Simon Frith has written that pop lyrics “celebrate not the articulate but the inarticulate, and the evaluation of pop singers depends not on words but on sounds—the noises around the words.” While lyrics often captivate us, great pop songs do not require eloquent poetry. Singers and lyricists can often communicate emotion and meaning more directly through slang, nonsense, and non-verbal sounds. A song’s words needn’t even been intelligible for it to move us, as evidenced by the Kingsmen’s iconic mealy-mouthed cover of Richard Berry’s “Louie Louie.” A great lyric needn’t even use “real” words, as evidenced by the exhilarating opening of Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti.” Indeed, some might argue that self-consciously literary lyrics are tiresome and pretentious in the context of popular song, as suggested by Robert Christgau in the essay “Rock Lyrics are Poetry (Maybe).” Even so-called poetic lyrics are usually prized for their ambiguity and lack of obvious meaning, qualities that make them seem applicable to any person or situation. Five minutes of browsing a website like Songmeanings.com shows that making sense of lyrics is one of the joys of popular music consumption. As listeners, we pore over liner notes to discover what singers are really saying when we can’t quite make out the words. We contemplate what those words mean when they seem cryptic.
The IASPM-US website seeks 1,000 word essays on nonsense lyrics and vocals in popular music. What songs or albums contain nonsensical lyrics? What singers obfuscate lyrical meaning through their delivery? What singers are able to communicate without words, using nonsense syllables or vocalizations? How might production techniques obscure textual and vocal clarity? How and why do listeners make sense of seemingly senseless lyrics?
Essay topics could include, but are not limited to:
- Vocables (e.g., scat singing, doo-wop)
- Misunderstood lyrics, or “mondegreens” (e.g., “ ‘Scuse me while I kiss this guy”)
- Muttering, mumbling, growling, garbling or otherwise incomprehensible singing (e.g., Liz Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, “cookie monster vocals” in death metal)
- Lyrics based on sound rather than meaning, or “clanging” (e.g. Kurt Cobain: “A mulatto / an albino / a mosquito / my libido”)
- Lyrics in constructed languages (Sigur Rós’s Hopelandic, Magma’s Kobaïan)
- Songwriters who employ cut-up technique, automatic writing, and other historical avant-garde practices (e.g., Thom Yorke, Genesis P-Orridge)
- (Alleged) backmasking, backwards vocals, and reverse speech (e.g., Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” the Beatles’ “Revolution No. 9”)
- Guitarists who use talk box effects units (e.g., Peter Frampton, Richie Sambora)
Deadline for proposals is 20 April 2013. Please submit drafts as MSWord attachments to email@example.com and cc firstname.lastname@example.org. Essays will appear on the IASPM-US website during May 2013.
Elizabeth Lindau is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at Gettysburg College. She completed her Ph.D. in Critical and Comparative Studies in Music at the University of Virginia in 2012 with a dissertation titled “Art is Dead. Long Live Rock! Avant-Gardism and Popular Music, 1967-99.” Her work on Sonic Youth will appear in a volume of essays on experimental music this year, and she is currently preparing a second publication on Brian Eno and David Byrne’s 1981 “world beat” album My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. This will be her fifth presentation at IASPM-US.