Monday, July 04, 2011

Musical Grammar

Twenty-six years as an English teacher lead me to notice grammtical errors and oddities in the music that I enjoy. I can't help it--even some of my favorites have some grammatical oddities that stick with me.

Take Paul McCartney's "Live and Let Die," for instance. I enjoy the song, but there's one line that bugs me: "in this ever-changing world in which we live in." There's one "in" too many in that song. I tried to give Paul the benefit of the doubt, assuming he was singing, "in this ever-changing world in which we're living," but then the lyrics were published, and it was clear that the last words were "we live in." Ever since, I've enjoyed the song just a little bit less.

I'm one of the four people in the world who bought Frijid Pink's first album. The album was the source of the group's only major hit, "House of the Rising Sun," but I got the album when I was a teenager with limited resources, which meant that I played the whole album again and again to get my money's worth. And as much as I enjoyed the ballad "God Gave Me You," I was bothered even as a teenager by two mispronounced words: "perform" and "miracle." One of the lines of the song is "Let God perform a miracle." Alas, the singer mispronounces those words as "pre-form" and "mir-ee-kul." It's hard to fully appreciate a seemingly heartfelt ballad when you want the singer to stop and do another take.

And then there's the oddity of a song that changes person. This isn't an error per se, but a distinctive part of the lyrical structure. The best-known example is Elvis Presley's "(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear." When Elvis sings, "Oh let me be," the chorus responds with "Oh let him be," shifting from first to third person. There aren't many songs that do this, and it always catches my attention. Iron Butterfly does it in the song "Flowers and Beads." While Doug Ingle sings the line "Girl, I just know I love you now," the chorus responds with "Girl, he just knows he loves you now." It's such a distinctive lyrical quirk that it catches my attention every time it plays.

(And I'm ignoring songs that have intentional grammatical errors or lyrical slurring, such as Led Zeppelin's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," which wouldn't work quite as well if it were "Babe, I'm Going to Leave you.")

Yep--once an English teacher, always an English teacher...


Tredekka said...

Hmm, with the chorus in the Elvis song, maybe it's not a shift from 1st to third person so much as a different viewpoint, and the choral singers are merely backing up the lead with their agreement. The song lyric I can never comprehend is in "Intergalactic" by the Beastie Boys, where they make reference to "a pinch from the neck on Mister Spock". "A pinch on the neck from Mister Spock" would makes sense...I think.

cliff said...

I think of it as a "call and response" chorus, but it's still a shift in person. In most songs, the chorus merely echoes the lead rather than speaking to it in a different voice. I like it; it's a sort of Greek chorus in popular music form!