July 2, 2007

When does a song "demobilize" a word, so that no serious lyricist can use it again?

Laurence Maslon writes a long, interesting article about the song "Over the Rainbow." (Via A&L Daily.) Read the whole thing, but let's discuss this:
In turning to the rainbow as a metaphor for happiness, [lyricist Yip] Harburg also drew on decades of American songs. In 1918, a minor Broadway show, Oh, Look!, gave the world a major tune, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”, one of the most popular of its day. (Its closing lyric runs, “I’m always chasing rainbows./ Waiting to find a little bluebird in vain.”) Ten years later, Billy Rose and David Dreyer contrived a popular hit, “There’s a Rainbow Around My Shoulder”....

Why would Yip Harburg, a man of considerable imagination, take yet another drink from such an oft-dipped well? Part of it was his conviction that the rainbow image would be useful for the rest of the picture.... Also, Harburg must have intuited that such an image would have seemed ridiculous and corny if were sung by, say, a Manhattan cigarette girl singing on a penthouse balcony. But for an untutored farm girl from Kansas, living in some indeterminate point early in the 20th century, the very predictability of the rainbow image speaks to her old-fashioned values and lack of pretense....

[The song] is a seminal influence on the imagination of impressionable youths to this day, truly a brilliantly crafted song, with Arlen’s achingly adult melody set off by Harburg’s sophisticated use of childlike simplicity. Rarely has such a juxtaposition yielded such a felicitous result. Harburg’s lyrics are so successful, in fact, that they essentially demobilized the words “rainbow” and “bluebird” from serious use in popular song forever after. (The two exceptions, ironically, are Harburg’s own “Look to the Rainbow” from Finian’s Rainbow and Arlen’s collaborator, Johnny Mercer’s, use of “rainbow’s end” in “Moon River.”)
But now aren't you thinking of exceptions? I immediately thought of Lesley Gore singing "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" ("Everything that's wonderful is what I feel when we're together"). And for "bluebird"... come on, I feel sorry for Stephen Stills that Maslon threw in the part about "bluebird":
Listen to my bluebird laugh.
She can't tell you why.
Deep within her heart, you see,
She knows only crying.
Somehow I don't feel sorry for Paul McCartney ("I'm a bluebird, I'm a bluebird, I'm a bluebird, I'm a bluebird, Yeah, yeah, yeah"). I don't think he was really even trying there, and besides, he's demobilized "blackbird."

Yet copying the Stills' lyrics, I see that it is obvious that the lyrics without the music don't make much of an impression at all. Perhaps it's not -- after all -- a "serious use" of the word.

So, what songs have used a particular word in such a way as to take it off the list of words a serious lyricist can use? (Do we still have such people?) What does it take to demobilize a word?

Perhaps sometimes this happens only within a particular type of music. Can I think of a good example of that? Betraying my age once again, I think of the mid-60s word "groovy," which spiked in popularity and then became unusable. In 1966, there was "A Groovy Kind of Love" (which was 34 on the Billboard 100 that year -- that great year). When that song came out "groovy" was nearly unknown slang (at least in the U.S.). The following year there was "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)," the Paul Simon song that was a hit by Harper's Bizarre. It's 98 on the Billboard 100 for that year. And, the same year, there's also "Groovin'" by the Young Rascals (11th). When these songs were hits, "groovy" had become a word that no one would actually use in conversation. You might hear it on a TV show, but it would be embarrassing to say it unless you clearly conveyed that you were making fun of the word. But this is a big digression, because no song lyric killed "groovy." "Groovy" was killed by its own sudden, extreme popularity.

So back to the real question. Can you think of a word that is used so decisively well in a song as to remove if from a good lyricist's vocabulary?

The article about "Over the Rainbow" raises a second issue: "it’s the only adult song in the popular canon to be sung by a child." Is it?

(Here's the recent example of a 6-year-old singing the song -- with the audience melting like lemon drops. And here's Katharine McPhee singing the song to great acclaim on "American Idol." I'm on record hating it, by the way.)


rhhardin said...


bill said...

I think Kermit would disagree with Maslon:

Why are there so many songs about rainbows
And what's on the other side?
Rainbows are visions, but only illusions,
And rainbows have nothing to hide.
So we've been told and some choose to believe it
I know they're wrong, wait and see.
Someday we'll find it, the rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers and me.

