Scandalous Lyrics

The 1980s hit “You’re the Inspiration” makes me think of metallic streamers, balloon arches, and poorly permed hair, and that is precisely why I sent my sister an 80s music mix for her birthday this week. It’s a nice way to celebrate your thirty-something birthday, don’t you think? My children are thrilled with my foray into the cool music of my teens. My three-year-old now runs around singing “Highway to the Danger Zone”; my eleven-year-old has announced that “Summer of ‘69” is “awesome”; and my thirteen-year-old believes a number of the songs are “scandalous,” which I will respond to as soon as I learn whether that word is a compliment or disparagement.

Unfortunately, I must confess to all my young women’s leaders that, despite not hearing most of these songs in the last twenty years, I can still sing every single word. Yes, you told me that the lyrics would get in my head and be recorded there. Apparently you were right. Then there’s the emotional backwash: all I need is the first four measures of REO Speedwagon’s “I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore” to be hearing, seeing, and smelling a Stake Dance in all its tangled, teenage glory (Is he looking at me? How do I look? Stupid?).

Of course, things are different now. When I hear, “Relax/ Don’t do it/ When you want to go to it,” I blush. Because now—unlike then—I have a bit of an idea what I am singing about. In my teens, I had a clue, too, but only because I was socially savvy enough to know that when those people liked the song and those people thought it was immoral, then the lyrics probably had to do with (ahem) it. But I didn’t really know what I was singing about. I had no idea.

Take “Kyrie,” for instance. One of my favorites. My sister and I would belt that out at the top of our lungs while zipping down the hill to high school in our red land cruiser and praying to find the last parking space by the seminary building. Hearing the song last week sparked a memory of reading that word in a book not too long ago, so I googled it. Now I know: all those years when I was singing, “Kyrie lays along the road that I must follow” and thinking that “Kyrie” was a nice name for a girl? Yeah. I was singing it wrong. Try this:

“Kyrie Eleison, the road that I must travel./ Kyrie Eleison, through the darkness of the night.”

“Kyrie Eleison.” That would be Greek for “Lord have mercy,” though I didn’t know it until twenty-four hours ago. It’s possible that I was the most incredibly naïve and unintelligent girl in school, but I have a feeling that no one else in my small town knew Greek that well, either. Some probably had the lyrics on the back of the record albums, but there was no googling back in the 1980s, so I doubt seeing the words helped them out that much. I only heard the song on the radio over and over again and sang along with what I thought the words were. I can’t think of one time that the words influenced me for good or somehow helped me choose the right—because I didn’t know what I was singing about. Now, knowing what it means, I find it quite moving; understanding brings me to contemplation, and that contemplation will perhaps influence my actions some.

So do lyrics influence malleable teens? Probably. But how much? Despite the fact that I “knew” every word to the hit songs of the 80s, I had no idea what they meant and probably sang the wrong words most of the time anyway. I’m wondering how much such words could influence me. I don’t want to make the argument that I should let my teenagers listen to whatever they want. That seems to be trusting moral safety to innate innocence, and that is ludicrous. But I’m pretty sure that bemoaning and bewailing the horrid lyrics of modern music is a sure way to tip off nice teenagers; now they know they’re singing something scandalous . . . even if they don’t understand what they know.

44 comments for “Scandalous Lyrics

  1. In the song Roundabout, whenever Yes would sing “mountains come out of the sky and they stand there,” I heard it as “Mormons come out of the sky and they stand there.”

    Great point about no google back then. Garbled lyrics were very common, and there wasn’t always a good way to check.

    I personally tend to think that adults tend to obsess a little too much over lyrics, because my experience is that I rarely had a firm grasp of what they were or what they meant.

  2. People have been been bemoaning scandalous lyrics as long as there have been lyrics. There are some pretty raunchy operas out there.

  3. “Relax/ Don’t do it/ When you want to go to it,”

    I’m beyond my teenage years. I’m married. But I have no idea what this means and why you blush when you hear the lyrics. So maybe it’s not just the youth who have no idea what they are singing about…

  4. Well, I hate to be an old fuddie duddie, but I think lyrics these days are a little more explicit. What I mean is that music these days are a little less subtle about sex than they used to be.

    Of course, maybe I just don’t listen enough to music these days, but, what I’ve heard of Brittany and others have not been very subtle when talking on the subject.

    Not to mention the fact that “Explicit Lyrics” seems to be a popular tag for CDs these days.

