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Miss Misery

Miss Misery


by Elliott Smith


Rhyming in songs and poetry is an old tradition. Okay, that's an understatement – it's a really old tradition. Scholars are hard-pressed to say exactly how it started or why, but for some reason, when we hear that a singer is "falling apart" we're pretty sure that they'll soon mention their "broken heart." "Miss Misery" rhymes as well, but the structure of its rhymes is a little more interesting than that of your average pop tune, and also helps add meaning to the song.

Before we begin, though, we'd like to give you some food for thought, in case you're thinking, "Does a pop songwriter really care that much about how his rhyme scheme and technical stuff like that add meaning to his song?" Consider this quote from Rob Schnapf, a man who worked closely with Smith on his later albums: "A lot of times you couldn't take apart his songs. They were this puzzle, this intricate little puzzle." The same source talked about a Smith song named "Independence Day," which has "Future butterfly" as its first lyric, and features a unique, catchy section that only happens once right at the end of the song: "The record company had said it would be great if we could get that chorus that only comes in at the end, if we could have it come sooner…And I remember saying, 'Well, it's a metaphor about turning into a butterfly. You can't turn into a butterfly twice.'" What we're trying to prove to you here is that quite often, when something unusual occurs in the structure of a piece of art, it happens for a reason, and understanding that reason can really enrich your understanding and enjoyment. Plus you can look really smart to all your friends.

Let's take a look at rhyme scheme of the verses in "Miss Misery." (By verses we mean every thing but the sections starting "A man in the park..." and "I know you'd rather see me gone…". Those are considered "bridges" in musical terms.)

I'll fake it through the day (a)
with some help from Johnny Walker Red. (b)
Send the poison rain (c)
down the drain (c)
to put bad thoughts in my head. (b)

Two tickets torn in half (a)
and a lot of nothing to do. (b)
Do you miss me, (c)
Miss Misery, (c)
like you say you do? (b)

You had plans for both of us (a)
that involved a trip out of town (b)
to the place I've seen (c)
in a magazine (c)
that you'd left lying around. (b)

I don't have you with me, (a)
but I keep a good attitude. (b)
Do you miss me, (c)
Miss Misery, (c)
like you say you do? (b)

Next door the TV's flashing blue (a)
frames on the wall. (b)
It's a comedy (c)
of errors, you see. (c)
It's about taking a fall. (b)

To vanish into oblivion (a)
is easy to do. (b)
And I try to be, (c)
but, you know me, (c)
I come back when you want me to. (b)

Do you miss me, (a)
Miss Misery, (a)
like you say you do? (b)

You should be able to see the pattern here: a-b-c-c-b. This pattern usually includes "Do you miss me / Miss Misery / Like you say you do?", which is sung three times throughout the piece. This is interesting, because lines repeated that often in a song are usually considered a chorus. However, because the refrain in this song is super-important to maintaining the a-b-c-c-b pattern of rhyme that's established in the first verse, it can't stand completely apart.

This could be symbolic of how the speaker cannot, for most of the song, seem to disconnect himself from a relationship that is causing him confusion and sadness. A different symbolism is at work, though, when at the very end of the song the usual rhyme scheme that this repeated question fits into is broken. The last time we hear the all-important query, it is divorced from its usual place with the verse and stands alone (take a look above to see what we mean). Even stranger, this distancing of the question comes right after the first time the speaker mentions explicitly being with the girl with the words "I come back when you want me to." Maybe this separation shows how, no matter how much this girl misses him or how much he wants to be with her, the speaker feels there is a distance between them that can never be overcome.

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