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20 English Idioms in Popular Songs

Idioms are special phrases that express ideas in a creative, often figurative (not literal) way.

Idioms come up all the time, in everyday speech, literature and even in songs! Many English songs are full of interesting idioms that make the lyrics more colorful and meaningful.

These songs also make it easier to remember the idioms because music activates our brains and the lyrics stay in our minds.

In this post, we’ll explore 20 common idioms used in popular songs and uncover their meanings and contextual uses.

Contents


1. Go crazy

To go crazy can mean to go insane (not have control of your mind). It can also mean to lose control of your behavior due to extreme emotions and behave in a wild or reckless manner. 

I’ve been working here at my desk for three hours without a break. If I don’t go outside to get some fresh air soon, I think I’ll go crazy!

“Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince

(Lyrics)

Even though he’s gone, Prince’s music lives on, and so does this really common idiom! In this song, “go crazy” means to be wild or to have a really good time. Another similar phrase is “go nuts” or “get nuts,” which is also used in this song.

2. Give up

“Give up” is a phrasal verb that means to surrender or quit doing something. When you “give up” on a task or goal, it means you no longer believe you can succeed or achieve it, so you decide to stop trying. 

Sheila has failed two Japanese exams, but she’ll keep on trying until she passes it. She said she’s not going to give up.

“Never Give You Up” by Raphael Saadiq

(Lyrics)

This idiom is a common phrase in a lot of songs. In this particular song, Raphael Saadiq uses it to say he’ll never give up on his relationship. In other words, he’ll never stop trying to make his relationship work.

If you want to hear more songs with this idiom, I recommend “Don’t Give Up” by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. There are also two great songs called “Never Gonna Give You Up”: one by The Black Keys and the other, much more famous one by Rick Astley.

3. Out of the blue

The idiom “out of the blue” means something unexpected or surprising that occurs suddenly and without any warning sign. It refers to an event or situation that happens without being anticipated (expected).

Brian’s promotion came totally out of the blue. He wasn’t expecting it at all since he started the job less than a year ago.

“Someone Like You” by Adele

(Lyrics)

In the song “Someone Like You,” Adele uses the phrase “out of the blue” to describe the unexpected return of a past love. The lyrics convey the suddenness and surprise of encountering this person again after a long period of time. 

4. Mixed up

The phrase “mixed up” means to be confused or to have things in a state of disorder or disarray. When someone is “mixed up,” they may feel unsure or puzzled about something, or they may have difficulty understanding or organizing things correctly.

The verb “mix” by itself means to stir or combine things. So you can also think of something that’s “mixed up” as being in a different order or state than normal.

We were trying to drive to the swimming pool, but we got our directions mixed up. Fortunately, we asked a woman on the side of the road, and she told us how to get to the pool.

“Mixed Up World” by Sophie Ellis-Bextor

(Lyrics)

In this song, Sophie Ellis-Bextor sings about how she’s confused because she’s going through a difficult time. But she also says that if you think life is tough (difficult), you need to remember that you’re also tough (strong).

There are two other really common idioms in this song: She mentions right at the beginning that she’s “messed up,” which is the same as “mixed up.” And—you guessed it—she also mentions that she’s going crazy!

5. In your (wildest) dreams

Dreams are things you see or imagine when you’re sleeping, so they’re not really happening. In the same way, if you say that something will happen “in your dreams,” it means that you don’t think it really will happen, or that you think it’s impossible.

I would like Taylor Swift to sing at my birthday party, but I don’t think that will actually happen, even in my wildest dreams.

“Wildest Dreams” by Taylor Swift

(Lyrics)

In this Taylor Swift song, she tells a man to say some things, even if they’re only in his wildest dreams. Here, “wildest” means “craziest” or “most impossible.” In other words, she wants him to say those things, even if he doesn’t think they will ever happen.

There’s also a rock song by Iron Maiden that’s called “Wildest Dreams.”

6. Poker face

Do you ever play poker? If so, you probably know that you’re supposed to maintain a neutral expression on your face, even if you get a perfect hand or some terrible cards.

If you say that someone has a “poker face,” it means it’s difficult to read their emotions through their facial expression. You can also use this expression outside of cards to say that it’s difficult to know what someone is thinking.

I asked Vivianna what she thought of my new haircut, but she just said it looked “nice.” She usually has a poker face and I can never tell what she’s really thinking.

“Poker Face” by Lady Gaga

(Lyrics)

In the song “Poker Face,” Lady Gaga says a man can’t read her poker face, so she may be difficult for him to understand. She’s likely referring to that mysterious nature that tends to attract people.

7. Make up your mind

The phrase “make up your mind” means to make a decision or choose between different options. You can also change the word “your” for other possessive adjectives like “my,” “her,” “his,” etc.

