“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya
Poets vary in their use of words. Some are verbose; others are prolix. A basic rule of thumb for good poetry, however, is that each word should be measured and weighed; each sound and verbal idea should contribute to an overall sense.
(Another word for prolix: Laconic. This comes from the ancient Greek Lakonian, a synonym for Lacedaemonian or Spartan. The Spartans were known for using few words and being hostile to rhetoric—in contrast, of course, to their enemies, the Athenians.)
Now, while some might disagree with the contention, I think that the same standard should apply to similar genres—in this case, pop music. The lyrics of popular songs shouldn’t waste words or images—they should be carefully considered and placed to contribute to an overall, coherent idea. This, of course, may be too aspirational for most contemporary songs. But, then again, who will remember 95% of what is popular on the radio 20 years from now?
(Ryan Seacrest, maybe)
We are all familiar with ‘one hit wonders’—artists who flare up for fewer than fifteen minutes of fame on the virtue of one brilliant (or at least successful) song. In fact, with VH1 specials and the like it would almost be impossible to have escaped the concept over the past decade. There is something noble, I must say, about these artists. Like leaves on the tree (or human beings) they live vibrantly, die and pass away, leaving behind, for the best of them, the memory of an impressive flourishing.
I am interested in a different concept that is far from coterminous with the one-hit wonder, and that is what I call the “one word wonder”. I use this phrase for songs that have particularly bad or obscure lyrics and use as a hook, title, or chorus a word that appears nonsensical , misplaced, or merely misunderstood. So, the usage makes you wonder. Get it? One word makes you wonder?
(So clever, it hurts. Who needs a day job?)
Now, this is a phenomenon that I have noticed for some time and the interesting thing is that this sense-defying use of language has no direct impact on the aesthetic reception or commercial success of the song if all other aspects are equal. I would dare say, that the mystery or inaptness may even contribute to its success. Maybe? For sure.
The first song I remember thinking this about is “Glycerine” by Bush. The song, which is clearly about regrets in a relationship, is fairly straightforward. Built around a brooding chord progression with distortion, it basically features Rossdale’s voice mumbling and moaning about his failings. For the time, it was actually quite catchy and different.
The problem is that the chorus is merely one word: glycerine. I have long mused about what it means. Is Rossdale saying that he is unstable like nitro glycerine? (That wouldn’t be a terrible or unpoetic interpretation; but it possesses more subtlety than I would usually attribute to Bush’s lyrics.) Is he talking about the viscous liquid instead or lubricant? (The first interpretation would be nonsensical and asymbolic as far as I can tell; but, then, even more justly parodied by Homer Simpson’s garage band with “Margarine” in Episode 411. The second interpretation would be, well, not gross but at the very least unpoetic).
Why is this one word there? My guess is that the band liked it because it sounded cool. We can vindicate it to a certain degree because it forces you to think about it, to weigh the possible meanings (or not) and select or dismiss. By using a known word in an uncommon way, the song invites the intervention of interpretation. I fear, however, that I am still crediting Bush too much.
Or, perhaps the audience thinks it sounds cool. Rossdale’s bending of the vowel in “ine” and the contrast between his earlier growling and the gliding “gl” is certainly attractive. I guess. At some level, the use of this word is poetically effective because it defies direct understanding. On the other hand, it may just be a crap lyric.
Another example, in brief. In Oasis’ first American hit “Wonderwall” the title and final word of the chorus is a neologism alleged to mean “an imaginary friend who’s gonna come and save you from yourself” (Thank you, Wikipedia). But, I suspect in truth, that the word has somehow filtered down from the 1960’s movie Wonderwall, the music for which was written by the Beatles’ George Harrison (thank you, again, Wikipedia). There is, certainly, an obvious allusion to the Beatles in the second stanza of the song (“Backbeat the word was on the street”).
My suspicion, however, is that despite all of these possibilities and the claims of the band, the word “wonderwall” is meaningless. More importantly, even if the songwriter understood the word in such a way, the fact that the audience isn’t clued in to the meaning creates a similar indeterminacy to that of “Glycerine”. We wonder what a wonderwall is; we like it because we don’t know what it means and, most importantly, it sounds cool. (What the fuck is a wonderwall? I remember this being a hot topic of conversation. Man, life was lame before the interweb.)
A final and truly brief example: David Gray’s “Babylon”. The word makes no sense to me. Is it a biblical reference? Is Gray asserting that he is somewhat like the sinful city or the whore? Or, is this an archaeological reference? Is Gray talking about ancient Mesopotamian civilization? Probably not. The word sounds cool. The reference sounds sophisticated. If we receive it that way, then we make it that way. Because it is mysterious, it works. The audience, it seems, is bamboozled.
But is that all that bad?
What do you think, mi germano? Is the label “one word wonder” useful? Are my explanations sensible? Can you think of other examples?