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volume 4
july 2001

Staccato, swivel and glide


  A poetics of early rock 'n' roll lyrics
by Christophe den Tandt
  "Awopbopaloobob alopbamboom" — what on earth does that mean? Not only is this phrase from Little Richard's Tutti Frutti hard to understand, but so are the lyrics of most rock songs. Rock music often plays games with the comprehensibility of its lyrics. Why? The answer to this question, Christophe den Tandt argues in the present essay, lies in the fact that rock endorses an aesthetics of semi-articulation.
1 Chuck Berry

The aesthetics of semi-articulation. Rock lyrics remain a somewhat awkward object of study for academic researchers. Analysing their lyrical value or their relation to the music is in itself no simple task. Yet the greatest challenge resides in a more fundamental question — the assessment of their very functionality in the process of rock 'n' roll. What do lyrics actually contribute to the experience of music listening or to the ideology of rock culture? Uncertainties in this matter account for the fact that academic researchers and journalists have adopted radically contrasted attitudes toward lyrics.

One approach, modelled both on literary studies and on journalistic reviews, aims to assimilate rock lyrics within the canon of contemporary poetry. This methodology produces close readings of texts by individual performers — Dylan, Morrison, Patti Smith — who are likely to be granted the status of full-fledged writers and poets (see: Day, 1988; Hertsgaard, 1995). Other researchers, working in the field of cultural studies, question the usefulness of lyrically-intensive analysis. They argue, often compellingly, that lyrics — the literary component of rock songs — are secondary to other, more meaningful elements such as communitarian live performance (Frith, 1996: 210), sonic excess (Grossberg, 1995: 206) or star personalities (Goodwin, 1993: 115). Beneath this skepticism about the functionality of lyrics, one may also discern the fear that a literary-oriented methodology, while ostensibly opening up the literary canon to rock songwriters, perniciously reintroduces within popular culture the very logic of canonicity: if interpreted along these literary lines, rock loses its potential as an alternative or oppositional cultural practice. It becomes a would-be art form whose supposedly discriminating fans accumulate what Pierre Bourdieu (1994, 40-41) calls cultural capital.

There is, I believe, no need to commit oneself exclusively to either of these reading choices. Doing so would suggest that rock audiences have consistently adopted one single attitude toward lyrics. In fact, fans respond to words in songs as diversely as academics themselves: their attitudes range from eager interest to inattention, depending on the songwriter's status — is he or she lyrics-oriented? — or on the practical conditions of reception — home listening, concert, club, casual occurrence, film soundtrack. On the one hand, evidence of fans' demand for songs as lyrical texts goes back to the early seventies, when lyrics were first printed on the inner sleeves of rock albums. Simultaneously, bootleg songbooks were offered for sale, sometimes containing approximate transcriptions directly from the records. Today, this practice lives on in the form of hundreds of web sites publishing lyrics by one or several bands. [1]
  On the other hand, it is indeed impossible to reduce the mode of reception of rock lyrics to this quasi-literary practice. Marshall McLuhan's argument about the specificity of aural, print and electronic media is relevant here: the reading of lyrics in print form constitutes a separate experience from the apprehension of the same words during music playback (McLuhan, 1964: 86-87). In the latter situation, words as vehicles of meaning are de-emphasized. Cultural studies researchers have repeatedly pointed out that rock audiences often have dim ideas of what words are actually being sung by their favourite singers: either the lyrics are drowned out in the musical arrangement or they are simply not decrypted as signifying chains (Frith, 1996: 164).
  In the early career of the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger expressed his predilection for arrangements in which lyrics are not distinctly audible (Dalton, 1972: 21-23). This choice was endorsed by most subsequent rock bands and came to stand as one of the core elements of the rock sound, differentiating it from pop, folk or European variété. The present-day BBC2 quiz show Never Mind the Buzzcocks shows what kind of listening experience this rock aesthetic generates. In one segment of the game, contestants are asked to reconstruct conspicuously undecipherable lyrics — the verses of the Bee Gees' "Staying Alive", for instance. Some of the talk show guests limit themselves to offer hilarious substitutes for the cryptic lines.
  In these pages, I mean to outline an approach that threads its way in between the fetishization of lyrics and their sheer dismissal. There is a need, I think, for an analysis that takes into account the ambiguous status of words within songs — their ability to be overwhelmed by music, the listeners' proclivity to filter out their meaning but also the rock fan's prerogative to retrieve meaning, however imperfectly. In this perspective, rock song-writing appears wedded to what might be called an aesthetics of semi-articulation. As Simon Reynolds and Joy Press put it, "[t]hroughout its history, rock has oscillated between intelligibility and incoherent excess, between meaning and musicality" (Reynolds and Press, 1995: 217).
  This means that, contrary to the cultural studies view, verbal meaning is never entirely dismissible in rock songs. Paradoxically, what the BBC's lyrics recognition game indicates is precisely that listeners always assume that some meaning is being produced as the song unfolds. Yet, simultaneously, what the listening experience offers in actual terms is the apprehension of texts shifting in and out of meaningfulness or intelligibility. In this light, efficient song writing in rock 'n' roll must implicitly or deliberately turn the song's game with semi-articulated meaning to its own advantage. The approach elaborated here leads therefore to new, more inclusive criteria not only of description, but also of evaluation.
2 Gene Vincent

