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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.

Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard are sweeter.

—John Keats

I. Introduction

The long and winding road between sense and nonsense has often tested philosophy’s compass. This is perhaps because it is as difficult to define nonsense as it is to catalogue all of its treacherous incarnations. For Nietzsche, nonsense is a necessary condition for happiness. For Ayer, nonsense is the province of the unverifiable. For Deleuze, in turn, it is an intimation of groundlessness. The catalogue goes on to include all manner of theories, allusions, and references. It is interesting then that—despite the ubiquity of its uses in philosophy—rigorous studies of nonsense are relatively rare. It is also interesting that, where they occur, the scope of inquiry is limited to particular philosophical concerns, as if each philosophical problem has its corresponding brand of nonsense to contend with.

The present study will likewise juxtapose a particular brand of nonsense to a set of corresponding philosophical concerns—in this case, the concerns of aesthetics. I am specifically interested in the lyrical content of popular songs. The latter has long been an object of fascination and outrage with music critics, but is yet to be fully reckoned with by philosophical aesthetics.1 The problem I identify is fairly straightforward—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 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.

The most important challenge lyrical nonsense in pop music poses for philosophy is that it possesses its own corrective mechanism. This is an affront to philosophy and especially to the schools that take dispensing with what is considered nonsensical to be the very purpose of philosophizing. [End Page 507] When Carnap, for example, makes the analogy between the statements of metaphysics (which he famously considers nonsensical) and music, he places an emphasis on one commonality—their reliance on an attitude towards life, a Lebensgefühl.2 For Carnap the task of philosophy proper is to do away with such noncognitive, pseudopropositional attitudes. As a result the meaning of music is reduced to an emotive affect which can be explained away through philosophical analysis. Unfortunately, judging by Roger Scruton’s testimony, this reductive approach to the meaning of music has continued to flourish long after Carnap.3 The complication I introduce—of the lyrical content of songs and its unique romance with nonsense—renders the above position even less attractive. If popular music is capable of succumbing to and making sense of nonsense, that bodes ill for the position of the philosophers whose very raison d’être, and presumed privileged task, is to eradicate nonsense through logical analysis.

In a book on Victorian literature, Jean-Jacques Lecercle claims that “there is no nonsense that is not capable of being turned into sense.”4 This is a central intuition of the present study and one that is equally controversial for philosophy. Philosophers might be tempted, and they sure have been in the past, to attribute the intricate issues of lyrical meaning to a framing procedure. If literary language is recognizable as such, it is only because we use it within a literary frame, one which has its own criteria for the understanding of intention, expression, and locutionary success.5 A view like this makes it easy to grant a localized sense to song lyrics, while claiming them nonsensical for the purposes of any larger context. But this approach can prove hopelessly reductive when we remind ourselves that accepting a song’s meaning very often surpasses the confines of the song frame—songs often help teach us how to speak, and maybe sometimes even how to be. As Wittgenstein’s later works show, in grappling with nonsense in particular, what we are trying to do is reconstitute the limits of our humanity. The epistemological groundlessness that Wittgenstein is preoccupied with in his later work is a far more volatile condition than the Tractarian latticework of logical correspondence between thought, word, and world. But this groundlessness is more like human reality than the earlier picture, and certainly more like it than the world that Carnap’s perfect language and Austin’s “ordinary” language are expected to capture. Once we admit this—that giving grounds must and does come to an end—we are better equipped to try and turn nonsense into sense. I see the lyrical content of pop songs as a paradigmatic instance of the epistemological groundlessness Wittgenstein talks about—it often defies rational understanding, but it also somehow manages to hang together nicely and intelligibly with the rest of our experience. [End Page 508]

My initial answer to the question of why nonsense is so frequent in pop songs is twofold. Firstly, pop lyrics are often used merely to supplement the meaning of a song’s musical theme rather than to intentionally determine or resolve that meaning. In other words, lyrical nonsense should be looked upon as a vehicle for integrated musical rather than strictly verbal meaning. Secondly, when a musician makes an intentional choice to use nonsensical lyrics, it is most often a way of announcing and expressing a critical stance with reference to the style, content, purpose, or, again, meaning of the song. As to the second question—about the mechanisms that salvage a song’s meaning from the verbal nonsense therein—my preliminary answer is that the dissolution of lyrical nonsense is made possible by a unique system of appreciation and understanding. This system is in part predicated on our emergent ability to intuitively sort out the literary from the literal, whereby the fringes that nonsense is meant to occupy are charitably restored to the center of the aesthetic experience. Another important aspect of this system is the symbiotic relationship between what is sung and what is played in a song—a relationship of mutual apprehension, the understanding of which makes it possible for verbal nonsense to make musical sense. In what follows, I will elaborate on these answers by providing some examples of lyrical nonsense in pop songs and by trying to relate them to the philosophy of music.

