All the lonely Starbucks lovers

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Melissa Dahl, "Why You Keep Mishearing That Taylor Swift Lyric", New York Magazine 11/24/2014:

There is a line in the newest Taylor Swift single “Blank Space” that I always, always hear wrong: Where Swift sings Got a long list of ex-lovers, for some reason I mishear, All the lonely Starbucks lovers. This makes no sense, but my brain persists in the misinterpretation, and apparently I’m not the only one. Over on Lainey Gossip today, Lainey herself writes:

At this point I think she should just change the name of the song to Lonely Starbucks Lovers. Yes, I can read the lyrics. But all I HEAR is “Lonely Starbucks Lovers”. And reading your emails and tweets, it seems you are the same.

Here's the whole "pre-chorus" and "chorus" for context:

So it's gonna be forever
Or it's gonna go down in flames
You can tell me when it's over
If the high was worth the pain
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They'll tell you I'm insane
Cause you know I love the players
And you love the game

Cause we're young and we're reckless
We'll take this way too far
It'll leave you breathless
Or with a nasty scar
Got a long list of ex-lovers
They'll tell you I'm insane
But I got a blank space baby
And I'll write your name


And the critical "Got the lonely Starbucks lovers":

… or "Got a long list of ex-lovers".

Melissa Dahl is properly concerned that what I told Alina Simone about mondegreens in general doesn't apply to this case:

“When we understand what someone says, it’s always at least partly a hallucination,” University of Pennsylvania linguist Mark Liberman told PRI last week for a story on mondegreens, the term coined in a 1950s Harper’s Magazine article for misheard song lyrics. […]

Liberman further explained to PRI, “There’s a piece of what we understand that comes from the sound that comes in our ear,” but another piece of our understanding comes from our minds — from our expectations, in other words. It’s easy to see how this explanation applies to many misheard lyrics, specifically the most-often cited one from Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” which contains the lyrics “Excuse me while I kiss the sky”; people often mishear that line as “Excuse me while I kiss this guy.” It makes sense: People are more accustomed to hearing someone talking about kissing some guy, less so the entire sky. It’s less clear, however, how this could possibly apply to my — and apparently many others’ — mishearing of a Starbucks shout-out in the Swift single. My best guess is that maybe some of us are still years behind in our Swift gossip?

She's right that "lonely Starbucks lovers" is not exactly a high-probability text string, at least compared to "long list of ex-lovers". But I'm not so sure that inadequate gossip intake is the main problem.

Instead, I'd point to an unusual (for pop lyrics) metrical alignment, which puts one of the line's three beats on the weak word "of":

       x        x      x
 .  .  .    .   .  .   . .
got a long list of ex-lovers

This makes the phrase hard to understand — when I first listened to the song, I didn't get that line at all. And the other interpretation fits the phonetics pretty well (even if there's a number-agreement problem between the singular determiner and the plural head noun, fixed by Melissa Dahl's version "all the lonely Starbucks lovers"):

got  a St.arb.ucks lovers
got  a long  of  ex  lovers

(The IPA version is left as an exercise for the reader.)

And in the end, I can hear the line either way, depending on which version is in front of my mind's eye:

So as with other Mondegreens, the explanation lies in the integration of what our ears hear and what our mind expects: perception is Bayesian inference.


  1. Martin Ball said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 8:25 am

    Mhmm, as a dedicated swiftie (and a phonetician) I didn't hear starbucks in this at all. I did notice the odd metre, but Taylor does have a habit of shoe-horning the line into the metre in her songs, so this was nothing especially odd!

  2. Rose Eneri said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 8:56 am

    I had never heard this song before and all I hear on listening now is the line as written. I can't even make myself hear Starbucks in it. As I read this post and before I listened to the song, I thought the line might be an intentional, subliminal form of product placement.

  3. Dan Lufkin said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 9:22 am

    Amazing! I can hear either version by just concentrating on one line of type or the other. It's like being able to change the rotation of a radar antenna from clockwise to counter-clockwise while you're looking at it. If an ambiguity has only two possible states, it doesn't take much of an outside cue to change perception.

  4. Brett said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 9:54 am

    Like Dan Lufkin, I find that I can chose which I'm going to hear pretty easily. If I listen to it expecting one, that's what I hear. It really is quite remarkable.