The "gibberish" of early rock 'n' roll. The corpus selected for the present argument covers the early years of rock 'n' roll, from the mid-1950s to the early 1960s. Beyond a personal predilection for these early songs, the choice is justified by the obvious fact that the 1950s mark the moment when the prosodic and musical apparatus of rock 'n' roll was first elaborated. Also, there is some ironical benefit in using a corpus that has been described, even by fans themselves, as below the threshold of lyrical relevance. Indeed, In Awopbopaloobop alopbamboom, one of the first book-length histories of rock 'n' roll, Nik Cohn (1969) makes the sub-literate status of early rock lyrics a condition of the music's authenticity:

  "The lyrics were mostly non-existent, simple slogans one step away from gibberish. This wasn't just stupidity, simple inability to write anything better. It was some kind of teen code, almost a sign language, that would make rock entirely incomprehensible to adults. In other words, if you weren't sure about rock, you couldn't cling to its lyrics. You either had to accept its noise at face value or you had to drop out completely" (Cohn, 1969: 24).
  The obvious rejoinder to Cohn's argument is that 1950s lyrics do have identifiable thematics — teenage rebelliousness (Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues"), the boredom of highschool education (Chuck Berry's "School Days"), the ups and down of teenage romance (Gene Vincent's "Be Bop A Lula", Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel"), dancing as a metaphor for sex (Cochran's "Twenty-Flight Rock"; Richie Valens' "That's My Little Suzie"), the labyrinthine strategies of dating (Chuck Berry's "Oh Carol"). Also, a thematic analysis might investigate how rock 'n' roll lyrics rework and possibly tone down the sexual sub-texts of the rhythm 'n' blues songs on which they are modelled. Above all, we might point out that at least one performer — Chuck Berry — qualifies not only as a widely admired guitarist, but also as the first rock poet before Dylan.
  Yet an approach that embarks on a search for meaningful messages risks falling into the trap of literariness and canonicity. It would certainly favour a limited number of songs out of the larger 1950s corpus. Therefore, I believe that Cohn's celebration of inarticulateness needs to be taken seriously: it describes a feature that most early rock songs share. Simply, I believe that what he presents as transgression can also be viewed as the basis of a song writing skill. Thus, Cohn is right to point out that the ostensible "gibberish" of rock lyrics should be read as a "sign language". Beyond the vocal noise of 1950s rockers, there are structuring principles and regularities. Only, this poetic method does not operate exclusively within the field of articulated speech: it shuttles across the boundary that separates intelligible speech from that other, less determinate, semiotic system — music itself.
3 Richie Valens

