Singsong Phrases That Have Musical Backstories

That's from a song?

All you need is love, life in the fast lane, and bust a move: all popular catchphrases that originally came from songs. From rock-and-roll to rap, musicians have written lyrics that have stuck in our heads, leading them to become part of the vernacular.

But, what are some lesser-known lyrical catchphrases we’ve all been using? Time to explore!

Born to be wild

The 1968 song “Born to Be Wild” became the rallying cry of freedom for rockers and rule breakers the world over. The song then became the unofficial biker anthem when it was featured on the soundtrack for the 1969 counterculture movie Easy Rider. It also became an anti-war song during the Vietnam conflict.

The lyrics were written by Mars Bonfire and first recorded by the band Steppenwolf. Born to be wild is still synonymous with biker culture, and a popular phrase when describing hyper children or rambunctious teens.

If I knew you were comin’ Id’ve baked a cake

If I knew you were comin’ Id’ve baked a cake is an expression of delighted surprise at an unexpected visit (or maybe a sarcastic way of saying “thanks for letting me know you were coming”).

The phrase comes from the title of a 1950 song written by Al Hoffman, Bob Merrill, and Clem Watts. It was popularized by Eileen Barton. It was also the theme song for Exit 57, a 30-minute sketch comedy series on Comedy Central, from 1995 to 1996.

Keep an ear out, because you’re bound to hear it again soon on some random sitcom. This one always comes back around because of it’s easily-masked undertone of snark.

Mic drop

The gesture of the mic drop dates back to the 1980s, when it was used by rappers and comedians. In fact, the first instance of a mic drop is from the rap song “I Ain’t No Joke,” by Eric B. and Rakim. In their song, they say “I ain’t no joke, I used to let the mic smoke, Now I slam it when I’m done and make sure it’s broke.” Maybe, not a direct coinage of the phrase mic drop, but the sentiment is there.

Recently, mic drop has gained massive popularity: think President Barack Obama at the 2016 White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the boyband BTS’s hit “MIC Drop.”


We have the hip-hop group the Beastie Boys to thank for the term mullet, which describes a hairstyle that’s short in the front and on the sides and long in the back. It comes from their 1994 song “Mullet Head”:

“You want to know what’s a mullet? well
I got a little story to tell
About a hair style, that’s way of life”

Before the Beastie Boys came along, a mullet head meant “a stupid person.”

See you later alligator

See you later alligator is now considered an idiom for “goodbye.” The catchphrase was the title of a 1956 Top-Ten hit for Bill Haley & His Comets. At the time, alligator was slang for a fan of swing music.

When you say, “see you later alligator,” another person may respond with, “after a while crocodile,” the second line of the song’s chorus (or the refrain). Cute!

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll

Sex, drugs, and rock and roll defines the lifestyle of rock stars: “indulgent and pleasurable activities.” Today, though, someone’s just as likely to say, “it’s not all sex, drugs, and rock and roll.”

The phrase comes from the 1977 song “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll” by punk rocker Ian Dury. He said the song was not a punk anthem, and it was misinterpreted as a song about excess. Dury said he was suggesting that there’s more to life than a 9-to-5 existence. We agree (however; our 9-to-5 here at is pretty extreme, guys).

Taking care of business

If someone asks you what you’re doing, you might reply “just taking care of business,” meaning doing what you’re supposed to be doing.

The catchphrase comes from the song “Takin’ Care of Business” written by Randy Bachman and first recorded in 1973 by the Canadian rock group Bachman-Turner Overdrive (BTO). Bachman said he was working on a song about a white-collar worker when he heard a DJ use the phrase. And, now we all take care of business . . . every day.

Everybody must get stoned

If you yell “everybody must get stoned” while dancing at a party, you may be surprised to learn that the phrase is from Bob Dylan’s 1966 song “Rainy Day Woman #12 and 35.” (Fun fact: The song’s title never appears in the lyrics.)

The catchphrase has become a rallying cry for stoners though Dylan said the song was never meant to be a drug song. Some music critics say it’s a biblical reference to physical stoning, and others claim that it’s a reference to the hostile reaction Dylan got to his new sound, to racial tensions in the United States, or to going against social norms. Well, seems like this catchphrase may have more significant meaning than you thought when you said it at that party last night . . . .

The kids are alright

“The Kids Are Alright” is a song written in 1965 by Pete Townshend of The Who. The chorus is:

“Sometimes, I feel I gotta get away
Bells chime, I know I gotta get away
And I know if I don’t, I’ll go out of my mind
Better leave her behind with the kids, they’re alright
The kids are alright”

The catchphrase—with alright sometimes spelled all right—is the title of a resource guide for the organization GLAAD, the title of a popular 2010 movie about a lesbian couple raising their children, the title of a documentary on children with muscular dystrophy, and the titles of sociological books and articles about children. This one’s for the books (and movies).

Don’t be cruel

Remember hearing this one from your parents or grandparents . . . “don’t be cruel to your brother!”

Well, it actually originated from the song titled “Don’t Be Cruel,” by Elvis Presley. However, in the song the phrase is more of a plea from someone in love to their partner (than a scolding for siblings). Nonetheless, the song was an instant hit and helped propel Presley into stardom, which in turn, launched the catchphrase.

Maybe, you also remember this other well-known Elvis saying . . . Elvis has left the building. When Elvis was “King,” the phrase was used to let fans know that the concert was over and Elvis wouldn’t be singing any more encores . . . and now has left the lyrical-catchphrase building as well.

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