again. Some of the best and most profound lyrics ever in a pop format: You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Sympathy for the Devil, Gimme Shelter, Wild Horses, Dead Flowers, Satisfaction, Midnight Rambler, Street Fighting Man… and that’s not including the saucy ones: Brown Sugar, Stray Cat Blues, Honky Tonk Women, Bitch… and Jagger’s singing is certainly no that heard to understand, certainly not as much as, say, Springsteen.

    • Mark Scaramella Post author | October 11, 2020

      “The author certainly doesn’t know that much about rock music…” Guilty as charged.

  2. Douglas Coulter October 11, 2020

    On a dark desert highway Cool Whip in my hair?
    What about the FBI spending years study of Louie Louie because a lousy recording sounded like that F word.

    My favorite miss take on lyrics?
    Some have interpreted Norwegian Woods ending to arson because he did not get lucky.
    Misunderstanding has started wars, funny does not kill.

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