  5. djw said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 11:05 am

    Since this is the first time I've heard the song (consciously, at least; I have radios on most of the time but I don't necessarily listen to the words), I was prepared for "long list of ex-lovers," and that's mostly what I heard. But at one point in the long version, I pretty clearly heard "long list Starbucks lovers," and I think I might keep hearing that at that point if I play it again. But like Dan and Brett, I also think I could easily flip-flop between the two.

    My worst-case-scenario "mondegreen" has always been England Dan's "I'd really love to see you tonight," where he sings, "I'm not talkin' 'bout movin' in," but I *always* hear "I'm not talkin' 'bout millibedum," which has never made sense to me because–well, because it's nonsense. I've tried really, really hard to hear "movin' in" when that song plays, but the millibedum just keeps coming back.

    Anybody got a word for a "mondegreen" where the word I think I'm hearing isn't a word at all?

    [(myl) Well, "Mondegreen" wasn't really a word until "Lady Mondegreen" popped up in 1954.]

  6. David L said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 11:38 am

    @djw: I always wanted that England Dan lyric to be "I'm not talkin' 'bout molybdenum."

  7. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 11:38 am

    I heard it as Starbucks. I listened to the whole song and didn't know when it was coming up, so even though I was primed by the title of the blog post I think that's what she is singing. I'ts hard to hear it as anything else.

  8. Martin Ball said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 11:41 am

    I'm more amazed that most commenters seem not to have heard of Taylor Swift! Are linguists really so out of touch with the dominant artist in popular music today …?
    Reminds one of the judge who had never heard of the Beatles … ;)

    [(myl) Rose Eneri says that she "had never heard this song before", and djw says that "this is the first time I've heard the song (consciously, at least)", but no one said anything about never having heard of Taylor Swift. Which I agree would be striking evidence of cultural divergence, if it had happened. But so far, it didn't.]

  9. Dana said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

    This is interesting, I wonder if anyone has listened to Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" and when she sings that chorus part where she says "You Wreck Me," but for some reason I hear the word "You Rape Me." Perhaps something related to the way she pronounces "Wreck" or the fact "Wreck" is not a collocation commonly used with "You" and "Me." Just hits me every time I hear this song….

  10. Coby Lubliner said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 12:20 pm

    I haven't heard the song, but I wonder if the "Starbucks" inference occurs mainly to non-rhotics. In that case the only hesitation is between /v/ and /b/, since the vowel in stressed "of" is quite similar that in "star". As for /lɔŋlɪ/ sounding like /lonli/, I don't know.

  11. SLA said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 12:24 pm

    Not being a fan of most pop music, I hadn't heard this song (though, yes, I've heard of Taylor Swift). So I closed my eyes whilst listening to the context snippet, and I absolutely heard "got a lonely Starbucks lovers" there instead of the long list of ex-lovers. Of course, you had me a bit primed for that, but something tells me that's what I would have heard anyway. Definitely not the ex-lovers bit.

  12. H said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 12:25 pm

    Oh my god, this explains so much! When I heard the song I was totally baffled by what lonely Starbucks lovers had to do with anything. ex-lovers makes so much more sense.

  13. Adam Cooper said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 12:45 pm

    There's a bit of dialogue in the movie "The Long Kiss Goodnight" where one character mishears England Dan as saying "I'm not talking about the linen", the suggestion being, I guess, that serious couples buy linens together. Not as serious as couples who invest in molybdenum together, though, surely.

  14. ohwilleke said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 1:20 pm

    FWIW, I can't even hear Starbucks if I try.

    Swift is actually pretty clear in diction compared to many pop singers, such as, for example, Tori Amos, whose eccentric lyrics combined with weak diction can make songs baffling unless you read the lyrics in print.

  15. Matthew McIrvin said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 1:28 pm

    I always heard the England Dan line as "I'm not talkin' 'bout a live-in", which has the advantage of meaning more or less the same thing as the actual line, and fits the meter better, though it is slightly oddly phrased.

  16. Nathan Myers said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 2:11 pm

    Like everyone else, I have heard of Taylor Swift, but I'm pretty sure I haven't heard a Taylor Swift track from beginning to end. In twenty years it will be unavoidable in grocery and drug stores, where today we hear Chrissy Hinde or the Clash.

    My Dan interpretation has been "I'm not talkin' 'bout the liniment". I like molybdenum better, and hope that will stick.

  17. BobC said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 2:16 pm

    For years I thought the England Dan line was "I'm not talkin' 'bout Bolivia."

  18. Terry Hunt said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 2:31 pm

    @ Martin Ball

    "The judge who had never heard of the Beatles" story has, I believe, recently been declared apocryphal (unless someone can helpfully cite the court record which would have to exist if it were true), but even if true it was always lazy journalism.