Geno-text and pheno-text. The theoretical framework I mean to use to investigate this semi-articulate corpus is Julia Kristeva's analysis of semiotic and symbolic signifying processes. Kristeva's approach was partially transposed to the field of music by Roland Barthes in The grain of the voice — an article often cited in academic literature on popular music (see: Frith and Goodwin, 1990: 293-300). Kristeva distinguishes between fully articulated language, whose purpose is communication among constituted subjects, and a more fundamental, less objectifiable substratum of signifying processes, out of which articulated language initially grows (Kristeva, 1974: 84). She calls the former the symbolic, following in this Lacan's terminology, and the latter the semiotic. Development of the semiotic takes place during the pre-oedipal phase when the child, still closely linked to the mother's body, has no full sense of a separate self interacting with determinate objects (Kristeva, 1974: 35). In Kristeva's view, signifying processes — the semiotic chora (Kristeva, 1974: 35) — emerge at this early stage as the child's pulsions map its body, and as its body interacts with its social environment (Kristeva, 1974: 40).

  Characterizing such a signifying substratum is understandably tricky, since any analysis must be carried out through theoretical, symbolic discourse. Kristeva specifies, however, that the semiotic "is articulated according to fluxes and marks" (Kristeva, 1974: 40); it is characterized by principles of ordering such as rhythm and transience ("motility"; Kristeva, 1974: 71); its various media are "the voice, gestures, colours" (Kristeva, 1974: 28), as well as music and rhythm (Kristeva, 1974: 29, 62). Crucial to Kristeva's dichotomy is the idea that the semiotic cannot serve as a vehicle of representation or expression: it does not follow the logic of the signifier and the signified; it is not meaningful in that sense. Yet it anticipates the logic of meaningfulness, as it were: the fluxes and marks of the semiotic are the raw material of which the symbolic signifiers will be constituted.
  In Kristeva's La revolution du langage poétique, the discussion of the semiotic and the symbolic serves as preamble for an analysis of poetry — a literary theoretical argument that deviates in interesting ways from Jakobsonian poetics. In Kristeva's view, poetic discourse is the site where the pre-oedipal movement of the semiotic reasserts itself over the symbolic in the form of a transgressive re-emergence. This presupposes that the elaboration of symbolic language during the constitution of the subject never entirely supersedes the semiotic. The two layers of signifying processes are separated yet linked by a regimen of conflictual "exchange" (Kristeva, 1974: 46). In art and poetry, particularly, one notices "a re-emergence of the specific workings of the semiotic chora within the apparatus of language" (Kristeva, 1974: 48). The poem's signifying chain is affected by "deformations" (Kristeva, 1974: 47): its signifiers are subjected to the non-symbolic ordering of metre and rhythm, and its syntax is either disrupted or structured beyond the need of symbolic expression.
  The signifying processes that outreach symbolic organization constitute what Kristeva calls the poem's "geno-text" — its "semiotic" dimension, as opposed to the "pheno-text", that is the plane of articulate expression, grammaticality and meaning (Kristeva, 1974: 83). Thus, Kristeva implicitly disagrees with Roman Jakobson, whose theory of the poetic function implies that poetry is a sign system structured more tightly than everyday speech. In Kristeva's logic, poetry consists in the encounter of symbolic language with repressed, drives-based signifying processes that exert a destructuring impact on the language chain. It is a moment of disruption, albeit eventually leading to a regeneration of the symbolic order (Kristeva, 1974: 48).
4 Chuck Berry

The body and the voice. In this light, early rock 'n' roll marks the appearance of songs with radically disruptive geno-texts. Not that white popular music before rock 'n' roll — the crooning songs of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin or Bing Crosby — was devoid of the capacity to weave desire into words and melody. Yet, to judge by the cultural outrage stirred by rock 'n' roll, the new style boasted an unprecedented ability to let desire overwhelm articulated speech. Rock was experienced as a libidinal release transgressing both sexual and ethnic boundaries. The process by which this idiom was created — white teenagers appropriating African-American rhythm 'n' blues — then commercially known as "race' music" (Pielke, 1988: 22) — is familiar enough. Likewise, we do not need to belabour the point that parental authorities resented this cultural crossover because they feared it introduced into white pop vocal inflections drawn from a reputedly sexually-charged black culture (see: Frith, 1981: 19; also: Frith, 1996: 127-134).

