Lyrics to 50 famously misunderstood songs, explained
Understanding why we mishear words.
Madison Troyer 9/08/2019
The word mondegreen is defined as a misheard word or phrase that makes sense in your head, but is, in fact, incorrect. The term was coined in a November 1954 Harper’s Bazaar piece, where the author, Sylvia Wright, recalled a childhood mishearing.
According to the author, when she was young her mother would read to her from a book called “Reliques of Ancient Verse.” Her favorite poem from the 1765 book went like this: “Ye Highland and Ye Lowlands / Oh where have you been? / They have slain the Earl o’Moray / And laid him on the green.” Wright, however, heard the last line as “And Lady Mondegreen.”
A mondegreen actually takes place between auditory perception (the physical act of hearing) and meaning-making (when our brains imbibe the noises with significance). This is essentially what happens in the childhood game of telephone. As one friend whispers a word or phrase into another’s ear, it can become wildly distorted, and a totally different word or phrase can come out the other side. The acoustic information that’s received and the interpretation a brain comes up with simply don’t match up. It’s not exactly entirely clear why this happens, we just know that it does.
One instance we see this happen a lot is in song lyrics. You can blame it on the overwhelming amount of auditory signals, like instruments and background singers, or the fact that some words and phrases just sound remarkably like others, but chances are you’ve had at least one instance in your life where you’ve misheard what the singer is saying. Today, we’re here to help you out. Stacker has rounded up 50 famously misheard songs, explaining what’s actually being said. From “hold me closer Tony Danza” to “there’s a wino down the road,” read on for lyrics to 50 famously misunderstood songs.
“Tiny Dancer” by Elton John
- Misheard: “Hold me closer Tony Danza” - Correct: “Hold me closer tiny dancer”
One of the most frequently misheard lyrics, this Elton John blooper has spawned a life of its own. For example, the single, which went three-times platinum in April 2018, spawned a joke on an episode of “Friends.” When discussing the most romantic songs of all time, Phoebe says that, in her opinion, it’s “the one that Elton John wrote for that guy on ‘Who’s the Boss’.”
“We Built This City” by Starship
- Misheard: “We built this city on sausage rolls” - Correct: “We built this city on rock and roll”
This misheard lyric from Starship’s first-ever single is so common that it prompted a parody song. YouTuber LadBaby (aka Mark Hoyle) held the #1 position on the U.K. singles charts during the 2018 holiday season for his cover about pork-stuffed pastries. Beating out artists like Ariana Grande and Mariah Carey for the honor, all proceeds from his track were donated to the Trussell Trust, a food bank charity.
“Drift Away” by Uncle Kracker
- Misheard: “Give me the Beach Boys and free my soul” - Correct: “Give me the beat boys and free my soul”
Peaking at #9 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, “Drift Away” is one of Uncle Kracker’s most famous songs. Unbeknownst to most people, it’s also a cover. The original version of the song belongs to soul singer Dobie Gray, which was certified Gold by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in 1973.
“Blank Space” by Taylor Swift
- Misheard: “All the lonely Starbucks lovers” - Correct: “Got a long list of ex-lovers”
This lyric was misheard so frequently by Taylor Swift fans, that the singer actually poked fun at her own song on Valentine’s Day in 2015. In a now-deleted tweet, she wrote: “Sending my love to all the lonely Starbucks lovers out there this Valentine’s Day… even though that is not the correct lyric.” To which the coffee chain playfully replied: “Wait, it’s not?”
“Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen
- Misheard: “Saving his life from this warm sausage tea” - Correct: “Spare him his life from this monstrosity”
Anything less than a piping hot cup of tea is an actual nightmare for most Brits, but it turns out that’s not actually what one of their most famous musicians was crooning about. The song’s popularity in the country has endured regardless. As of 2018, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the third-best-selling U.K. single of all time, and is often cited as one of the greatest rock songs world-wide.
“Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot
- Misheard: “I like big butts in a can of limes” - Correct: “I like big butts and I can not lie”
When Sir Mix-A-Lot’s famously irreverent song made its debut in 1992, its equally outrageous video was briefly banned by MTV due to its bootylicious nature. Rather than squashing the song’s popularity, the ban actually boosted it, and in the end, the track spent five weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Message in a Bottle” by The Police
- Misheard: “A year has passed since I broke my nose” - Correct: “A year has passed since I wrote my note”
The Police considered “Message in a Bottle” one of their most lyrically deep songs. In fact, when discussing the song in “1000 UK Number Ones,” Sting said, “I think the lyrics are subtle and well-crafted enough to hit people on a different level from something you just sing along to.”
“Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” by Fifth Dimension
- Misheard: “This is the dawning of the Age of Asparagus” - Correct: “This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius”
A true hippie anthem, “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” is actually a mashup of two songs written for the musical “Hair.” It’s also somewhat of a rarity in the music industry as it was recorded by the group in two different cities: Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Despite its nontraditional origins, the single was certified Platinum by the RIAA in August 1991, 22 years after its original release.
“Waterfalls” by TLC
- Misheard: “Don’t go Jason Waterfalls” - Correct: “Don’t go chasing waterfalls”
In 1995, TLC won the MTV Video Music Award for ‘Video of the Year’ for their signature track, which spent seven weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. However, that didn’t keep fans from actually knowing all the lyrics to the now-classic track. The “Jason Waterfalls” lyric even has its own Urban Dictionary page, setting fans straight on their mistakes once and for all.
“Smells like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana
- Misheard: “Here we are now in containers” - Correct: “Here we are now, entertain us”
Legend has it, Kurt Cobain, Nirvana’s lead singer, used to use the correct line, “here we are, now entertain us” whenever he entered a party. It was such a signature for him, that he found a way to work it into the song, only to have it misheard frequently by listeners. The confusion didn’t stop the alternative track from reaching #6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“We Will Rock You” by Queen
- Misheard: “Kicking your cat all over the place” - Correct: “Kicking your can all over the place”
In 2008, Queen’s singles “We Are the Champions” and “We Will Rock You” were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. It was a well-deserved honor for the tracks (which, despite being two separate songs, are almost always played together and frequently referred to as a single entity). In 2017, the track went four-times multi-Platinum, with over 7 million certified units sold.
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” by The Beatles
- Misheard: “I want to hold your ham” - Correct: “I want to hold your hand”
Blame it on the British accents, but the first Beatles song to catch on in America also has one of the group’s most frequently misheard lyrics. According to industry lore, Bob Dylan also misunderstood a line in the song. He allegedly thought that “I can’t hide” was “I get high.” After finding out that the group was not, in fact, marijuana smokers, he introduced them to the recreational practice and cemented himself a spot in Beatle history.
“I’m a Believer” by The Monkees
- Misheard: “Then I saw her face, now I’m gonna leave her” - Correct: “Then I saw her face, now I’m a believer”
Popularized by the movie “Shrek,” “I’m a Believer” was actually released 35 years prior by The Monkees. The original version was an instantaneous hit, going gold within two days of its release and holding the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 for seven weeks.
“Blinded by the Light” by Bruce Springsteen
- Misheard: “Wrapped up like a douche, another rumor in the night” - Correct: “Revved up like a deuce, another runner in the night”
This famous Bruce Springsteen lyric gets misheard in all sorts of ways. In 1993, a Canadian sketch-comedy show, “The Vacant Lot,” included a “Blinded by the Light” sketch on their show that poked fun at the various incorrect renditions out there.
“Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
- Misheard: “There’s a bathroom on the right” - Correct: “There’s a bad moon on the rise”
Some musicians love getting in on the joke of their misunderstood lyrics—John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival is one of them. During his 1998 “Premonition” concert taping, he actually sang the incorrect lyric on stage (close listeners can hear it quite plainly after the final verse). It’s also been reported that during other concerts he’d point to the closest bathroom whenever he got to the line.
“Like a Virgin” by Madonna
- Misheard: “Like a virgin, touched for the 31st time” - Correct: “Live a virgin, touched for the very first time”
“Like a Virgin” was Madonna’s first #1 hit in the U.S. The track topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart for six weeks. Its racy lyrics reportedly made it harder to find a recording studio and production team who would bring the song to life, but the finished product ultimately set Madonna apart from the horde of other 1980’s pop singers.
“It’s Gonna Be Me” by *NSYNC
- Misheard: “It’s gonna be May!” - Correct: “It’s gonna be me”
In recent years, this misheard lyric has spawned its own meme that pops up each spring: a picture of a frosted-tip, curly-haired Justin Timberlake spouting the wrong lyrics. The song hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, but even some of the most diehard ‘90s boy band fans admit that this lyric is hard to understand.
"Cups (When I’m Gone)" by Anna Kendrick/Pitch Perfect
- Misheard: “You’re gonna miss me by my walk, you’re gonna miss me by my taco” - Correct: “You’re gonna miss me by my walk, you’re gonna miss me by my talk, oh”
This made-for-a-movie song is a combination of a Carter Family song, “When I’m Gone” and the cup game, which was invented by the British band Lulu & the Lampshades and went viral on Reddit in 2009. It reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100, and inspired legions of covers that were posted on platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter. Several of the covers actually included this misheard lyric.
