What You Can Learn from These 4 Lyric Mistakes
“Music is the universal language of mankind,” according to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. But does the same logic apply to lyrics? What about lyrics riddled with grammatical errors?
Some people have a hard time listening to grammar errors in songs. These people believe that rules are rules, and that artists should somehow figure out a way to make tricky lines work without using double negatives or bending the rules of verb moods. Well, I say “Phooey” to those people. That’s right, I just used a slang word! You know why? Because I’m speaking in a casual (rather than formal) tone—the main concern is that I adequately convey my meaning.
When it comes to language, there is a time and a place for everything. When you’re writing a casual blog post, you don’t need to be as strict with your language usage as you do when you’re writing a formal paper. When you’re speaking, you don’t need to follow the rules the same way that you do when you’re writing, and when you’re singing a song, you can toss caution to the wind and make your own rules, as long as the result sounds good. It’s true that song lyrics often have very obvious grammatical errors, but what would you rather passionately belt along to “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone” or the much more laborious “There is no sunshine when she’s gone”? You could even make the sentence longer: “There is not any sunshine while she is away.” Is that what you want? To make classic songs unsingable? I didn’t think so.
Still, this is a grammar blog, and as such, I have to assume that you’ve come here to learn about grammar rules. So let’s take a look at some examples of grammatical errors in song lyrics and see what lessons we can learn from them.
1. Objective versus Subjective Pronouns
The culprit: Lady Gaga
The songs: “Bad Romance,” “You and I”
In her megahit “Bad Romance,” Gaga sings: “I want your love and/I want your revenge/You and me could write a bad romance.” As I’m sure your grandmother has pointed out to you hundreds of times, this should be “you and I.” Ironically, Gaga makes the opposite error in her other single, which is actually titled “You and I“: “Somethin’, somethin’ about my cool Nebraska guy/Yeah something about, baby, you and I.”
Gaga has misused her pronouns in both of these songs. The pronoun I is used when the I in question is the subject of the sentence, while the pronoun me is used when the me that is referred to is the object of the sentence.
The easiest way to remember when to use I versus when to use me is to remove the other noun or pronoun from the sentence. So, in the case of “Bad Romance,” we would test this by saying “I want your revenge/Me could write a bad romance.” When the lyric is written like this, it becomes clear that the correct pronoun here is I, because I is the subject of the sentence in question. Conversely, for “You and I,” we can test the lyric by saying “Somethin’ about, baby, I.” You would never say “something about I.” This should be “something about me,” because me is the object of the sentence. The lyric should thus be “something about, baby, you and me.”
Why we forgive Gaga: First, we can forgive Gaga because Mother Monster is not the first songwriter to make this mistake. Other artists with songs incorrectly named “You and I” include Stevie Wonder, Barbra Streisand, John Legend, and many more. For most of these songs, I has been chosen over me for the sake of rhyming.
This is also a common error that people make in everyday speech, probably because somewhere down the grammar line someone started the rumor that it’s never correct to say “you and me.” As for the “Bad Romance” error, we’re going to give Gaga some credit and say she purposefully used bad grammar in her lyric about a bad romance. Plus, you know, this line had to fit in with the rest of the song’s lyrics: “Rah-rah-ah-ah-ah/Roma-ro-ma-ma/Ga-ga-oo-la-lah.” Much words. Very lyric.
2. Moody Verbs
The culprit: Elvis Presley
The song: “Hound Dog”
“When they said you was high class, well that was just a lie…” And when they said Elvis was a grammar nerd, well, that was clearly just a lie as well. The problem with this lyric is the use of the word was. The word were should be used here instead, but why? Because this sentence calls for the subjunctive mood of the verb to be. The subjunctive mood is used when referring to something that hasn’t happened/isn’t going to happen (like a wish, a desire, or a possible future event), or to something that is not true. In this case, the claims that the “hound dog” was high class were untrue, hence the need for the subjunctive were.
Why we forgive Elvis: Have you ever watched a late-1950s video of Elvis Presley performing “Hound Dog”? Have you seen this man dance? Have you seen the way his legs move as if independent from his body? I’m sure you haven’t, because if you had, you wouldn’t be concerned with such trifles as incorrect verb moods in his lyrics. Come on now, people—priorities!
3. Double Negatives
The culprit: The Rolling Stones
The song: “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
What’s wrong with saying “I can’t get no satisfaction“? Nothing, as long as your name is Mick Jagger and you’re singing this classic rock song. The grammatical problem with this lyric is the use of the double negative. If the Stones are not getting “no satisfaction,” does this mean they are indeed getting some satisfaction? This unclear meaning is the reason why double negatives are generally not acceptable in written language, though the intended meaning of these statements is usually clear enough in a colloquial spoken context.
Why we forgive The Rolling Stones: Because saying “I can’t get any satisfaction” just doesn’t have the same punch to it, and because this is widely considered to be one of the greatest songs of all time. Besides that, what fun would rock stars be if they followed all the rules?
4. Lay versus Lie
The culprit: Bob Dylan
The song: “Lay Lady Lay”
In this oft-covered classic, Dylan entreats his lady not to leave. “Lay, lady, lay, lay across my big brass bed,” he croons over and over again. The problem here? Dylan is repeatedly using the wrong word. Technically speaking, the lyrics here should be “Lie, lady, lie, lie across my big brass bed.” Why is this?
The word lay should only be used when a direct object is involved. An easier way to think of this is to remember that you have to be talking about the act of laying something, usually as in laying something down. If Dylan were laying his lady down, or if he was asking her to lay herself down, his lyrics would be correct. On a side note, Bon Jovi clearly knew what’s up here, as evidenced by the lyrics of their song “Bed of Roses”: “I wanna lay you down on a bed of roses.” So, Jon Bon Jovi can lay his lady down on a bed of roses, someone can lay down their arms, or you can lay something on me. But when I’m sleepy, I have to go lie down.
Why we forgive Bob: For one thing, this is a very common error in spoken language. It’s one of those mistakes that do not really change the intended meaning of what a person is trying to say, so it’s generally an acceptable error to make when speaking. The problem that we’re sure Dylan was facing here was the fact that the proper word choice, lie, has more than one meaning. To lie means to recline or rest, yes, but it also means saying something that’s not true. Dylan probably didn’t want people to think that he was inviting a big fat liar to hang out in his big brass bed with him, so he opted to use the wrong word because it actually gave the song a clearer meaning.
I’ve used some specific examples for the sake of this article, but in reality, these same errors occur in songs all the time. You can choose to harp incessantly on the artists who make these errors in their music, or you can pull an Adele Dazeem and let it go. If you can’t listen to the magical ballad that is “Let It Go” without criticizing the lyrics, I don’t think I can help you.