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A Question About Stevie Nicks’ ‘Dreams’

Nothing great that humans make is ever perfect, even if anyone could figure out what ‘perfect’ is.  As Immanuel Kant said, “From the crooked timber of humanity, nothing straight was ever made.”

It’s a songwriting truism that it’s almost always better to sing your words as you would pronounce them.  Unlike a lot of received wisdom, I believe that’s a good rule of thumb.  But there are many many mispronunciations in song lyrics… and some of them we get very attached to.

I was reading this morning about someone who for decades thought the Title line in The Young Rascals’ song, ‘Groovin’, was, ‘You and me and Leslie… Groovin’.  Until today I thought it was, ‘You and me and let’s be… Groovin’.  It turns out the actual lyric is, ‘You and me endlessly…. Groovin’.

Why the confusion?  The Rascals sing the line this way: “You and me endlessly”.  Endlessly is usually pronounced ‘endlessly’.  So in this case  it’s hard-to-impossible to understand what’s being sung… and usually that’s not a songwriter’s goal.

And by the way, people everywhere pronounce words differently, so there’s no one right way… but I don’t think in 1960’s Long Island they were pronouncing it ‘endlessly’.

I have a question for you regarding a classic example.  (Remember that it’s very hard to imagine something differently that you’ve heard a thousand times… but try; just as an exercise.)

It’s in a song I love, ‘Dreams’ by Fleetwood Mac, written and sung by Stevie Nicks. (Listen to ‘Dreams’ here.)

The Chorus is:

Thunder only happens when it’s raining
Players only love you when they’re playing
Women they will come and they will go
When the rain washes you clean you’ll know

There’s the culprit, italicized and underlined, in the last line.  She sings ‘washes‘ instead of ‘washes’ (the usual pronunciation).  As I see it, here are a few of the songwriting quandaries you’d face if you were trying to get that line ‘right’:

The melody is great; it’d be hard to change that.  You could sing, ‘When the rain… washes you clean’ – delaying ‘washes’ until the next downbeat so ‘wash’ is on a strong note.  But I don’t think that melody would be as good; I think the melodic flow (which I think is the most outstanding aspect of this unique song) would be broken.

Also, ‘When the rain washes you clean’ is a great lyric, a really powerful image.  I’ve been trying to think of an equally good line that would lay better with the melody, but I haven’t been able to.

As it is, it’s not as confusing as the line quoted above from ‘Groovin’ because the notes are longer and it’s sung more clearly.  But it also lacks the potential for the listener’s creative misunderstanding – I never minded my lyric for ‘Groovin’; the person who heard ‘and Leslie’ liked their version too.

Still… ‘washes‘ does clunk a little every time it goes by.  I notice it.  I mentioned this to other people and some of them told me they notice it too.  And I think it’s better for listeners to just be feeling the song, not thinking, ‘What was that?’.

These are dilemmas we face all the time as songwriters.  When do you stop trying to get it ‘right’… perfect?  When does it just ‘feel right’… good enough?  When is it time to just let it go?

I don’t think the ‘clunk’ of singing mispronounced words helps a song any.  But sometimes it is the lesser of a few evils – which I’d guess was probably the situation with ‘Dreams’ – and you live with it.  I try to avoid clunking but haven’t always succeeded (I’m not going to throw out what I think is a good song because of one word or phrase).

Trying for a moment to ignore the tens of millions of copies sold and the many times you’ve probably heard it, if you were writing ‘Dreams’, would that line bother you?  Would you want to change it?  If so, how would you change it?  What alternate line or direction would you suggest?

Please let me know your thoughts in the Comments section below.

28 responses to “A Question About Stevie Nicks’ ‘Dreams’”

  • Aaron

    Good post with excellent examples! This is something I have to beat into just about everyone I write with or produce and I know I would never have let “washes” fly. And I also know that I don’t have any hits to my credit.

    As a listener, though, I find I am likely to let it slide with certain artists, probably when the song and, thus melody, isn’t intended to be catchy, per se.

