Song Lyrics and Standard English

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According to a story in the NY Times, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh studied the 279 most popular songs from 2005 looking for references to drugs and alcohol.

I’d like to see a study that tracks the repetition rate of nonstandard English in popular music. The Pennsylvania study found that some genres mention drugs and alcohol more than others. From my own cursory and unscientific survey, I conclude that nonstandard English is well represented across genres. (My observations are based on lyrics from songs mentioned in lists like the Top 40. There may be some better ones somewhere.)

Song lyrics have more power to influence the language of young people now than they did in earlier generations.

When I was growing up, I listened to songs on the radio at home, not while I was at school or walking around town. I had a record player and a small collection of records. My total listening time probably didn’t amount to more than two or three hours a week.

Today’s adolescents spend an average of 16 hours a week listening to music. Nine out of ten in this age group have an MP3 player or a CD player in their rooms, and I’d guess that a great many younger children have them as well.

Most American high schools operate on a 36-week schedule. Class sessions vary in length from 45 to 55 minutes. At best, a student never absent will receive about four and a half hours of English instruction a week for 36 weeks of the year; compare that to 16 hours of music consumption a week every week of the year:

English instruction = 162 hours per year
Music listening = 832 hours per year

During those 832 hours, young music fans hear thousands upon thousands of repetitions of such constructions as:

I feel the magic between you and I. –Eric Carmen

When you cheated girl, my heart bleeded girl. – Justin Timberlake

Can we conversate? –Young Rant/Shorty B.

Can You handle me the way I are? –Timbaland

Far too many stars have fell on me. –Dan Fogelberg

As time goes by, you will get to know me a little more better. –Backstreet Boys

The way my body feel/When you’re laying right beside me. –Sevyn Streeter
Me and you are supose to be together. –Ashley Tisdale

A blogger at the music site Hooks & Harmony gives the crown for bad grammar to Beyoncé. Peter Lee’s article about “Get Me Bodied,” together with his translation of the song into standard English, is one of the funniest language laments I’ve ever read. The poor man gives it his best shot, but finally gives up: “I can’t finish this. I feel like I just translated the last half of Flowers for Algernon.”

No one expects popular song lyrics to be written in formal English. The golden oldies had their share of gonnas, wannas, ain’ts and double negatives. But none of the songs from the 1940s, 1950s, or 1960s that I browsed while writing this post exhibit the vulgarity and verbal poverty of the lyrics of recent popular music. Efforts at school reform notwithstanding, the most competent English teachers in the world cannot compete with the steady indoctrination in vacuous and nonstandard English that goes on outside the classroom.

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13 thoughts on “Song Lyrics and Standard English”

  1. “Verbal poverty” – a new term for me, but I know exactly what you mean. Similar to using apostrophe-s, verbal poverty is symptomatic of, or maybe a contributing factor to, the growing cultural divide, which, itself, may lead to the growing socioeconomic divide in our country. People who cannot or will not communicate in standard English cannot and will not get higher paying jobs that require the ability to use formal language.

    I am working on a funding proposal to improve literacy, so those stats on music listening may be useful. Do you have a citation?

  2. It’s worse than I thought. After reading an article on the proper uses of ‘lay’ and ‘lie,’ I commented that Bob Dylan might consider rewriting one of his songs, but that “Lie Lady, Lie” might not do well in the market.

    I just read the Beyonce article, and it reminds me of some of those online language translations. If I were the type to let these things get to me, I might now be looking for a dance floor to get killed on.

  3. Great list. May I add “Lay, lady, lay” by Rob Stewart. Lie/Lay = the bane of most writers.

  4. One of my music books has a very funny passage about why bad grammar is crucial component of Blues lyrics.
    Indeed, I can easily excuse rhyming “cheated”with “bleeded” or stylistic choices like “conversate” or “as I are” (look at the band name, for Pete’s sake!) as poetic license.

    But some of the stuff I hear, especially when it’s not even needed to fit the rhyme or meter, just makes my cringe.

    In other words, CHOOSING nonstandard language when you feel it’s the best choice for your art is OK by me.

    But in other cases, it’s painfully obvious that the artist simply did know any better. More songwriter’s workshops should included remedial English. Best to know the rules before deciding to break them.

    And here, I’ll admit, probably to Maeve point, that having grown up with “Lay Lady Lay” and “Homeward Bound,” despite having taken more English classes that most typical folk, I…um…never realized there was anything wrong with them. 😮


  5. …and I am becoming more and more convinced that the lack of an edit feature for these comments is by explicit design on the part of DWT to teach us some kind of lesson!

  6. What about Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares To You”? Not only do grammatical errors proliferate, but rhyme has no reason anymore.

  7. There is actually a Pittsburg, California, though they don’t seem to have a University. I’m guessing the “Pennsylvania study” came from the University of Pittsburgh – with an “h”.

  8. Every time I listen to Annie Lennox sing “is it wrong for I to ask for more?” I turn the volume off because it’s like nails on a chalkboard to me.

    Oh. Hey, Alfonso – the period needs to go INSIDE the quotation mark, my dear. :o) – with an “h.”

  9. Lennon & McCartney wrote the egotistical lyric: “Nobody I know could love you more than me.”

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