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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. Sounds like it's going to be a fun little ditty. Then the lyrics start. You might sing to the melody for a bit, before it starts in: The singer is actually telling a tale about miserable subjects.

And the worst part is, the music, which sounds rather happy, just keeps going. That is Lyrical Dissonance: when the music and lyrics go 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 .

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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 have 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 Scary Musician, Harmless Music, 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.

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Example subpages:

Other examples:

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    Advertising 
  • "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.
  • 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.

    Fan Works 
  • Several Undertale-themed fan covers of "Stronger Than You" from Steven Universe are this. The original song is a triumphant, self-affirming number about how Garnet is quite literally made of love (more specifically, Ruby and Sapphire's). The covers on the other hand:
    • The Frisk cover is a broken song with a slow melody that is at times happy and at times solemn, with Frisk showing how the genocide path was started by curiosity and how they then found themself trapped in a cycle where they killed their friends and corrupted the first ally they had. They finally meet Sans and explain what L.O.V.E means, slowly dying time and time again because they don't know whether to kill their last and closest friend or try to reset everything to get back that happy ending. Sadly the things they have done are so big that they can't keep going, and they leaving themself open so Sans can kill them, with them being forced to "reset" again and take the same path as before. However, another interpretation is that Frisk after this chooses to take a more merciful path, so there is still a glimmer of hope.
    • The one from Chara's perspective goes in the opposite direction. Their tone actually is quite triumphant, but far more sinister as Chara sings about how Sans can't possibly fight them forever, but they come back every time they die and get closer and closer to victory every time. The lyrics are filled with bloodlust and boasts of invincibility, outright daring Sans to kill them again, clearly reveling in every moment of the fight.
    • "Made of L.O.V.E" takes the same darker meaning as the above example, but this time the singer is boasting about being a creature of pure violence.
  • "Bergentrückung" from Undertale the Musical sounds like an epic battle between monster and hero, right? Until one hears Asgore say "I'm sorry" and everything goes downhill from there; the song goes on about how much they would love to stop, but they are forced upon this path.

    Literature 
  • King Dork's audiobook has "Thinking Of Suicide".
  • 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.
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    Radio 
  • This is more or less the entire purpose of "One Song to the Tune of Another" on the radio comedy show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. The words don't match the music, either in terms of depth, emotion, or intention. For example:
    • In one round, Tony Hawks was given The Smiths' "Girlfriend in a Coma" to sing to the tune of "Tip-Toe Thru' the Tulips With Me" by Nick Lucas. He made the rendition as upbeat and bouncy as possible, the result being hilarious. This was reprised by Tim Brooke-Taylor in the live stage show.
    • The lyrics of "Barbie Girl" by Aqua to the tune of "Strangers in the Night" by Frank Sinatra.
  • "Capatin Dinosaur" from John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme is a happy, cheerful song with pretty silly, cheerful lyrics to match, until the last verse. (Zero-Context Example; what happens in the last verse?)

    Stand-Up Comedy 
  • In his stand-up show "Dress To Kill", Eddie Izzard points out the difference between American gospel and European hymns:
    Izzard: 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?
  • Steve Martin:
    • In 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:
      Martin: 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. In the beginning it's about being nice to each other ("Be courteous, kind and forgiving"/"Be gentle and peaceful each day"), and then it 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").

    Web Animation 
  • In episode 12 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
  • ASDF Movie has "The Muffin Song", which has a cheerful-sounding melody, but is about how the muffin wants to die.
  • "Off to the Henhouse" from the Of Weasels And Chickens episode "Tough Cluck". 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 as 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
    • "Players and Pieces" 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
    • "Die" from "Painting the Town..." is an upbeat, ass-kicking song... about how darkness is coming, ending 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

    Webcomics 
  • Hiimdaisy: "Your futile exis-tence has no meeea-ning~"
  • Homestuck has the "Squiddle Song" on one of its Leitmotif albums. It's a folk-music song about a children's cartoon... that talks about how "all your friends are dead" and casually references buckets of blood, without losing the folk-music kids'-cartoon tone.
  • Probably intentionally invoked in Richard's de facto theme song, "Slaughter Your World", from 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.

 

Alternative Title(s): Lyric Dissonance

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