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Lyrical Dissonance

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"This is the most upbeat song I’ve ever written. It’s about death from cancer."
Robyn Hitchcock, preceding "The Yip Song," Storefront Hitchcock

So, you're listening to this new song. Nice and bouncy, sounds like it's gonna be a fun little ditty. Then the lyrics start. You might happily sing along to the catchy melody for a little bit, before it starts in: The singer is actually telling a woeful tale about miserable subjects, including struggling with depression, descending into insanity, committing murder, committing suicide, witnessing the end of civilization and the downfall of mankind, and being a victim of line-cutting.


And the worst part is, the happy, upbeat music just keeps going. That's Lyrical Dissonance: when the music and lyrics are going in opposite directions. Happy upbeat lyrics set to sad music also qualifies. This can also be used for comic effect, either by putting serious, dramatic music to silly lyrics, or by simply treating the subject matter as if it did fit the tune. This trope also applies with lyrics that seem unfitting for reasons other than happiness versus sadness — for instance, a particularly angry or violent-sounding song that has lyrics that are clearly humorous, or sad, or perhaps just thoughtful and introspective; or the reverse, a cheery tune with angry or violent lyricsnote .

A rather old trope. One of the archetypal examples involves an evil chief of police plotting to blackmail a woman into having sex with him in order to save the man she loves, then having the man killed anyway, while all around him parishioners beg for God's mercy, all set to some of the most gorgeously beautiful music the composer ever wrote. That's from Puccini's 1900 opera, Tosca. Not the oldest by any means — but one that can easily compete with most of the examples below.


Sub-trope to Mood Dissonance. Compare to Soundtrack Dissonance and The Mel Brooks Number, where the upbeat showtune melody is used for ribald or sarcastic effect. May lead to Isn't It Ironic?, if the song is used in a place where the people who selected it didn't listen to the lyrics very well. As one of the folders in this page shows, it might be related to The Cover Changes the Meaning.

Example subpages:


In-Fiction Examples:

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  • "VD Is For Everybody" is a 1969 PSA warning us about how anyone can have nasty sexually transmitted diseases set to a rather romantic tune and played over clips of cheerful and pleasant people happily living out their lives.
  • There have been innumerable commercials that have used the repetitive chorus of Everclear's "Wonderful" to put forth a message of sunshine, rainbows, and puppies happiness, all-is-right-with-the-world fun, togetherness, and all other sorts of wonderful, positive emotions. People who have never heard the rest of the song probably don't have the first clue that's its actually about how traumatic it is for a child to watch their parents descend into mutual hatred and domestic violence.
  • For a long while, Carnival Cruise Line was using the chorus from Iggy Pop's Lust for Life as background music to their commercials showing happy families having fun during a Caribbean cruise. Forgotten in all the bright colors and good cheer is the fact that the song is about living with a serious heroin addiction and how said addiction almost killed Iggy Pop. The song was also used in a motivational feel-good advert for New Zealand-brewed Steinlager beer during the 1990s.
  • A few commercials, including one for department store jewelry, have used a peppy cover of 99 Red Balloons. How they thought the threat of apocalyptic nuclear war would make someone want to buy fake diamonds, I don't know.
  • Back in The '90s there was an anti-meth ad which sounds like an upbeat commercial tune, singing about how it won't make you sleep or eat, but it will make you clean a lot. The commercial itself however, is fitting to the message.

  • Maskerade has the "Departure Aria". It's said to be about how hard it is for the heroine to leave her lover, and when the last great diva sang it, "there wasn't a dry eye in the house". The lyrics translate to:
    This damn door sticks
    This damn door sticks
    It sticks no matter what the hell I do
    It's marked "Pull" and indeed I am pulling.
    Perhaps it should be marked "Push"?
  • Julian Velard fit H. P. Lovecraft's poem "Nemesis" to the tune of "Piano Man" by Billy Joel.


