Singing Nonsense


Nonsense is a philosophical concept of strange ubiquity—it is very often used but not often explained. In this paper I turn to the lyrical content of popular songs and the particular brands of nonsense it allows for. The problem I identify is that even at their most nonsensical the lyrics of popular songs lend themselves to certain steady attributions of sense. In other words, while pop songs have the tendency to collapse into lyrical nonsense they also avail themselves of corrective mechanisms that somehow salvage their lyrical and/or musical meaning. Why lyrical nonsense is so frequent in pop songs and how it gets dissolved are questions that merit philosophical attention. My attempt to suggest answers to these questions is twofold. Firstly, I propose a simple taxonomy of lyrical nonsense in songs and try to relate that to the existing scholarship on musical expression and performance. Secondly, I explore the relationship sung nonsense stands in to musical meaning. What ultimately makes nonsense work in songs is not our “common sense” tendency to avoid taking such lyrical content seriously. I argue that our acceptance of sung nonsense is more likely due to the fact that such nonsense suggests its own, heretofore unstudied, conditions of understanding.

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