Deconstructing Pop Culture

Deconstructing Pop Culture header image

The Problem of Mumbling in Pop Music

April 1st, 2008 by David Kronemyer · 1 Comment

Amidst the decline and fall of the record business, there is one issue that has yet to be addressed, which is the problem of singers who do not clearly articulate their words.  More often than not, the singer in the band is the focal point for audience attention.  The singer ostensibly is charged with fronting the group.  If one accepts the proposition that the prospects for any scalable manufacturing activity depend on the caliber and quality of its merchandise, then a lengthy history of indistinct vocal performances eerily foreshadows the industry’s present malaise. 

Insofar as can be discerned, it all started with “Louie Louie,” an incomprehensible bit of doggerel popularized in 1963 by The Kingsmen.  Parents, politicians, and pundits alike all were outraged.  The FBI investigated whether the song was corrupting the morals of America’s youth.  On proper analysis, what was most irritating about it was not so much the (allegedly) salacious content of the lyrics, but rather the simple fact they could not be understood.  This failure of comprehension offended the cultural precept that any form of signification should be intelligible.  Not necessarily in the sense of being graspable in a cognitive or intellectual sense, for if that were the case, then nobody would read much in the way of philosophy or literary criticism.  Rather, simply arraying the words so they could be discerned individually, or in small phrases, even if they meant nothing.

A decade or so later, the gone-but-not-forgotten Blue Oyster Cult transformed mumbling into an art form.  Arguably, the Kingsmen simply were negligent – victims of youthful exuberance and poor recording technique.  The Blue Oyster Cult, however, were intentional.  They reasoned that if the words to the lyrics of their songs were not distinguishable, then they could not be interpreted, or become subject to misinterpretation.  What the heck, even Jesus spoke in parables.  Such a failure of translatability presents a completely different issue than the Kingsmen’s failure of intelligibility.  Coyly, though, the Blue Oyster Cult included an insert with their first few albums advising the listener where they could write off to for a copy of the lyrics, if they so desired.  I never did.  Interestingly, only the first four Blue Oyster Cult records are worth listening to.  Those thereafter, are terrible.  That would be about when you could hear and decipher the lyrics.

In recent memory, the worst offender has been Michael Stipe, the singer in the band REM.  REM has suffered from the same problem as the Blue Oyster Cult, that is, only their first few records are memorable.  Then, Stipe started speaking more clearly.  It is hard to say if this was a cause or an effect of the deteriorating quality of their oeuvre.  Unfortunately, in retrospect, Stipe seems more self-conscious, even pretentious, than either the Kingsmen or the Blue Oyster Cult.  That is, he was being deliberately obscure, as an affect, in order to create an aura of mystery around his otherwise meaninglessness, pseudo-surreal lyrics.

In the modern rock era, it is interesting to contrast Stipe’s vocal technique (or lack thereof) with that of Serj Tankian, the singer for System of a Down (or his lack thereof).  Tankian’s forte is over-articulating his words, to the point where you almost wish he would back off a tiny bit – the exact opposite of Michael Stipe.

In conclusion, mumbling is a way in which the process of transmitting information is blocked.  It is culturally subversive, because it requires individual creative activity by listeners to supply the information that is missing in order to make the lyrics intelligible, if not meaningful.  This facilitates, or requires, a personal interpretation of the work, in much the same way that a reader of a novel must construct a composite view of the characters, based on the author’s description, but also supplying elements from one’s own background, experience and anticipations, in order to fill in the missing gaps.  Pop culture, on the other hand, prefers a blander, more homogenized approach.  Only by adopting the lowest possible common denominator of aesthetic preference is it possible to achieve cultural economy of scale, by mass-producing creative work and thereby recruiting the largest quantity of constituents.