5

Hello my fellow ELLians,

I am wondering if it is a good idea to ask questions regarding the song lyrics? I mean I've noticed that the songs' lyrics sometimes are, from the grammar point of view, in sharp contrast to my exceptions or what I learned, especially in Rap music.

I am wondering if there is actually any point in asking questions regarding such a thing? I mean, if I would receive the following typical answer

That's a song and for this type of English anything is possible and "correct", so accept it.

anytime that I ask such a question, what is the point of asking it?

| |
  • 1
    Some genres of music are written in non-standard dialects of English. For example, "rap" and "country" music use variations on America's "Southern" dialect. Rap artists are disproportionately inner-city American blacks speaking the vernacular they grew up with. "Country" music sometimes makes a point of using different verb conjugations than are used in Standard English. – Jasper Sep 29 '19 at 2:27
  • 2
    Just a note, we also have Music Fans that accepts questions about the meaning of a song/lyrics. It's quite slow on there, but some off-topic lyric questions on ELL might be on-topic on there. – Andrew T. Oct 6 '19 at 6:28
7

I've noticed that the songs' lyrics sometimes are, from the grammar point of view, in sharp contrast to what I learned, especially in rap music

Oh, that be so true, except for one thing:
We don't normally talk like how we sing
So song words and grammar books disagree
Cuz the lyrics are more like poetry!
I wanna make rhymes, I wanna sound cool
So I isn't be bound by no grammar rule
And I might bend phrases from time to time
From bumper to bumper to make a rhyme
There ain't no need for a gasp reaction
When crooning "can't get no satisfaction"

In other words, you're correct, there's no need to ask a question if you are only going to ask, "Why does the artist sing XYZ when my grammar book says it should be ABC?" As you've correctly surmised, the answer is probably, "Because it's a song lyric; conventional rules are irrelevant."

Asking something deeper about XYZ (such as questions about its meaning, contemporary usage, modern relevance, prevalence, politeness, or possible inclusion in everyday conversation) would be a different matter.

Back in 2013, I praised some of the questions asked by Yoichi Oishi on our sister site ELU (click here for more details). If you managed to write a question about a rap lyric in a similar way to how Yoichi would write questions about newspaper editorials or headlines, I'm guessing I'd upvote the question. It's just a matter of:

  • saying where you found it,
  • explaining what's confusing,
  • sharing your preliminary research results,
  • and ending with a clearly-defined question.
| |
5

Generally speaking, questions about lyrics

Questions asking "why" are considered off-topic because answers will consist of opinions.

For example, in the song “Strawberry Fields" asking,

“Why does the singer say "nothing is real"?”

…would be impossible to supply a definite answer.

Let me take you down
'Cause I'm going to Strawberry Fields
Nothing is real
And nothing to get hung about
Strawberry Fields forever

Living is easy with eyes closed
Misunderstanding all you see
It's getting hard to be someone
But it all works out
It doesn't matter much to me

Most would say that it has a figurative meaning, one that shouldn't be taken literally. But for someone who is high on drugs, it could refer to how they perceive their surroundings at that moment. For someone else, the lyrics might have deeper philosophical overtones that suggest our very existence, possessions, struggles and successes are an illusion and after death become, ultimately, meaningless and forgotten.

But a question asking

What does “hung about” mean?"

And nothing to get hung about

What does that line from the Beatles' song, "Strawberry Fields", mean?

I looked in Macmillan dictionary and the three definitions for hang about do not make sense to me

1. [INTRANSITIVE/TRANSITIVE] same as hang
Groups of youths hung about street corners.
2. [INTRANSITIVE] same as hang
We’d better not hang about: it’s ten o’clock already.
3. [INTRANSITIVE] [ALWAYS IN IMPERATIVE] used for saying that you disagree with what someone is saying or doing or that you want them to listen to you Hang about! That’s not what I meant at all.

That question is on-topic because it shows someone who attempted to discover its meaning but whose research did not resolve their confusion.

Note, the meaning of the phrasal verb hang about is listed under number 38 in The Free Dictionary!

38. the least degree of care, concern, etc. (used in mild curses and emphatic expressions as a euphemism for damn): He doesn't give a hang about it.

Also worth noting that the sample sentence has "give" and not "get", I'm not sure we ever do say "I don't get a hang about XYZ" but that's another question.

| |
  • 1
    A good analysis of when song lyrics can give rise to a useful and interesting question. – James K Sep 29 '19 at 7:44
  • 1
    @JamesK - Yes, and oftentimes the key is including a good-faith research effort, as was shown in this example. – J.R. Sep 30 '19 at 9:58
2

Literary interpretation is generally off-topic here and at EL&U because it tends to come down to individual opinion, and there is almost never a single definitive answer to be had (i.e. the rare case where a songwriter explains in prose exactly what he or she meant by such-and-such usage)—or the answer is simply "the writer thought it sounded better that way, even though it's 'wrong.'"