  5. Amanda,

    It’s probably just as well that you don’t know.

    But, the next line in that song is “when you want to come”.

  6. @4, Well it’s what comes AFTER “When you want to go to it” that’s scandalous. Though I still like the song, I blush when I sing along with it.

    I don’t know if lyrics really influence teens too much. I grew up listening to Pink Floyd (not too scandalous, really, but not endorsed by the First Presidency), “Jack and Diane”, “Walk on the Wild Side” and many other songs with outright unrighteous themes and storylines. But I knew my morals and, to be honest, these songs were combined with hundreds of innocent and decent songs. “Starry Night” and songs from Simon and Garfunkel are still some of my favorites. They didn’t turn me into a sex fiend.

    I freak out from time to time about my kids’ music–now that they have explicit lyrics warnings–but after reading this, I realize I probably shouldn’t so much.

  7. Maybe your friends who had been to a requiem mass knew the words. The “Kyrie eleison” from Mozart’s Requiem is a stunningly beautiful piece of music. Here is a recording of it.

    But, don’t feel bad. I had no clue when I was 15 either.

    I’m with Kevin–half of the lyrics were indecipherable, and even if I could hear the words I had no clue what many of them meant. That’s why I remember only the first lines of most pop songs (sometimes to my detriment).

  8. Great link, J. Stapley. It’s sure to displace “there’s a bathroom on the right” as the greatest misheard lyric of all time!

  9. In terms of scandalous lyrics, they were around long before us. I have an old album of jazz tunes from the 1920’s. They were pretty raunchy back then – the only difference today is they don’t use euphamisms as much – modern music just uses the word and counts on the radio world to bleep or remove the offensive lyric.

  10. Nice, J. Stapley. My kids leaned over my shoulder as I watched the link. They kept saying, “I don’t get it. What’s the joke?”

  11. The “Kyrie” from Bach’s B minor mass isn’t bad either.

    Lyrics? Don’t even get me started on Devo…

  12. The influence of lyrics on kids might be negligible. But influence is only one issue in terms of whether the music should be listened to. I believe that Latter-day Saints should not support things that are contrary to our values regardless of influence. Now, this might not convince your teenager, but I think it’s important for parents to teach their children to listen to music lyrics (as well as pay attention to how they feel about the music itself) and ask themselves whether the lyrics are in agreement with their values, or better yet, if they virtuous, lovely, praiseworthy, etc.

    Another thing to keep in mind is that things might influence in subtle ways that are difficult if not impossible to track. We’re better to stick with what matches our values in a more inconsequential way than to roll dice concerning their impact with our children.

    I realize, though, that this argument might not be persuasive to many people’s teenagers. Still, I think that teaching children to be critical consumers of media can go a long way.

  13. I have a weakness for very snappy songs that have less than appropriate lyrics. No Doubt’s “Feeling (hecka) Good” falls into this category–one cannot help but turn it up when it comes on. Of course the song is explicitly about dancing, but even as kids in the 80s, we always knew that lyrics about dancing had more than one interpretation. It’s like Steven Wright said: “Dancing is just a perpendicular expression of a horizontal desire.” Lyricists of the 80s latched onto that concept with abandon.

    And Carry a LASER by Mr Mister was definitely one of my favorites as well.

  14. But influence is only one issue in terms of whether the music should be listened to.

    I totally agree with this sentiment.

    If the music is crap I avoid it no matter how much I agree with the lyrics. If the music is brilliant it is worth it even if I don’t agree with the message.

    Oh wait… that’s not what you were saying is it…

  15. If the music is crap I avoid it no matter how much I agree with the lyrics.

    Well, I certainly agree with you here.

    If the music is brilliant it is worth it even if I don’t agree with the message.

    Depending on what is meant by “don’t agree,” I could agree here too. But not if the message is offensive or a direct affront on my values.

    As an example, I’m a pretty big Billy Joel fan (mostly his 70s stuff), but I never listen to “Only the Good Die Young” even though I think the music is pretty good. I realize that this song can be interpreted in multiple ways, but I see it as offensive to my values.

  16. Children absorb a surprising amount of stuff they hear. My 2-year old grandson has adopted as his favorite toy a Halloween decoration, a green Frankenstein head with red flashing eyes that walks around jerkily as it howls and sings “I see a bad moon rising, I see trouble on the way.” To him, the name of this beloved toy, which he turns on by pressing the nose, is “On The Way.” I imagine he will be haunted by this song for the rest of his life, and it will always remind him of his childhood.

