Saturday, February 28, 2009

Yakety Yak

As a form of popular music, 1950s doo-wop was characterized by its playful use of nonsense syllables (take, for instance, the hyphenate “doo-wop” itself) repeated in order to create elaborate harmonic and rhythmic effects. Hence the paradigmatic example of doo-wop is probably the Coasters’ hit “Yakety Yak” (1958), a song written and produced by Leiber and Stoller. For the word yak—like the words ibis, vole, x-ray fish, and umbrella bird—is an invention, existing for the sake of completing the English alphabet in children’s books. Nonetheless, while an invented word, yak refers both to a mythical creature in the books of Dr. Seuss and to meaningless chatter, authoritarian speech that is to be ignored as an act of defiance. Hence the lyrics to “Yakety Yak” describe the recalcitrant response to the household chores a kid (presumably a teenager) has to perform on order of his parents. Stoller has referred to these songs as “playlets,” mini-dramas or character contests created by the songwriters to capture stereotypical teenage life. Another term for these “playlets” might be “whimseys,” a form of nineteenth-century parlor game that transformed any given piece of pre-existing prose into a poem. Thus, from the BBC News this morning:

US Republicans
Have broadly welcomed
President Barack Obama’s
Plan to withdraw
Most troops
rom Iraq
By 2010.

In the same way, “Yakety Yak” pulls snippets or quotes from common colloquialisms:

You just put on your coat and hat
And walk yourself to the laundromat
And when you finish doing that
Bring in the dog and put out the cat
Yakety yak
Don’t talk back

Rock music has always seemed particularly amenable to the invented word and the nonsense syllable, from Little Richard’s refrain in “Tutti Frutti,” “Awopbopaloobopalopbamboom,” to Roy Orbison’s “Ooby Dooby,” to Manfred Mann’s “Doo Wah Diddy,” to Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” to the refrain of David Seville’s “Witch Doctor,” also from 1958:

Ooo eee, ooo ah ah, ting tang
Walla walla, bing bang
Ooo eee ooo ah ah ting tang
Walla walla bing bang
Ooo eee, ooo ah ah, ting tang
Walla walla, bing bang
Ooo eee ooo ah ah ting tang
Walla walla bing bang

Although by no means a rock song, the Sherman Brothers’ “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” from Disney’s MARY POPPINS (1964), suggests the close association of nonsense or invented words, children’s books, kid songs, and the appeal the lyrics to rock songs have for adolescents, and, no doubt, why certain rock songs are so popular at frat parties.

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