Stop Making Sense: The Unintelligible in Popular Song, Guest Editor Elizabeth Lindau

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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 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. (Original CFP)

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