Mishearing Song Lyrics: Why We Hear Taylor Swift Sing About “Starbucks Lovers”
by Maddy Abel
There’s a phrase in Taylor Swift’s new song “Blank Space” that has been collectively misheard by listeners. Does Ms. Swift croon about “Starbucks lovers” or does she really sing about her “long list of ex-lovers”?
We often mishear song lyrics, morphing them into something quite different from their original phrasing. Think, for example, of the Eiffel 65 song from 1998 where “I’m blue, da ba dee da ba di” somehow became “If I were green I would die” (and your elementary school class would fill with giggles because being green was just so silly!).
This tendency to create stories out of song lyrics that are not really there is called a mondegreen. Webster dictionary defines a mondegreen as “word or phrase that results from a mishearing of something said or sung”. In 1954, Slyvia Wright, an American writer, published a piece in Harper’s where she explained the origin of the term “Mondegreen”.
The story goes that, during her childhood, the writer Sylvia Wright would listen to her mother read from a book of poems. Her favorite lines were:
“Ye Highlands and ye Lowlands
Oh, where hae ye ben?
They hae slain the Earl Amurrary
And Lady Mondegreen.”
However, that last stanza was actually “laid him on the green”. Young Sylvia Wright had simply misheard the words and instead, filled in a story about a Lady Mondegreen lying in the grass with Earl Amurrary.
Hearing occurs in two steps. First, sound waves enter the auditory canal and the sensory signals are processed by the auditory cortex in the brain. The brain then interprets this sensory information and we are able to distinguish between the clarinet and the piano or a human voice and a slamming door. A mondegreen occurs when there is a problem with this final step of interpretation. This is particularly common when we are presented with several similar sounds or letter combinations that can be mistaken for one another. Our brain chooses the option that makes the most sense based on the context. Ms. Swift sings “got a long list of ex-lovers” but for many people the “st” in list somehow morphs into the “st” in Starbucks.
An article published last January comments on the phenomenon of misheard lyrics. The researchers claim that both our expectations and prior knowledge can influence our perception and alter the way in which we interpret sounds and words. And to solve the sound ambiguity, our brain draws from our past experiences. So, perhaps we hear Ms. Swift sing about “Starbucks” because getting a coffee at the local chain is a more common compared to reviewing a long list of ex-lovers. In other words, we like familiarity and are more likely to choose words and phrases that are familiar and comfortable.
It seems like the listeners of Taylor Swift’s “Blank Space” have all created a mondegreen: Starbucks in place of ex-lovers. Given that when we hear sounds, our brain uses context and our own knowledge to interpret that sound, perhaps the explanation is simple: we are all simply getting our daily java fix at Starbucks!
Although, apparently this particular mondegreen is widespread, even amongst the artist herself: Taylor tweeted this Valentine’s day, “Sending my love to all the lonely Starbucks lovers out there this Valentine’s Day…..even though that is not the correct lyric.”