Jingles that jangle – Alison Healy on wildly improbable lyrics

An Irishwoman’s Diary

I still can’t get that song out of my head. Yes, the one about liking piña coladas and getting caught in the rain. Photograph: Getty Images

I made piña colada cupcakes after reading Aoife Noonan's tempting recipe in the pages of this newspaper recently (August 14th). They were very nice indeed. But the activity had one unfortunate side-effect. I still can't get that song out of my head. Yes, the one about liking piña coladas and getting caught in the rain. Apologies in advance, in case you, now, become similarly burdened.

But as my brain played the song on a loop, I became aware of the massive improbability of the plot. The scenario involves a man who becomes bored with his longstanding partner and responds to a lonely hearts ad in the newspaper. Its author is looking for someone who likes pina coladas and getting caught in the rain but dislikes yoga, preferring to get frisky in the sand dunes at midnight.

Spoiler alert – we later learn that the ad was placed by his partner, or in his words, his “old lady”. In all fairness, calling your longstanding partner your old lady is probably grounds for divorce in several jurisdictions. Anyway, they both turn up at O’Malley’s bar, looking to escape their boring lives. By choosing O’Malley’s bar, the songwriter appears to be insinuating that Irish bars encourage illicit liaisons but that’s for another day.

When the potential cheaters clap eyes on each other, they smile and laugh at the jolly jape and live happily ever after. How improbable is that? This troubling catalogue of events suggests their relationship is beyond repair. In real life, recriminations and remonstrations would follow, and the whole thing would end in piña coladas being hurled at each other and a lifetime ban from O’Malley’s bar for both parties.


But songwriters are not known for strictly factual lyrics. Some of the most popular songs are riddled with scientifically implausible claims and meteorological misunderstandings. Just look at Johnny Cash's ambitious General Motors worker. He used his abnormally-large lunchbox to smuggle one car part a day from the factory in order to build his own Cadillac.

According to the lyrics of One Piece at a Time, he started this thieving endeavour in 1949 and had a complete Cadillac by 1970. (The lyrics don’t enlighten us about the state of his lunchbox at the end of this enterprise.)

But apparently the average car has about 30,000 parts so if he did take precisely one piece a day, as the song title claims, and if he worked an improbable 365 days a year, it would still take him more than 82 years to take every piece home.

Of course, when it comes to fact-checking songs about transport, we cannot ignore Nine Million Bicycles in Beijing. Katie Melua may have given a hostage to fortune when she sang: "There are nine million bicycles in Beijing. That's a fact, it's a thing we can't deny". No sooner had she sang the words than experts in bicycle-counting in Beijing did deny it, variously putting the number at between four million and 10 million.

She, or rather her songwriter and producer Mike Batt, continued to play fast and loose with the facts by claiming that we were 12 billion light years from the edge. Scientist and writer Simon Singh popped up to note that this was also inaccurate. With his help, they sportingly recorded a new version of the verse, singing "We are 13.7 billion light-years from the edge of the observable universe; that's a good estimate with well-defined error bars and with the available information, I predict that I will always be with you". Not as catchy, that's for sure, but it did pass the fact-check test.

At least she wasn't misleading people about basic weather events. Fleetwood Mac must have given meteorologists palpitations when they maintained that "thunder only happens when it's raining" in their hit song Dreams.

Bob Geldof and Midge Ure were also playing fast and loose with the facts when they claimed there wouldn't be snow in Africa in December, in their charity hit, Do They Know it's Christmas? Snow is a regular occurrence in the Atlas Mountains and Kilimanjaro.

While Bono performed on that single, he can't be blamed for the lyrics, but he can be blamed for the line in Pride (In the Name of Love) when he claims that Martin Luther King was shot in "early morning, April 4th". The civil rights leader was actually assassinated just after 6pm.

And then we have Shane MacGowan and Kirsty MacColl slotting a non-existent NYPD choir into Fairytale of New York and the Buggles wrongly claiming that video had killed the radio star, when in fact the radio star is still in rude good health.

The denizens of Egypt must have been perplexed when the Bangles encouraged people to walk like them. Had the Bangles consulted any Egyptologist worth their salt, they would have learned that the ancient Egyptians walked like everyone else in the world, by putting one foot in front of the other.

And finally, despite Shakira’s contention, the way you move your hips does not betray your emotions. Yes, hips do lie.

Just like those potential cuckolders who are fond of piña coladas and getting caught in the rain.