    Records of trials have to be clear because law works on precedence, and in theory a case in progress today could be referred to a hundred or more years hence. It is therefore routine practice for judges to request clarification of references to possibly ephemeral matters, slang terms and so on that might become obscure to readers of the proceedings long in the future.

    Assuming the story is true, the judge would have made the enquiry not because he really hadn't heard of the Beatles (unlikely regardless of his own tastes), but because of the distinct possibility that by, say, 2064 they would be no better remembered that music-hall stars of 1864 were at the time.

    The real joke is that the barrister's reply – "A popular beat combo, M'lud" – itself used slang terminology already outdated.

  19. KevinM said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 5:06 pm

    Well, for m'luds adrift in the sea of pop music, you can't beat

    What gets lost in the transcription is the pronunciation of boogie woogie as "boo-jee woo-jee."

  20. Rubrick said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 5:13 pm

    Based on my own Mondegreening experience, both personal and received, I'm wondering just how often the "more plausible than the actual lyric" explanation really applies. My brain seems perfectly happy to supply nonsense when it can't correctly parse a lyric. Has anyone ever done a systematic study? The methodology wouldn't seem too difficult.

    FWIW, my candidate for "lyric least likely to be interpreted correctly without a reference" is "dribble off those Bobby Brooks, let me do what I please" from John Mellancamp's Jack and Diane.

  21. Regina Lusca said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 5:24 pm

    Ah, those pesky facts, the death of so many wonderful stories.

    My impression is that the artificial , metrically required stress on 'long' sets the whole process in motion, making the mondegreen possible. (Though I'm not sure I'd have been able to hear it that way unprompted.)

    In ordinary spoken language, both 'long' and 'list' would receive near-equal stress as a spondee. Poetic licence would be less noticeably invoked by converting it to an iamb rather than a trochee, which would enable it to fit into a limerick:

    I've got a long list of ex-lovers:
    My classmates, my dad and my bruvvers;
    I lately invited
    East Thurrock United –
    They're still hiding under the covers.

  22. J. W. Brewer said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 5:58 pm

    I had also thought of the song KevinM referenced for the interaction between the cop and the judge, but I admit I had never listened closely to the sung lyrics that come once the lengthy spoken-word intro is over. The transcription "You can't come /
    Across the Upsalquitch / Until you pay the toll" certainly *looks* mondegreenish (perhaps the sort referenced above where the hypothesized word doesn't actually exist?). Googling reveals that the Upsalquitch is a river in northern New Brunswick, and it's not impossible that Baldry could have meant that, but . . . it's a mighty odd toponym to end up in the mouth of a British musician trying to play in a vaguely southern-U.S. style. Maybe Miss Swift should be challenged to work "Upsalquitch" into a song.

  23. Stephen Hart said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 6:17 pm

    Like others, I heard this (for the first time) with the lyrics as transcribed.
    But I also immediately thought of Neil Young's Ohio, with the odd emphasis.

  24. Tony Bybell said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 6:24 pm

    There is a very large psychological component attached to spoken language perception. Things get interesting when we have no frame of reference (e.g., when listening to foreign utterances) and are in a state or position of suggestibility:

    It reminds me of the story of the first two syllables of phrases such as 呢架車 in Cantonese being misunderstood as a racist epithet by tourists.

    From the point of view of listening practice during language learning, it seems that over-reliance on "subtitles" would be a great hindrance to gaining proficiency.

  25. Jonathon Owen said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 6:34 pm

    Maximal onset principle for the lose, apparently.

  26. Astafan Karim said,

    December 4, 2014 @ 11:42 pm

    I'm getting wrapped up like a douche in all these mondegreens.

  27. Chas Belov said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 3:44 am

    I'm hearing "Go with Starbucks lovers" in the 3-second clip.

  28. maidhc said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 4:46 am

    If I think about it that way, I hear "Got a lonely Starbucks lovers". It's like one of those visual optical illusions that switch states.

    There's a ton of processing on her voice. I wonder if that affects the phenomenon. I hadn't heard her before, and now that I've heard that much I don't want to hear any more. I really prefer to hear people sing with natural voices.

    You can't have a discussion of mondegreens without mentioning "There's a bathroom on the right".

    Here is one that took me a number of years to get right:

    I only had a tape of the original; if I'd bought the record I would have had the words. Of course now the lyrics are included at the link, but try it without first time around.