MadisonMan said...


I'm thinking that any song with an noteable word in its title will claim that word until something better/more current comes along. Rainbow will be used again (Why are they so many songs about rainbows?) despite the Wizard of Oz. In fact, I think a savvy lyricist might find the re-use of just One (singular sensation) word from an award-winning (or just uberpopular) song a challenge to find a way to re-use it so people don't think of the old use. Or maybe rap will just sample the old song.

Phrases are a different story. There will likely not be a new song written with the phrase over the rainbow, or slow boat to China or Athceson Topeka and the Sante Fe.

Ron said...

first, let's demobilize "demobilize", at least as it applies to songs. Demobilize has a military undertone, not connected to songwriting, and seems confusing.

How about transexual being -- sigh -- demobilized by "Sweet Transvestite" from Rocky Horror?

George M. Spencer said...


As in "fruited plain"


O, beautiful for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain
For purple mountain majesties above thy fruited plain!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea!

Bissage said...

Boy, oh boy, Almond Joy!

Be still my beating heart!

Another Althouse post on pop music!

Yet another opportunity for Mr. Simels to strut his stuff!

(He’s a pop music critic, you know.)

Come on, big guy, show us what you’ve got.

But hey, I’m not fussy or anything. This thread is still active and it would be thrilling for you to leave a meaningful, substantive comment, here, there, or anywhere.

After all, pop music is your area of expertise.

(That and deprogramming cult members.)

Please don’t let me down.

Show these Althousian cultists how it’s done!

bill said...

Also skips over Irving Berlin in his bluebird argument. See Blue Skies, 1926:
Blue skies
Smiling at me
Nothing but blue skies
Do I see

Singing a song
Nothing but bluebirds
All day long

Peter Hoh said...

I saw that 6 year old singing "Rainbow." Didn't quite work for me. In order to work, the singer must convey a sense of loss, as the song is childlike (or maybe not) response in the face of loss, be it actual, potential, or impending.

I suspect that the Brits melt because they connect the song to Eva Cassidy. The little girl stands in for the singer they could never applaud. (For those of you who don't know, Ms. Cassidy's recording of "Rainbow" became a big hit in Britain a few years after her death at 33.)

But I'll be mean and say that the six year old doesn't bring enough gravitas to the performance.

bill said...

I'll see your Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious and raise you a shpadoinkle:

The sky is blue and all the leaves are green.
The sun's as warm as a baked potato.
I think I know precisely what I mean,
When I say it's a shpadoinkle day.

Gahrie said...

1) As for six year olds - Shirley Temple's Animal Crackers was a huge hit I believe.

2) The best version of Over the rainbow is the Hawaiian version. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2A2Jt4WOxN8

3) I believe the Steve Miller Band demobilized pompotous

Sgt. Mom said...

"Over the Rainbow" didn't seem to prevent "Bluebirds over the White Cliffs of Dover" from being a mega-hit three years later. Frankly, I think the lyrical bluebirds are migratory, and return on a regular basis.

"There'll be blue birds over
The white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow, just you wait and see.

There'll be love and laughter
And peace ever after
Tomorrow, when the world is free.

The shepherd will tend his sheep,
The valley will bloom again
And Jimmy will go to sleep,
In his own little room again.

There'll be blue birds over
The white cliffs of Dover,
Tomorrow, just you wait and see."

bill said...

And when it comes to defining performances, don't overlook Me first and the Gimme Gimmes:

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

Rainbow Connection

Jeff with one 'f' said...

I feel stongly that "shiznit" has been demobilized in the arena of popular song!

Zach said...

Does it matter that the use of rainbow is nonstandard? Like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, you can't actually get to "somewhere over the rainbow." So Oz is established as an elusive "land that I heard of, once in a lullaby."

It's interesting how the fantasy authors place their worlds in relation to the world we live in. In the movie, Oz is an elusive land that can't be visited on purpose, and is difficult to return from (in the books, Dorothy returns several times to Oz).

Never-never Land, in contrast, is originally found when a child is stolen away from his family. There are parallels to fairies stealing children awaWy, except that the child can return and grow up when he wishes. Neverland is supposed to represent an extended childhood.