  What matters for the present argument is that contemporaneous accounts concur in saying that rock 'n' roll's libidinal discharge was channelled not only through the beat of electric guitars, but even more prominently through the singer's body and voice. This is indeed how the figure of Elvis Presley was perceived in the 1950s media and, in fact, in most subsequent writings about his music: the rock 'n' roll sound was the ungrammatical noise issuing from the gyrating body of a singer appropriatly nicknamed Elvis the "pelvis". Describing the geno-text of early-rock 'n' roll consists therefore in recording this traffic between a drives-activated body and a voice.
  Roland Barthes' The grain of the voice, which draws on Kristeva, suggests indeed that the value of singing resides in the specific interface of these two planes. The French theorist argues that certain musical voices — typically, the less polished ones (in his example, Panzera as opposed to Dietrich Fischer Dieskau) — have a "grain" (Barthes, 1990: 295). They allow the body to be "in the voice as it sings" (Barthes, 1990: 299) — and therefore to display the moment when symbolic articulation surrenders to physicality. Academic critics of popular culture value Barthes' argument, because they believe that rock's appeal resides to a considerable amount in its ability to make this bodily dimension of singing perceptible.
Ironically, the semiological and psychoanalytical arguments only emphasize the difficulties in analysing what both opponents and fans or rock 'n' roll describe as a blind, spontaneous, transgressive language of the body, linked to the motility of unconscious drives. This paradoxical task, may, I think, be carried out by using "inflection" as a theoretical keyword. This term is particularly appropriate because it applies indiscriminately to instrument-playing, singing, speech and gestures. Also, I indicate below that cultural critics, drawing on Bakhtin's terminology, use inflection — or rather "accenting" — in order to describe how popular culture may act subversively. [2] Inflection, in the present context, is the basic unit of rock's geno-text: it means the playful manipulation of a norm — be it musical or prosodic.
  At the level of music-making, the syncopated swing beat — the cornerstone of jazz, rhythm 'n' blues and later rock 'n' roll — relies on such a game of transgressive inflection. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer offer a pointed yet, as is their custom, sharply derogatory characterization of this practice: they excoriate jazz musicians who, if asked to play "one of Beethoven's simple minuets, [will] syncopa[te] it involuntarily and will smile superciliously when asked to follow the normal division of the beat (Adorno and Horkheimer, 1944: 128), What Adorno and Horkheimer resent — the playful loosening up of rhythmic regularity — is the structural principle of most forms of music inspired from African-American traditions.
  It can be made visible in rock 'n' roll by analysing a very common rhythmic pattern, which we might call the boogie beat. This rhythmic unit, illustrated in Chuck Berry's "No Particular Place To Go" is transcribed in music scores either as a binary — dotted quaver and semiquaver — or tertiary pattern — crotchet and quaver as part of a triplet or as one beat of a ternary time signature (see: Appendix 1). Yet neither of these descriptions match the rhythm as it is actually performed: if binary, it would be too choppy, while, if ternary, it would be uncomfortably close to a waltz. Because of the game of accenting and inflections that takes place during actual playing, the boogie pattern becomes in effect polyrhythmic — oscillating between two norms. Such discreet loosening of metronomic regularity illustrates, at the musical level, the action of a geno-text — accents, delays, slurred beats — on a rhythmic pheno-text.
5 Little Richard

