I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the important role that misunderstood lyrics play in the way rock music works. The problem is especially pointed in the case of the post-punk Gang of Four because they saw much of their music as a political intervention in the events of their day (the late 70s through the early 80s). But how can rock really “rage against the machine” if no one’s quite sure what it’s saying? What can it mean that a band that put a great deal of emphasis on its songwriting—pop songs as political theory—actively resisted making that theory more intelligible? Resisted to the degree that even smart and sympathetic critics have sometimes badly misread the work?
One answer involves taking the “mondegreen” seriously.
For better or worse, we seem to be stuck with the term that was coined in 1954 by the writer Sylvia Wright, in a piece in Harper’s Magazine. That the word is about the same age as rock and roll itself is a fitting coincidence. In her mother’s recitation of the ballad “The Bonnie Earl of Murray,” Wright as a child misheard the phrase “laid him on the green” as “Lady Mondegreen” and wove a coherent narrative around the mistake, or “mondegreen.”
The phenomenon is familiar, even if the (somewhat awkward) name is not. Another more helpful description might be “’Scuse me while I kiss this guy,” the legendary misunderstanding of the chorus of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”