Lurking Lyrics and Communication Conundrums

It's not easy to read song lyrics while you drive. In fact, I really, really don't recommend it. But curiosity had gotten the better of me recently during a commute when I'd popped in an old John Fogerty CD...

And that got me thinking about the wide range of singers out there who are perfectly talented-- but almost indecipherable due to a variety of different singing techniques.

I've taken a stab at breaking them down as follows:


The Codebreaker- The codebreaker singer has a lot to say, but secretly wants you to spend time cracking just what the frig it is. These are the songs you find yourself mumbling, howling or la-laing through, unless you bother to track down the lyrics-- which probably are in invisible ink anyway. Dave Matthews' Satellite is my favorite one for this. I enjoy exchanging "Winter's cold spring erases/And the calm away by the storm is chasing" for a nice series of drawn-out werewolf calls. I think it gives it a really special touch.

The Character Actor- This singer uses a colorful cultural archetype in order to become exempt from things like pronunciation or commonly-known terminology. John Fogerty, hailing from the deep, mossy bayou swamps of... um, Berkeley California... is a prime example of the Character Actor. He takes the boolay- boolay, boolay-hahdaw into the toy-ning boy-ning bathroom on the rye, and we still love him for it.

The Stealth Bomber- It's the meaning that sneaks up on you after you've heard a perky song a bajillion times and didn't realize it was actually about, oh, lung cancer from nuclear war fallout. Kate Bush is an example of this type of songwriter. I'm listening along to the fun, warbly little tune and catch something that seems slightly awry. "'Hitler'?! Did I just hear 'Hitler'?!" Why-- yes, yes I did. And after a good look at the lyrics I come to realize that according to Kate, Mel Brooks was right: Hitler was apparently a wonderful dancer. The verdict is still out on whether his middle name was Elizabeth, though.

The World Traveler- This singer believes in value. She prefers quantity of notes per word over any actual understanding of the sentence. If this singer were SatNav, she'd tell you to drive to Topeka, Nome, Orlando, Tijuana and Upper Tarnation, in order to go visit the old lady next door. Whitney Houston might have been our first World Traveler. Now one in five Idol contestants have their bags packed and use this technique.

The Garbage Disposal- Yes, it sounds like little Timmy just put Daddy's favorite screwdriver down the disposal along with chicken bones and half a box of rawhide dog chews. But it's not. It's a man who sings with rage. Deep, abiding rage. Metal rage. And that's why it's called metal, and not, oh, Fluffy Kitten Rainbow Parades.


So tell me, who's your favorite, most incomprehensible singer? What lyrics have mystified you? And if you have any types you'd like to add to my list, I'd be glad to hear 'em.

14 comments:

Jaffer said...

Some Jamaican Raggae singers - I have no idea what they are saying besides the song title and the loud beats !

On the other side of the spectrum - The Ting Tings

Surfie said...

Is there some sort of speed-reading category? I'm thinking of songs like REM's "It's the End of the World" where they sing a billion words at super speed so no matter how many times you listen to it, even if you can hear the words, you can never quite get to the point where you can sing along.

"Blah,blah,blah,blah...LEONARD BERNSTEIN!"

Unfinished Rambler said...

My favorite is Eddie Vedder. I guess he'd be the codebreaker, even though my favorite album of his band is "No Code." Go figure.

Beer Drinker said...

Unfinished Rambler, that is exactly the perfect person for Codebreaker. Anyone know the words to Evenflow?

But I think Pearl Jam belongs in the Stealth Bomber category too. Better Man and Jeremy, both catchy tunes, but Jeremy "bit the recess lady's breast"?

Jenn Thorson said...

Jaffer- Yes, Jamaican slang is a whole world unto itself. I'm sure there must be an online dictionary out there.

Surfie- I think the Speed Reader has to be a new catagory-- definitely. I'd put Billy Joel's "We Didn't Start The Fire" in there, too. (And you mean the lyrics AREN'T "Blah blah blah blah Leonard Bernstein"?! :)

Unfinished Rambler- So true-- I believe it's Adam Sandler's impression of Eddie Veder which goes something to the effect of "Heee-haw, yabba dabba yabba dabba dabba dabba something-- oh yeah!"

Beer Drinker- Yeah, I agree, we spent a LOT of time in college trying to figure out just what Jeremy was about.

As far as we could tell Jeremy had serious problems. Sort of the "Excitable Boy" type.

