Kevin J.H. Dettmar writes:
I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about the important role that misunderstood lyrics play in the way rock music works. The problem is especially pointed in the case of the post-punk Gang of Four because they saw much of their music as a political intervention in the events of their day (the late 70s through the early 80s).
But how can rock really “rage against the machine” if no one’s quite sure what it’s saying? What can it mean that a band that put a great deal of emphasis on its songwriting—pop songs as political theory—actively resisted making that theory more intelligible? Resisted to the degree that even smart and sympathetic critics have sometimes badly misread the work? (…)
The real and ever-present danger with Gang of Four, as with any group with political goals, was always their propensity to preach: Rock audiences for the most part don’t appreciate being lectured to.
Could the mondegreen, then, represent listeners’ unconscious resistance to dogma—the way our minds turn something rigid into something malleable, something a fan can work with rather than simply obey? A way to make the experience of listening to rock truly interactive, rather than simply assimilative?
Unsurprisingly, the most popular themes are largely emotional in nature and tend to reflect the cultural influences of the time. The most consistently popular theme is “Breakup,” though there are spikes of popularity in each decade:
1960s: Nostalgia, Pain, Rebellion
1970s: Nostalgia, Rebellion, Jaded
1980s: Loss, Aspiration, Confusion
1990s: Loss, Inspiration, Escapism
2000s: Inspiration, Pain, Desperation