Classic Unique: Fiona Apple, “Extraordinary Machine” (2005)

Extra extra extra ordinaryOur words wait quietly in the dictionary with their meanings ready, paws tucked under. When we take them out,  sometimes we try to make them sit still there, there, and there, like in info-speak; or let them run, like in poetry; or we jerk on their leashes orally for a momentary effect, like in every third or fourth moment in live conversation.

It’s a human imperative not to let live conversation seem run-of-the-mill, and so we inflect many words, especially pronouns, to make them seem unique in that moment: “Thenk YEW!”

Some words have to be said nonstandardly because that’s their (standard) meaning. “Unique,” for example, needs to be a shriek, “yew-NEEK!”

As we go blathering and listening along, we unconsciously put together a performance dictionary of special-enough ways of saying the standard nonstandards. Popular music contributes heavily to this dictionary. Whenever it’s time to make “you” sound special, especially in reproach or wheedling mode, I’ve got Dylan’s “Didn’t yewwww?” in “Like A Rolling Stone” to draw on.

Here’s a beauty:  “extraordinary” in Fiona Apple’s song (at 1:03 in the clip).

“Extraordinary Machine” first 2 verses & chorus

It’s an extraordinarily difficult word because of the fast pace at which the words are coming out and the big jump (an octave) up to the impossible syllable following “ex,” which phonetically is something like “st[r]au[r].”

The word feels really good, and not just as a vocal-melodic lark with a touch of big-city impudence; it strikes us as a justified comment on the quality of rhyming and phrasing and philosophizing that we’ve heard in the song so far.

Apple’s “extraordinary” is one of the many items in my performance dictionary that’s aspirational—I can’t actually perform it. But I have it ready to jump in my imagination.


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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