  • joyce rogers

    sometimes I think the inflections (perhaps not in this case) are made to give a different twist on the general meaning, ie (in this case) wa shes kinda sounds like sheds which when you wash you shed some of that stuff that builds up… a little too much insight? perhaps, but the feel is there for me. Always was a Nicks fan btw

  • Alicia Key’s “If I ain’t got you” is SO about that it makes me cringe every time. I actually switch stations if it hits the radio. A perfect example of how an INCREDIBLY poorly written song becomes famous because of everything BUT the song…or maybe IN SPITE OF the song.
    Yeah, the industry is NOT about the craft…

  • Guth John

    I actually like washes the way Stevie sings it. It makes the word “wetter” and makes the listener have to perk up and figure it out a bit which draws one in. Of course, too much of that is annoying and you loose people. I generally write honoring the “speech rhythms” and accents but I love the occasional quirky bit as much as I love the odd chord or surprising melodic twist.
    Another related thing is when people use inverted word order in a lyric to set up a rhyme-I almost always hate that and find it wooden and archaic. Stevie Wonder, sadly. does that a lot.
    Good topic.

  • Todd Bird

    Hey Tony

    I really enjoyed your article. For me, I really enjoy when creative license is taken on the way a word is articulated in a song. In fact, I sometimes like to think of a unique way of singing a word to almost make a brand new word in my own music. I think it only works if the way it is sung sits comfortably within the flow and mood of the song. I think the choice made in Dreaming with “washes” is just one more element, of hundreds, that makes this one of the truly great songs of my lifetime.

    Thanks again for writing this.

  • Christopher Gansky

    When the rainfall wipes you clean you’ll know

  • I like a lot of these mispronunciations, ambiguities and unintelligible words in songs. They are a gateway for the listener to get involved in deciphering and interpreting the song.
    Remember the thrill of trying to figure out if the lyrics to “Louie Louie” were really dirty – or even what they were at all? Same for the last verse of “Satisfaction”. I think that those “Hey what was that?!?” moments in songs enrich the experience of being a listener by giving you an active, rather than a passive role in experiencing the song.
    Sometimes the misheard lyric even becomes the official one: I am told that Jeff Lynne now sings “Don’t bring me down Bruce” instead of the original nonsense word “groose”. A big improvement in my opinion!

  • T I thought the lyric was “..when the rainbow shares your dream you’ll know..”

  • Seems pretty nitpicky to me…It’s not like she sings “war-shes”

  • Seems pretty nitpicky to me…It’s not like she sings “war-shes”. Never thought twice about it in this song which I just heard today. You must have a field day with Bruce Springsteen, Robert Plant, (both of whom are always just slightly flat on top of the enunciation issues), Gregg Allman, Steve Miller, Charlie Starr, etc, etc… Or Cher… Holy smokes. Talk about strange timing (like Turn back ti-yum, for instance). That’s the beauty of music. Imperfection is lovely; perfection is boring.

  • Maura

    I agree with Jon that these quirks in songs can often become a point of connection, and even affection. (I heard Leslie in Groovin’, too. It even draws a stronger tie to memories because I recall a regular dancer on the Paul Revere & The Raiders show went by the name Leslie. How we loved to hate her!) Joni Mitchell songs veer toward perfection, but how many times did her Canadian accent leave me puzzling, even with her perfect diction? And it so happens that one of my favorite misheard lyrics is also in Dreams. As she trails off at the end she sings “dreams unwind, love’s a state of mind”, whereas I heard “drink some wine, love to spend the night”! It still makes me smile. Thanks for the article, Tony!

  • S

    This very incident was talked about by Stevie herself in American Songwriter magazine, back in 2011:

    Also, how do you feel about Alanis Morrisette, who has made quite a fine living off of frequent use of expanded syllabic pronounciation of words in her lyrics.

  • Tony, great blog post. The funny thing is, I always heard “rain water (with a silent “t”) shares” and wondered what the hell Stevie was singing.

    I figure, and experience shows, that even if the pronunciation is “wrong,” if it sings right, it is right. A song in performance, if it is any good at all, is more than the sum of its’ parts. As Duke said, “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”

  • S

    Toto’s “Africa” also changes the syllabic emphasis on the word “Serengeti.” SEH-ren-geh-ti, rather than Seh-ren-GEH-ti.

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