Vocal inflections. In order to analyse similar phenomena within lyrics themselves, we should focus on vocal inflections — manipulations of rhythm and pitch that constitute the signature of the early rock 'n' roll singing style. Dave Laing, in an analysis of Buddy Holly vocals identifies "contrast in pitch" as the most characteristic mannerism of the Texas singer's technique. He also suggests that Holly borrowed this technique from Presley (see: Frith and Goodwin, 1990: 332; also: Morrison, 1996: 17). Such inflections are undoubtedly the result of the singers' attempt to emulate their black models. Comparisons of crossover versions — for instance, Arthur "Big Boy" Crudup's original recording of "That's All Right Mama" and Elvis Presley's cover — indicate in fact that white singers tend to use these effects more generously than African-American rhythm 'n' blues singers. Other influences relevant in this matter are the vocal styles of country singers — Hank Williams — who served as model for rockabilly vocalists such as Presley or Charles Perkins (see: Morrison, 1996: 32).

  I mean to map these vocal inflections by means of a three-term model whose make-up is alluded to the present paper's title: early rock 'n' roll singing technique, I contend, is shaped by a system of vocal staccato, swivels and glides. These words designate different steps on a scale of vocal distortion, as it were. The first describes the choppy diction of rock 'n' roll singers as they match their words to the metronomic dimension of the song's beat. The second designates the small-range inflections often occurring in between staccato syllables. The third refers to the high-rising or deep-diving twists to which vowels or syllables are submitted — the effect most likely to drag the lyrics into unintelligibility.
  Admittedly, a more sophisticated analytical tool might be envisaged. It would, for instance, be possible to emulate the sophistication of musical scores published in magazines for professional guitarists like Guitar Player or Guitar. For their transcriptions of guitar solos, these publications have developed an impressive gamut of signs designating inflections and fingering techniques that cannot be represented by means of the conventional script of classical music scores (see: Appendix 2; Appendix 3). Yet for the present purposes, the three-unit model will do.
  Figure 1: Vocal inflections in "Summertime Blues"
(Eddie Cochran / Jerry Capehart)
  My aim is indeed not to achieve full descriptive accuracy, but rather to map a general tendency of early rock 'n' roll singing — its game with (dis)articulation and unintelligibility. Also, the staccato-swivel-glide model proves adequate to describe the interaction of voice and music: staccato accents indicate how vocals are aligned with rhythmic instruments (drums, bass, rhythm guitar), whereas swivels and glides show how the singers' voices mimic some of the signature sounds of early rock 'n' roll — reverb-laced guitar tones or whammy-bar glides.
6 Buddy Holly

A dialogue between words and music. On this basis, it is possible to show that the system of inflections of mid-1950s songs is not random, but rather sets up a flexible dialogue between words and music: partly autonomous yet acoustically similar voices respond to one another, and assert themselves differently at different moments. For instance, Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" plays off a mostly staccato instrumental arrangement against more melodic, inflected sung lines. The singer's vocals have to find their way between staccato riffs on the acoustic guitar, itself reinforced by sharp hand claps (Figures 1 and 2).

