In a post on the Longreads blog yesterday, Aaron Gilbreath discussed Maria Konnikova’s 2014 New Yorker piece about the science of misheard lyrics or mondegreens. Of course, I couldn’t read either story without thinking of my personal mondegreen history. I first heard of the phenomenon when I read Beverly Cleary’s Ramona The Pest as a child. The book features a scene where Miss Binney teaches Ramona’s class “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and Ramona thinks the song discusses a special lamp called a dawnzer. (Later, she explains to her family that the dawnzer gives a “lee light.”) I laughed, but I couldn’t help thinking the whole thing was ridiculous. My own mondegreen misadventures, after all, were years in the future.
Fast forward to college, where I insisted that Kurt Cobain was repeating the phrase “dirty nylons” at the end of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” (My best friend seemed bemused, to say the least.) Then there was the time I heard the hook to a classic James Brown number, and I was sure it was about Alice sitcom star Vic Tayback. That certainly would have added a whole new layer of meaning to my favorite Everybody Hates Chris episode:
Oddly enough, I never misheard the two most cited examples of the mondegreen world, Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising.” I believe that the true mondegreen gold standard is “Hey Sandy” by Polaris, best known as the theme song to beloved ’90s Nickelodeon series The Adventures of Pete and Pete. Listen below:
It sounds like Mark Mulcahy is singing “Hey Sandy, does your dog bite?” at the beginning of the chorus, right? Unbelievably enough, he is singing “Hey Sandy, don’t you talk back.” Jeremy D. Frens addressed this in the FAQ for The Web Site of Pete and Pete years ago. In spite of definitive information from members of Polaris, many people refuse to believe him. (I admit that I had to see Mulcahy sing the song live at San Francisco Sketchfest a few years ago to be convinced.)
Feel free to post your own mondegreen experiences in the comments. I promise not to judge!