One Word Wonders: Bush, Oasis and David Gray

“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?

One Word Wonders

“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 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.)

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Live Music

I have been very lucky in the amount of live music I’ve seen over the years. It had something to do with my siblings, my choice in friends and my choice in college. All three linked to give me the opportunity to see a wide variety of shows in a wide variety of places.

My first show besides seeing my brother’s band, as far as I can remember, was Guster at a bar in Portland, Maine when I was in seventh grade. They still rocked the bongos and at my young age, anything with older people was cool. I remember being very tired but enjoying it nonetheless. The opening band was called “Smokin Grass” and I didn’t understand what the lead singer of Guster meant by saying “Only seven more hours to 4:20” before the first song. Everyone laughed so I pretended to get it and followed suit.

Both my siblings took me to many shows over the course of my teenage years and I am a very lucky man because even if you don’t love the band, it is always an experience that you learn something from, even if it’s as simple as not ever buying food from a bar with dirt on the walls.

My brother brought me to many of his various bands shows and smaller local acts in Boston where he went to college. My sister brought me to singer/songwriter type of music and white boy reggae type stuff like Dispatch, the first and only show besides George Clinton in 2009 that I have walked out on. To Dispatch’s credit, they are a really good band, I just wanted to smoke cigarettes out front and the venue would not allow you to come back in if you chose to do this. Lame.

As for the Atomic Dog himself, it just got really boring after the twenty minutes of “Maggot Brain” and George was barely moving. He little just flapped his hands up and down. Christ, I know he’s not young and apparently very fat, but at least have the decency to go to rehab or quit touring. I will get into worst shows ever at a later date.

 

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Cover Songs, Redux

In an earlier post, I wrote about cover songs abstractly, taking the time to discuss only one of my favorite covers in detail. In re-reading and re-thinking that post, I have more to say about one of my favorite topics (big surprise).

First, the cover song plays important but often different roles for artist and audiences. For developing musicians, covering a song is a bit like a painter copying the brush strokes of a master. In performance contexts like the dive bar or a street corner, however, a cover is an important way to grab a distracted (or hostile) audience’s attention either through the fidelity of the imitation or the originality of the interpretation.

Covered by every bar singer in Boston 1999-2001

Indeed, it is in the transition between these two polarities that we often mark the difference between a musician and an artist. When we go to live performances (especially of artists’ we don’t know) we may be impressed by the ability of a performer to imitate David Gray or Dave Matthews (most typical for singer/songwriters in bars) but we remember performers who deliver familiar songs in slightly different or even surprising ways. In fact, less-than-talented musicians can still provide exciting takes on songs.

I was in more than one heated argument in my band days over the issue of fidelity vs. interpretation. (For my part, it was the inability to imitate sufficiently that drove my desire to innovate.) As I argue in the earlier post, the ability of a song to be translated into a different form by a different artist is a testament to the beauty, even transcendence, of that song. Imitating slavishly is good for wedding bands, but not for original artists (as the judges from American Idol should be explaining).

But interpretation can also fall flat—the genre of lounge singing, for example, levels out the edges of music and channels even the most powerful songs into flaccid, saccharine schmaltz.  And, falling in between the two can be disastrous. Back in the day, I attended a Bush concert that ended with a wretched cover of R. E. M.’s “Radio Song”. I didn’t love Bush beforehand; I certainly had no greater respect after that.

In order to think through what happens with cover songs and why they work, I have tried to come up with some categories. Hopefully these will get the Younger J either (1) up in arms or (2) adding/correcting my lists ad infinitum.

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