Imagine this: you want to sing a cover version of a song. The song’s in English. You like the chorus, but you can’t hear the other words clearly. What do you do? Close your eyes, mumble a version of the words you didn’t hear and hope your audience doesn’t notice or care? They will.
Suppose you want to cover Paolo Nutini’s Scream (Funk My Life Up). It’s a song that switches between clear and fuzzy lyrics. Every word up to and including the first “Funk my Life Up” is clear, but what on earth comes after that? No problem: grab a pen and a piece of paper. Write down every word, or syllable you hear in the next line (around 20 seconds in). It begins with “Lips” and lasts around 5 seconds. You might need to listen a few times. Good luck:
What did you hear? Probably sex (Paolo knows it’s a word that guarantees attention), possibly like and sing. Was the rest a blur?
What will you do when you sing your cover? Sing “la,la,la” or hum to hide the parts you couldn’t hear in the original? Do your best with some quick scrambled nonsense like “Lissli bee si sex orysonn” to fill the gap? Scream or shout “Funk My Life Up” extra loudly to distract attention? No, no and no.
Remember: the human brain processes every sound that reaches it. Your audience will do their human best to make sense of each random sound you sing. Offer them a sludge of sounds spiced with sex and bees, if you like. They’ll do their best to build a story with it. Trouble is, if they like the original they’ll know that you’re being disrespectful. Don’t expect your sludge to be popular.
Do this instead: find a video of the singer performing the song live. We found this one. Watch his lips closely. See if the words you thought you heard were right. Look for the singer forming the consonants. When you watch Paolo’s lips, you can see him singing “Debbie” and “strawberry.” It’s like filling in clues in a crossword puzzle. Sex, up, like and lips were pretty easy to hear, because of their strong consonants.
“Songs” was a good guess – the word could have been “sound” or “soul” – either would have worked, but “song” rhymes with “come along” from the line before. Always look for rhyme patterns when you need to decipher lyrics. Look for grammar clues too – songs must be plural because there’s no a or the before it. That final s affects the pronunciation. Did your English teacher ever tell you that English grammar unlocks song lyrics?
So we have: Lips like Debbie – we can guess singing once we’ve got songs. Lips like Debbie singing sex – you can hear Paolo putting a consonant between sex and up. You might guess sexed-up as an English word, but it’s enough to put a t consonant between sex and up. You won’t find the expression sexed up strawberry songs in a dictionary. Paolo invented it and it works with his song.
Now we have the whole line: Lips like Debbie singing sexed-up strawberry songs. Phew. It’s work, but it’s worth it. Now you have all the right sounds in the right place to hit the right notes. You don’t need to understand them, but you do need to sing them.
If you look online for song lyrics, you’ll see a few different versions of that line in Paolo’s song. Native English speakers find it hard to decipher. Some substitute “they’ve been” for Debbie. It works grammatically, though it’s clumsier to sing.
Why doesn’t Paolo enunciate every word clearly? He doesn’t need to. He knows that the s alliteration of the line has a powerful poetic resonance. He’s done enough by making lips, strawberry and sex clear to his audience. Plump red strawberries, coupled with lips and sex, is enough to paint a vivid picture of his woman. The Debbie Harry/Blondie reference is an extra (like the Jeff Beck reference later in the song – if you’re interested, ask and we’ll explain it).
It’s worth doing the work if you’re going to cover a song. It’s easy enough to find live versions and easy enough to lip read. You don’t need to understand every word, but you do need to know where the consonants fall. Your audience will know if you don’t know the words. Your insecurity will make them feel uncomfortable. You can’t fool them by rushing through or blurring the bits you can’t hear easily. Do the work if you want to sing the song.
If you want to try to decipher some more fuzzy lyrics, try the words Paolo starts singing while he’s inside the leopard skin limousine (from about 2.27 to 2.43). Pen and paper, then the live video should help. Good luck.
Paolo wrote the song, so he can do what he likes with his own words. He knows which words to highlight for performance and which details to leave for his fans to discover little by little as they listen again on their own. His songs are enigmatic, the drug references are subtle and fans like unlocking mysteries.
© Sing Better English, 2014