  Figure 2: Vocal inflections, riffs and hand claps in "Summertime Blues"
(Eddie Cochran / Jerry Capehart)
  The overall impression in the beginning of the verses is that Cochran's inflections — his geno-text — weave flexible melodic lines around a rhythmic structure characterized by an implacable, stomping beat, softened only by the quasi-swivelling bass line. By the end of the verse, on the contrary, it is the inflected voice that takes over and occupies nearly the whole of the sound space. First, the vocals switch to the deep parental voice of the protagonist's boss — "My boss says, no dice, son ..." in verse 1. The deeper voice — attributed to the protagonist's father and congressman in verses 2 and 3 — has no determinate musical pitch, yet as far as inflections go, it is all swivel and glides, verging on unintelligibility. Then, Cochran takes on his customary singing voice again to deliver the song's short chorus — "But there ain't no cure ..." — which is radically inflected and ends on a deep downward glide — "... for the summertime blues". After this plunge into deep vocal inflections, the swivel/staccato rhythm of the verse resumes, thus re-establishing the dialectic of metronomic regularity and vocal or instrumental twists. Chuck Berry's fast-paced "Let It Rock", on the other hand, establishes a contrast between fast-paced, breathless verses, relying mostly on swinging/swivelling vocal and musical patterns and, on the other hand, quieter musical choruses featuring slow glides on the guitar (Figure 3).
  Figure 3: Vocal inflections in "Let It Rock"
(Chuck Berry)
  If we focus on the interaction of the inflected voice and its prepositional text — between geno-text and pheno-text — the obvious question that arises is whether the inflectional system adds anything meaningful to the articulated lyrics. This issue is the more pressing as a fair number of early rock songs — Eddie Cochran's "C'mon Everybody"; Richie Valens' "That's My Little Suzie" (Figure 4); Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" — seem to function as pure webs of inflections or even as baby talk: a semi-regular pattern of flows and pauses gliding over the words and occasionally wrenching them away from phonic decipherability.
  Figure 4: Vocal inflections in "That's My Little Suzie"
(Richie Valens / Robert Kuhn)
  If read as a pheno-text, "C'mon Everybody" does develop a schematic narrative of teenage partying followed by a parental crackdown. Yet what the listener perceives primarily is the ascending and descending curve of the singer's voice, punctuated by the distinct, yet concise, slogan-like chorus "C'mon everybody!" Likewise, it matters relatively little that both Little's Richard's and Richie Valens' songs should celebrate sex through the metaphor of dancing. More spectacular in either case are indeed the sing-song structure of the inflected lyrics, culminating in Valens' case, in the comically dramatic "I'm gonna drown myself in the sea," and, even more tellingly in Little Richard, in the non-propositional baby-like utterance "wopbobaloobopbalopbobob." In these cases, the prepositional content — pheno-text — disappears under the geno-text, as if the singing voice aspired to become an instrument itself.
7 Eddie Cochran

The unfolding dance of desire. Trying to infer meaning from these inflectional structure is a delicate enterprise, possibly a betrayal, since the very function of transgressive pheno-texts is inarticulatedness itself. Kristeva, in the definition of the semiotic — the geno-text — points out that the geno-text does not generate determinate meanings — that is, representations based on signifiers and signifieds (Kristeva, 1974: 35, 39, 46). If we adopt a restrictive reading of this principle, we may conclude that the intonation patterns mentioned above have at best a value similar to that of metrical systems and rhyme schemes in canonical poetry. This means that they do not add anything specific to the prepositional contents of the lyrics. Eddie Cochran's vocal glides over such words as "what I'm a gonna do" or "Sunday" in "Summertime Blues" carry as little determinate sense as Shakespeare's decision to have "thou ow'st / thou grow'st // proved and loved" rhyme in Sonnet 18 (Shakespeare, 1986: 85)

  Yet the absence of determinate representation does not imply meaninglessness pure and simple. Basically, rock's staccato/swivelling/gliding inflections produce meaning performatively, that is, through what they enact. A manipulation of prosodic norms is staged throughout the songs by means of vocal gestures comparable to dancing steps. It does not quite matter, in this logic, where the vocal twists exactly fall. It is the overall unfolding of this dance of desire that connotes the emotions of teenage rebelliousness. Characteristically, a few famous rock 'n' roll tracks use what we might call introductory vocal hooks in order to advertise this transgressive game. Buddy Holly's "Rave On," Gene Vincent's "Be Bop A Lula" and Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti" begin with short, spectacularly inflected a capella calls — respectively Holly's swivelling "Oh we-e-e-e-e-e-e," Vincent's long upwardly gliding "Weeeee!" and Richard's famous staccato sequence "Wop-bop-a-loo-bop ba-lop-bop-boom". Such devices function in a similar way as the de rigueur profanities that Roland Barthes identifies in the writing of Hébert, a French anarchist writer (Barthes, 1972: 7): they manifest a transgressive or playful positioning toward power.
  These examples indicate that whatever meanings are generated through the performative game of rock's vocal inflections must be produced by connotation. Admittedly, a connotative reading of semiotic processes as defined by Kristeva goes against the spirit of the theory, which views the semiotic geno-text as a disruptive, undetermined energy, not containable by such a schematic semiotic mechanism as connotation. Yet the reception history of early rock 'n' roll indicates that many people — be they fans or guardians of morality — managed to read specific messages in the up- and downswings of the performers' vocal styles. Those connotative signifieds are quite familiar, and quite a few have already been discussed above. For fans, the rock 'n' roll voice connotes fun, energy, sexuality and blackness. For rock's opponents, it connotes practically the same terms, though in a negative light, as well as other concepts like degeneration and the breakdown of the social bond. Again, those meanings are not derived from deciphering specific segments of rock's geno-text, but from the very acknowledgment of its presence through the whole song.
8 John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Gene Vincent

