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