Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Usher, The Shins, Diphthongs and Hexameter

In Brigham's Square, I had a bit of a flashback to my freshman year. Sure, there was a lot more of a house feel to it, but BYUSA was blasting Usher, as they have been for nearly a decade, now. I was struck by the sound quality of "DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love:"

'Cause baby tonight, the DJ got us fallin' in love again
Yeah, baby tonight, the DJ got us fallin' in love again
So dance, dance like it's the last, last night of your life, life
Gon' get you right
'Cause baby tonight, the DJ got us fallin' in love again

So many diphthongs! A diphthong is when a vowel is realized as two sounds.

Here's a transcription in IPA (the International Phoneti Alphabet):
kəz bebi tənajt, ðə didʒe gɑt əs fælɪn ɪn ləv əgɛn
jæ, bebi tənajt, ðə didʒe gɑt əs fælɪn ɪn ləv əgɛn
so dæns, dæns lajk ɪts ðə læst, læst najt əv jɔr lajf, lajf
gɑnə gɛt ju rajt
kəz bebi tənajt, ðə didʒe gɑt əs fælɪn ɪn ləv əgɛn

aj is how "I" is represented here: ah followed by ee. Look how many times the sound is repeated! It's no accident: it stresses the words that are important, improves catchiness, and gives us poetic qualities like internal assonance. Diphthongs take a longer time to say, hence my theory of aural "stickiness."

I decided to tackle the lyrics of a completely different kind: the enigmatic indie stylings of The Shins. "Caring Is Creepy" has been in my rotation frequently lately, so I tried Dr. Burton's Renaissance double translation exercise. The lyrics are famously vague and non-narrative, which I thought would be helpful in this case.

I enjoyed the exercise as working in the French really forced me to focus on the literal meaning of the phrases. The meter was completely wrecked: it takes a lot more syllables to express the same idea in French than it does in English.

An example of one paragraph:

C'est une mélange succulente des mots et des blagues (12)
Qui nous permettent à parier quand nous savons nous devons nous coucher (18)
Sur rochers j'ai rêvé(e) d'où nous avions marché (13)
Et l'ensemble de nombreux rues où nous sommes maintenant (14)

Compare with the English:

It's a luscious mix of words and tricks (9)
That let us bet when we know we should fold (10)
On rocks I dreamt of where we'd stepped (8)
And the whole mess of roads we're now on (9)

These respective lines are so close to hexameter in the French and pentameter in the English (on average), that I was really quite excited. The polysyllabic versus monosyllabic nature of the languages really do lend themselves to different poetic forms!


  1. You show us it is possible to analyze Usher in a scholarly manner. Kudos. Thanks also for explaining dipthongs, it was very helpful.

    1. Hahhahaha right? Only Charly would think "Yep. That's totally a diphthong" while listening to potentially annoying hit song.

      I typically think..."Wonder how long it took to construct these lyrics....(thirty seconds, at the most)..."

      Also, I love that song. And The Shins.

      And I loved this post. Mmkay, thanks.

    2. Did anyone see The Shins on May 13? I need unlimited time and money so I can broaden my cultural horizons.

      I was in choir for years. That also makes you hyper-aware of sounds in music.