This week’s question comes from Web Producer Baraka Kaseko:
What is a song lyric you didn’t understand until years later?
Wait, have I never used this space to talk about my once-literal reading of a crucial lyric in “Piano Man” by Billy Joel? An interpretation I hung onto for years after the lyric first hatched an unshakable image in my head? About how, to my preadolescent mind, “And they sit at the bar and put bread in my jar” meant that the “pretty good crowd, for a Saturday” was dropping loaves and rolls into an open container on Billy Joel’s piano? Well, now it can be told: Until it came to my attention that “bread” is also slang for “money,” every time I heard that song—which was a lot—I pictured an oversized glass goblet overflowing with crusts. I can’t say for certain when the illusion was broken, but it probably had something to do with learning that the narrator of The Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” wasn’t bragging about their baking prowess.
At this point, I’ve probably trained my brain to course-correct on any number of lyrics in such a way that I have a hard time remembering how I used to interpret them, but one I definitely remember not getting is the opening line of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In The U.S.A.”: “Born down in a dead man’s town…” For most of my childhood, I thought that everything that subsequently happens to the song’s narrator stems in part from the fact that he was born and raised in a town owned by a ghost—that this was, in fact, the reason that he’d had such a hard life. I figured the ghostly owner of this city had put a curse on him or something. It wasn’t until I rediscovered Springsteen in college and had another look at the lyrics that I had the “oh, wait” moment, not unlike the first time I realized that pickles are not, in fact, a kind of vegetable unto themselves. Needless to say, I made sure no one ever knew I held onto this silly misunderstanding of Springsteen for so long. Well, until now, I guess. Whoops.
Considering how many times I have mangled this song at karaoke, I am embarrassed that I finally discovered the correct words to this song only a few weeks ago: Is everyone else aware that the line in the late part of the Queen classic “Bohemian Rhapsody” is “So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye,” not “stop me”? Well, I wasn’t. For decades. You could probably write a Ph.D. dissertation trying to decipher “Rhapsody”’s lyrics, but my take was that Mercury’s murderer character, introduced in the first verse, is making a break for it, therefore there’s no one who can stop him (“So you think you can love me and leave me to die?”). But now taking a closer look, some surmise that the song is actually about Mercury’s break from Mary Austin as he struggled with his sexuality; Mercury’s ferocity in the almost-final verse is him lashing out at Mary moving in with another man. Hence, the stoning. Of course, this is all up to interpretation. Part of Queen’s legendary status is that their songs are so mythic, we’re still trying to unravel them years later, and somehow, they can even still surprise us. But I suspect it’s going to take at least a few tries for me to be able to correct my karaoke version.
For all of DuckTales’ original run, I belted out some very inaccurate lyrics during the opening credits. Your “it’s a duck-blur!” was my “it’s a duck bird!”, which I realize is redundant. But I also thought it could have been “it’s a duck, bird,” which was the singer’s response to some question I wasn’t privy to. Instead of “Might solve a mystery / or rewrite history!”, I sang “Why solve a mystery, when you can rewrite history?”, presumably because I thought you could only have so much adventure in your life. And finally, those “tales of derring-do” that Jeff Pescetto sang about were, to my ears, actually “times of daring, bad and good,” which made sense to me then because being daring could result something bad or good. It wasn’t until I was in high school and someone kicked off a round of the DuckTales theme that I was disabused of (and mocked for) my notions.
The song came out in January, so it was a matter of months, not years. But I think I misheard enough of Lizzo’s “Juice” to warrant its inclusion here. I got the really important stuff straight away—being the whole damn meal, the fundamental untrustworthiness of anyone who denies Lizzo’s bad-bitch status—but there were two bits that I initially found confusing, and felt kind of dumb when I figured them out later. First, it took me way too long to put together that “the Goose” was a reference to Grey Goose vodka, probably because I’m more of a Svedka-on-sale kind of gal. (“Blame it on a goose, huh? Sure, whatever,” I thought to myself.) Second, I probably heard the song a dozen times before I watched a live performance where you could really make out the line “I’m like Chardonnay, get better over time.” I thought Lizzo was saying “I like shining naked better over time,” which, again, just made me go, “body positivity! that’s nice,” before getting back to awkward white-girl bopping.
If I’m going to subject myself (and others) to a round of karaoke, my song of choice is always going to be “Kiss” by Prince, a ditty that I committed to memory at way too young of an age. The first time that I decided to sing it, I took to the stage with all of the undeserved confidence such a performance requires, and I was actually pretty great for a while. And then I arrived to the iconic electric guitar-driven breakdown that only contains one line, which I always understood to be “Let’s go, ‘fore it’s too late.” Imagine my surprise when the monitor betrayed me and displayed the very confusing, yet correct lyric, “Little girl Wendy’s parade.” My performance halted immediately while the audience and I processed this revelation as a group. Now I understand that the line is a nod to the original title to another Prince track, “Christopher Tracy’s Parade,” but at the time, we simply could not imagine what a parade for this mysterious Wendy would even look like, in this context.