Last fall, while spending a few weeks reviewing and listening incessantly to Taylor Swift's Red, I found myself falling in love with the world-conquering opus's pervading discomfort. Red's songs were nervous, self-conscious about their own crossover coolness; one line told me the album's entire story: "It feels like a perfect night to dress up like hipsters and make fun of our accents, uh uh, uh uh." How perfect for Swift to begin her definitive Max Martin crossover pop statement by making fun of her now glaringly absent Country Southern-ness. And, in a hint of songwriting brilliance, the Pennsylvania singer reeled off that key word, accent, in what sounded like an unusually thick twang. The word was hard to understand, as if she were singing something else.
After my review—which, thanks to that one word, lauded Swift's ability to self-consciously reflect and laugh at her own Nashville past—came out, I soon found out that she was in fact singing an entirely different word. "It feels like a perfect night to dress up like hipsters and make fun of our exes, uh uh, uh uh" was the proper (and offensively normal) line. The song, and now the entire album, meant something different. It meant less.
Humans have been mishearing and misinterpreting lyrics for as long as words have been set to music, but the phenomenon remained unnamed until the mid-20th century. In the 1954 Harper's essay "The Death Of Lady Mondegreen," Sylvia Wright coined the term mondegreen as a way to describe misheard lyrics in popular music. The word came from her childhood confusion over a line of the Scottish folk ballad "The Bonnie Earl O'Moray"; for years, she had misheard the line "They have slain the Earl O'Moray/And laid him on the green" as "They have slain the Earl Amurray/And Lady Mondegreen."
Since her essay, nearly all discussions of classically misheard lyrics cite Wright as the quirky field's godparent...