Shieldmaiden96 said...

The most amusing combination is a Codebreaker song on the radio plus a co-worker who routinely sings along and gets words wrong to even clearly understandable songs. As for pretty much every song on 'Ten', this is why I just twirled around on the dance floor with my hair in my face and mumbled along. Forget 'Even Flow', what the hell is he saying in 'Why Go'? Sounds like

"She scratches eleven
Into a wall made of stone
Maybe someday, in Ohio
Won't feel as alone as she does
Its been two years and counting


...on second thought that may BE the lyrics.

MikeWJ at Too Many Mornings said...

My hands-down fave is Bob Dylan. Often, even when you can make out what he's saying, the lyrics are still unintelligible. I actually like him for that. Here's an example of one I've been puzzling over for four years:

"Gonna raise me an army, some tough sons of bitches
I'll recruit my army from the orphanages
I been to St. Herman's church, said my religious vows
I've sucked the milk out of a thousand cows."

If anybody knows what that means, I'd be very grateful. There is no St. Herman's church that I know of. Even if there is, what's that have to do with a thousand cows? Very cryptic.

I'm not sure Dylan fits any of your categories, either. Maybe you'll do better than me....

screwdestiny said...

Sean Paul is pretty dang irritating. Not that I listen to him. But I hear his songs on the radio sometimes and I kind of make it a contest to see how many new words I can pick out. I usually don't get very far.

And I hate garbage disposals. My boyfriend listens to a few of those types of singers, and I'm like, "What's the point? You can't understand what they're saying AND it doesn't sound good."

Tori Amos likes to have fun with the way she pronounces words sometimes, but I can generally understand her pretty well. And she's just amazing so any confusion is forgiven.

Jenn Thorson said...

Shieldmaiden- I'm going to have to refresh my memory on this one and get back to you. It's been a while since I'd listened to my Pearl Jam album.

Now you've gotten me thinking there are a few Counting Crows songs from that time period that aren't exactly easily intelligible, too. "Mr. Jones" has quite an excess of words per capita, and not all easy to catch. I wonder where they fit in here?

Mike- Oh yeah-- it makes you wonder whether there really IS supposed to be a logical meaning or whether he's just messing with us, like the Beatles in "I am the Walrus."

ScrewDestiny- Regarding GarbageDisposals, I had a reader who listened to thrash metal once tell me not to worry that I couldn't understand it, he couldn't either; that it really wasn't the point of the music. I felt better for the absolution, at least, but I think I'd still want to know what the lyrics were.

Tori's a lot like Kate Bush in her complex level of meaning/story in lyrics.

Another one who does a lot of word play in lyrics is Michael Penn. He's clear enough to understand when he sings, it's just the meaning that sneaks up over time.

Tgoette said...

Okay, I have one. Either it's just so weird and arbitrary or it's so deep and symbolic I'm unable to decipher it. Manfred Mann's Earth Band and "Blinded By The Light."

"Some brimstone baritone anticyclone rolling stone preacher from the east
Says, "Dethrone the dictaphone, hit it in it's funny bone,
that's where they expect it least"

Anyone? Anyone?

Jenn Thorson said...

Tgoette- Oh boy-- you've managed to find one with ALL the bells and whistles of obscurity. Catchy... cram-packed with lyrics filled with vaguely-connecting imagery and rhyme... A little hard to tell what they're saying from time to time...

"Revved up like a deuce, another roamer in the night"?

It has it all. Or, as you point out, it could also be completely weird and arbitrary. :)

CatLadyLarew said...

Hell, half the time I can't hear what I'm saying, let alone understand the lyrics of songs. How about that line from the "All in the Family" song?
"Gee we're all garble garble garble..."

Cari said...

Ever taken a gander at Tori Amos lyrics?

I love her, don't get me wrong. But as time goes one she becomes more and more of a Codebreaker. She also goes in for a bit of World Traveling but not in a Whitney-esque way.

I've given up trying to figure out exactly what she's telling me most of the time and just enjoy the melodies she creates. She's an amazing songwriter.

Jay said...

If by 'world traveller' you mean those who find the correct note by trial and error (and hitting half a dozen notes either side of it first) then this is my all-time LEAST favourite singing style - and it seems hugely popular in the US right now. I can't stand it!! It drives me insane! I want to slap them!

The note is there on the page. Hit it. Don't warble up and down the scale till you think the moment is right to alight briefly on it before moving it. GRRRR!!!