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.