Literal Songs

Mar 17, 2017
Originally published on September 8, 2017 9:51 am

Jonathan Coulton makes songs with one-word titles even more straightforward, by changing their lyrics so that each song is quite literally about the title. Contestants buzz in to identify the song.

Heard on Judy Gold: Very Special Episodes

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit

JONATHAN COULTON: This is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. I'm Jonathan Coulton here with puzzle guru John Chaneski. Now, here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.



Thank you, Jonathan. Before the break, we met our contestants Gina and Kris. Let's go to your next game where Jonathan Coulton will play literal interpretations of songs with one-word titles. Gina, what would be the one-word title of your autobiography?

GINA GULLO: Probably "Ouch."


GULLO: Yeah.


EISENBERG: Are you clumsy?

GULLO: I'm clumsy, and then when I'm not clumsy, I tend to do things that are not necessarily feeling great sometimes, so I make a lot of weird mistakes.


EISENBERG: All right, banging yourself up. OK, Kris, what is the one-word title of your autobiography?

KRIS SUNDERIC: Well, I'm a career scientist, and most of that time has been in cell bio, so I think I would name my autobiography "Cell." And I've always been fascinated with the idea that within every cell in our body is a blueprint of us, and if we can unlock the potential of the cells in our body, then we are capable of treating any number of diseases.

EISENBERG: Yeah. You got scary there for a second and then back to normal. I was like, oh, my God, evil and then you were like, oh, no, for good, for good, for good.


EISENBERG: Jonathan Coulton has a music parody about overly literal songs.

COULTON: Yes, I do. In this game, I will play you songs that have one-word titles. However, we've changed the lyrics to be about the literal definition of the song's title. So you just need to buzz in and identify the song.

EISENBERG: So, Kris, you won the last game. You win this and you go right to the final round. Gina, you need to win this or you have to sing Kenny Rogers' "Lady" to me after the show, and you got to make it sound sincere.

GULLO: I'll do what I can.


COULTON: OK. Here we go. (Singing) Well, I guess it would be nice if I could trust in something, could just believe in something without the burden of proof.



GULLO: "Evidence."

COULTON: I'm sorry, that is incorrect.


COULTON: Do you know the answer, Kris?

SUNDERIC: "Faith."

COULTON: "Faith."


GULLO: Oh, I see how...

COULTON: That's right, George Michael.

GULLO: ...This game works.

EISENBERG: I thought maybe you weren't sure about the...

GULLO: I didn't know that the tune mattered.

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah, yeah. We're changing it up.

GULLO: I like it now. Well, I liked it before too.


GULLO: I get it now.

EISENBERG: That's very sweet.

GULLO: Sorry.


EISENBERG: That's very sweet.

GULLO: See, ouch.


COULTON: Here we go. (Singing) Train, train, train, train, train, it gets me to my desk, desk, desk, desk, desk. Turn my computer on, on, on, on, on so I can do the stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff, stuff they hired me to do do do do do because that's how I get paid, paid, paid, paid, paid.




COULTON: "Work" is right.


COULTON: (Singing) My doctor checks my heart with her stethoscope and asks me if I quit smoking. Takes note of all of my vital signs, it's all quite routine.



SUNDERIC: "Checkup."

COULTON: "Checkup" is a good guess. That's not the answer, though. Gina?

GULLO: I guess "Vitals."

COULTON: That's another fine guess. No.

EISENBERG: So close, so close.

COULTON: The answer we're looking for was "Physical."

GULLO: Oh, let's get physical, physical.

COULTON: That's Olivia Newton-John, yes.




COULTON: Now you're going to make Gina feel bad if you say ouch every time something bad happens on stage.

GULLO: (Laughter).

COULTON: (Singing) Sometimes it's programmable, but mostly it's just flammable. Your eyes will face north, north, north as you watch it on the fourth, fourth, fourth.



SUNDERIC: "Firework."

COULTON: "Firework" by Katy Perry, that's right.


COULTON: (Singing) I'm feeling like I'm getting sick. I think someone slipped me arsenic unless it's ricin instead, sweating, coughing, barfing...

Oh, no, I'm dead.



SUNDERIC: "Poison."

COULTON: "Poison," that's right.


EISENBERG: Ricin, that's the stuff in my back molar.

COULTON: (Laughter) I hope not.

EISENBERG: You know, for when things get bad.


COULTON: It's kept safe in a capsule for you to bite when it's time.

EISENBERG: That's right. That's right. I remember I got that with the job at NPR.


COULTON: Everyone is issued a poison tooth...

EISENBERG: (Laughter) Yeah, exactly.

COULTON: ...Just in case we fall into the wrong hands.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) That's right.

COULTON: (Singing) And it's not like sandpaper. It doesn't have bumps. It's like those mashed potatoes that don't have the lumps. It's like a baby's bottom or a block of ice. Yeah, it's a description of silk. That's all I'll say about it.


GULLO: Gina.

GULLO: "Smooth."

COULTON: "Smooth," you've got it.


COULTON: This is your last clue. (Singing) You just take these two things upon your face. I take the same things in the same place, and then together we're moving toward each other so much because we want our facial regions to touch.


GULLO: "Lips."


COULTON: Gina, I'm sorry, that is incorrect. Kris, do you know the answer?

SUNDERIC: We don't want our facial regions to touch?

COULTON: We do. We do.

SUNDERIC: Oh, well - "Kiss."

COULTON: "Kiss" is correct. That's right.


COULTON: That's Prince. That's Prince.



COULTON: John Chaneski, how did our contestants do?

JOHN CHANESKI: Kris literally won his second game, so he's moving on to the final round. Congratulations, Kris.

(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.