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Close-Listening: Diving Deep into a Song’s Lyrics

Close-Listening: Diving Deep into a Song’s Lyrics
Close-Listening: Diving Deep into a Song’s Lyrics By Angel Zhang
By Andrew K. Choe, Crimson Staff Writer

Misheard lyrics can be a golden moment of serendipity. Often, these mistaken lyrics, or mondegreens, are just words that slip past our attention. Despite their falsehood, these alternative listenings of a song can open up compelling new interpretations and personal connections to the music.

A classic example: In the chorus of the hit folk-pop song “Stick Season,” singer Noah Kahan famously belts, “And I saw your mom, she forgot that I existed.” Since my very first listen, something about Kahan’s New England accent and cadence at the ends of words has led me to hear the word “stalk” instead of “saw.” Undoubtedly, the original lyric makes more sense in the context of this tender and aching tune. Still, it’s interesting to imagine a more sinister mood under the stream of Kahan’s buoyant, fingerpicked guitar strums: What if the speaker maintained a sympathetic exterior while harboring resentment and bitterness that pushed them to stalk an ex’s parent?

Another mondegreen I treasure shows up in indie-folk singer Sufjan Stevens’s “Goodbye to All That,” a song from his 2020 electronic music album, “The Ascension.” In the first verse, Stevens perfectly captures the restlessness of youth by crooning, “I’m driving to wherever you are / Now that all of my dreams have been confiscated / Circa 1975.” The reference to the singer’s birth year suggests that frustration and broken dreams have been lifelong friends, a characteristically sad note from this famously melancholy singer.

When a friend first listened to the song, however, he instead heard the phrase “circumventing 75.” Curious about whether this misheard lyric meant anything, we did a quick Google search that quickly led us to Interstate 75. The sprawling highway stretches from south Florida all the way to the northern border of Michigan, Stevens’s childhood home and the setting for some of his music. In addition to the biographical connection, this mondegreen seemed to fit perfectly in a song with the major motifs of both driving and leaving things behind.

All this discussion of misheard lyrics attests to the deeply personal nature of interpreting and finding meaning in a song’s words. Perhaps, as a result, music journalists tend to avoid offering speculative interpretations of a track’s lyrics. Record reviews focus more on production quality and overarching themes instead of diving deep into close readings. A few exceptions arise when the meaning behind lyrics have real-world consequences (such as Megan Thee Stallion and Nicki Minaj’s diss track feud) and when artists explicitly describe the stories and themes that underlie their lyrics.

The absence of subjective interpretation of lyrics within music journalism doesn’t mean that these personal takes don’t deserve a platform. Websites like Reddit, Genius, and even the comments section of YouTube videos serve as spaces for music fans to share how they understand the music that they love. In a time when many record stores and live music venues are unfortunately disappearing, artists’ followers foster fandoms and a continued stream of speculation about their favorite lyrics.

Online forums like Reddit and Tumblr are the most flexible platforms, allowing members to post images and discussion prompts about a variety of topics. The Reddit board for indie-rock artist Phoebe Bridgers features fan art, live concert footage, and lengthy discussions of Bridgers’s lyrics.

While most of these spaces seem esoteric and somewhat frivolous for people who aren’t superfans of a particular artist, they are surprisingly important in preserving knowledge and memories that fall through the cracks of mainstream media. For example, a post on the Phoebe Bridgers Reddit board by user @litetravelr compellingly argues that the song “Chesapeake” by Better Oblivion Community Center, a supergroup featuring Bridgers and Bright Eyes frontman Conor Oberst, is about legendary indie artist Elliott Smith. The post dissects the concert scene described in the lyrics of “Chesapeake” and compares the description to an Elliott Smith festival that the user attended in 2003. Whether or not the author is correct in their interpretation, the post offers an interesting perspective and shares a meaningful memory with a community of Bridgers’s fans.

The website Genius offers a more focused platform for music listeners to interact with a song’s lyrics. With its characteristic yellow color palette, the website is known for its lyric annotation feature. Songs in the website’s expansive database usually feature at least a couple of highlighted lyrics, indicating user contributions that offer interpretations, biographical notes, and cultural commentary alongside the words of the song.

The Genius entry for rapper Eminem’s iconic “Rap God,” which has over 19 million views, features annotations that pore over the dense verses with a scholarly rigor. One commenter interprets the track as a tribute to hip-hop culture and its icons. For younger audiences, another contributor offers context about the song’s allusion to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, complete with links to contemporary news articles and SNL skits about the event.

Genius also features a few “verified annotations” from Eminem himself, in which the rap superstar describes his creative process and the motives behind choosing certain verses to include during production. Instead of offering a definitive take straight from the artist, verified annotations primarily discuss the production process, giving listeners the freedom to indulge their most interesting interpretations.

Even the unassuming comments sections on video-sharing websites like YouTube can quickly transform into vulnerable yet supportive spaces for people to share how they treasure and rely on music. The comments section for The Beatles’ song “In My Life” features dozens of comments — many with thousands of likes — describing how the timeless song has helped listeners cope with personal tragedies and life’s biggest challenges.

One post by user @JoeyCap sums it up well: “As you scroll down through the comments, you start to see a trend, people talking about a special moment in time or an unforgettable experience, or beautiful or tragic life event, that's what the Beatles legacy is..they captured the sound of a human soul.”

Indeed, there’s something validating and uplifting about seeing how the music you love impacts others. This camaraderie is worth celebrating, but it often doesn’t take center stage in established music journalism outlets, where objectivity and formal critiques are the tools of the trade.

—Staff writer Andrew K. Choe can be reached at

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