Xavier can’t make up his mind whether he wants chocolate or strawberry ice cream.

“When Your Mind’s Made Up” by Glen Hansard

(Lyrics)

In this song, Glen Hansard sings “When your mind’s made up, there’s no point trying to change it.” This means that the person has already made a decision, and they probably won’t change their mind or opinion. 

8. Time after time

If you say something happens time after time, you mean that it happens a lot or repeatedly. You can also say that it happens “time and again” or simply “again and again.”

Time after time, I’ve told my grandma that she doesn’t need to cook meals for me, but she still does it. I’ve just accepted that she likes to cook and she wants to be nice, so I don’t argue anymore.

“Time After Time” by Cyndi Lauper

(Lyrics)

In this song, Cyndi Lauper uses the phrase to tell someone that she’ll be there for them “time after time.” No matter how many times they “fall” or need help, she’ll be there to help and support them. At the very beginning of the music video, you’ll also hear idiom #7 in the line “I’ve made up my mind.” 

9. Cruel to be kind

Believe it or not, the phrase “cruel to be kind” actually was first used in William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet,” when Hamlet says “I must be cruel, only to be kind.”

We still say a pretty close version of the phrase, “You have to be cruel to be kind,” and the meaning is the same. You say this when you need to do or say something that’s cruel (mean) or which may hurt someone, but you’re actually doing it to help them. This is also sometimes called “tough love.”

We really need to talk to Kristina about her work clothes. She thinks they’re OK, but the bosses are saying she looks unprofessional and that they might need to fire her. I guess we’ve got to be cruel to be kind and tell her the truth.

“Cruel To Be Kind” by Nick Lowe

(Lyrics)

In this song, Nick Lowe sings about how a woman treats him badly, but she explains that she’s being cruel to be kind. She even says that “cruel to be kind means that I love you.”

10. Take your breath away

The idiom “take your breath away” means to be amazed or overwhelmed by something’s beauty, surprise or astonishment. It describes a feeling of being so captivated or impressed that it momentarily leaves you breathless. 

When Anna saw her new baby for the first time, the experience took her breath away. She couldn’t believe how emotional she felt.

“Take My Breath Away” by Berlin

(Lyrics)

In this song, the singer says “You turn to me and say / Take my breath away.'” It seems the lover is asking her to give him an experience that is so incredible that he loses his breath (figuratively, as no one wants to be unable to breathe!).

The lyrics are a bit confusing even for native speakers, so don’t worry if it’s hard for you to follow along. 

11. You win some, you lose some

This is a phrase that you might say to someone who has just gone through a difficult experience. If you say “you win some, you lose some,” it’s a way to encourage someone and point out that you won’t always be successful, so you should move forward after you fail. Another similar idiom is “You can’t win them all.”

I was excited because I found $10 in the street, but later that day I got a parking ticket for $20. Oh well, you win some, you lose some.

“Win Some, Lose Some” by Robbie Williams

(Lyrics)

In this song, Robbie talks about a relationship that ended. He says “You win some, you lose some” and is probably hoping that the next time, he wins!  

12. Opposites attract

People use this idiom to explain when two people who seem to be very different are still friends or together in a relationship.

Jenny has been a vegetarian and a peace activist for years, so we were all surprised when she started dating Wayne, a beef farmer who was in the military. I guess opposites really do attract!

“Opposites Attract” by Paula Abdul

(Lyrics)

The song and the 1990s video are a bit cheesy, but they do have a lot of examples of how two people (or I guess one person and a cat, if you watch the music video) can be extremely different but still be in love with each other.

13. Get down

Depending on the context, the phrasal verb “get down” can have several different meanings. But as a slang term, it means to dance or to just enjoy yourself at a party. So if you hear someone say “let’s get down,” it’s like saying “let’s party!”

I think that every wedding DJ has a few special songs that they can play to start the party and make everyone get down on the dancefloor.

“Get Down On It” by Kool and the Gang

(Lyrics)

In this classic song, Kool and the Gang are pushing the listener to get out on the dance floor and start dancing. It has a very similar message to the song “Get Down Tonight” by K.C. and the Sunshine Band.

14. Get/pull yourself together

The idiom “pull yourself together” means to regain control of your emotions or composure when you’re feeling upset, confused or overwhelmed. It can be used when someone is making poor life decisions or having a hard time getting over something. 

It should be noted that the feeling conveyed by this phrase depends on the context; it can be encouraging between close friends or family members, but it can also be insulting and cause the person to feel embarrassed or ashamed.

Wow, you shouldn’t be calling your ex when you’re drunk. Give me your phone now, and I’ll give it back to you tomorrow after you get yourself together.

