The Secret Life of Amazon’s X-Ray Service

Ben Stiller reads free Audible audiobook of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

It seemed like a miracle. I was listening to music — and its lyrics started appearing (in time with the music)! It’s one of the new features of Amazon’s music-playing apps. But today I found myself wondering if it’s any better than guessing at the lyrics yourself…

“Lyrics display and scroll automatically line-by-line as the song plays,” Amazon explains helpfully on their web page — showing X-Ray in action on a Kindle Fire tablet. But I first encountered this magical feature on my humble Android phone, when lyrics started appearing in my “Amazon Music” app. I never signed up for the X-Ray service, but one day, it spontaneously appeared in my life. A song was coming down to me from the cloud — but now, so were its lyrics!

I should’ve been thrilled, but instead one of the first things I did was Google “How to turn off X-Ray lyrics”, because at first it just seemed distracting! (I liked it when Amazon’s app displayed a pretty picture of the song’s album cover — instead of shrinking that to make room for a line-by-line print-out of the lyrics.) Plus, Amazon’s lyrics aren’t available for every song, so they kept coming and going, winking on and off like a haunted teleprompter. Finally I realized I could just drag the “lyric window” down using a tiny rectangular handle at the window’s top-center. That revealed the album cover in all its glory, leaving behind just a thin gray rectangle with the words “X-Ray Lyrics”.

But here’s the dirty secret about the lyrics from Amazon’s X-Ray service: they’re not always right. I learned this dark truth after becoming obsessed with the meaning of a particularly fascinating song. I’d watched Ben Stiller’s blockbuster, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and even bought its inspiring sound track. And it begins with a roar — drums and cymbals — as Swedish indie singer Jose Gonzalez launches into an anthem urging “Step outside. Won’t you step outside. Better step outside. Time to step outside…”

But as a chorus of children sing their hearts out, the stakes of the song “Step Out” suddenly become impossibly high and almost nihlistic. “House on fire. Leave it all behind you,” they’re singing in unison — before the lyrics even begin. Or are they? One lyric-listing site decided the lyrics must be “Hearts on Fire. Leaving all behind you…”

I was delighted when I realized that X-Ray lyrics would display their interpretation of the song, so I could see who was right. But I soon realized they were just guessing, just like everybody else. They heard the first chorus as just “Step outside, time to step outside” — repeated over and over again. I can’t really fault them for just typing out “Whoa oh oh oh” once for the first line of the chorus — though that’s also its second and third line. But I have to say I was truly disappointed that they couldn’t solve the song’s most mysterious lyrics.

One site actually transcribed it as “Broke tooth one day, something’s not the same. Blank head, that guy sweeps the floor…” (I’m pretty sure that’s not it!) As the singer breaks it down to a hushed whisper — the one moment of calm after “House on fire, leave it all behind you” — I heard “Broke to Monday. Something’s not the same. Blank head, crossed eyes sweep the floor…” But Amazon’s X-Ray service also transcribed it as “Broke tooth Monday…” (What the hell would that even mean?!)

To be fair, the song’s lyrics are cryptic — and the gentle-but-mumbling delivery of the songwriter only makes them more mysterious. One YouTube video presented the chorus as dark as night “and a light to guide you,” but also made the intriguing suggestion that that despondent chorus wasn’t describing “Feeding appetites” (as Amazon suggested), but “feeding at the tides”… But maybe I should walk away from this experience with a new respect for Amazon’s X-Ray service for lyrics. Because it’s really easy to get the lyrics right when you’re just re-typing something from a CD booklet — but without that, it’s anybody’s guess!

But I’ll always remember a friend in high school who once suggested that songwriters shouldn’t tell their audience a song’s definitive interpretation — because finding your own meaning was part of the fun. So instead of relying on Amazon’s X-Ray service, maybe instead we should just follow the advice of this song’s lyricist. As the music culminates into a wall of sound, he can be heard gently mumbling one more lyric that Amazon’s X-Ray service also didn’t transcribe.

“Just believe, and…”

“Step outside. Take a step outside. Better step outside. Time to step outside…”


In some countries, Amazon’s Kindle Store has been offering
a free audiobook version of the short story “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”
read by Ben Stiller

Ben Stiller reads free Audible audiobook of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

6 thoughts to “The Secret Life of Amazon’s X-Ray Service”

  1. Tell me about it! Ever since, as a very inexperienced music teacher in the 1970s, I told a class about the Beatles song ‘Chicken to Ride’ (with a mental picture of a woman on a fairground ride astride a giant painted model of a chicken!), I have battled with pop lyrics. I taught them Pharrell Williams ‘Happy’ and mistook ‘My level’s too high’ for ‘Your love is too high’ and so it goes on. It only takes one tiny mistake for the meaning to change completely.
    Eliza Doolittle’s Amazon lyrics for ‘Pack up’ say ‘don’t worry ’bout the cavalry’, meaning we shouldn’t let people who blunder in, forcefully insisting you follow their rules, worry us. Actually, on listening to it, the word is ‘Calvary’. That, as the hill where Jesus was crucified, is suggesting that you shouldn’t care about the Christian faith, which means I can’t use it because it would cause offence to some of my students and their families.
    So I think the blame lies with pop singers who are so anxious about style that they fail to apply adequate effort to good diction. I’m also unhappy with the system that keeps removing the song lyrics. Were it not for that, X-Ray lyrics would be brilliant for a music teacher, worth paying for the songs even. What I love is that I can repeat a section just by scrolling up and clicking on a song line. But it’s useless if I discover first thing in the morning that all the lyrics have disappeared!

    1. just a thought….maybe Ms Doolittle is actually saying “calvary”, just pronouncing it the way us normal ordinary folk always seem to mispronounce ‘cavalry’. I think that’s more likely for her character, since I really don’t remember there being any overtly anti-christian themes.

  2. I know!! I found this page while I was searching “how to correct X-ray lyrics on Amazon prime” but still haven’t found a place to type corrected lyrics. It’s really bad when a song is moving pretty fast and the X-ray lyrics just can’t keep up. I actually read one once that had question marks in parentheses in a fast rap-ish song something like,
    “I’m gonna (??) On the (??)”

    Really… I could actually decipher the words myself, so seeing it like that really bothers me. I wish I knew how to correct it.

    1. I agree 100%!!! Whoever is in charge of hip hop SUCKS! Read my previous comment… TWILL instead of TRILL??? I mean come on!!! There’s mistakes in almost all of the hip hop songs too!

  3. There should be some way to “fix” or “edit” the lyrics if they are incorrect. Maybe a system similar to how Wikipedia operates so there’s at least some form of governance. Idk… I’m a diehard hip hop fan, & unfortunately who ever is in charge of transcribing most of the old school hip hop selections is not especially adept in urban slang. Some of the errors are just down right ridiculous … There is one song in particular that the word “Trill” has been transcribed as “Twill”. No I’m not keeping it gangsta… I just like a pants with diagonal lines G !!!

  4. Xray lyrics should, at the very least, have input where you can suggest corrected lyrics. On a few lyrics, I KNOW that they’re incorrect.
    However, Amazon has no way to correct Xray Lyrics, which is a shame. Most often, they’re spot on. But every now and then they’re so far off that it’s laughable.
    The computer algorithm is WAY Off, with no way to even suggest an edit.
    Shame on Amazon for relying on a computer 100%of the time for interpretation.
    They have screwed the preverbable pooch in this respect. Too bad.

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