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Using Ambiguous Lyrics, as Done by Kings of Leon
By Anthony Ceseri - 07/11/2012 - 04:01 PM EDT

Great lyrics can be sneaky. They can have you thinking one thing, when the whole time they’ve been two-faced and have been implying something else. Every time I listened to the song “Use Somebody,” I always took the title phrase to mean “I can use somebody meaningful in my life.” After discussing the song with someone else, she took the title phrase to have more of a “use ‘em and loose ‘em” connotation. Which is interesting, because those two ideas, are basically exact opposites. So who was right? The cool thing is, we both were.


Ambiguity in the Title Phrase

Let’s start by checking out the first three verses of the song, “Use Somebody”

Verse 1
I’ve been roaming around always looking down at all I see
Painted faces fill the places I can’t reach
You know that I can use somebody
You know that I can use somebody
 
Verse 2
Someone like you, and all you know and how you speak
Countless lovers under cover of the street
You know that I can use somebody
You know that I can use somebody
Someone like you
 
Verse 3
Off the night while you live it up, I’m off to sleep
Waging wars to shake the poet and the beat
I hope it’s gonna make you notice
I hope it’s gonna make you notice
 
If you read through those lines, there’s an implication of meaningless sexual encounters, perhaps even prostitution. Lines like “countless lovers under cover of the street” and “off in the night while you live it up, I’m off to sleep” seem to bring that point home. These are ideas that would definitely lend themselves to the concept of “using somebody” physically, and then moving on.

On the other hand, even with all that information in the verses pointing to this meaning, our minds tend to gravitate towards the idea of “I can use somebody meaningful in my life.” Like I said earlier, this is practically the exact opposite of the “use ‘em and loose ‘em” meaning that’s being mentioned. So our brains are already faced with this lovable contrast that makes use of this line so well. It can be understood both ways in these verses. 

They’ve done a great job of using a double, or ambiguous meaning here. It’s probably the reason they’ve named the song “Use Somebody,” even though the phrase “Someone like you” is the one that pops out the most in the chorus. But what’s even better, is they’re not done.

 
More Ambiguity!
 
Let’s go back to verse three:

Verse 3
Off the night while you live it up, I’m off to sleep
Waging wars to shake the poet and the beat
I hope it’s gonna make you notice
I hope it’s gonna make you notice
Someone like me
Someone like me
Someone like me, somebody
 
Aside from the title, even the phrase “Someone like me,” which appears for the first time in verse three, has ambiguous tones. What’s implied from the lines preceding it is “someone who is like I am… someone just LIKE me.” Or less subtly, “me.”

That seems to be the main meaning implied here, BUT it can also mean: “SOMEONE please like me, or love me. Please someone, anyone, just like me for who I am.” Do you see that? It’s a different meaning than what I presented in the previous paragraph. But this meaning ALSO applies in the lyrics of this song.
 

In other words, the lyrics could be saying this:
(I’ve capitalize the words demanding emphasis)

1. I hope it’s gonna make you notice
2. Someone like ME
3. Someone LIKE me…
 

Or,  more simply put:

1. I hope it’s gonna make you notice
2. Me
3. Won’t anyone like me?

 
Do you see how the phrase “someone like me” can mean two different things in lines 2 and 3? So again ambiguity weaves its way into some crafty lyrics. Twice in one song! Which is the RIGHT meaning? Or is it both? You’re not supposed to know.


Not So Fast…

You can see that this lyric has two potential meanings, but one thing to add to this, is that the words you accent when singing your lyrical phrases will affect what you’re saying. To use the example above, saying “Someone like ME” (with the accent on “me”) means something different than “Someone LIKE me” (with the accent on “like”).
 
The idea here is that if you change the accented words in a phrase, it can affect the meaning of the phrase. In the song “Use Somebody,” when they sing the line “someone like ME” they’ve accented the word “me.” Go listen for it. It’s at around 2:20 into the track. You can check it out in the video below.
 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gnhXHvRoUd0
 
Do you hear that? The way he sings it is forcing our brains to think of the meaning in line #2, above. Someone like ME. That’s how it’s sung.
 
In other words, even though the line is most likely intended to be ambiguous, when Kings of Leon highlight the word “me,” it forces us to think of the meaning “someone who is like I am,” or simply, “me.” Had they accentuated the word “like,” then it would have taken on the second meaning of “won’t anyone like me?”
 
It can be difficult to hear this line as ambiguous, because of how it’s sung. While the written line has two meanings, the sung (or spoken) version takes on only one of those meanings, depending on how you sing (or say) it. In this instance we’re forced to HEAR only one meaning (“Someone like ME”), when on a piece of paper, it can be READ as two things (“Someone like ME” or “Someone LIKE me”).
 
We didn’t have this issue with the ambiguity of the phrase “You know that I can use somebody,” because in both possible meanings of THAT phrase (1. either using someone physically, or 2. being dependent on, and needing somebody), the accents are the SAME. That’s a biggie. Because in that case, it works. No problems there.

As songwriters, not only do we have the hurdle of trying to create some intriguing ambiguous phrases in our lyrics, but now we have to make sure that BOTH meanings of these phrases have the same proper accentuation,  so that the meaning can stay ambiguous! Oh, man – this is getting tricky! But it’s worth it, if you can pull it off.

 
Keep Notes

Ambiguity takes thought, planning, and a well crafted idea, in order to be understood in more than one well defined ways. It is NOT vague. That’s an important distinction to mention. And writing ambiguous lines is definitely not something that will come to you in every song. If it is, you’re quickly on your way to becoming a world famous lyricist.

I’d recommend keeping  track of phrases that can potentially be understood in more than one way. When you hear a phrase like “use somebody” in everyday conversation, jot it down in a scratch lyric file that you can reference for later use. Then, when it’s time to write lyrics, you can flip through your phrases to see if anything lends itself to your current song idea. It’s a great way to make your lyrics very interesting to your listeners.

For more songwriting techniques, you can download my free EBook here:
http://successforyoursongs.com/freeoffer/



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