II. Syllabic Nonsense

My study is limited by a particular understanding of nonsense. An unfortunate consequence of my narrow scope of inquiry is that I cannot engage other philosophers of nonsense on their terms. It is thus that, instead of rehearsing classic definitions of nonsense, I will propose a simple taxonomy that serves my immediate purposes and which will hopefully suffice as an introduction to a problem of philosophical interest. In its narrow application to pop music I identify two main kinds of lyrical nonsense—syllabic nonsense and propositional nonsense. The first of the two concerns cases where words are collapsed into syllables or are completely replaced by them. In exploring this and trying to justify its existence, I will evoke the tradition of nonsense syllables (from which I derive the name) and I will tackle some of the perceived differences between instrumental and vocal music. The second kind—propositional nonsense—is characterized by the suspension of all apparent narrative, grammatical, or logical order within a song. The major difference here is that the lyric seems to advance a set of propositions—something syllabic nonsense most often does not attempt to do. The suspension of [End Page 509] these kinds of order is not always a sign of artistic anarchy. Sometimes it is a function of the songwriter’s intellectual myopia, while at times it could also be a sign of deliberate subversion. One can even argue that by challenging order certain songs draw our attention to its lack and thus to its possible/ambient presence. In my discussion of this type of nonsense I will rely on the example of the “cut-up” technique in writing, which has long been appropriated by certain popular singer-songwriters, but also on the broader literary tradition of limericks and doggerels.

What I call syllabic nonsense is usually identified as nonsense syllables or as nonlexical vocables. The reason I insist on my coinage is that its emphasis is on nonsense—the problem at hand—rather than on the syllabic nature of the phenomenon in question. In fact, for the sake of economy what I call syllabic nonsense is meant to include not only purely syllabic forms (for example, “la la la”), but also words patched together from them (for example, “razzmatazz”). Syllabic nonsense would be familiar to anyone who ever lent an ear to pop music. It is most often present as an interlude between regular lyrics but it is just as frequently used as a substitute for them. A good example of the former is the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” What this line seems to be doing in the song is fill the space of a couple of beats. This impression is confirmed by the addition of a single nonsense syllable, “bar,” after the full chorus, “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da, life goes on, bar,” ostensibly for the purpose of completing the rhythmic sequence. An example of the latter is found in Kylie Minogue’s song “Can’t Get You out of My Head,” where the introductory “la la la la la la la la” effectively becomes the chorus. The listener, active or passive, is rarely disturbed by the obvious fact that such syllabic constructions seem not to add anything to the sense of the rest of the song’s lyrics. It is tempting to say that if Minogue’s “la la la la la la la la” is replaced by “na na na na na na na na” (which is how the author had wrongly memorized the chorus) or nothing at all, the song will lose none of its meaning. In fact, a cover version of the song by the Flaming Lips dispenses with that particular syllabic construction without much damage to the perceived meaning of the original. But, despite the temptation, it is too early to make the sweeping generalization that syllabic nonsense in song is the occurrence of fully replaceable constructions that carry no meaning.

The tradition of syllabic nonsense in music goes back to ancient times. A study by Diane Touliatos reveals that there are sophisticated layers of meaning associated with most syllabic particles in Greek and Byzantine song.6 That syllables alone were ever able to evoke complex images of planets or capture the differentiation of genders is reason enough to consider the status of syllabic nonsense more carefully. In fact, judging [End Page 510] by Touliatos’s historical analysis, a fast combination of meaning making and meaning attribution has been involved in the use and study of syllabic nonsense over the ages. For example, the early Greek practice of teretismos, or syllabic trilling, evolved from being compared to the singing of cicadas in ancient Greece to being understood as an emulation of the incomprehensible songs of angels in early Christianity.7 In both cases it seems that the lyrical content is reduced to something nonverbal and not yet merely instrumental. The apparent problem of assigning meaning to the syllables of teretismos is that they do not, in their barest form, seem to suggest any meaning themselves. Zooming forward in time, a review of a modern classical work in Time magazine from 1924 suggests the same frustrating hesitation in the reading of syllabic nonsense.8 Even more recently, similar difficulties have been encountered by critics and theorists in dealing with “scat singing” in jazz and other genres.9

