There’s a scene at the end of ‘The Commitments’ (the film, not the book) when manager Jimmy Rabbitte attempts to make sense of the dissolution of the band by quoting ruefully from Procul Harum’s ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’: “We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels across the floor/I was feeling kind of seasick, but the crowd called out for more”.
At which point the imaginary interviewer in his head kicks in. “That’s very profound, Jimmy. What does it mean?” Flummoxed, Rabbitte stares blankly at his own reflection in the mirror: “I’m fucked if I know.”
The gag works because ‘A Whiter Shade Of Pale’ is representative of a particular kind of overblown rock ballad: anthemic, ubiquitous, undeniably stirring – yet laughably hollow of actual meaning. Not that this has limited the track’s commercial fortunes since it was released in 1967. According to figures unveiled by music licensing company PPL this week, ‘AWSOP’ is officially the most played song in public of the last 75 years.
Why? Like a lot of self-consciously ‘epic’ tunes, it sounds weighty and profound, as long as you don’t listen too carefully. There’s a reference to Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’, a nod to ancient Rome (those Vestal Virgins). Meanwhile, “The light fandango” is a corruption of a phrase John Milton coined to describe dancing, “the light fantastick”.
Put it all together, though, and it’s essentially a load of random waffly bollocks (although it’s been argued that in unedited form the song was originally about a one-night stand). It is far from unique in this respect, however. Look at the other songs in the PPL’s top 10. They’re almost all total gibberish.
‘AWSOP’ shares a richly allusive, yet ultimately meaningless, quality with the number two song in the list, Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (another song, incidentally that uses the word “fandango” for no good reason).
Then there’s Robbie Williams’ ‘Angels’, which rankles on account of its gormless personifications (how can pain walk down a one-way street?) and the ham-fisted way in which the lyrics ricochet between present and future, singular and plural.
Further down the list is, at seven, Elvis Presley’s ‘All Shook Up’ (penned by Otis Blackwell), which opens with a line about itching like a man on a fuzzy tree, and progressively makes less sense from that point. And that’s before we get to Perry Como’s ‘Magic Moments’, which is so full of whistles and bah-bah-bahs it might has well have been babbled by a toddler.
Now, I’ve talked about meaningless lyrics before, in some detail, but it’s hard to escape the impression that there’s a fundamental correlation between a song’s commercial success and the vapidity of its lyrics.
Call it the U2 effect. For most of the past decade, the biggest bands in the world have been the ones who deal in vagueness, empty allusion, and downright blather. Think of Coldplay’s ‘Speed Of Sound’ (“How long am I gonna stand, with my head stuck in the sand”), or the billowing gusts of nonsense that propel Keane’s ‘Bedshaped’.
U2 are the chief instigators here, because this kind of expansive, airy meaninglessness is all about conveying a sense of scale. The less you make explicit, the bigger the song becomes. By retreating from specifics, you amp up the ’emotion’, however ill-defined and blurry that emotion might be.
If you were being massively pretentious, and attempting to define a poetics of stadium rock, you could argue that a song like ‘Where The Streets Have No Name’ enacts a deliberate erasure of meaning. It simulates profundity, while conveying nothing. The closer you examine the lyrics, the more they disappear into vapour.
Of course, music history is brimming with deftly-written songs that channel intelligence as well as emotive clout. But none of them are on PPL’s list. It seems that if you want to connect with a truly mainstream, generation-spanning audience, talking loud and saying nothing is the only solution.