What’d They Say? 5 Great Songs with Indecipherable Lyrics

"Work It" Music Video (Image Credit: WMG)
“Work It” Music Video (Image Credit: WMG)

This article is inspired by a YouTube comment. (Great opening, I know.) I was spending Friday night drinking grapefruit seltzer and watching YouTube videos, specifically my new summer jam and best use of the word BRRRRRRRRRRRRAAAAAAATTTTT of 2016, Panda. (NSFW)

Look out for the Kanye cameo! And then, because I have to ruin everything, I scrolled down to the comments. Turns out, a lot of people are mad because they can’t understand the individual words, even though music is about far more than its lyrics. Also, YouTube comment sections are a strange place to make a stand for literacy.

What'd They Say? 5 Great Songs with Indecipherable Lyrics

In response to those angry commenters, here are some inarguable classics with inaudible, indecipherable or plain old gibberish lyrics.

Note- I didn’t include Work by Rihanna, because it’s not hard to understand, it’s just in another language.

Louie Louie- The Kingsmen

This song starts well, but after the second word things get a little harder to understand. I’m pretty sure at one part, he says night and day? Maybe? Don’t worry if you can’t understand it, the FBI launched a 31-month investigation into the song’s lyrics, to no avail.

Apparently, 60s politicians didn’t enjoy ambiguity, and the song was widely banned due to fears that lyrics might contain profanity. Everyone seems to have missed the percussionist’s audible F-bomb (54 seconds in) upon dropping one of his drumsticks for another two decades.

Ill-advised bans couldn’t prevent the song’s rise to a cultural landmark, appearing in dozens of movies and celebrated annually on April 11th, International Louie Louie Day.

Work It – Missy Elliot

Here is the genius of Missy Elliott – about 30% of this song is gibberish. There’s the reversed lines, which gave the world the gift of people trying to mimic reverse-text, spitting out something like ‘Izzzzurrfliminimimapayapurtle’. The chorus contains the line ‘If you’ve got a big *elephant trumphet sound*”. And yet, the listener always knows what Missy Elliott is talking about.

Remember vocabulary lessons from fourth grade school? If the teacher asked you to use, say, remontant in a sentence, you would not be permitted to write “Think you can handle this remontant?” The teacher would mark that incorrect, and not just because remontant is an adjective. Missy Elliott did that with badonk-a-donk-donk, and it became so popular talk show hosts and your dad started saying it. And that’s why Missy Elliott is the best at context, so sorry, Mrs. Bell.

Gimme Shelter- The Rolling Stones

The open-tuned guitar riff of this song is iconic, as is Merry Clayton’s excellent adding vocals. It’s a genuine rock classic. Also, watching the lyric video to write this article was the first time I realized that Mick Jagger was saying ‘War Children’ and not just ‘Whoaaa, Children’. Also, I absolutely heard the refrain as ‘Shout Away’ and not ‘Shot Away’. Remember, shouting is excellent for conveying a dark intensity, but maybe less great for enunciation.

End of the World as We Know It- REM

Maybe you, in your life have had the misfortune to be at a karaoke bar when someone tries to sing this song. They’ve had a beer or two, they are feeling confident about their mastery of the words. They’re excited as they start, dancing along to the the pop beat.  They might get through to the part about ‘birds and snakes and aeroplanes’. Suddenly, things will start to go south. This song just has a lot of words, and they are coming very fast and about Lenny Bruce for some reason.

It doesn’t matter though, because this is the catchiest song on the planet and it’s THE END OF THE WORLD AS WE KNOW IT AND I FEEL FINE.

Minnie the Moocher

The granddaddy of every song on this list, Minnie the Moocher’s gibberish lyrics are split between winking references to street culture and straight-up nonsense call and responses. The song sold over a million copies and get name checked in a Marx Brothers film, which is impressive considering that it tells the story of a down-on-her luck prostitute who dreams of riches in an opium haze and was performed in the 1930’s by an African American bandmaster and musicians.

Some of this has to do with Cab Calloway’s charisma and charm (check out that video for an excellent precursor to the Moonwalk), but the slang terms protected the song from censorship and allowed it to reach such a wide audience. The scat call-backs were an integral part of Calloway’s performance, where he worked to make them so complex that his audience couldn’t keep up and laughed at their own non-sense sounds. And just like that, gibberish can be a force for good.

Now go out there, and make no sense!

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Josephine Curry lives, writes and reads too much internet in West Philly with her cat, her fish and a theremin named George.

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