The crucial question of the meaning of syllabic nonsense or the lack thereof is closely related to another no less important question—the difference and possible hierarchy between instrument and voice in song. Despite the making of sounds, which both voice and instrument are clearly and trivially employed to do, there seems to be one important substantive difference. It is common to intuit the primacy of instrumental music over vocal music—an intuition based on the fact that what instruments do is part of the sine qua non of music in a way that vocalization is not. “The Star-Spangled Banner” is a good example where the song’s instrumental melody is usually used by performers as a canvas for divergent vocal renditions. In this case the instrumental track grounds the song and is thus essential to it, while the vocal improvisation provides the specificity of accidental variation. This is not to say that the instrumental part cannot be subject to any change, but that the performances of the song are far more constrained instrumentally than they are vocally. There are, however, examples of the converse, too. One such from recent pop music that comes to mind is the monotone live cover version of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” performed by Björk and P. J. Harvey at the Brit Awards in 1994. In the latter version, the first part of the song loses its entire tonal range and tempo and is effectively reduced to something akin to a sluggish rhythmic recitation of the original lyrics. Interestingly, for all the changes, even the performance’s wildest diversions are somehow still recognizable as direct references to the original recording—if only on account of the recognizable syllabic rhythm of the song’s lyrics. In light of such contradictory examples, it would be wisest to allow that what the song is and can be is equally branded onto what is played and what is sung.10 In other words, we might have to revise our common understanding of [End Page 511] playing along and singing along to include the possibility that a healthy number of songs do neither.

When one considers scat singing in jazz and its variations in other musical genres, the question of its importance to the nature of the song is also a question of the status of syllabic nonsense. Unlike my previous examples, scat singing is emphatically not meant to deliver straightforward lyrical content. It is thus tempting—if we should follow through with the earlier intuition of the primacy of instrumental music—to accept scat singing as serving a certain secondary demand for vocalization. What this would mean is that in scat singing the voice becomes just another instrument, most often melodic and almost always percussive. The same is true of certain scat-like singing techniques in rock and roll. These have been seen as (and celebrated for) tapping into something primeval, a raw musical energy undisturbed by the demands of literal sense.11 The implication, all the same, seems to be that the human voice can somehow become an instrument. But what does it mean for the human voice to become an instrument? Could we not assert the opposite—that musical instruments strive to sound like voices? This is precisely the reversal that pop-culture scholar Barry Keith Grant enacts when he points out that “the voice was the first instrument, and jazz playing developed as musicians began to use their instruments to emulate its flexibility of phrasing.”12 Accepting this reversal carries an important consequence—if syllabic nonsense is allowed to engender musical forms, we should be prepared to concede that syllabic nonsense is also somehow able to carry musical meaning.13 Grant wholeheartedly accepts this consequence for scat singing, and I don’t see a reason why we should not accept it for other kinds of syllabic nonsense.14 Theodore Gracyk has, in turn, already laid the groundwork for such acceptance for pop music writ large.15

III. Propositional Nonsense

The second kind of nonsense in popular song lyrics I recognize—propositional nonsense—faces its own set of problems, more or less related to the ones raised so far. The following lyric from the song “Barbie Girl” by 1990s dance-pop group Aqua is as good an example of propositional nonsense as any:

I’m a blond bimbo girl, in the fantasy worldDress me up, make it tight, I’m your dollyYou’re my doll, rock ‘n’ roll, feel the glamor in pink,Kiss me here, touch me there, hanky panky …You can touch, you can play, if you say: “I’m always yours” [End Page 512]

This verse commits all three infractions I have associated with propositional nonsense—it suspends grammatical, narrative, and logical order. A song like this easily becomes critical fodder, and it is no surprise “Barbie Girl” has earned the dubious honor of being the eleventh most annoying song of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll.16 In all fairness, the annoyance does not have to necessarily be caused by the song’s lyrics—the generic musical theme is a good candidate too. Annoying or not, the words manage to serve the song in a way that other words or no words at all would not. If we were to take the lyrics away completely, the remaining instrumental track would barely register in our ears and would surely not achieve the chart success of the original song. According to Grant, the presence of lyrics (in all cases except opera) is a mark of a certain downgrading of music—from the high realm of pure feeling to the muddle of denotation and the profanity of the hummable. Still, it is precisely the introduction of lyrics that makes it possible for the musically unsophisticated listeners to respond to, and possibly even to understand, pop songs.17 Furthermore, we have the evidence of science that lyrical content makes it easier even for the tone deaf to retain the melody of a song.18

In searching for a better “Barbie Girl”—or at least a less nonsensical one—we can also try and imagine the lyrics rewritten to a higher literary (or philosophical) standard. This is not as absurd as it sounds, considering that there is a long tradition of setting different lyrics to the same melody.19 The fact that the lyric “Scrambled eggs / Oh you’ve got such lovely legs” was provisionally used by Paul McCartney to compose the musical theme of the Beatles’ song “Yesterday” also speaks of a certain fluidity of lyrical content in pop music. Quite like with syllabic nonsense, we might be tempted at this junction to conclude that propositional nonsense in song lyrics is fully replaceable and is severely limited in its contribution to a song’s meaning. The problem is that even in a relatively uncomplicated case like that of “Barbie Girl” these issues prove to be thornier than they might seem at first. There is a sense in which, if we change the song’s lyrics “for the better,” it will cease to be the same song. This is not because a strict identity rule applies to songs—after all, different performances and recordings of the same song, however divergent from the original, still remain renditions of that song.

