Some songs are never going to be played on the radio. Their lyrical content is so extreme that it would cause no end of bother. But for every Rage Against the Machine, who refuse to alter their words to appeal to a broader fanbase, there are songwriters who will happily come up with a rewritten lyric if it will get them out of a tight spot with broadcasters...
[Warning: contains adult themes]
1. My Name Is - Eminem
My Name Is is so cartoonishly grotesque both in its malevolent original, with references to drunk driving, violence and murdering his own father in a dream, and in the surreal Alice in Wonderland MTV-friendly rewrite, which replaces vodka with Kool Aid, violence with Primus and that dream about his dad with, "If you see my dad, ask him if he's bought a porno mag and seen my ad." There are still lyrical drop-outs, though, as though some of his darker thoughts simply could not be made nice.
The Eminem song My Fault had to undergo an even more strange transformation. The original is a typically dark tale, in which a remorseful Marshall Mathers raps about a girl overdosing on psychedelic mushrooms, with possibly fatal consequences. The revised version keeps the fungus, but this time they're an ordinary, everyday variety that he puts on a pizza and the unexpected tragedy is that his friend is allergic to them.
2. I Love It - Kidz Bop
Some songs have to be changed to suit the audience for which they are intended. So the makers of Kidz Bop, who use child singers to cover contemporary pop songs, absolutely have to adjust the odd lyric to remove any suggestion of adult content. This can sometimes lead to unintentionally comic moments, where, for example, Lady Gaga's claim to be "sippin' that bubb" while out in the club in Telephone becomes "eatin' that grub", and the immortal line "it smells like R. Kelly's sheets" in Thrift Shop by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis becomes "it smells like my baseball cleats".
Some of the decisions are a little odd, however. Notably in the gloriously nihilistic I Don't Care by Icona Pop, she sings, "I crashed my car into a bridge / I watched, I let it burn," as a symbol of her utter disregard for everything. The Kidz Bop version takes a more socially responsible slant, treating that moment more like a driving lesson: "You drove your car across the bridge / I watched, you let it turn."
Needless to say, the line, "But I'm a 90s b****," didn't make it either. It's now, "but I'm a Kidz Bop kid."
3. Lola - The Kinks
Lola is perhaps the most famous lyrical rewrite in rock history, but it's fascinating to note exactly what drove Ray Davies to rush to a recording studio to re-do the lyric on his band's biggest hit of the 1970s. The song tells the story of a late night liaison in a nightclub between the narrator and a transgender woman. Ray Davies explained to Kinks biographer Jon Savage that it was based on a night out with his manager Robert Wace: "Robert had been dancing with this black woman, and he said, 'I'm really onto a thing here.' And it was okay until we left at six in the morning and then I said, 'Have you seen the stubble?' He said 'Yeah,' but he was too p***** to care, I think."
The song was banned in Australia, while some radio stations would fade out the song before the verse in which Ray sings, "I'm glad I'm a man and so's Lola." But the thing that made Ray reconsider his lyrics was the mention of Coca-Cola in the first line. BBC Radio, while fine with the song's narrative, wouldn't play a song with such obvious product placement, so Ray flew from New York to London to change the reference to "cherry cola". Cherry cola was not a flavour of fizzy pop that was available in the UK at that time, and would not be available commercially until 1985.
4. All About That Bass - Meghan Trainor
Radio Disney has an audience that is a lot younger and more innocent than most radio stations, and because of this, they'll often ask artists to find ways around some of their more risqué lyrical moments in order to play their songs on air. One of the most accommodating was Meghan Trainor, who was approached to help clean up several portions of her debut hit All About That Bass.
She altered the section of the first verse in which Meghan sings, "I got that boom-boom that all the boys chase, and all the right junk, in all the right places," to, "I got them smooth moves, they say I look great. Yeah, I'll be that star on all them big stages," and, "I know you think you're fat," to, "I'm gonna be tweeting that." Also, "Boys like a little more booty to hold at night," became, "Boys like the girls for the beauty they hold inside."
5. Forget You - Cee-Lo Green
The full story of this song and its various lyrical rewrites is longer than it seems, even for people who are aware that it was not originally called Forget You at all. CeeLo Green, Bruno Mars and production team the Smeezingtons gathered to write in 2009, and came up with a scathing attack of a song called F*** You. Knowing it would struggle for airplay, they released it in three forms. The fully unedited version is - as you may expect - abusive in the extreme, while the version called Forget You is less so. There's a video for each one, with appropriate edits where necessary. But there's also a ready-to-go radio edit (which most people in the UK will be familiar with) called FU, and that version leaves blank spaces on all the swear words that couldn't be replaced with "forget" and were left in.
Then there's F*** You (Heartbreaker) an even swearier version featuring 50 Cent, and a satirically rewritten version in which the offending hookline was replaced with "Fox News" for US comedy show The Colbert Report. And as a final twist of the rewrite quill, in 2011 CeeLo released Thank You, which is the same song but with an appreciative lyric about firefighters.
6. Let's Get It Started - Black Eyed Peas
It's unthinkable now that any major pop act would consider calling a song Let's Get Retarded and hope to sell it as a party anthem, and yet that's what The Black Eyed Peas did in 2003. The song originally appeared as an album track on Elephunk, and only when the band were seeking to place the song with American TV coverage of the 2004 NBA basketball playoffs did they consider a rewrite.
Now called Let's Get It Started, the song was released as a single and won friends in all the places the original did not, including the 2005 Grammy Awards, where it was nominated for Record of the Year and Best Rap Song, and won Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group. By then, the band had re-released Elephunk with the new version of the song tacked on, and clearly thinking they could do more with a winning idea, remixed it for their 2009 album The E.N.D., renaming it "Let's Get Re-Started".
7. The Cover of Rolling Stone - Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show
And then there are the songs that are rewritten without any involvement from the artists whatsoever. Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show scored a big hit in 1972 with their third single, a countrified spoof on rock star life claiming that all any band wants is to appear on the cover of a certain rock magazine, which at that point they had failed to do. Once the song charted, Rolling Stone did actually put the band on the cover, but in cartoon form, with the sardonic headline, "What's-Their-Names Make the Cover".
In America, that's where the story ends, but over here, the BBC refused to play the song as it would be unfairly promoting a commercially available magazine. Shortly afterwards, a single was released credited to Dr Hook and Friends, called The Cover of the Radio Times. Fans have long assumed this was the band trying to get some crucial airplay in a new territory, but in the autobiography of Shel Silverstein, who wrote the song, Dr Hook's singer Dennis Locorriere revealed it was not them at all: "Legend has it that we went into a studio and rerecorded the song. What actually happened was that a bunch of BBC disc jockeys went into a studio and shouted 'Radio Times' over our original chorus... You can, however, still hear us singing 'Rolling Stone,' but way in the background, under their voices."
The new version did not chart.