    Yes, there are some things–songs, stories, images–I would just as soon were not part of his life until he has the ability to evaluate it and turn away from it when its message conflicts with the morality and good behavior we hope he is learning from the songs and scriptures and stories he is taught by his parents.

  17. My favorite misheard lyrics are in Shakira’s “Whenever, Wherever” when she sings “They’re over, you’re under,” I always hear it as, “A Volvo, a Honda.”

    Lyrics have definitely gotten more sexually explicit. There was one annoying pop song a few years ago where the lyrics actually went, “I wanna have sex with you.” They aren’t even trying to be subtle anymore.

    And on that note, I feel kind of bad for getting my two year-old daughter hooked on Lady Gaga’s “Pokerface.” I don’t feel bad for getting her hooked on this music video by P!nk, even though I should. But I laugh too much every time I see it.

  18. I just read the real lyrics to “Yellow Ledbetter”, which make about as much sense as the “misheard” version linked to in comment 1.

  19. Sometimes I give myself some perspective about my children’s and ward youths’ objectionable lyrics by remembering standing outside the building during a stake dance in 1974 listening to the youth inside loudly joining the band for each chorus of Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women” (aka “Everybody Must Get Stoned”).

  20. Controversy over lyrics, eh? I suspect some out there flipped out when they first heard The Kingston Trio sing about “I Don’t Give a Damn About a Greenback Dollar.”

    J. Edgar Hoover launched an undercover investigation about one particular rock song, but it yielded nothing. In retrospect, I cringe to see where some GA’s used to quote J. Edgar in their talks, but now he’s lost almost all credibility. Like, M. L. King was a womanizer, but not a Communist by all the wiretap transcripts Hoover had.

    Dennis, on #16: I like Billy Joel, but I have trouble with some of the items he sings about in “Keeping The Faith.” There’s some tracks I skip on my Jim Croce & Petula Clark (“I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from “JC, Rock Superstar”) CD’s, but this is a personal decision.

    Overall, I remember at BYU around 1982 a Daily Universe piece about where someone had a student ward or stake Fireside where they urged students to destroy tapes & records with offensive music, with a picture of some actually doing it afterward. Then, a few days later, someone wrote a Letter to the Editor at the Universe, saying:”Great! Let’s run out & burn all the offensive books in the Lee Library!”

    I’m sure that letter was tongue in cheek, but it does show what we can turn into if are unaware of the implications of what we do.

  21. Great post. When I hear songs from my formative years I’m always amazed at how little I understood. Probably a good thing.

    I *did* know what Kyrie meant however – I had a choir director in high school who was very ambitious with teaching us the classics and we performed a full mass and a requiem every year.

  22. It turns out Ryan Adams song ‘Beautiful Soda’ is actually ‘Beautiful Sorta’ – which makes a lot more sense but the discovery took some of the charm out of it for me.

    When I was un joven I thought the Juice Newton lyric ‘just touch my cheek before you leave me’ was ‘just brush my teeth before you leave me.’ That stuck with me for a lot of years. I thought, what an odd song.

    I never liked Frankie Goes to Hollywood much, and I also support Prop 8. Which just proves all things can be turned back to gay marriage debate. ~

  23. I forgot to mention that my sibling sang a line from “As I Have Loved You” as “By this shemanyo” for so many years (instead of “By this shall man know”) that we named our horse Shemanyo.

  24. Kylie (23),

    For me, it was “shalmeno” (I actually pictured this word, spelled this way, in my head). I think that a LOT of Mormons have had similar experiences with this song.

    It’s pretty funny, I thought that shalmeno must have been a word for teaching or precept or something like that.

  25. All I can say is “my values” are completely and totally irrelevant to a question like this. If there is no such thing as “correct principles” or “objective morality”, we might as well all pack up our things and go home.

  26. You don’t drink. You don’t smoke.
    What do you do?
    You don’t drink. You don’t smoke.
    What do you do?
    Subtle innuendo follows.
    Must be something inside.

    Come out, Virginia.
    Don’t let me wait.
    You Catholic girls start much too late,
    but sooner or later it comes down to fate.
    I might as well be the one.

    I once complained about Billy Ocean’s Carribean Queen being played at a youth dance when i was a youth. I also danced to Sheena Easton’s Sugar Walls (with a very, very attractive young lady), and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what “Come spend the night inside my sugar walls” is supposed to mean.

    I’m too tired to get to a point.

