Diction Hooks: Guided By Voices, “Pivotal Film” (2001)

diction. 1. Choice and use of words in speech or writing.  (American Heritage Dictionary)

A main reason I find myself wanting to listen again to a Guided By Voices track, “Pivotal Film,” is that it has an outstanding word hook at 0:50 and 1:40:  “transparent”.  Lifted up at the culmination of a grand VI-VII-I chord progression, it’s the first word in the phrase “transparent scenes shifting.”  You don’t register that phrase as such, because the song’s stream of words is very broken-up—or rather, you do register the sense of it at some level because you know the song is about a “pivotal film,” something hip and insubstantial, yet you’re left very free to pump your own possible meanings into the word.  A whole measure is cleared out before it and after it.

I doubt that the word “transparent” has been used in many rock songs.  I’m willing to declare that its moment of supreme glory comes in “Pivotal Film.”  But this starts me thinking more generally about choices of non-obvious, non-emotive words as hooks.

There was a time when a word like “transparent” simply couldn’t appear in a rock song, or indeed in any sort of popular song (except in what used to be called a novelty song, with a lot of cute rhyming).  One heard only the most banal short words of lowest-common-denominator English or larky no-content words like “Be-Bop-A-Lula.”  The reason is obvious.  A popular song is supposed to be an emotional ride and a meeting place either for recognizing common experience (as in so-called folk music) or for dancing.  It’s no time to perform an intellectual act, even to contemplate the semantics of a word like “transparent,” the point of which is not (ironically in this case) immediately clear.

And then there came a time when there was nothing surprising at all in a Squeeze song with “quintessence” as its title and chorus hook (“In Quintessence,” 1981).  A rock audience was now ready to enjoy non-obvious, non-emotive words.  What had happened?

Bob Dylan usually gets the lion’s share of credit for popularizing more literate lyrics in the early 1960s, but at that stage he wasn’t making rock hooks with words like “transparent.”  He was using a bigger lexicon in balladeer mode; the effects of his word choices were poetic, not musical.  As of 1965, though, something more rocking has started.  “Like a Rolling Stone” has lustily singable words balanced between abstraction and practicality, the kinds of words that are the pleasure pavilions in ordinary sentences:  “no direction home,” “like a complete unknown.”  In 1965 we can also get a kick out of “satisfaction,” “information,” and “imagination” in The Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.”  In 1966, Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” has a delightful “obviously” and “fortunately.”  By 1967, Jimi Hendrix makes “experienced” and “depression” sound cool on Are You Experienced?, and the Beatles sing enjoyably of “suburban skies” in “Penny Lane” and “kaleidoscope eyes” in “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”  (Before 1967 is over we will hear “semolina pilchard” climbing up the Eiffel Tower in “I Am the Walrus,” which is scarcely more meaningful than “be-bop-a-lula.”  Extremes meet.)

There are three key variables here, the lines for all of them jumping up by 1967 on a graph of rock word hook characteristics:

1.  Number of syllables.  Three- and four-syllable hook words are desirable.  Or even five:  “[doing the best things so] conservatively” in The Kinks’ “A Well Respected Man” (1965), “penitentiary” in “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” Carly Simon’s “Anticipation” (1971).[1]

2.  Abstraction.  More abstract words leave you more free to specify their meaning, not just like “love” that you attach to your Bobby or Susie but like “experienced” that you could attach to your favorite album or novel just as well as to your landmark drug or sex experience.

3.  Artistic authority.  More unusual words signify that the artist is free in lordly sovereignty and Olympian perspicacity to choose what to say.  In co-performing the song you enjoy the excellent position the artist is in.

This last aspect is crucial for the category of word choice hooks.  The musical event in these cases doesn’t consist just of vowels and consonants playing together with beat and pitch.  The song-speaker has made a certain discursive move.  What is arresting, gratifying, possibly even perplexing about that move feeds into the musical lift and jangle of the song.  When Robert Pollard sings “transparent” in “Pivotal Film” at the summit of a VI-VII-I ascent, he is surveying vistas all around, realizing the power and loneliness of seeing through everything—the superior word he uses confirms the superior vantage point of the disillusioned culture critic—while he remains physically sure of himself and happy in the song’s stately, emphatic DUN-duh-DUN-duh groove.

One more example:  a great diction hook in hard rock is Skin singing “intellectualize” with ferocious funk in “[Don’t] Intellectualize My Blackness” by Skunk Anansie.  The acid of a shrieked “-ize” word perfectly advances the song’s agenda of cultural-political critique and uppitiness.  It makes that “revolution” and “constitution” stuff in The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and The Who sound tame.  And it has more syllables.

diction. 2. Degree of clarity and distinctness of pronunciation in speech or singing; enunciation.

For my money, the most delightful overpronouncing is by Johnny Rotten in the Sex Pistols’ “Anarchy In The UK”:  “I yam an an-ar-chist-uh!” He’s climbed to the top of the tree and now he’s giving the rest of us monkeys what for.

My choice for most delightful underpronouncer is Caleb Followill in Kings of Leon’s “Molly’s Chambers”:   “Molly’s chambers gonna change your mind” (heard as “Molly sham’a’ gon’ chan’ yo’ min’”).   This is mud-scudding on your butt, as egalitarian as it gets.

For most amazing pronunciation of a single word, how about the way Randy Newman sings “equilibrium” in “Harps and Angels”?

ADDENDUM to 1.

True story:  In 1976 an A&R man in Nashville objected to “unencumbered” in the first line of my song “Demon Rum”—my big juicy opening word hook!  (“When I’m alone and unencumbered/By a balance in the bank . . .”)  What if I could have told him that Bob Seger would use “unencumbered” ten years later in “Like a Rock,” a song that would sell a million Chevy trucks?

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[1] Chuck Berry said “international runway” in “Back In The U.S.A.” in 1959. His “international” is more like four syllables than five.

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About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
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