Wonderland is reached in two ways: Alice follows a wonderland rabbit from this world to his, and later when Alice literally steps through a mirror. Wonderland is, literally, a mirror image of our world, and its mirrored logic drives the narrative.

More recently, Harry Potter's wizarding world lives in the interstices of our own world -- it's reached via Platform 9 3/4, which would be visible, except that we're all such helpless Muggles about seeing the magical in everyday life. (Muggle is an old word from drug culture referring to people who haven't clued in and become enlightened.)

Zach said...

(And of course, wizard has the root word "wise".)

Laura Reynolds said...

I'm on record hating it, by the way

Ummm what about Katherine McPhee do you NOT hate? I think singling out that song implies there was something else you liked.

Jeff with one 'f' said...

"The article about "Over the Rainbow" raises a second issue: "it’s the only adult song in the popular canon to be sung by a child." Is it?"

If the Eagles can be considered adult and part of the canon, I would point to the most touching performance of "Desperado"

Zeb Quinn said...

No word in a song has been or can be demobilized. All that's needed is another songwriter writing another song to be sung by another singer, and if it's good, it's like it's brand new all over again.

Roost on the Moon said...

You can't write a song about a pillbox-hat, that's for sure.

They Might Be Giants get to keep 'Birdhouse'.

Doug said...

Worst version of Over the Rainbow was from Star Search winner Sam Harris. I didn't hear the whole version, since it was on Beavis and Butthead. But Butthead turned up the volume on it to torture Beavis.

I have searched youtube for it, but the only version is Harris doing it for a very small audience, and he doesn't seem to be hamming it up like he did in the video

paul a'barge said...

Oh goody, a thread unlikely to attract the insufferable Wade. How refreshing.

...the Stills' lyrics, I see that it is obvious that the lyrics without the music don't make much of an impression at all...

That's because it's rock, and it's Stills. Without the production behind it, it's ashes in the mouth.

Contrast with the words to "Over the Rainbow". Write them out and read them without any music playing.

They work and they hold up.

Ann Althouse said...

I linked to that Hawaiian one a while back and I can't remember what brought me to it. A movie or TV show? It was very evocative in something that I wish I could remember.

Stever: I liked Katharine McPhee in the beginning of the show. I didn't like how the show overstated the message that she was good looking. Here's my original reaction to her: "Katharine McPhee has a voice teacher mom but she sings "God Bless the Child" really prettily. And she's very pretty too. Simon: "Absolutely fantastic." Randy: "Absolutely brilliant." Paula: "Absolutely beautiful." Simon: "Very, very, very what is happening today." Most positive response to an audition I've seen on this show." Second time: "Katharine McPhee cracks her knuckles cutely as she waits nervously. She makes it and kisses all three judges on the lips (even though at a later point in the show a contestant reminds herself of the rule that they cannot approach the judges)." Third: "Only one more. They usually save the best one for last, and it's the one I remember as the best from the auditions: Katharine McPhee! She sings "Since I Fell For You," which she imagines was originally sung by Barbra Streisand. "I get the blues most every night." Randy: "Wow, wow." Paula: "Fantastic. I think you're going to go all the way." Simon: "There were four very, very good vocalists tonight, and you were the best.""

Fourth: "Katharine McPhee starts us off, and she's bad, but she's been so good in the past, so this is not auspicious."

Fifth: "Katharine McPhee: excellent! She sings "Think," you know, the one with "freedom, freedom, freedom!" I love that. She acts all bubbly, and it comes off well."

First really negative reaction is on the sixth appearance, the Stevie Wonder episode: "Katharine McPhee ("Until You Come Back to Me"). Screetchy. Empty. They love her though."

Seventh: "Katharine McPhee, they love her. I thought it was a little screetchy and unsubtle, but she's good, and she's very pretty." (See the trend?)

Eighth: "Katharine McPhee, "The Voice Within." "Life Is a Journey." Give me a damned break! Horrendous! She has completely alienated me with this song. Hate, hate, hate." This is where I really go against her.

Ninth: "Katharine McPhee. She needs to rescue herself tonight, after last week, falling in the bottom two. Bringing out the Elvis in me. She looks very pretty and gets out some great notes (but swallows most of the song)." I'm willing to give her a chance.

