NPR logo Making Crazy

Making Crazy

It's no secret that music lyrics permeate pop culture, expanding, shaping, and changing the lexicon—whether momentarily or forever, expressions finding their way onto T-shirts and into movies, becoming inadvertent fulcrums for ad campaigns, sports team rallying cries, and personal anthems. This pattern of appropriation happens almost seamlessly. Maybe there's a slight irritation at its onset. But once it has become mainstream we often forget its source or even secretly acknowledge the brilliance of the lyricist. Possibly it's the way that language absorbs these new words so organically that makes the process benign. It feels less like appropriation and more like invention. But the innocuousness of this process is partly due to the fact that people aren't necessarily singing these lyrics or words; they are speaking them, or wearing them on their clothing.

So, what about those lyrics, those catchphrases from songs, that have become inextricably tied to melody, so much so that when someone utters the word or phrase in conversation it only takes a few seconds before someone else busts out the tune? This phenomenon is far more pernicious and annoying: words ruined by songs, or words ruined by songs as sung by our friends. Take for instance the word "ironic." I can't even count the number of times that someone has uttered this word and it is closely followed by the Alanis Morrissette tune. Other words or phrases that seem to inspire spontaneous singing: "Makin' Love"—this can lead you to any number of songs, from "Cecelia" to "Feel Like Making Love," to "Making Love Out of Nothing At All". All which prove that maybe people shouldn't say this phrase very much in the first place. Sometimes it's the rarity of the utterance that inspires the singing. Like the word "Flash," which will illicit someone to sing the Queen song maybe one out of ten times. And, for a while, any mention of "Crazy" was followed by an impromptu version of the Gnarls Barkley tune. "Crazy" is an interesting one because it changes associations every few years. From Ozzy to Prince to Beyonce, etc. Often, it's not the words themselves but their delivery. For instance, "Damn," when stated with a certain intonation, can bring about one of the worst examples ever, as in "Damn! I Wish I Was Your Lover" by Sophie B. Hawkins. (Apologies to anyone who is now humming this tune.) Lastly, there are song lyrics that add a strange, almost surreal association to certain words; the other night in a sushi restaurant we were serenaded by "Africa" on tinny speakers. How wonderful for the continent of Africa, I thought, that a Google search of that word brings up Toto in about two pages.

Not all the songs have to be annoying. In fact, sometimes the singer or band will have given new life to a word. "Nevermind," for example, went from a flippant or dismissive response to bearing the weight of an existential crisis once Kurt Cobain uttered it. Same with "I'm A Loser," (Beck). Instead of a literal statement of self-pity, it suddenly embodied a generation. Yet despite being from great songs, these phrases also cause melody to rise from within us until we are forced to let it out.

So, what words or phrases from songs have you been the victim of? Either by self-inflicted wounds or as inflicted upon you by the voices of friends or co-workers? And what words that are associated with songs are certain give you the insatiable urge to sing?