“Get Myself Together” by Robyn

(Lyrics)

A lot of the lyrics to this Robyn song are about her being confused and broken into different pieces:

“When nothing else fits, pick up the pieces and move on…”
“I’ve got to get my head back on…”
“There’s no denying the mess that I got us in…”
“Just can’t make sense of it all, it’s like my mind is gone…”

So yes, she does sound like she’s mixed up!

15. Hold back

The phrase “hold back” means to restrain or stop yourself from doing something. For example, if you have strong emotions or an urge to say something but choose not to express them, you’re holding back. It can also refer to holding back information or keeping something secret.

The idiom suggests a sense of self-control or moderation. When you hold back, you’re consciously holding yourself in restraint or not letting yourself fully engage or express something.

When the wedding DJ started playing “Get Down On It,” Betty couldn’t hold back. She simply had to get down and start dancing!

“I Can’t Hold Back” by Survivor 

(Lyrics)

This is a love song about how a guy can’t stop himself from expressing his love and passion. He says “I can’t hold back / I won’t back down / Girl, it’s too late / To turn back now.” 

16. Dream come true

Like with the phrase “in your dreams,” if you’re talking about dreams, you’re normally talking about fantasies or imaginary things. So if something is a “dream come true,” it means that it’s something that may have seemed impossible, but it somehow became real, to your delight or excitement. 

It would be a real dream come true if I could work at home for five hours a week doing something I love, and somehow earn $50,000 a month for doing it!

“You Make My Dreams” by Hall and Oates 

(Lyrics)

This song by Hall and Oates is about a guy who has found the girl of his dreams. In the lyrics, he even says that his dreams have scattered (gotten mixed up), but that this girl helps pull them all together. See, I told you these were common idioms!

17. Fight fire with fire

If you say “fight fire with fire,” it means that if someone is attacking you, you need to use the same tactics (strategies or ways) to fight back. If you don’t, you’ll probably be defeated (lose). There’s also a similar saying: “Don’t bring a knife to a gunfight.”

The politicians are all using negative advertisements against each other. They seem to think that they can fight fire with fire, but I think it just makes everyone trust politicians less.

“Fight Fire With Fire” by Metallica

(Lyrics)

In this dark Metallica song, the lyrics talk about nuclear war, and how fighting nuclear warfare with nuclear warfare will end up killing everyone. To hear other songs with this idiom, check out “Fight Fire With Fire” by Kansas and “Fightin’ Fire With Fire” by Kenny Rogers.

18. What you see is what you get

Use this phrase when you want to say that you aren’t hiding anything or keeping anything secret. Basically, everything is visible (can be seen). This idiom is so common that it’s even used in computer programming, often shortened to “WYSIWYG.”

If you want to buy a used car, I’d recommend Ted’s Auto Sales. The cars aren’t perfect, but Ted doesn’t try to pretend that they’re perfect. With him and his cars, what you see is what you get, and you can be sure that he’ll be honest with you.

“What You Get Is What You See” by Tina Turner 

(Lyrics)

In this song, the idiom is actually backward (maybe to make it rhyme better), but it means the same thing. The late legend Tina Turner sings about how some guys try to pretend to be something they’re not, but she’s very open: With her, there’s nothing hidden, and she wants a guy who will accept that.

19. Work it out

The phrase “work it out” means to find the solution to a problem, resolve an unwanted situation or figure something out. 

I’m not sure how we’ll get from the airport to the hotel, but we can work it out tomorrow. There are still two days left until our trip.

“Work It Out” by Jurassic 5 featuring Dave Matthews Band 

(Lyrics)

This song uses this idiom a lot, with lines like these:

“If you ain’t happy with yourself you need to work it out…”
“I work it out when the situation seems unworkable…”

Some other great songs that use this idiom are “It’ll All Work Out” by Tom Petty, “We Can Work It Out” by The Beatles and “Brothers Gonna Work It Out” by Public Enemy.

20. Too little, too late

The idiom “too little, too late” is what you can say when someone tries to fix a problem or make amends, but the effort is too small and comes too late to make a significant impact. It’s often used to express a sense of disappointment or frustration when something is offered or attempted, but it’s no longer helpful or effective.

The managers tried to save the failing company, but it was too little, too late. There were too many problems and the company had to close.

“Little Too Late” by Pat Benatar 

(Lyrics)

In this song, Pat Benatar sings about how she broke up with her boyfriend, but now he’s coming back to her and asking to get back together. But she says it’s “a little too little, it’s a little too late.” In other words, if he really wanted to get back together, he should have tried harder and earlier.

 

As you listen to music in the future, see if you can spot any of these idioms in use. And sing along to secure them in your memory!

You can find more songs with idioms and other common phrases on a language learning program like FluentU.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

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There are also plenty of English song lists out there, just waiting for you to find your next favorite song.

And One More Thing...

If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:

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