  27. Great memories — those same songs remind me of stake dances too! That and anything by Chicago or Peter Gabriel. The story I posted about Youth Conference centers around the song “Lady in Red” — remember hearing that one at dances?

  28. Of course, #26. Because I figured out “Relax” and found myself blushing, it is no longer available in our home. Alas, my children will never have the chance (at home) to learn if they were smarter than me about that song.

    #28. Lady in Red! I should have put that on the music mix! How many years did I want the perfect red dress–never found–so I could be sung to like that? But not by Chris De Burgh (whose name I had to just look up).

  29. Well this is the great debate isn’t it?…Since the beginning of time music has played a part of this world, and no doubt in Heaven as well…I was blessed with the gift of songwriting and singing and grew up very understanding of lyrical content and their meanings perhaps becuase I was a songwriter… I knew exactly at age 13 what the song RELAX meant…one didn’t need to be a genious to figure that out…But since noone ever came out and said it for sure back then, I only had my own interpretation of it…

    Your stories and comments have inspired me to write a song.

    This debate will ever continue in this world, what I have learned is, YES lyrics influence greatly, but you’d be surprised how many of your teens already know and understand what they mean and dont’ give much mind to those that are seemly offensive, Yet there is another side since these teen minds are still so young and fragile it can corrupt their innocence…

    My daughter as I have taught her that no matter how great the music is if the lyrics are speaking in a negative tone…simply turn the channel…She states she likes the music and just ignores the words. I tell her be wise as I have learned in the study of music and numonic device theory that is how these lyrics get in your head and stay there, it is true what you don’t understand can’t hurt you..but beware… If I don’t like the lyrical content I simply turn it off…I don’t listen to the radio much anyway, never have.. I do make note if the music was key…Good music is good music, but most often in modern music, lyrics tell the story…

    Not unlike the ‘Bards’ of old…we just have simply taken it up a notch.

    I usually think to myself when I hear a song…and ask would Jesus sing this?..Seriously… Would he see the value in the music and simply ignore the poor choice of lyrical content as he goes about his day singing out loud in the world above? Highly unlikely since there is no degree of sin? For years I have written hundreds of songs, some songs I would never publish, some that I have.

    The world seems to be thriving on this negativity at current…Even country music has changed and been swayed from its once heartfelt realism to rubbing shoulders with the likes of some of the worlds top pop artists. Don’t get me wrong every now and then people sit up and take notice, in general our souls crave music, music is powerful…We want something good, true…

    What you have grown up with and listedned to is only what the major industry has capitalized on and said to you, the public, this is what you will listen to and buy…Even back then in the 1980s there was a thriving independent industry making its way in this world, but you never got to hear that music.
    I encourage you to remember not all of us who have been blessed with this gift will ever make it to this “world’s industry”, they are simply there to make a buck $ but I believe we are meant for another time perhaps…

    So enjoy the music, listen carefully, simply teach your children the difference of substance vs. musical value.

    In my humble opinion IT IS ALL GOOD, but I always remember that we will be judged according to our own works and I would assume that would include those we influence in this world or have led astray…

    It is true know one can really say what the lyrics mean except the author of them. As in poetry I write I enjoy tantleizing the mind to think and use its own conceptions as I believe every song should have its own meaning to each listener…

    Music is a great key to communication in this world… what saddens me so, is somewhere we lost that key and have been lost on this path ever since. Righteous music or good music doesn’t always have to be sung by a choir…I hope you are teaching your children that the music world is much larger than what they hear on their favorite radio station…

    I was just inspired to comment following the spirit’s nudge that led me to speak my mind…So much in this life we take in and sometimes for granted we don’t understand, but that is the beauty of learning…

  30. I was driving in the car with my wife and kids the other day and we had the radio playing. The station started playing one of Britney Spears’ latest. My wife and thirteen year old daughter were grooving along just belting the number out when I heard them utter an obscene phrase. I was shocked at what I’d just heard and immediately killed the volume. I asked, “What did I hear you just say?”

    My wife and daughter both responded, “What!?”

    “What was that last phrase you were singing before I killed the radio?”

    “‘All the boys and all the girls are begging to if you seek Amy.’ The name of the song is ‘If You Seek Amy,'” she replied.

    I then had to spend the next ten minutes explaining to my wife– in hushed voice– why those song lyrics are the most obscene thing I’ve ever heard over the airwaves.

    I guess that just demonstrates that a catchy tune can render the lyrics completely irrelevant– at least until one actually notices them.