The problem with making the lyrics of the song in question less nonsensical is that the perceived nonsensicality of the original is essential to it. The following example will clarify my meaning here. In live performances of their song “Halcyon + On + On” the electronic music group Orbital often use samples from two other pop songs—Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” and Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a [End Page 513] Bad Name.” The two songs in question were both recorded and released around the same time (1986–87) and are similar enough musically that, without much manipulation, Orbital manage to play them simultaneously over a common rhythm track to an interesting aesthetic effect. The impression is, of course, anticlimactic for any fan who has previously treasured either song for its respective autonomous merit. But the lesson here is not that the two songs in question are interchangeable in any way—it is rather that for all the structural and melodic similarities (identity), they remain two different songs. Otherwise the excitement of the mash-up would not register at all—they are obviously similar enough to be played on top of each other and different enough to make the experience revelatory. Furthermore, we can be sure that the switch of one lyric for the other over the similar (almost identical) musical score will be and is perceived as a wholesale switch from one song to another. It is in this sense that any serious manipulation of the lyrical content of the song “Barbie Girl”—from perceived nonsense to perceived sense—will render the song foreign to itself.

Even if we decide that songs like “Barbie Girl” are doomed to be simplistic and that their brand of lyrical nonsense factors in the overall enterprise of serving an unsophisticated product to an unsophisticated audience, we still have to reckon with the areas of pop where higher aspirations occasionally lead to greater accomplishments. Before looking into examples of the latter, it would be practical to step back and consider the possibility of locating the current problematic within a broader frame of reference. I have deliberately until now made no allusions to the literary character of lyric writing, mostly because I have been dealing with examples making little claim to high artistry.

That most lyric writing for song is a species of poetry, however stunted the particular examples might be, is to me an undeniable fact. The poetic tradition, from its early beginnings in the song of the ancient rhapsode to the present day, has been entwined with music. In fact the etymological reading of the rhapsode as a “stitcher of songs” comes very close to our contemporary understanding of the DJ’s work. My above reference to Orbital’s live performances also fits the cross-generational bill of rhapsodic stitching. Poetry is not only often sung but it is also often conceptualized as a species of song.20 The reciprocal relation has already reached the province of popular music, where singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Patti Smith and masterful lyricists like the Notorious B. I. G. are regarded as poets in their own right.

The most important trait, for my present purposes, that song and poem have in common is their reliance on the conceptual separation between the literary and the literal. What I mean is that in both poetry [End Page 514] and song what is asserted is free to not be meant in a literal way. Thus, for example, the introductory line of the song “Crazy” by Gnarls Barkley says: “I remember when I lost my mind,” and, if read literally, this line will yield an unruly paradox. Shakespeare’s “when forty winters shall besiege thy brow” similarly does not lend itself to a literal reading. Of course the different poetic modes and voices involved in these examples allow for different aesthetic experiences and for different critical analyses. But these utterances have an important thing in common—their ability to mean something different from what they straightforwardly say. In fact, there is a strong sense that if we want to explain what these utterances mean, we should best give up literal meaning altogether. “The heresy of paraphrase”—a term famously coined by Cleanth Brooks—captures the idea of the damage poems suffer when attempts are made to subject them to literal paraphrase.21 The literary, as has been shown in my “Barbie Girl” example above, does not lend itself to paraphrase, while the literal most obviously does.22

The case I choose to tackle—that of David Bowie’s songs—is not the most intuitive. On account of his repeated artistic and personal reinvention at the height of his career, Bowie has attracted scholarly attention more for his persona than his music and its lyrical content specifically.23 Still, his is an interesting case because what has gone under the common radar is a poetic sensibility of an ambitious nature—and one that intentionally courts nonsense in its two major incarnations.24

It has been widely publicized that many of Bowie’s lyrics have used the cut-up technique of composition. This technique has been most often associated with literature. It originated with the Dadaist movement of the early twentieth century, but found its peak in the work of William Burroughs. The technique comes down to the physical cutting up of a sheet of linear text and then randomly rearranging the pieces containing syllables, words, or phrases into a new text. In Burroughs’s work the physical tampering with the written page runs parallel to a conceptual movement from language to the body—language is understood as the ultimate system of control, from which the physical is to be released.25 Scholar Nathan Moore argues that in Burroughs’s prose the cut-up technique yields passages which “have no meaning but they have sense, a becoming, and a particular evocativeness (sensuality).”26

If we take this impression for granted, it is easier to see why someone like Bowie would be interested in the technique. The only truly consistent artistic gesture Bowie’s career boasts is precisely the liberating force of turning convention on its head—the insurgency of the body over our traditional conceptions of it. Against his own legacy of defying sexual politics, racial tensions, stylistic canons, and aesthetic expectations, Bowie [End Page 515] seems to owe it to himself (and, as I would add in the spirit of Jeanette Bicknell’s work, to his audience) to try and defy the constraints of lyrical sense. To illustrate what happens when Bowie employs the cut-up technique, here is a particularly strange verse from his song “Ashes to Ashes”:

The shrieking of nothing is killingJust pictures of Jap girls in synthesis and IAin’t got no money and I ain’t got no hairBut I’m hoping to kick but the planet it’s glowing

It is obvious that in terms of lyrical content this stanza commits the same three infractions as Aqua’s “Barbie Girl.” The question is whether there is a substantive difference between the two types of propositional nonsense—the unstudied and the overly educated.27 I think there is not, except for the latter’s higher self-awareness. The work of nonsense is here aware of itself and is thus present to its own critical dimension—it comments on conceptual order as it defies it. Still, we should be very careful not to confuse this awareness with any part of the experience of the song—it is external to it, unless we are willing to go to the length of presuming that anyone who likes Bowie’s song is aware of cut-ups, Burroughs, Tristan Tzara, and his Dada manifesto. As to intentionality—it is present in both approaches to propositional nonsense. It seems at least as pointed an effort to come up with a serviceable lyric for a bouncy pop song as it is to leave the words of a musically disjointed contemplative song to a throw of the conceptual dice.

If we refer this comparison back to poetry, there are sure enough parallels to be drawn—as poetry, “Barbie Doll” is in the league of, say, Suzanne Somers’s irredeemable poem “Organic Girl,” while Bowie’s song, on a charitable reading, could be seen as the poetic equal to any cut-up work by Brion Gysin.28 If song lyrics are, as I believe, essentially poetic, it would be interesting to see how lyrical nonsense in song fares against its counterparts in the larger literary tradition. The two types of literary work that come to mind are limericks and doggerels. The first is a genre of nonsensical verse popularized in the nineteenth century and subject to strict formal rules (of rhyming, number of syllables, etc.). The amusement derived from the reading of limericks is akin to that which contemporary hip hop fans draw from songs like the purposely inane “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell” by the group Das Racist. The latter is a composition whose nonsensical lyrics are subject to strict structural constraints (of rhyming and rhythm) and which is, quite like limericks, explicitly meant to amuse. The case of doggerels is slightly different in that they do not constitute a proper literary genre, but [End Page 516] instead are better thought of as a category of negative aesthetic judgment. Of these, there are enough examples on both the musical and the purely literary sides of the fence. “Barbie Girl,” for one, will easily qualify as doggerel if we allow the category to extend over to the efforts of songwriters.

These parallels would not be complete if we did not recognize how often accounts of sense and nonsense in literature rely on the perceived musicality of speech. In his “The Sense of Nonsense” Calvin T. Ryan addresses the mechanism of making sense of literary nonsense and, ultimately, comes to the conclusion that it is all a matter of the readers’ having “musical ears.”29 Ryan’s study relies on literary examples that cover my entire range of interest—from the syllabic nonsense of Iago’s song and its clumsy variants in lesser works to the propositional nonsense of Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes” and the less refined instances of it in other poets. Against the backdrop of this theory—that musicality can make it possible for a poem to be transformed, in our ears, from nonsense to sense—the temptation becomes great to acknowledge the lyrical content of pop music as privileged in that same regard by the fact that it is already set to music. In other words, the implicit musicality of language, metered or otherwise, cannot be more pronounced and better suited for the purpose of enhancing the meaning of words than is the explicit musicality of song.

IV. Singing Meaning

The elephant in my room, with reference to propositional nonsense and, to a slightly smaller degree, to syllabic nonsense, has been the big question of musical meaning. But this elephant has long been domesticated by the aesthetics of music, and of pop music in particular. I have postponed references to the relevant scholarship so that I could show how the present problems earn their place in the established canon of aesthetics. Another reason for the delay is my intention to limit myself to using the results of philosophical scholarship on music instead of engaging them in detail. Donald Sherburne, inspired by Susanne Langer’s work, asserts that “in itself the music is an abstract predicative pattern, but in musical experience it becomes the pattern of a subject-feeling provided by the listener.”30 This statement sets up conditions for an understanding of musical meaning as nondenotative (abstract) and listener dependent (resulting in subject feeling). As it becomes evident in Scruton’s “Analytical Philosophy and the Meaning of Music,” this is an embattled point of view, but a compelling one nonetheless. Scruton [End Page 517] himself, after exploring the difficulties of locating and legitimizing musical meaning in the analytic tradition, concedes that the lack of appreciation for it simply means that the respective philosophers lack the tools to grapple with what he sees as a highly intuitive truth.31 The truth in question is directly opposed to Carnap’s (and his many inheritors’) presumption that music is empty of any meaning altogether. Quite the opposite: in Scruton’s account, the meaning of music is not only present in nondenotative subject feeling—there is a further step in musical experience, whereby it becomes possible for the listener to analyze and even verbalize the resultant emotional meaning.

I find Scruton’s position congenial, especially in its implications for my present discussion of lyrical nonsense in pop music. The addition of a text to music, as many have argued, could be looked upon as an obstacle to the detection and understanding of “pure” musical meaning.32 I, on the other hand, am more inclined to accept the musicality of language as fully compatible with that of music. As I hope to have shown in my references to literary genres, song lyrics, melodies, and the significant overlaps therein, the mutual apprehension of text and music in song is an undeniable part of the relevant aesthetic experiences. When Scruton’s musical ear reads certain meanings into Wagner’s music, what he is really doing is transposing the textual meaning of a libretto over the musical meaning of a played/sung score. How else would he hear the music throw up its hands in response to Siegfried compelling Brünnhilde to prostitute herself, if not by having intuitively accepted the simultaneous performances of the libretto and the score as sharing in the same meaning and the same aesthetic appeal? Ernie Lepore’s contention that the mode of poetic articulation forms an essential part of poetic meaning is also, and even more explicitly, applicable to songs.33 The musical articulation of a song lyric is an essential, and potentially remedial, part of the meaning of that lyric.

The most important implication of this peculiar unity of meaning for my purposes is that in the case of lyrical nonsense we can always expect the musical meaning to compensate for the apparent lack of a verbal one. In my two examples from pop music, it is clear that both pass the audience’s basic demand for intelligibility on account of how well the lyrics and the music go together. In “Barbie Girl,” to go back to the first example, the nonsensical words gain immensely from the careless up-tempo musical track—the latter signals to the listener that the words are there not to be made out or analyzed, but to be glided over. Upon hearing the melody, we are left with the reliable impression that whatever world Barbie lives in cannot possibly be subjected in earnest to the same constraints of sense that we live by. We are thus freed to [End Page 518] accept and even imagine the world of the song in a way not dissimilar to how Scruton is afforded his access to the world of Wagner’s Ring.

As to meaning in pop music in particular, very few have done as much as Richard Shusterman in trying to justify its legitimacy and analyze its dynamics. I think that Shusterman’s work also manages to get to the bottom of the problem of lyrical nonsense. In rough outline, his understanding of the musical meaning of pop songs relies on two central notions—firstly, the importance of the body in our experience and appreciation of pop music and, secondly, the crucial role cultural conditioning plays in the understanding of the lyrical content of songs. As to the former, the argument is built upon the contention that “aesthetic form … has its deep but denied roots in organic bodily rhythms and the social conditions that help structure them.”34 The latter, in turn, best articulated in Shusterman’s defense of rap as an art form, is the claim that cultural conditioning makes it possible for rap’s target audience to recognize “forms of linguistic subtlety and multiple levels of meaning whose polysemic complexity, ambiguity, and intertextuality can sometimes rival that of high art’s so-called ‘open work.’”35

It is not difficult to apply these theses to my understanding of lyrical nonsense in pop music. The first thesis reminds us of the simple fact that there is a somatic dimension to our every encounter with the arts. Unless we operate on a religious plane, the celebrated profundity of music is bound to find its ultimate origin in the body, the domesticated locus of Wittgensteinian groundlessness. The Greek chorus not only recites over a melody—it also dances along in time with the recitation. The scat singer not only sings, but also measures the movements that music suggests. Burroughs’s prose does not speak of the body—it speaks through it. It is precisely from such forms of embodied expression that syllabic and propositional nonsense as I understand them originate. Likewise, the empathetic movement that the combination of lyric and music suggest to the listener is where the two types of nonsense are ultimately resolved. And as to Shusterman’s argument for cultural conditioning—its logical end might just be the possibility of teaching philosophers to hear nonsense being sung into sense.

Rossen Ventzislavov
Woodbury University
Rossen Ventzislavov

Rossen Ventzislavov is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Woodbury University. He has published articles on popular music, architecture, and curating. His current research focuses on aristocracy and social privilege.


1. Tim De Lisle, “La-la Land,” The Guardian, July 29, 2005, accessed September 3, 2011,

2. Andreas Vrahimis, “Nonsense and Absurdity: Carnap’s Use of Husserl’s Theory of Meaning” (paper presented at annual conference of the Society for European Philosophy), [End Page 519] accessed September 3, 2011,

3. Roger Scruton, “Analytical Philosophy and the Meaning of Music,” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 46 (1987): 169–76.

4. Jean-Jacques Lecercle, Philosophy of Nonsense: The Intuitions of Victorian Nonsense Literature (London: Routledge, 1994), 69.

5. J. L. Austin’s How to Do Things with Words offers a framing argument of this sort about dramatic speech. His notion that what we say in the theater is parasitic on what we ordinarily say can easily be extended to the relationship between what we say and what we sing.

6. Diane Touliatos, “Nonsense Syllables in the Music of the Ancient Greek and Byzantine Traditions,” Journal of Musicology 7, no. 2 (1989): 231–43.

7. Touliatos, “Nonsense Syllables,” 238–40.

8. The review in question is of the live performance of Percy Grainger’s “Marching Song of Democracy” at Carnegie Hall. The hesitation I refer to is obvious in the first line of the following excerpt: “In its present bizarre, not to say impossible, form, it provides only ‘nonsense syllables’ for the singers. Thus the basses open by chanting ‘easygoingly but richly,’ in the following language: ‘Ta da di da ra da da.’” The tenors enter with “‘Dum pum pum pum ti di diri diri’; then the ladies: ‘Tara dira dara diri didi di pum pum pam!’” “Nonsense Syllables,” Time, May 12, 1924, accessed September 3, 2011,,9171,718349,00.html.

9. Neil Leonard, “The Jazzman’s Verbal Usage,” Black American Literature Forum 20, nos. 1–2 (1986): 151–59.

10. For an authoritative study of the constitutive powers of singing and the dynamics of interpreting, performing, and “owning” a song, see Jeanette Bicknell, “Just a Song? Exploring the Aesthetics of Popular Song Performance,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 63, no. 3 (2005): 261–70.

11. “Essentially the same argument is advanced to support the claim that the best rock songs are tunes like ‘Do Wah Diddy Diddy,’ ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula,’ ‘Rama Lama Ding Dong,’ and so on—that is, songs with lyrics that bypass denotation and attempt to capture directly the ‘primal warbling’ [Emerson 224] or ‘barbaric yawps’ [Whitman 55] of American life, of which the raw energy of the music itself is an expression.” Barry Keith Grant, “Purple Passages or Fiestas in Blue?: Notes Toward an Aesthetic of Vocalese,” Popular Music and Society 18, no. 1 (1994): 125–43.

12. Grant, “Purple Passages,” 125.

13. The reversal in question does not undermine the cases where voice imitates instrument, but counterbalances them. Thus the fact that Billie Holiday learned to sing partly by imitating the trumpet with her voice should not be read as conclusive evidence of the primacy of instrumental music. Instead, it can be understood as testimony to the complex reflexivity of the relationship between the vocal and instrumental layers of a song.

14. “Scatting, unlike vocalese, does not taint the music with the impurity of denotation. Certainly fewer scat performances of any sustained length (thus containing short doo-wop riffs) have made the pop charts (one thinks primarily of Billy Stewart), and it is likely for this reason. Hence, scatting is inevitably valorized at the expense of vocalese since, as Friedwald puts it, scatting reaches feelings ‘so deep, so real’ that ‘they can’t be verbalized’; a great scat performer, thus, is able to ‘bypass our ears and our brains and go directly for our hearts and souls.’” Grant, “Purple Passages,” 133.

15. “To be fair to popular music, its lyrics also contain a fair amount of nonsense, from Little Richard’s ‘Awopbopaloobop’ to Otis Redding’s ‘Fa Fa Fa Fa Fa’ to the screams punctuating so many of Nirvana’s performances—not that such nonsense is without meaning.” Theodore Gracyk, I Wanna Be Me: Rock Music and the Politics of Identity (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 39. [End Page 520]

16. “The 20 Most Annoying Songs,” Rolling Stone, July 2, 2007, accessed September 3, 2011,

17. “Western philosophers (e.g., Nietzsche, Hegel, Schopenhauer, Langer) have commonly described music as an expression of an essence that is itself ideal, spiritual, hence superior to the other arts. But words (with the exception, perhaps, of opera), in providing denotation, ‘pollute’ the ‘purity’ of music, like lead shoes preventing it from rising above the prosaic, words hold onto music by, to paraphrase Roland Barthes, translating it into impoverished linguistic categories … Thus words have enhanced vocalese’s potential for popularity by providing an easy hook for presumably less ‘sophisticated’ listeners, jazz’s equivalent of Adorno’s ‘humming millions.’” Grant, “Purple Passages,” 133.

18. Kevin Mitchell, “The Neuroscience of Tone Deafness: The Strange Connection Between People Who Can’t Sing a Tune and People Who Are ‘Face Blind,’” Scientific American 9 (2011), accessed September 3, 2011,

19. In his “Music With Words: Semiotic/Rhetoric,” John McClelland sums this tradition up in the following way: “From at least the fifteenth century into the nineteenth it was a common practice to convert to religious and liturgical use melodies that had originally been sung to secular words (Luther is reported to have wondered ‘why the devil should have all the good tunes’ and hence many German popular songs were converted into Lutheran chorales). One thinks also of the English drinking song that became the American national anthem.” John McClelland, “Music with Words: Semiotic/Rhetoric,” Rhetorica: A Journal of the History of Rhetoric 8, no. 3 (1990): 188.

20. A 1929 exchange between Charles Williams and Hubert J. Foss on the one hand and Katharine Wilson on the other presents the problem of the perceived continuities between music and poetry in high relief. See Charles Williams and Hubert J. Foss, “Meaning in Poetry and Music,” Music & Letters 10, no. 1 (1929): 83–90.

21. For a contemporary defense of Brooks’s thesis, see Stefán Snaevarr, “The Heresy of Paraphrase Revisited,” Contemporary Aesthetics 2 (2004). For a recent refutation of his thesis, see Peter Kivy, “Paraphrasing Poetry (for Profit and Pleasure),” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 69, no. 4 (2011): 367–78.

22. A further wrinkle in this comes from the problem that the literal and the literary are both applicable to philosophy, too. The literary, as I use the term, captures figurative language and the larger toolbox of literature, but it also includes the condition of understanding philosophy as text, in a manner not dissimilar to how we read poem and song. For more on this condition, see Richard Rorty, “Texts and Lumps,” New Literary History 17, no. 1 (1985): 1–16.

23. For an academic study of some aspects of Bowie’s persona, see Ken McLeod, “Space Oddities: Aliens, Futurism and Meaning in Popular Music,” Popular Music 22, no. 3 (2003): 337–55. For a comparative study of the lyrics of one particular Bowie song, see Ellie M. Hisama, “Postcolonialism on the Make: The Music of John Mellencamp, David Bowie and John Zorn,” Popular Music 12, no. 2 (1993): 91–104.

24. Even though I focus exclusively on propositional nonsense in Bowie’s work, syllabic nonsense is plentifully available therein. Examples that immediately spring to mind are the recordings “Changes,” “Suffragette City,” “Fashion,” “Absolute Beginners,” “Under Pressure,” etc.

25. Robin Lydenberg sums up Burroughs’s attitude towards language and its divisive effect on the body in the following way: “With its dual system of signified and signifier, language introduces the fundamental body/mind dichotomy, imposing an alienating and fearful distance between man and his physical being.” Robin Lydenberg, “Cut-up: Negative Poetics in William Burroughs and Roland Barthes,” Comparative Literature Studies 15, no. 4 (1978): 421. [End Page 521]

26. Nathan Moore, “Nova Law: William S. Burroughs and the Logic of Control,” Law and Literature 19, no. 3 (2007): 439.

27. I could turn out to be assuming too much when I assert that the musicians from Aqua did not avail themselves of any profound thought or inspiration in the writing of their most famous song. But even if I am, I hope it will be accepted for the sake of argument, considering that there have doubtless been thousands of pop songs of intellectually limited provenance in history. As to Bowie’s “higher” frame of reference, apart from his self-professed interest in Nietzsche, Freud, and Eastern philosophy, it includes Bowie’s long-standing friendship and occasional collaborations with Brian Eno—an artist and theorist with an influential body of work and matching intellectual credibility.

28. It is an amusing coincidence that both the poems of Suzanne Somers and one of Lady Gaga’s nonsensical lyrics have been recited by famous actors to great comic effect—by Kristen Wiig in Ms. Somers’s case and by Christopher Walken in that of Lady Gaga. This signals again that there might not be a substantive difference between the two types of poetry, however good or bad the respective examples are.

29. “Aren’t there ‘sub-harmonics,’ a sound that goes along with the sense, acting with it and on it, now to shape it, now to reinforce it, and now to change it entirely? That is, what we may consider with our intellect nothing more than nonsense, through the ears takes on sense. … Great poets have a genius for turning nonsense into sense, but they expect us to comprehend the change with our ears.” Calvin T. Ryan, “The Sense of Nonsense,” Peabody Journal of Education 26, no. 5 (1949): 284–89.

30. Donald W. Sherburne, “Meaning and Music,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 24, no. 4 (1966): 582.

31. “Analytical philosophy tells us what we cannot say in trying to explain our examples. But it offers, so far as I can see, no explanation of its own. The question is whether some other method exists—if method is the word—that will guide us forward into these obscure regions. I end on a note of skepticism, recognizing only that the problem of musical meaning has an answer; for if it did not, then my description of the Ring would not be merely false, but meaningless. It seems to me, however that it is both meaningful and true.” Scruton, “Analytical Philosophy,” 17.

32. For a discussion of this view, see note 17.

33. Ernie Lepore, “Poetry, Medium and Message,” New York Times, July 31, 2011, accessed September 3, 2011,

34. Richard Shusterman, Pragmatist Aesthetics: Living Beauty, Rethinking Art (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 199.

35. Shusterman, “The Fine Art of Rap,” New Literary History 22, no. 3 (1991): 615. [End Page 522]

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