In Defense of Unintelligibility

Dog-Doo With Daniel: The idea that a vocalist can use their voice as something beyond a mere vessel for their lyrics is still foreign and potentially dangerous.
Publish date:

Recently, my dad asked me who my favorite vocalist was. I mulled it over in my head, and my first thoughts surprised me: Little Jimmy Scott? Young Thug? Sly Stone? None of these (save Stone, maybe) are anyone’s idea of the greatest singer ever. I settled on Prince. He gave me his answer: Marvin Gaye. This made sense. Marvin Gaye is a great goddamn singer. I wouldn’t put him at the top of my list, though, because… well, he just kind of sings. He uses his very beautiful voice to express words, sometimes more than words, but the singers I love are the ones that dig into the corners of their range and pull out the strangest sounds they can make.

Most singers just kind of… sing. It’s a bit tiresome. The human voice is such a wondrous thing. I can’t think of an animal with the same range of vocalizations. We hear, say, a seagull and think, “that’s a seagull.” They all kinda sound the same to us. But if a seagull hears Aretha Franklin next to Mike Patton, would it think it sounded the same? Seagulls are dumb, but I’d think not.

My favorite singers push the limits of the human voice, even if some comprehensibility has to be compromised. I don’t particularly care that Young Thug’s unintelligible; what matters is the yelps and shrieks and the equal likelihood he’ll randomly go into a Jamaican patois as that he’ll start impersonating Eddie Vedder or Louis Armstrong. Ditto Sly Stone’s masterwork There’s A Riot Goin’ On, the weird, woozy vocal tapestry on which there are twenty of him going at any given time and none of them are making any sense. And ditto the almighty Prince, who had a way of imbuing every noise he made — no matter how absurd, as most of them were — with meaning.

The most common gripe against Young Thug I’ve seen is that he’s incomprehensible, which his fans know is beside the point. It’s usually hurled as a criticism by rap fans married to a certain, often ‘90s-rooted mindset that values internal rhymes, fast flow, and sociopolitical import. Really, it’s an authenticity thing — that an artist isn’t really talented if their lyrics are inscrutable or meaningless, similar to the way rockists beef with pop stars for lip-synching or using Auto-Tune (both of which Thugger is also guilty of). The idea that a rapper can use their voice as something beyond a mere vessel for their lyrics is still foreign and potentially dangerous.

If you can’t understand what your favorite artist is saying, maybe that’s the point. There’s no poetry beneath what Pere Ubu’s David Thomas or Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser are moaning about. The latter has a wonderful song called “Bluebeard,” and the only lyric I can parse is “are you the right man for me?” The rest of her vocals kind of sound like the bird from Up, and I’m more moved by that one lyric shining through the murk than I would be by most optimistic love songs. You take the emotion from that exhortation — “ARE YOU THE RIGHT MAN FOR ME?” — and apply it to her birdsong. It holds. In a way, it’s a more gratifying experience to project emotion onto nonsense than to have it spoonfed to you, as in a more conventional singer-song.

I’m not advocating for the death of lyricism or meaning. I’m just saying that they’re not necessary. If anything, there’s too much lyricism and too much meaning, and it’s kinda boring.