“Work It” by Missy Elliott
- Misheard: “Iss yurr fweminippi fwep yet” - Correct: “Ti esrever dna ti plif nwod gniht ym tup I”
Missy Elliott’s “Work It” spent 10 weeks at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100. During that time, most fans assumed this line was just gibberish. There was even speculation that it was a coded dirty message. But it turns out the real lyric is “I put my thing down flip it and reverse it” just flipped and reversed.
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” by Billy Joel
- Misheard: “We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning, said the worst attorney” - Correct: “We didn’t start the fire, it was always burning, since the world’s been turning”
“We Didn’t Start the Fire” ranks low on the list of Billy Joel’s favorite songs, but American listeners disagreed. The song reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and received heavy airplay after its release in 1989. The track is a stream-of-consciousness-style song that lists all the events Joel feels defined his generation. The list is so lengthy that Joel has admitted having trouble remembering all the lyrics.
“Forget You” by CeeLo Green
- Misheard: “I guess he’s an expert, and I’m more an attorney” - Correct: “I guess he’s an Xbox, and I’m more Atari”
In the original, expletive-laden version of this song, CeeLo Green drops the F-bomb 16 times in the span of 3.5 minutes. Even still, it reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and broke the 2 million view mark on YouTube within one week of its release.
“Desperado” by The Eagles
- Misheard: “You’ve been outright offensive, for so long now” - Correct: “You’ve been out riding fences, for so long now”
“Desperado” was the last song The Eagles ever performed on tour. It closed their show out on July 29, 2015, and six months later their lead singer, Glenn Frey, was dead. While the song is a fan favorite, it was never released as a single, which helped to boost album sales.
“Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke
- Misheard: “Mushrooms are nasty” - Correct: “Must want to get nasty”
Amidst all the controversy that surrounded the song’s suggestive and possibly demeaning lyrics, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” was busy breaking records. It not only took the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100, but it also held the #1 spot on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop songs for 16 weeks, the longest any song had held the position since the 1940s. A large part of that success was due to the media attention that surrounded the unrated cut of the video, which featured topless women, being banned.
“Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell
- Misheard: “If it ain’t paradise, then put up a parking lot” - Correct: “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot”
The Counting Crows and Vanessa Carlton cover of this song might be the most famous version, but Joni Mitchell’s was the original. Carlton told “The Los Angeles Times” that she wrote the song after her first trip to Hawaii, where they had literally paved paradise to put up a parking lot.
“Our Lips are Sealed” by The Go-Gos
- Misheard: “Even Dallas games, people play” - Correct: “In the jealous games people play”
The Go-Gos originally started as a punk band in the 1970s but shifted to pop with the release of their album “Beauty and the Beat” in 1981. “Our Lips are Sealed” was the breakout hit from the album, peaking at #20 on the Billboard charts.
“Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin
- Misheard: “There’s a wino down the road” - Correct: “And as we wind on down the road”
Although “Stairway to Heaven” has been called “the best rock song of all time,” it actually never charted. The track was never released as a single; instead, radio stations received promotional singles that have become collector’s items.
“Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by The Eurythmics
- Misheard: “I travel the world in generic jeans” - Correct: “I travel the world and the seven seas”
Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart, the duo behind the Eurythmics, wrote “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” about the search for fulfillment and the desires that motivate us. But not everyone hears it that way. The 2013 rom-com “I Give It A Year” poked fun at listeners' most frequently misheard lyric with one character quipping, “Do you think Annie Lennox is singing about whether she happened to travel the world in Levi’s or Wranglers?”
“Dancing Queen” by ABBA
- Misheard: “See that girl, watch her scream, kicking the dancing queen” - Correct: “See that girl, watch that scene, dig in the dancing queen”
The only one of ABBA’s string of hits to make it to #1 in the U.S., “Dancing Queen” also hit #1 in 13 other countries. It might also be their most misunderstood song. According to a poll conducted by Blinkbox in 2014, 22% of listeners reported hearing the famous lyrics this way.
“Papa Don’t Preach” by Madonna
- Misheard: “Poppadom preach” - Correct: “Papa don’t preach”
When “Papa Don’t Preach” was first released in 1986 there was a lot of controversy surrounding the song, as its lyrics dealt with teenage pregnancy and abortion. The media attention ended up helping boost the overall popularity of the song, which hit #1 in both the U.S. and the U.K. While we know Madonna as a very outspoken performer today, this was one of her first tracks to openly deal with a political issue.
“Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix
- Misheard: “Excuse me while I kiss this guy” - Correct: “Excuse me while I kiss the sky”
While it only ever hit #65 on the Billboard Hot 100, “Purple Haze” is often cited as one of Jimi Hendrix’s best songs. There’s a commonly misheard lyric buried within it, and, for his part, Hendrix did little to ever set the record straight. He even went so far as to occasionally sing the inccorrect lyric in concert while nodding or pointing at a male member of his band up on the stage.
“The Sidewinder Sleep Tonite” by R.E.M.
- Misheard: “Calling Jamaica” - Correct: “Call me when you try to wake her up”
One of R.E.M.’s most overall confusing songs also holds one of their most commonly misheard lyrics. However, one thing that anyone who has ever heard the song can probably identify is the track’s first four notes, which mirror those from “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” by The Tokens. Rather than stealing the sequence, R.E.M. paid The Tokens for the rights to use the riff and ended up covering the other “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” as a part of the final deal.
“Like a G6” by Far East Movement
- Misheard: “Like a cheese stick” - Correct: “Like a G-6”
Far East Movement was essentially a one-hit-wonder. Their only American hit, “Like a G6,” reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2010, and two additional songs charted in the U.K. Fans misheard the lyrics to their sole hit, as G-6’s aren’t actually planes (just something the band made up that could conceivably go faster than a G-4).
“Two Tickets to Paradise” by Eddie Money
- Misheard: “I’ve got two chickens to paralyze” - Correct: “I’ve got two tickets to paradise”
Eddie Money didn’t have a long or storied career, but his hit “Two Tickets to Paradise” has become a classic rock staple. After its release, the song only ever hit #22 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Summertime Sadness” by Lana del Rey
- Misheard: “I’m feeling ill like Drake tonight” - Correct: “I’m feeling electric tonight”
Blame it on the singer’s sultry accent, or the unusual pacing of the song, but few listeners get this lyric right on the first try. “Summertime Sadness” was a single from Lana del Rey’s first major album “Born to Die.” The track, which has a sound that del Rey describes as “Hollywood sadcore,” reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida (In the Garden of Eden)” by Iron Butterfly
- Misheard: “In a glob of Velveeta, honey” - Correct: “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, honey”
Arguably the first heavy metal song, “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” peaked at #30 on the Billboard charts. The original song is over 17 minutes long but uses only 30 different words. It was this version (not the four-minute radio cut) that Iron Butterfly was set to perform at Woodstock before they got stuck in an airport and couldn’t make it.
“Addicted to Love” by Robert Palmer
- Misheard: “A digital love” - Correct: “Addicted to love”
Hitting #1 on the charts, Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” is most memorable for its music video. The clip features a handful of models, all dressed and made-up identically, pretending to play instruments behind the singer. It was parodied constantly throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, including in a Pepsi commercial which featured fellow musician Britney Spears.
“Take a Chance on Me” by ABBA
- Misheard: “If you change your mind, Jackie Chan, I’m the first in line, Jackie Chan” - Correct: “If you change your mind, take a chance, I’m the first in line, take a chance”
While “Take a Chance on Me” only reached #3 in the United States, it hit #1 in the chart in the U.K., Austria, Belgium, Ireland, and Mexico. The single was certified Gold a year after its release in 1978.
“SexyBack” by Justin Timberlake
- Misheard: “Go hippie, go hippie, go” - Correct: “Go ahead, be gone with it”
The first single from Justin Timberlake’s second solo album “FutureSex: LoveSounds,” “SexyBack” topped the charts both in the U.K. and the U.S. It combines elements of electronic dance music and disco, creating a sound that’s totally unique and was definitely ahead of its time when the track was released. In June 2007, the single went three-times multi-Platinum.
“Vertigo” by U2
- Misheard: “Hello, hello! I’m in a place called Oregon” - Correct: “Hello, hello! I’m at a place called vertigo”
Despite only reaching #31 on the U.S. charts, “Vertigo” won three Grammys at the 2004 awards: Best Rock Song, Best Rock Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal, and Best Short Form Music Video. It’s also among the songs the band played when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame a year later.