Tenth: "Katharine McPhee decides to do "Who Wants to Live Forever" so she can just stand there and sing. She's heavily made-up, perhaps spoofing the over-the-top 70s style. She makes me think of Karen Carpenter for a minute, but then only to notice the lack of style and feeling. The judges are nice to her in a way that often spells doom on the show."

Eleventh: "Katharine McPhee. "Someone to Watch Over Me." Rod is totally in love with her. We get some beautiful extreme closeups. I love this song, especially as Frank Sinatra sings it. So her singing seems too harsh to me. Simon: "So much better than the others.""

Twelfth: "Katharine McPhee belts "I Have Nothing," and fortunately her yellow ball gown is tight enough to show a very visible panty line -- or we'd be super-slow-mo-ing the TiVo all night to try to figure out if we saw what we thought we saw when the dress flaps open in the end. Hey, even Paula's being mean to her. Everyone says: You're not Whitney. Only Ryan refers to the "great moves with that dress.""

Thirteenth: "Katharine McPhee -- sorry I missed the year -- "Against All Odds." It sounds thin and -- well -- screetchy. But she looks lovely."

Fourteenth: "What an interesting night! We are down to four, and only one is female. They must want Katharine McPhee to make it through. They've got to want the beautiful woman to survive amid the three less-than-beautiful men. They put Katharine in the last slot, which is the standard way to signal support. All she really needs to do is sing pleasantly enough. Why try so hard? But she overdoes everything. It reeks of desperation. She's advised to give meaning to the words of "I Can't Help Falling in Love With You," and then she goes out and sings it as if nothing mattered less than the words. Why, Katharine, why? But the judges are pretty mean to her, and that tends to light a fire under the fans, and I think she will make it."

Fifteenth: "Next is Katharine McPhee. The song Clive Davis picks for her is "I Believe I Can Fly." I detest this song: "There are miracles in life I must achieve." Ridiculous! She's wearing a shiny blue cocktail dress. Both Randy and Paula begin by telling her how good she looks. You know what that means. The two of them sputter for something constructive to say. Randy blurts out "Song choice." And she's bold enough to say "I didn't pick it!" It's that fiend Clive. "Sometimes you should just sing the melody," Randy advises. Simon goes mushy: "You kind of created a moment there for yourself."... Simon chooses -- chills! -- "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" for Katharine. Does she take Randy's advice from a few minutes ago and "just sing the melody"? No! The judges lie: Randy says it was the best performance of the season. Paula says "You don't go overboard." (!) Simon also says it was the best performance of the season.... Katharine's doing "I Ain't Got Nothing But the Blues." She does a great job -- and really reveals that current music is not where her heart is. The judges aren't too pleased! But this expression of unpleasure will stimulate the voters."

Ah, well, I think that shows I played it straight with her.

Christy said...


Roost on the Moon said...

Right on, "Satisfaction". You can't sing that word without a nod to the Stones.

Ann Althouse said...

If we're doing one-word song titles from the mid-60s... "Substitute."

bill said...

Right on, "Satisfaction". You can't sing that word without a nod to the Stones.

Except that both Otis Redding and DEVO kick their overrated asses.

Laura Reynolds said...

OK OK, I was being unfair. I just thought she was criticized for being pretty and using that to her advantage, while someone like Taylor Hicks was hardly ever criticized for using his talent (personality) to his advantage.

Anyway, I was giving you a hard time.

Randy said...

In an effort to divert the conversation from its normal course, I'll offer this observation:

As everyone knows, Somewhere Over the Rainbow is the International Gay Male Anthem and we are thus uniquely qualified to pass judgment on those who dare to follow in the footsteps of the immortal Judy Garland:

Katharine McPhee's rendition had me wondering when the set would open up to reveal light snow falling on the grounds of a Vermont ski resort in mid-winter รก la White Christmas. No sale.

Despite having already viewed a video of Connie Talbot's rendition during the finals (with better sound as well), I was still moved to tears. That said, she may be a tad young for this song. When she's 9 or 10, and a little less stiff, she could produce a genuine tear-jerker with that voice.

Back to subject at hand, my first thought was the same as others, I see: "Satisfaction."

