The majority of the time, we listen to music for connection. We listen to it for relief, for comfort, for joy. We listen to it so that we can escape for three minutes into a different world. And usually, this requires lyrics that speak to us. Without words, how can this sort of catharsis occur?
And many, if not most, famous songs provide the lyrical basis for this emotional release. We’ve got everything from “Let it Be” and “Landslide” to “American Girl” and “Lyin’ Eyes” to heal you, relate to you, or break you down more. But if the basis for these songs’ popularity are their lyrics—ones that’ll either relate to you, heal you, or break you even more—why are so many absolutely nonsensical songs just as famous?
Think about it. There are so many songs out there that leave you confused instead of fulfilled, and you love them anyway. Sometimes, they make so little sense you can’t understand what was even said—I’m looking at you, B-52s (“Love Shack” is already obscure enough, but what does Cindy Wilson shout at the end? Does anybody know what “tin roof rusted” means? Asking for a friend).
Plenty of songs share this dilemma—and many of them are throwbacks that everybody loves. “Africa” has no meaning whatsoever, but there’s no doubt you’ll sing it at the top of your lungs next time you hear it. For a long time, my favorite song was “Drops of Jupiter” by Train, but one line has absolutely no connection to the next. It’s like the whole song was written by pulling random words out of a hat and stringing them together in hopes of making a coherent piece. You might know all the words to “The Joker” by Steve Miller Band, but do you know what they mean? Someone needs to enlighten us all on what the “pompatus of love” is, because the last time I checked, the word “pompatus” doesn’t appear in the dictionary.
Perhaps the best example of this is a more modern example. A few years ago, when “Despacito” was all the rage, I was far away from my hometown of Miami. I was in Stony Brook, on Long Island, which is definitely the opposite of Miami in every way possible and also the embodiment of Middle Class Suburbia, USA. It’s a place where all high school girls wear the same white high top Converse to school, and to spruce them up they wear colored socks that stick out the top. The guys think they’re super cool when they wear their Axe-doused Vineyard Vines polos that “they’ll grow into,” according to their yoga moms who are all part of the same tennis league.
I was there visiting a friend from college, and on my trip we had to drop off her twin siblings—14 years old—and their friends at a party. We drove through hilly neighborhoods and little white houses with big American flags in the yard. People were walking their labradoodles, the aforementioned yoga moms were watering their hydrangeas, and their husbands working the New York Times crossword on their wrap around porches. It was so picturesque it almost felt fake (I later learned, when I transferred to BC, that New England is similar to Long Island in this regard).
When “Despacito” came on the radio, I rolled my eyes (the song was old news in Miami by that point) but the five high schoolers in the backseat all screamed. They launched into the song so quickly, it was almost like they were trying to race each other to the end. They spat out all the verses, even the ridiculously fast rap part in the middle. I turned around, stunned at the fact that these kids who knew no Spanish except what they had learned by the 10th grade were able to sing the whole song word-for-word. I laughed at them, but they didn’t laugh back. I asked if they spoke Spanish, they said no. I jokingly asked if they knew what they were singing about in “Despacito,” and they said no again. I didn’t really have the heart to tell them.
They didn’t know what any of it meant, and stared at me wide-eyed and curious when they realized I spoke Spanish. But interestingly enough, in that moment I realized that sometimes music doesn’t need words (or understandable words) to unite us. We still love them—“MmmBop,” “I Want It That Way,” and “I Am the Walrus”—despite the fact that we have no idea what we’re singing about. Are the lyrics written about some inside joke, or using a stream-of-consciousness method, or fueled by a obscure drugs? The world may never know (but in a lot of cases, especially “Walrus,” it’s safe to assume the latter).
Featured Graphic by Anna Tierney / Graphics Editor