    Stand-Up Comedy 
  • In Steve Martin's famous stand-up routine, "Excuse Me!", Steve gets angry with "the backstage crew", and then cheers himself up by playing the banjo. Which leads to this lyrical dissonance:
    You just can't sing a depressing song when you're playing the banjo. You can't go:
    [grins, plays happily and sings] "Oh, murder and death and grief and sorrow!" [continues grinning and playing happily]
    • Martin's song that his dad said he used to sing to him effects this. It begins about being nice to each other ("Be courteous, kind and forgiving"/"Be gentle and peaceful each day") and such then evolves into being "obsequious, purple and clairvoyant." The rest of the song follows that pattern ("Be tasteless rude and offensive"/"Live in a swamp and be three-dimensional").
  • In his stand-up show "Dress To Kill" Eddie Izzard points out the difference between American gospel and European hymns:
    "There's something phenomenally dreary about Christian singing. The gospel singers are the only ones that go crazy. It's amazing, and it's borne out of kidnapping, imprisonment, slavery, murder, all of that, and this joyous singing. And the Church of England, all the Christian religions, which is mainly Caucasian white people with power and money, enough to make Solomon blush, they're all singing...(Dirge-like) "O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to... ?" They're the only people that can sing hallelujah without feeling like it's a hallelujah moment. "Haaallelujah, Haaaalleeelujah Joyfully we...Lark abooouuut..." And...No, it's...It's just not kicking, is it?"

    Web Animation 
  • "Off to the Henhouse" from Episode Three of Of Weasels And Chickens. It's a song about serial killing with a bouncy, snazzy tune.
  • RWBY:
    • The first opening theme is the epic "This Will Be The Day". While it starts out talking about how badass Ruby Rose is, the second half tells a different story while keeping the same beat.
    Beware that the light is fading;
    Beware if the dark returns.
    This world's unforgiving, even brilliant lights will cease to burn.
    Legends scatter.
    Day and night will sever.
    Hope and peace are lost forever.
    • Episode 8 has an epic fight sequence that is accompanied by an equally epic song entitled "Red Like Roses Part II". The song's lyrics begin with the following:
    I couldn't take it, couldn't stand another minute.
    Couldn't bear another day without you in it.
    All of the joy that I had known for all my life.
    Was stripped away from me the minute that you died.
    • Also "Die" from volume 2 episode 4, an upbeat, ass-kicking song... about how darkness is coming and ends with the lyrics "now it's time to die."
    • "Smile" details Ilia's tragic past and how it drives her to despise humanity. The melody is very upbeat and pleasant all the way through.
    Take what you need
    Leave them to bleed
    Let them know bitter while your revenge is sweet.
  • In episode twelve of 12, Willow appears to be singing something along the lines of a classic playground rhyme or something while going down a flight of stairs. It gets faster.
    Down we go, down we go, down into the sea,
    Down we go, oh-down we go, you're goin' down with me!
    Down we go, down we go, down with the ship,
    Down we go, oh-down we go, we're goin' down with it!
    Down we go, down we go, down into the sea,
    Down we go, oh-down we go, you're goin' down with me!

  • Lampshaded in a now-removed pictures for sad children webcomic with a song by fictional group Panic! Attack! (It was here, but the whole site is gone now)
  • Probably intentionally invoked in Richard's de facto theme song, "Slaughter Your World", in the Looking for Group movie. It's all about him being a genocidal maniac, set to the tune of "Part Of Your World" from The Little Mermaid (1989). Yes, seriously.
  • Hiimdaisy: "Your futile exis-tence has no meeea-ning~"
  • In Dumbing of Age, the lyrics to the theme song of Joyce's favorite Christian kids' show are horrifying when you really listen to them.
    • Only if you purposely misunderstand the intent of the lyrics.
  • Homestuck has the "Squiddle Song" on one of its Leitmotif albums. Its a folk-music song about a childrens' cartoon...that talks about how "all your friends are dead" and causally references buckets of blood, without losing the folk-music kids-cartoon tone.


Video Example(s):

Alternative Title(s): Lyric Dissonance


"Chocolate Diddlers"

Charlie's latest breakup is interfering with his new jingle.

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