  31. My daughter is 11. She asked how long is a mile because of “join the mile high club at 37,000 feet” lyrics. How would you respond?

  32. One of my toddlers turned a line from a Beatie Boys song You’ve got to fight for the right to party to You’ve got to fight for the right to POTTY and a KISS song from I want to rock and roll all night and party everyday to I want to rock and roll and POTTY everyday.

    She was very serious about what she thought she heard. It is quite obvious what phase of life she was in.

  33. Yikes! I just got the issue in comment #31. That’s terrible! I speak with purer vowels (no schwas) and therefore “if” and “eff” sound very different to me. That’s probably why I didn’t get it before.

  34. As someone who DJ’d a lot of Stake Dances, don’t be fooled that the kids don’t know ALL the words (good and bad) to their songs. When asked to play some songs and i would point out “Can’t play that, third verse, second line…” I would usually get a “oh yeah.” or “it’s not THAT bad.” Sometimes, I’d get the parents complaining about a particular song and I’d say, “So what does that lyric even mean?” Course, usually, I couldn’t figure it out or I wouldn’t play it but they thought “it sounded bad.”

    Times have definitely changed. When the Beach Boys sang, “Spend the night together,” they meant until 11:00pm. Nowadays, they mean until 11:00 the next morning!

  35. There have always been suggestive lyrics. In the 1950s, wasn’t there a song about “making love underneath the apple tree?”. Some ’20s and ’30s lyrics were outrageous, too!

  36. I used to think that Kirie was “carrion.” As in, roadkill lies upon the road that I must travel.

  37. I have a comment in moderation on this thread. It’s a pretty lame comment, but is there any chance someone could rescue it?

    Feel free do delete this comment once you do.

  38. JA Benson–I laughed out loud. Someone at my house really needs that song. Perhaps if we sang about going to the potty all day long, we could remember to do it.

    Jack, I’ll try to find your comment. I’m not so great at this blogging thing.

    Jeff (#35)–I’m glad someone was listening more closely (and more intelligently) than I. My husband informs me that he used to be on a Stake Dance Committee to check all songs and lyrics before they were played. I think my stake might have missed that part.

  39. Jack, I found your comment and approved it. I think. It should be coming.

    You’re making me rethink my whole premise. I had never heard that song before. Catchy tune, but crazy lyrics (though I wonder how much I’d have understood without the video to make her point). The problem is that they’re now running continuously through my head, and I’m about to resort to the old “sing a hymn” to get them gone. Perhaps that’s the reason to pay attention to what I’m singing about.

  40. I think rather than try to censor my kids’ music, which I can’t see working very well, since they could just wait until I wasn’t listening to play it, I prefer the tack of just exploring and enjoying good music together. Music is about a lot more than the words. Sometimes the words are misunderstood, for one thing. I’m thinking of NIN’s Trent Reznor who is one of the most moralizing of lyricists, whom many nevertheless seem to think is obscene. He is obscenely honest, I guess. Other times, you know a group might be on the skanky side, but the good in their music makes up for it totally. I’m thinking Red Hot Chili Peppers, for instance. I guess I see it all as art, expressing what the artist is living. It doesn’t have to be all sweetness and light for me to like it, because life’s not like that. I think of Karen Carpenter singing all that treacly stuff while she was in the process of starving herself to death. It wouldn’t have hurt for her to have expressed some of her desperation, or just anything real she was living, in her songs, would it? I actually loathe treacly stuff like that. I hate insincere music.

    Anyway, I think sharing our likes and dislikes, playing our favorite stuff for each other and talking about what makes it good or not good is much more effective than simply banning things. There’s one exception in my house. I don’t let my son play classic rock while I’m around. I find it nauseating to listen to the same songs I loved as a teenager and college student, for some reason. I’ve heard them too often. They don’t stand up to that many listenings. When he wants to tease me he always plays Billy Joel, whom I utterly loathe. (laughs)

  41. Thankfully, due to Ben Stiller, now whenever I hear “Relax”, I think of Derek Zoolander attempting to attack the Malaysian prime minister with his crazy runway moves, after being brainwashed by Mugato. Sometimes pop culture can counteract itself!

  42. “I think of Karen Carpenter singing all that treacly stuff while she was in the process of starving herself to death. It wouldn’t have hurt for her to have expressed some of her desperation, or just anything real she was living, in her songs, would it?”

    I understand her later music was much more grim.

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