“Blowin’ in the Wind” by Bob Dylan
- Misheard: “The ants are my friends, they’re blowing in the wind” - Correct: “The answer my friends, is blowing in the wind”
It is thought that this is the most covered Bob Dylan song. In fact, Dylan’s version was never all that popular—it was the Peter, Paul and Mary cover that everyone knows best. In 1999, the track, which Dylan claims to have written in 10 minutes, was introduced into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
“Piano Man” by Billy Joel
- Misheard: “Sing us a song for the yellow man” - Correct: “Sing us a song, you’re the piano man”
Arguably one of the most recognizable songs in the world, “Piano Man” was Billy Joel’s breakthrough single after signing with Columbia Records. In October 2018, the single went three-times multi-Platinum. Even still, not everyone knows the words.
“Paradise City” by Guns N’ Roses
- Misheard: “Take me down to a very nice city” - Correct: “Take me down to the Paradise City”
Despite it literally being the title of the song, many fans mishear this lyric. According to the band, Paradise City is Los Angeles, while the very next line (“where the grass is green, and the girls are pretty”) is about the town where Axl Rose’s family would vacation, Bloomington, Ind.
“Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift
- Misheard: “And the bakers gonna bake, bake, bake, bake, bake” - Correct: “And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate”
The lead single from Taylor Swift’s first purely pop album “1989,” “Shake It Off” debuted at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 where it spent a total of four weeks. Unlike some of her other misheard lyrics, T-Swift has never addressed this misquote publicly.
“Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” by The Beatles
- Misheard: “The girl with colitis goes by” - Correct: “The girl with kaleidoscope eyes”
After the Beatles released this track in 1967, the BBC banned it for its excessive amount of drug references. While the band originally denied that the song had anything to do with drugs, Paul McCartney finally confessed, in a 2004 interview with Daily Mail, that it was “pretty obvious” what the song was actually about.
“Chasing Pavements” by Adele
- Misheard: “Or should I just keep chasing penguins” - Correct: “Or should I just keep chasing pavements”
A much more lighthearted twist on this classic heartbreak song, the mixup between chasing penguins and chasing pavements has been reported by multiple listeners. While “Chasing Pavements” didn’t perform as well on the charts, it is credited with giving Adele her American breakout. The crooner performed the song on “SNL” in 2008, which gave her a huge amount of exposure in the United States.
“I Can See Clearly Now” by Johnny Nash
- Misheard: “I can see clearly now, Lorraine is gone” - Correct: “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone”
The first reggae song to hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” also has one of the most commonly misunderstood lyrics in music history. Nash wrote the lyrics to the hit himself, but his thick Texan accent can make it hard for some listeners to figure out exactly what those lyrics are.
“Single Ladies” by Beyonce
- Misheard: “Got gloss on my lips, a man on my hips, hold me tighter than my very own jeans” - Correct: “Got gloss on my lips, a man on my hips, hold me tighter than my Dereon jeans”
“Single Ladies” won three Grammy’s at the 2010 awards: Song of the Year, Best Female R&B Vocal Performance, and Best R&B Song. In the middle of her multi-Platinum track, Beyonce plugs her ready-to-wear clothing line, House of Dereon.
“Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men
- Misheard: “Cause though the truth may vary, this sh** will carry our bodies safe to shore” - Correct: “Cause though the truth may vary, this ship will carry our bodies safe to shore”
As of December 2017, “Little Talks” by Of Monsters and Men has gone five-times multi-Platinum selling a whopping 5 million certified units. It turns out the lyrics of the band’s stand out hit aren’t quite as profane as you may have thought, although they may sound like it. According to the group’s lead singer, Nanna Bryndís Hilmarsdóttir, the song is actually about a wife talking to her recently deceased husband.
“La Isla Bonita” by Madonna
- Misheard: “Last night I dreamt of soft bagels” - Correct: “Last night I dreamt of San Pedro”
While it was never a hit on the same level as many of Madonna’s other songs, at least in the U.S., “La Isla Bonita” still holds a special place in the Queen of Pop’s catalog as it was her first track to have Latin influences. And it’s not terribly surprising that this lyric is often misheard, as San Pedro is not a real island.
“Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi
- Misheard: “It doesn’t make a difference if we’re naked or not” - Correct: “It doesn’t make a difference if we make it or not”
Originally, Jon Bon Jovi didn’t think that “Livin’ on a Prayer” was up to the same standard as the rest of the band’s work, and intended to leave the track off of their third album “Slippery When Wet.” Thankfully, the group convinced him to include it in the end, and it became the group’s signature song (as well as the unofficial anthem of New Jersey). In 2013, the track was certified by the RIAA as three-times multi-Platinum.