Great song! The lyrics? No idea

ON THE B-SIDE: I HAD a musical moment of truth this week and it was this: for most of the last 20 years, I’ve been listening to mindless mumbo jumbo and impenetrable nonsense. (Don’t say a word, mother. Not a word).

I guess I’ve always known it; it just seems more obvious when I’m listening to R.E.M.

And it was while doing just that this week – specifically the song What’s The Frequency, Kenneth? – that it dawned on me that a) I haven’t got a clue what the song is about (in the slightest) or b) I can’t make out about 90% of what Michael Stipe is singing. Never mind the frequency, Kenneth, what the mumbling heck are those lyrics, Michael?

This isn’t a new song to these ears – my iPod tells me I’ve played it 16 times in the last year – and I love it; it’s a belter of a tune with a rasping guitar line. But it’s an utter mystery to me. It’s fitting that when Stipe sings something that I can actually make out, it’s a repeated refrain of “I COULDN’T UNDERSTAND!”

I started me thinking: how much of my record collection (seems odd to call it that now when everything is packed on to an iPod the size of a wafer) do I actually understand? It usually surprises me when I see lyrics written down and on the few times I’ve had a crack at karaoke I’ve looked at the autocue and thought ‘is that really how it goes?’ **NB: I once scored 98% on a friend’s karoake machine with a version of Don’t You Want Me? He then topped it with a 99% performance of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang**


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Anyway, just a quick scroll up and down my iPod and there’s Radiohead and Thom Yorke. Great songs and beautifully sung, yes, but I wouldn’t want to try and transcribe those words. And what about Eddie Vedder and Pearl Jam? Listen to Yellow Ledbetter and if you tell me you can make out its lyrics, I don’t believe you.

So does it matter what these songs – my favourite songs – are actually about? Obviously not. A crass, cheesy lyric can spoil the best music but if the vocal is oblique, a little baffling or just indecipherable, it can’t hurt.

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I don’t know what these guys are singing about, but it just hangs right.

I was thinking about giving What’s The Frequency Kenneth? its 17th play of the year and concentrating really hard to work out what Michael Stipe is trying to tell me.

But then again, perhaps not. If I knew what that voice was singing. maybe it wouldn’t sound so great.

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