Song lyrics, much like poetry, are accorded a wide degree of what is called artistic licence/license. Creative works such as these are not expected to adhere to conventions to standard English grammar, usage, meaning, presentation, or indeed much else. It is accepted that the creator may take liberties with them in the name of artistic effect, for example, to fit a certain rhyme or rhythm, or to evoke a certain emotional response, or to reflect the language as used in a particular dialect or by a particular subculture. Things which would be frowned upon in prosaic communication like ambiguity, or the misuse or mispronunciation of a word, might indeed be desirable in a song or poem.

That is not to say you cannot learn anything from lyrics or poetry, but it does mean that a learner cannot expect that any lesson is to be found in any particular verse. You would need a knowledgeable tutor or instructor to say what is helpful for learning English in a lyric, and what to ignore or avoid. ELL.SE cannot serve in that role as very often, what the author intended to mean by something is a matter of debate, and simply a matter of personal opinion, whereas Stack Exchange questions are expected to have an ideal, definitive answer.

For deeper insight, there are whole websites devoted to discussion of lyrics, like SongMeanings, Genius.com, or LyricsMode, as well as blogs like The Pop Song Professor and podcasts like Song Exploder devoted to the study of particular songs.

| |
  • 2
    There are some instances where we can sometimes help with slang that appears in song lyrics. I think though that lyrics are not a good source for questions because they are poorly transcribed in many cases. For example, one site has a Scarlet Town lyric as You left me here to rot away / Like holly on a mountainside when anyone familiar with American folk music knows it should be Like Polly on the mountainside.” Another part renders Cairo-on-the-bend as “came along a bend”. So even if the question is not too subjective, it’s likely based on incorrect text. – ColleenV Sep 25 '19 at 18:57
-2

Asker, you absolutely should be able to ask questions about song lyrics here. Alas, I can't guarantee you won't get the kinds of negative answers you anticipate – the kinds of negative answers you see here.

I am generally appalled by the responses you've gotten here, which mostly seem to come from a deep place of ignorance about both poetry and about vernacular and dialectic English.

The answer:

That's a song and for this type of English anything is possible and "correct", so accept it.

Is so profoundly ignorant and wrong I am at a loss for how to address it, but to condemn it in the strongest possible terms.

The English in use in poetry is not "anything goes". Poetic license is a thing, but it cannot exceed the capacity of English speakers' ability to decode it into meaning or it fails as a poem.

The claim that "anything" can happen in poetry and therefore poetic usage of English is outside of rational analysis or comprehension – or explanation – is characteristic of people who hate and fear poetry. Such claims are expressions of intimidation and antipathy. They have marked out a part of the Commonwealth of Letters "terra incognita", and drawn a dragon on the map.

The irony is that it is in poetry and other verse forms such as song lyrics that the English language learner is most likely to encounter some of the rarer, yet still technically correct, grammatical forms. Such unusual verbal gyrations are occasioned precisely by the need to plant feet (and phonemes) in strict formal structures or express meaning through shaped emphasis. "I will be on the opposite shore" is more conventional, but "I on the opposite shore will be" is not at all incorrect, and when Longfellow employed it, it got him both a rhyme to "free" in the previous line and continued a rhythm suggestive of the gallop of a horse, which considering it's in a poem about a famous horse ride is probably not accidental.

In rap, some of the variation one observes from standard prescribed English is that it's typically in AAVE. Sometimes the answer is "Oh, this is in AAVE, which has this other rule...." I expect most answerers here are simply unfamiliar with the formal rules of AAVE, and aren't in any position to answer such questions. That doesn't mean those questions don't belong here. It means we need a deeper bench of answerers, with broader knowledge of the many variants of English that askers might bring up.

| |
  • 1
    You raised a lot of good points in prior comments which I'm glad you consolidated into an answer. Just to make my position a bit more clear (since my tongue-in-cheek verse apparently wasn't), I think how the question is phrased makes all the difference. If a learner wants to ask about a rap lyric, I hope they will at least properly cite the song and the artist (and not call it "a sentence I've found"). Our Help Center has some good guidance about asking literary interpretation. If that guidance is followed, the questions should be welcomed. – J.R. Oct 1 '19 at 20:59
  • 1
    In reading your answer, you seem to be imagining well-crafted, interesting, relevant questions being shot down simply because they are asking about poetry or verse. (Not cool.) But I'm guessing that others who gave a contrary opinion were probably imagining hastily-written questions with little context, no research, and not even a passing acknowledgement that a rap artist might pen lyrics that sound more straight outta Compton than straight out of Strunk & White. I'm all for rational analysis, comprehension, and explanation – but the question should do more than point out some inconsistency. – J.R. Oct 1 '19 at 21:27

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .