Mindless affirmation in pop music
Intellectual | Wednesday, September 8, 2010
[Author’s Note: Due to declining interest in the column, I have added trivia tidbits and “Mad Libs” to entertain our easily distracted readership, who we know are really dying to finish with the Viewpoint so that they can get to the sports section and the comics at the end of The Observer.]
Here’s a fun game. Listen to your favorite song and count how many times some variation of the word “yes” pops up. That means any combination of: “yeah”, “uh-huh”, “mm-hmm”, “all right,” “okay,” and so on. Odds are pretty good that your tally will be in the teens.
Now that you’ve got that raw numerical data, listen again. This time, try to figure out, from the context, what exactly that ‘yes’ means. What purpose does it serve in the larger sweep of the lyrics?
Ninety percent of the time the answer will be: absolutely nothing.
I call this phenomenon “mindless affirmation.” The mindless affirmation is rampant through pop music. Part of this is because pop vocalists, who usually take front and center whether or not they have a band, probably feel uncomfortable saying nothing for an extended period of time, and so search for verbal fillers. Think of Michael Jackson’s “hee-hee!” in ‘The Way You Make Me Feel,’ or “cha-moan!” in ‘Bad’. Or, for a more current example, Britney Spears’ flat, disaffected “owww” after every repetition of the chorus of ‘(You Drive Me) Crazy’. [Full disclosure: The author unironically enjoys both of these artists.]
Other popular choices include ‘whoa,’ ‘hey,’ ‘whoomp!” (as in “there it is”), and so on.
Justin Timberlake “SexyBack” is probably the best example of the mindless affirmation: Every time he sneers that he’s bringing sexy back (as if it ever left), some tool in the background barks “YEP” threateningly, as if he’ll bash our face in if we disagree. During the chorus, when a rapper exhorts the floor to “get [their] sexy on.” a sultry voice breathes “Yes,” presumably to incite their listeners to instantaneous dancefloor freaking.
Justin Timberlake is a pop genius.
Trivia Fact No. 1: An entire band once named themselves after the word Yes.
Pop Culture Mad Lib: See if you can fill in the blanks to form the name of a famous indie buzzband: Clap Your Hands Say ______
Did You Know? A song by Usher features a chorus which consists entirely of twelve repetitions of the word “Yeah.”
I think of these endless repetitions of agreement and affirmation as akin to laugh tracks in sitcoms. They are there to tell the listener that, “yes!”, these songs are worth listening to, that “yeah” they are a lot of fun, that it is “okay” that they like this kind of music, that their taste in music is pretty “all right.” People demand to know when to laugh at unfunny jokes and they demand to know when to enjoy overproduced pop. There are other people who have noticed this need, and they have made a mint supplying it.
They go beyond the realm of ‘verbal filler’ and well into the country of ‘mental infiltrator’.
Trivia Fact No 2: The band Yes is named after the word “yes.”
Pop Culture Mad Lib: See if you can fill in the blanks to form the name of a famous indie buzzband: Does It Offend You, ______?
Is it fair that pop stars regularly exploit the word ‘yes’ and its synonyms in order to make lots of money? On some level, perhaps. But in the grand scheme of things, we all need a little affirmation in our lives to get us through the day. Even when it’s totally meaningless. As Albert Camus, founder of existentialism, once said, “Heey! Heeeeey! Heeeeey! Hey soul sister, I don’t wanna miss a single thing you do, oh yeah … tonight.”
Trivia Fact No. 3: “Yes” is the name of a famous progressive rock band from the 1980s.
Pop Culture Mad Lib: See if you can fill in the blanks to form the name of a famous indie buzzband: _____ _____ _____s.
So if you’re feeling sad and low, just activate your stereo. And listen to the magic sound, of music that’s not underground. It’s mainstream pop, it sounds so good, it makes you move like you know you should! Owww! Hee-hee! Cha-moan! Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! (Poem paraphrased from Dr. Seuss.)
Brook Smith is a senior. He can be contacted at bsmith26 @nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not
necessarily those of The Observer.