The refusal of adulthood. To conclude, I should like to concentrate on one type of connotations produced by early rock vocals: those that contribute to constructing the male performer's persona. Gender models for rock musicians changed spectacularly from the 1950s to the 1960s. After the early decade of the music, rock — in its "Progressive" form — increasingly developed into a male homosocial culture — a music of male musical craftsmen, addressed primarily — though in practice, not exclusively — to other aspiring craftsmen of the same gender. By comparison, 1950s rock singers fit the "teeny-bopper" type: like the early Beatles, a large part of their success is due to their ability to serve as objects of desire for young women. [3] In this context, one may wonder to what extent the music's inflected musical style contributed to making performers sex objects. The issue is not self-evident: rock's geno-text produces high-pitched, often androgynous teenage voices. Even Elvis Presley, regularly described as an icon of Southern American sensuality, relies heavily on high inflections that feminize his otherwise mid-range crooner's voice (see: Morrison, 1996: 63).

Two complementary interpretations of this apparent vocal androgyny come to mind. On the one hand, one may consider that rock's vocals bring into play the pre-oedipal component of the geno-text — its status as baby-talk, as tool of interaction with the mother (see: Kristeva, 1974: 26-27). [4] In this case, what early rock 'n' roll fans heard in the performers voice was a return to boyishness or even to babyhood. Such a vocal regression is appealing, first, because it connotes transgressive teenage fun, the refusal of adulthood. Secondly, it carries a romantic seduction because it evokes male performers who do not adhere to a hard-edged masculine profile, and are ready to relinquish their standards of virility in order to embrace a softer code of relationship. On the other hand, under the boyish inflections of rock 'n' roll singing reside less innocent undertones — the very accents that anti-rock advocates denounced. Indeed, consciously or unconsciously, fans probably perceived in the swivelling and gliding voices what we may euphemistically call the soundtrack of desire.
1. Sites consulted for the present paper include: Keno's Rolling Stones Web Site (for Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues"); Ed Bick's Tab Archive (for Chuck Berry's "Let It Rock"); among the sites that make fun of the fan's misreadings of rock lyrics, see: The Archive of Misheard Lyrics (for Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues"). Return to text
2. For a discussion of the Bakhtinian concept of inflection or "accenting," see Stuart Hall (1997: 235), as well as Hall (1982: 77-78). On the basis of Bakhtin and Voloshinov, Hall argues that popular culture works by a logic of inflections or "accentings:" social groups may appropriate the discourses of other social groups and make them signify for their own — possibly subversive — ends. A radical version of this concept of popular subversion appears in John Fiske's cultural populism, which presupposes that cultural consumers have a nearly unlimited prerogative to inflect the meaning of mass culture texts (Fiske, 1993: 508). Return to text
3. A description of teeny bopper culture and of the forms of empowerment it offers to teenage fans appears in: Angela McRobbie and Jenny Garber (1976: 220-21). Return to text
4. A discussion of rock music and vocals as fundamentally pre-oedipal appears in Reynolds and Press (1995: 217-221). Return to text
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  2001 © by Christophe den Tandt / Soundscapes