  29. Gavin said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 4:55 am

    I can sort of make myself hear 'Starbucks' but not the full 'all the lonely Starbucks lovers'.

    On the first few hearings I heard something along the lines of 'star-crossed lovers' – which makes sense when one recalls a Romeo and Juliet inspired song from her second album.

    Another song from this album, 'Style'. I misheard 'Red lip, classic thing that you like' as 'Brad Pitt, classic thing that you like' which didn't make sense at all so I knew I had to look it up.

  30. Lawrence said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 5:10 am

    I'm surprised I'm the only one to hear "gotta love these Starbucks lovers," which has the advantage of making grammatical sense, and possibly semantic sense if one has a reason to assume that the Starbucks demographic is particularly fond of circulating rumors about Taylor Swift's personal life; I assumed it had something to do with girls who take Instagram selfies at Starbucks and make heavy use of Pinterest. I can force myself to hear ex-lovers if looking at the line written down, but can't undo Starbucks otherwise — perhaps because I love this song and listened to it too many times with the wrong lyric?

  31. Charly Baltimore said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 10:37 am

    @Adam Cooper
    I do tell Mitch the song's 'not about linen,' but he doesn't seem to care :O

  32. KevinM said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 11:02 am

    @JW Brewer. I always heard it as "[something/Oslo??] Bridge" But perhaps "bridge" was suggested by the context of "toll." Agree that Upsalquitch, a river in New Brunswick, is an unlikely candidate. Perhaps the transcriber was Canadian. Greetings from, evidently, your fellow fogy.

  33. Mark Stephenson said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 7:28 pm

    My favorite mondegreen is from this Christian song:
    I heard the third line of the second verse, "[We] turn our backs on every idol" as "Turtlewax on every Bible".

  34. Barbara Partee said,

    December 5, 2014 @ 9:54 pm

    Cheers to Regina Lusca for the great limerick!
    And OK, I never heard of Taylor Swift. But I'm 74 and my kids are long gone from home, and my grandkids haven't gotten me pop-educated. I'm with those that can hear this line either way just by looking at the given line of text or thinking of it — that's cool.

  35. Ray Girvan said,

    December 6, 2014 @ 12:35 am

    @Rubrick: I'm wondering just how often the "more plausible than the actual lyric" explanation really applies.

    Quite. I'm extremely prone to them, and the great majority are surreal, scatological, or plain stupid.

    [(myl) This is a valid point. What seems to happen in most mondegreens is that you start off down a plausible phonetic-lexical garden path ("and laid him on" ~ "and lady mon…") that takes you too far to turn back, after which you do your "surreal, scatological, or plain stupid" best to find a way out.]

  36. bratschegirl said,

    December 7, 2014 @ 1:05 pm

    OK, now I have an ear worm of Tom Lehrer singing

    "The tune don't have to be clever
    And it don'tmatterifyouputacoupleextrasyllablesintoaline…"

    (from The Folk Song Army, of course)

  37. /ni:v/ said,

    December 8, 2014 @ 2:33 pm

    I definitely heard Starbucks, and I also figured it was to do with the beat on "of".
    But I also think, as Coby mentioned above, there's something going on with the [v] in "of" sounding like a [b]. I have noticed this in other songs before. Is there something about the acoustics that makes these sound similar?

    [(myl) [v] and [b] are nearly identical in terms of spectral transitions in adjacent vowels — the only real acoustic difference is in the abruptness of the transitions (fricative vs. stop). And given the background music and audio processing, that difference is likely to be hard to hear or even reversed.]

  38. jaap said,

    December 9, 2014 @ 2:48 am

    I don't hear as many syllables as others seem to (it may be my laptop speakers letting me down) but in the 3 second clip I hear "You godless Starbucks lovers", or "You got (a) list of ex-lovers".

  39. Jessie said,

    December 10, 2014 @ 9:09 pm

    I'm sure "Starbucks lovers" would never cross people's minds where coffee isn't that popular, but this is definitely an interesting take on what I've seen other people say about that line!

    On another note – both stanzas should make up the entire chorus. Don't trust the Internet too much on labelling things, especially musically, unless it's from a credible source.

  40. svan said,

    December 11, 2014 @ 1:47 pm

    I know I'm late to this, but surely I can't be the ONLY one who heard something about "cervix lovers"? Obviously I knew that wasn't the real lyric, but despite having heard this song easily more than 15 times, I still had no idea what the actual lyrics were until reading this post.

    (Also, I first heard the song on a shower radio with pretty bad sound quality.)

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