Songs are more than mere words. They use some combination of music and lyrics to convey emotions, feelings, and experiences that resonate even when the phrases, when taken together, don’t make total sense. Or make any sense whatsoever. Hey, sometimes it can be hard to come up with words that rhyme and also fit together, both for current pop stars and for enduring musical legends. It’s understandable, even if it does make you trail off and scratch your head in the midst of an epic sing-along session. These are 10 song lyrics that make zero sense, covering the breadth of modern musical history to show just how little words really matter when a song is good (or in some cases, bad regardless of the lyrics).
1. “All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers
The lyric: “I’ve got soul but I’m not a soldier.”
Just because one word contains another, shorter word within it doesn’t mean those two words are at all related. I could say “I’ve got ham but I’m not a hamster,” which sounds sort of funny but still means absolutely nothing. Are The Killers trying to imply that soldiers are the only humans with souls normally? Or could it be that maybe, just maybe, they just needed a bridge for their song that sounded cool and didn’t care if it made sense?
2. “Love Story” by Taylor Swift
The lyric: “Cause you were Romeo / I was a scarlet letter / And my daddy said stay away from Juliet.”
Wait, so is the person Taylor’s singing to Romeo or Juliet? And where does The Scarlet Letter, a separate work written by a separate author in a separate medium written nearly four centuries after Romeo and Juliet, enter into this? It’s fine if Taylor Swift wants to include allusions to classic English literature in her songs, but she should really bother to do her research first, even just enough to recognize that Juliet was the female in the relationship.
3. “Break Free” by Ariana Grande
The lyric: “I only wanna die alive.”
Some pop songs use oxymorons and contradictions in the lyrics to convey impossible desires or inner struggles, and I think that’s what Ariana Grande is going for here. But there’s no possible way to die alive, just like it’s impossible to wake up dead.
4. “The Joker” by Steve Miller Band
The lyric: “Some people call me Maurice, cause’ I speak of the pompitous of love.”
With these famous lyrics, Steve Miller is actually making several references to songs from his earlier albums, which seems like something of a bogus self-congratulatory move especially on a single, with the final line of the verse referring to his song “Enter Maurice.” But then in trying to explain his nonsensical, self-referential nickname, Steve invents the nonsense word “pompitous.” It’s kind of fun to say, but I’m still no closer to understanding why anyone would call someone named Steve Miller Maurice.
5. “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey
The lyric: “Just a city boy, born and raised in South Detroit.”
South Detroit, huh? Sounds like a real rough working class neighborhood, the perfect locale to set a blue-collar arena rock epic (now turned into one of classic rock’s biggest cliches). But nope, South Detroit doesn’t exist. Check your map, and you’ll see that the only neighborhoods south of Detroit are in Canada. I guess North Detroit doesn’t have the same ring to it, but it seems especially heinous that this geographical fantasy is often played at Detroit sports games. Don’t they know better?
6. “Ballad of a Thin Man” by Bob Dylan
The lyric: “Now you see this one-eyed midget shouting the word ‘NOW’, and you say, ‘For what reason?’ and he says, ‘How?’, and you say, ‘What does this mean?’ and he screams back, ‘You’re a cow, give me some milk or else go home.'”
Bob Dylan was a master of expressionistic lyrics that intrigued listeners even as they made them wonder what the hell he might be talking about beneath all his colorful, dense metaphors. This gem from Highway 61 Revisited is one of his most baffling, fitting for a song wherein a clueless protagonist “Mr. Jones” gets bombarded with a surreal world that seems actively hostile toward him. Dylan repeatedly taunts, “Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?” And neither does the listener.
7. “I Know You Want Me (Calle Ocho)” by Pitbull
The lyric: “Now watch him make a movie like Albert Hitchcock.”
I love this lyric for how hilariously lazy it seems. Pitbull released this song in 2009, when it would have been easy to go online and find out the actual first name of one of the most famous filmmakers in the medium’s history before going to the studio to record his upcoming single. But Pitbull just shrugged it off and said, “It’s probably Albert.” To clarify, it’s Alfred Hitchcock.
8. “Summer Girls” by LFO
The lyric: “You’re the best girl that I ever did see, / The great Larry Bird Jersey 33 / When you take a sip you buzz like a hornet / Billy Shakespeare wrote a whole bunch of sonnets”
There’s a pop songwriting trend wherein the bands just use unrelated nonsense phrases, often name-checking random pop culture works, to fill up a verse they don’t really know what to do with. It’s common among some rappers, and it’s especially common among white dudes trying to rap, like the New Kids on the Block. What about this girl? We’re talking basketball now? How is she buzzing? Are hornets sexy to you or something? You’re on a nickname basis with Shakespeare? Can you be more specific about how many sonnets he wrote? (It was 154.)
9. “Four Five Seconds” by Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney
The lyric: “Now I’m four five seconds from wildin'”
Wow. Only seven words into this monster chorus, and I’m severely confused. Are you trying to say 45 seconds, or maybe just estimating how much time there is? Are we gaining time before you start wildin’, whatever the hell that means? Are Rihanna, Kanye West, and Paul McCartney trying to invent new pop-speak for “going wild”? Because wildin’ just sounds sort of dumb.
10. “I Am the Walrus,” The Beatles
The lyric: Every single one.
John Lennon received a letter from a student at his old school Quarry Bank High informing him that the English master was having his classmates analyze and search for meaning in Beatles lyrics. Naturally, Lennon being Lennon, he set out to write the most nonsensical Beatles song he could, using some lines he concocted during acid trips. The result was the baroque masterpiece “I Am the Walrus,” featuring lyrical gems like “Sitting on a cornflake, waiting for the van to come” and “Yellow matter custard, dripping from a dead dog’s eye / Crabalocker fishwife, pornographic priestess.”
“Let the fuckers work that one out,” Lennon said.
Follow Jeff Rindskopf on Twitter @jrindskopf