Have you ever heard a song lyric and been like wait, I’m sorry, WHAT? I have. A lot. Especially lately. It seems that, more and more, pop music is experimenting with abstract word combinations that are not actually intelligible in the English language (i.e “Oh na na, what’s my name?” –Rihanna). This is fine by me, as I am a fan of language experimentation and even language deconstruction. This is not what I’m stressing about. What I’m stressing about is lyrics that sound cogent, but actually are not. I’m talking about lyrics that, despite not making any logical sense, do not flag our attention because the music is poppy and awesome and moreover, the lyrics mimic the sound of comprehensible English. All the words being used are real English words, but don’t be fooled! This does NOT mean that the lyrics actually makes sense. Here are seven song lyrics that sound like they make sense but do not actually make sense:
•“So we put our hands up like the ceiling can’t hold us.” –Can’t Hold Us, Macklemore and Ryan Lewis
Clearly, this makes sense to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, because they used it for the title of the song. And it makes sense maybe the first or second time you hear it because you hear “ceiling” and “hands” and “hold” and your brain mixes it up to sound like they’re talking about holding the ceiling up with their hands. However, they are actually suggesting they put their hands up “Like the ceiling can’t hold us,” which is nonsense because the ceiling is NOT responsible for holding them in any way. If anything, if the ceiling were in danger of falling maybe, it would be their job to hold up the ceiling. The idea they’re trying to convey is that the ceiling needs support, “like the ceiling cant hold UP,” for example. I suggested to my sister that maybe this is what the lyric actually is and that I was just hearing it wrong, at which point she told me the title of the song and I accepted the reality of the situation. So, on a last note here, it’s actually the floor’s job to hold or support the people in a room, not so much the ceiling. My best guess is that this lyric wants to convey that the party is so wild the ceiling needs help in some way to contain it.
•“Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof.” –Happy, Pharrell.
While we’re on the subject of rooms and the structures that cover them, here is one lyric that everyone seems perfectly okay clapping along to. This lyric makes sense IF you think a room without a roof is a good thing and/or you would like to transform from a human into a room without a roof. Personally, I like my rooms to have roofs. I also like being outside, but that is a different story. I think the idea here is that people enjoy the feeling of being outside, especially when it comes to looking up at the sky, and they also like being inside with comforts such as beds and couches, so how ideal would it be to have an inside room except without the roof?! But, what I want to know, is what happens when it starts to rain? Or gets too hot? Ideally, the lyric should be something more like “clap along if you feel like a room with a convertible roof” (now you have the option to look up at the stars if you want AND protect yourself from bad weather!). I understand that Pharrell has explained that a “room without a roof” is a metaphor for limitlessness, I just personally think there are better ways to put this sentiment across, maybe even some that make sense. In Pharrell’s defense, I have not tested this theory, and it could be possible this is the only metaphor to describe a feeling of limitless. However, that does not mean that it makes sense, because it does not.
•“Cause I don’t wanna lose you now, I’m looking right at the other half of me.” –Mirrors, Justin Timberlake
On its own, this lyric makes sense. It implies that when he looks at this woman (Jessica Biel, presumably), he sees his other half, he sees a part of himself that he’s been missing. The problem comes up in the metaphor, which is also the title of the song, where he implies that looking at her is like looking into a mirror. THIS ISN’T HOW MIRRORS WORK. When you look into a mirror you don’t actually see the other half of yourself, you see your same self, the one full image of you that there is, reflected back at you. So, even if looking at Jessica Biel is a beautiful and fulfilling experience for Justin, and looking in the mirror is also beautiful and fulfilling experience for him, they are not the same experience. When you look in the mirror you do not see a missing half of yourself.
•”But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom/Blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room/we don’t care, we’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.” –Royals, Lorde
I love this song and Lorde is one of my favorite singer/songwriters out there right now. Most of the lyrics in this song create a legitimately intriguing commentary on the way wealth is glorified and worshiped in pop culture. This song is awesome because it calls out this weird notion that one must be filthy rich in order to live a fun, happy, exciting, worthwhile life. The only thing is, by saying “We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams,” she really quickly undoes the point she just made which is that she and her friends DON’T CARE that they don’t have the lifestyle being sung about in all these songs flaunting luxury. Lorde sings both “that kind of luxe just ain’t for us, we crave a different kind of buzz” AND “We’re driving Cadillacs in our dreams.” So, which is it? If she craves a different, non-wealth related, kind of buzz, why does she also dream about Cadillacs? Because I actually think this song is brilliant and iconic and highly necessary, I’m going to just suggest that this Cadillac business is a Freudian slip (possibly placed intentionally in the song) revealing a secret desire for the lifestyle she is claiming to renounce. If this is the case, then it’s cool because now she can totally get a Cadillac and maybe even some for her friends too. No more counting dollars on the train to the party.
•”Hey I just met you, and this is crazy, but here’s my number, so call me maybe.”-Call Me Maybe, Carly Rae Jepsen
I just don’t understand what is so crazy about giving your number to someone you just met. Clearly she thinks he’s hot and wants to see him again—isn’t that what you do when you want to see someone again? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure exchanging numbers with someone you just met, given that you are attracted to him/her and at least somewhat interested, is a fairly standard procedure in the dating world. If she had said “Hey I just met you, and this is crazy, but do you want to get married and start having kids right away?” then yes, that would be crazy and make sense as a lyric. And that’s not it for this song. At the very end she starts repeating, “Before you came into my life I missed you so, so bad.” THIS is crazy, actually. I feel crazy having to explain this, but you cannot possibly miss someone before you’ve met them. You CAN have a feeling of emptiness and longing and go around looking for the right person to fulfill you, but you can’t have any feelings for the specific person because you haven’t met him/her yet and therefore do not know the first thing about him/her. Maybe once you get to know someone you can say “Wow, you were the person I was looking for, you were what was missing from my life,” but Carly has only JUST met this guy, so he could easily turn out to be a serial killer or just a sexy idiot.
•“Been round the world don’t speak the language, but your booty don’t need explaining. All I really need to understand is when you talk dirty to me.” –Talk Dirty, Jason Derulo Featuring 2 Chainz
So, in my humble opinion, the first half of this lyric knocks it out of the park. Jason Derulo doesn’t speak the same language that this girl does, but it doesn’t matter because her butt transcends the rules of language! Pure Pop Song Poetics (see another article I will write in the future on this). I’m pretty sure Shakespeare couldn’t have said it better himself. It’s the second part that doesn’t make sense. He thinks that it’s okay he doesn’t speak the language because all that really matters is that he understands when she talks dirty to him. The bad news for Jason Derulo is that if you don’t understand a language you are certainly not going to understand when she talks dirty to you in that language. I personally speak Spanish almost fluently and still would not understand if someone were talking dirty to me in Spanish. That may be because all the Spanish I know I learned at my bilingual elementary school, but STILL, I feel like if you don’t understand a language how do you expect to understand when a girl talks dirty to you in that language? It’s like he thinks dirty talk is some universal code, like math or laughter, that is exempt from the misunderstandings and confusions of cross-cultural and international relationships. It isn’t.
These lyrics don’t make sense but it doesn’t matter because they have wildly catchy melodies and entire teams have worked to produce them so that they are specifically designed to hook and real us in. This is why they are top songs despite not making sense. A book would never get away with these errors, which editors would definitely flag as typos and have the author correct before publication, but these songs do so much more than get away with it: they thrive in spite of it. Talking about this with my friends and family, many people have come to the defense of these songs and have said “Okay, but you know what he meant to say”. Yes, I do know what he meant to say, but the fact is, he did NOT say it. Another argument is that, hey, don’t musicians have the right to take poetic liberties with their lyrics? Yes, they do, but there is a difference between taking poetic liberties (oh na na, what’s my name?) and straight up failing to accurately use the English language. I’m not hatin’, I’m just saying that either these lyrics intentionally don’t make sense, or their writers messed up and don’t realize it. Either way, these songs are all major hits and nobody seems to care about the weird lyrics so maybe there’s a lesson in here somewhere like we should all stop making sense* and see what happens.
*David Byrne’s 1984 album and film of the same name “Stop Making Sense” does not pretend to make logical sense the way these lyrics above do, but instead fully embraces linguistic nonsense (i.e Psycho Killer, Qu’est-ce que c’est, fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa fa).
*A previous version of this story included “Jessie’s Girl,” but we realized we had the lyric wrong ourselves and it actually did make sense.