Changing the lyrics to hit songs might be increasingly noticeable – but it’s a longstanding musical practice

Changing the lyrics to hit songs might be increasingly noticeable – but it’s a longstanding musical practice

Electronic dance music band The Prodigy are the latest act to attract attention for changing the lyrics to a longstanding hit in recent live shows. They now repeat the opening line “change my pitch up” in place of the song’s title “Smack My Bitch Up”. The song’s been a source of controversy since its release in 1997 – BBC Radio One only played an instrumental version of and it received only limited airplay at all.

Changing song lyrics is an increasingly common phenomenon, although not as recent as headlines might suggest.

The roots of much rock n’ roll and modern pop are in the blues where an oral rather than written tradition frequently saw lyrics amended for different situations – or adapted as songs passed from artist to artist.

The advent of recording in the late nineteenth-century and the associated growth in publishing revenues from the music saw a shift towards a primary “text” in the form of a record or sheet music. But, adaptability has remained a feature.

Now there are multiple motivations and contexts for altering lyrics, which is part of a long tradition of amending songs.

Motivations for altering lyrics

A song may simply evolve over time, subject to artistic decisions – or even just a whim – on the part of the performer. Paul Simon, for instance, changed the lyrics to his 1973 hit Kodachrome from “everything looks worse in black and white” on the recording to “everything looks better in black and white” in the live performances recorded in New York’s Central Park. Subsequent live performances have seen him change it back.

More formally, Simon re-arranged and re-recorded a tranche of his songs for the 2018 album In The Blue Light, with revised lyrics a part of the process.

In a similar vein, The Who have included new lyrics in performances of My Generation, the song where they famously sing “I hope I die before I get old”. Now, accounting for their status as musical elder statesmen, the band have added “still here today” in a new section of the song.

Alternative versions have also long been used to maximise a song’s exposure. Radiohead recorded two versions of their early single Creep, one with the original lyric “so fucking special” and one with the swearing removed – “so very special”. Editing songs into “clean versions” for radio is now a recognised aspect of production technique.

Changing taboos

The decision about what to edit is also a factor. Shifting times and shifting social mores are key drivers for lyrical changes to avoid causing offence. Edits may derive from the desire to move in step with evolving conventions, eliminating terms that have become or, perhaps more accurately, become more widely recognised as offensive.

The words “faggot” and “slut” have been edited out of The Pogues’ signature hit Fairytale of New York by the BBC. Even here, though, there’s a longer history to the revision. The “new” lyrics – “You’re cheap and you’re haggard” – come from a 1992 performance on Top of the Pops.

Similarly, Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing now no longer features the homophobic slur, although the band themselves had already removed the offending verse from a 1998 compilation album.

Opportunities and motivations for altering songs are increasing. As well as technology making the changes sound more seamless, artists re-record their music for other reasons and can take the opportunity of revisiting lyrics.

Taylor Swift is engaged in a programme of re-recording albums to regain control of her music amidst a dispute over rights in the original master recordings with her former record label. She took the opportunity to change Better than Revenge after the lyric was accused of “slut-shaming” an ex’s new girlfriend – “She’s better known for the things that she does on the mattress” was replaced with “He was a moth to the flame, she was holding the matches.”

The wider context is that taboo words change over time. As linguist John McWhorter has noted, this initially involved words that referred to the divine – hence the use of “heck” instead of “hell” and so on – than the bodily. Words that referred to physical processes – “fuck” or “shit”, for instance – were deemed unsayable.

Today, swearing is more, though not wholly, acceptable. An unacceptable category, however, includes words that refer to matters of identity, initially from a derogatory perspective but sometimes even aside from the intent of the speaker or singer, so even if quoting someone. The ‘n’ word is a salient case in point. Identity based slurs are indeed a problem even when they’re deployed in “character”, as was the case for The Pogues and Dire Straits.

Audiences also now have a “right of response” via social media and can critique artists and labels in an organised way much more quickly. Artists are responding to this shift, with both technology and industry structures facilitating that.

But it’s never been the case that a song was set in stone from inception. Tweaking and editing to please audiences, or censors – or the artists themselves – are established parts of the creative and commercial process.

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The post “Changing the lyrics to hit songs might be increasingly noticeable – but it’s a longstanding musical practice” by Adam Behr, Senior Lecturer in Popular and Contemporary Music, Newcastle University was published on 12/11/2023 by