The Magic Word is “Tragic”: The Police, “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” (1981)

Grandfather put on silver-rimmed spectacles and read several Psalms . . . I was awed by his intonation of the word “Selah.” “He shall choose our inheritance for us, the excellency of Jacob whom He loved. Selah.” I had no idea what the word meant; perhaps he had not. But, as he uttered it, it became oracular . . .
—Willa Cather, My Antonia

In the Psalms, it’s “Selah.” In the Qur’an, it’s “Alif Lam Mim.” In the Song of Roland, it’s “AOI.” In glossolalia it’s whatever spills out. We don’t know why. It’s just cool.

I had two early experiences of magic unknowable words on the first Crosby Stills and Nash album—the Spanish-like syllables at the end of “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” (sure, now you can look up the words,[1] but my point is, that’s not an advantage) and “whoopaha nahesi hoofagafha nemeshi gooshgoosh” or something at the start of “Marrakesh Express.”

But those were isolated moments, whereas now I realize that all the words of a pop song can be mysteriously enchanting. That’s the proved thesis of “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” where everything it does just turns me on, “even though my life before was tragic . . .” The words fly free of their sense and become incantation, felt especially when I hit the little bump in “tragic,” an oddly negative sense, a pop-arbitrary rhyme.

“Every Little Thing” chorus

When I hit “tragic” I know, after a microsecond of mulling, that I no longer know, or need to know, what any of these words mean.  No way I’m going to construe “tragic” to fit some theme or storyline; the energy of singing carries me over that bump and faster (not past her—ha!), “now I know my love for her goes on.” It’s better not understanding anything about it.

The other great hook in “Every Little Thing”


[1] Que linda me la traiga Cuba
La reina de la Mar Caribe
Quiero sólo visitarla allí

Y que triste que no puedo vaya,
O va, o va
(Different transcriptions have been offered, but this one makes the most sense to me.)


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Rock Aesthetics, Words and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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