Roost on the Moon said...

Except that both Otis Redding and DEVO kick their overrated asses.

Maybe so, but one's a more earnest cover and the other a playful subversion; neither is free of the context of the original.

Laura Reynolds said...

On topic, the word "memories" is done for me.

Pressed between the pages of my mind
Sweetened through the ages just like wine


Like the corners of my mind
Misty water-colored memories
Of the way we were


Christy said...

Do we count the singular as the same word?

All alone in the moonlight/
I can smile at the old days/
I was beautiful then/
I remember the time I knew what happiness was/
Let the memory live again"

Ann Althouse said...

I thought Dean Martin owned the word "memories.

Palladian said...


Jazz Bass said...

groovy, like most of the hippie argot, was originally jazz musician slang.

they appropriated it, them damn hippies.

best usage ever: evil dead 2

blake said...

JazzBass -- bingo!

I started using "groovy" after Evil Dead 2 (and Bruce Campbell's uncredited video game clone, "Duke Nukem") ironically, a la "23 skiddoo". Though it's probably no testament to my youthful looks that I can be mistaken for someone who might've said either in earnest.

By the way, I'm not really getting the "demobilization" thing. Rainbows and bluebirds seem to pop up pretty commonly in music. The other words mentioned here don't seem to have been demobilized, though some are simply not all that likely to pop up just because they're not that common.

"Satisfaction" pops up in as many songs as might be expected for a four-syllable word. (Isn't there a song called "Sweet Satisfaction"?)
"Substitute"--I'm pretty sure I've heard Madonna sing about both satisfaction and substitutes for love.

No comment on anyone in particular, but there's always room for hacks in pop culture. I'm unconvinced by this article's thesis.

blake said...

By the way, AA, I didn't see anything in the linked article that suggested you hated the song "Somewhere Over The Rainbow". Was it just that performance you hated?

Ann Althouse said...

Hated the performance. The song is great. I would be really hard to hate. Main reason would just be that too many people like it too much... contrariness. But I'm not doing that.

JohnG said...

Give me silver, blue and gold
The color of the sky I'm told
My rainbow is overdue

"Silver Blue and Gold" by Bad Company

JohnG said...

Give me silver, blue and gold
The color of the sky I'm told
My rainbow is overdue

"Silver Blue and Gold" by Bad Company

JohnG said...

Oops, sorry for the dup

Sir Robin said...

I would say "Imagine" qualifies as well...

Adrian said...

does 'Tomorrow' count as an adult song? Both Tomorrow and Yesterday are more or less taken, aren't they?
Still waiting for the definitive Today.

And who can forget Mariah Carey's classic, Rainbow?

p.s. speaking of Judy, how many other examples are there where the child is an amazing singer, too? Liza's version of Cabaret always blows me away.

Bissage said...


I got all over-optimisticated and half-expectified to see that Althouse had posted this:

IN THE COMMENTS: Well-established pop music critic (and anti-cult deprogrammer) steve simels weighs in with powerful insights and analysis, smashes the mirror, and sets the captives free.

But nothing doing.

Oh well, the sun'll come up tomorrow. There's got to be a morning after.

Emy L. Nosti said...

Is "gellin" the new "groovin?"

Consumer society, indeed.

Emy L. Nosti said...

Okay okay: "polaroid picture," "thriller," "submarine," "Coo-coo-ka-choo," "squarepants,” possibly “ironic.” Though it seems a lot of songs give a nod to "coo-coo-ka-choo."

amba said...


blake said...

Singer parent-child:

Natalie and Nat King Cole

comes to mind. And then, of course, there's:

Loudon Wainwright & Kate McGarrigle -> Rufus Wainwright

Loudon & Kate -> Martha Wainwright

Loudon & Suzzy Roche -> Lucy Wainwright Roche

And Loudon's got, I think, two other daughters, whose name I forget but the older of whom, I think I've heard.

Martha and Lucy have heart-achingly beautiful voices.

TMink said...

Anticipation - Carly Simon. But it was remobolized by Frankenfurter. And somewhat by that damn ketchup commercial.

Interesting thought, two songs that stretch the word in different ways. Peppermint twist and Incense and peppermints.


Mr. Forward said...