Pop Hearts Nonsense

Research Seminar @ 4pm, Large Music Room, 80-82 Bedford Street South

Richard Elliott (University of Newcastle)

‘Watch the sense and the sounds will take care of themselves’; so says the Duchess in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. But can we be so sure of this? The Duchess, like her creator Lewis Carroll, often seems to put more emphasis on the sound of words than their sense, a technique that can also be detected in other written texts and in works of sound and music. My current book project, entitled ‘The Sound of Nonsense’, highlights the importance of sound in understanding the ‘nonsense’ of writers such as Carroll, Edward Lear, James Joyce and Mervyn Peake, before connecting this noisy writing to works which engage more directly with sound, including sound poetry, experimental music and pop. By emphasising sonic factors, new connections are made between a wide range of artistic examples and a case is built for the importance of sound in creating, maintaining and disrupting meaning.

This paper presents work from the final chapter of the book, focussing on popular music and its fascination with nonsense. The areas I’m interested in include scat singing, vocalese, doo wop, early rock n roll, yodelling, sampling, hip hop, singer-songwriters (Bob Dylan, Robert Wyatt, David Byrne), and artists such as Magma and Sigur Rós who have created their own languages in which to sing. Pop’s fondness for self-reflexivity, parody and wordplay will also be considered through discussing the work of ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, for example his song ‘Bob’ which offers a parody of Bob Dylan’s already nonsensical ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ consisting entirely of palindromes.

Richard Elliott is Senior Lecturer in Music at Newcastle University. His recent research has focussed on the representation of time, age and experience in popular music as well as the relationship between music and materiality. He is the author of the books Fado and the Place of Longing (Ashgate, 2010), Nina Simone (Equinox, 2013), and The Late Voice: Time, Age and Experience in Popular Music (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). He is currently working on a book exploring the importance of sound in creating, maintaining and disrupting meaning.