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Monday, May 19, 2008
Sigur Rós - Untitled #8 (Popplagið)

As you probably already know, Sigur Rós has built a career out of selling nonsense—vocalist Jón Birgisson sings in “Hopelandic,” a made-up language that occasionally blends together bits of Icelandic and English, but mostly it just departs for the moon while you’re not paying attention because you’re still trying to figure out what the the last sentence was about.


In doing so, they raise an interesting question about the role of language in mainstream rock music.  Can it be communicative without being semantic?  Or alternatively, if the semantic value is imposed by the listener, is it still useful?  If so, maybe that’s the reason bands with obtuse Nirvana-esque lyrics still manage to connect with audiences who learn to sing along with every word even when none of the make sense.  Treating the human voice as an instrument is not a new approach, but treating human language as such is still largely unexplored territory for most of us.


Since his was the first band to totally base their gimmick around the idea that a properly-delivered hard plosive can smack you up just as readily as a kick drum, Birgisson is usually the focal point, but at times the other members are the ones that keep things ticking.  Sometimes the supposed gibberish starts to seem a little too conveniently tied to the English phonetic equivalents (the part of their site with all the free music is labeled “dánlód”), at which point Hopelandic threatens to collapse into the same sort of caricature as teenage txt msgs and l33t h4x0r sp33k.  Some of the tracks on () were guilty of that, but at the end drummer Orri Páll Dýrason came to the rescue.


It’s been six long years since the snowstorm during which I trudged around for days listening to (), but since Takk was such a heinous misstep aside from “Gong,” I still consider the album’s closing number, “Untitled #8,” the band’s crowning achievement thus far.  Since () was so verbally abstract—there were no titles at all, not even Hopelandic ones, and it came with blank liner notes in which listeners could write their own interpretations of the “lyrics”—fans desperate for a tangible handle have since taken to applying unofficial secondary names. This one is “Popplagið,” but since we’re still in Hopelandic territory there, the alleged translation would be “The Pop Song.”


You’d think that’d be a harder sell—the notion that a band which insists on singing in gibberish syllables which sound like scat on shrooms could have a pop hit, I mean—but if there’s a more universally beloved Sigur Rós tune, I certainly haven’t met it yet.  Maybe the “pop” here means “popular in terms of raw numbers” instead of the more obvious “musical genre diametrically opposed to inaccessible art-rock.”


OK, that’s probably enough.  There’s not a shred of semantic coherence in the subject matter, but my word count on this post keeps rising.  Oh, the irony.

Tagged as: sigur ros
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