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Marissa Lingen

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Singing to time travelers [Mar. 24th, 2015|12:00 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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So I kind of take for granted that everybody has little weird games their brains will go on auto-pilot and play if they’re standing in line at the post office without a book or whatever. I’ve talked about these before but not, I think, about this one. And then this morning one of my lj friends linked to this article about the most specific words in popular songs, decade by decade.


Frankly, I don’t think the article is very well done because it isn’t selecting for interesting words, so–for example, “you” is one of the words of the 1990s. But if you look at the line, songs from the 1990s have “you” in the title only marginally more than songs from the 1900s. Things like “Disco” and “Mamba” are interesting but not really surprising, so–I feel like a better methodology could have been found, basically.


But the weird little thing I do sometimes while waiting in line is called “singing to time travelers.” The premise is: how far back can any given song be taken and still be comprehensible to its audience without explanation? Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion’s “Cuz we’re Cousins” would seem by its sentiments to be pretty human-universal: young cousins sharing things and becoming friends. But one of the verses contains in a single couplet both XBox and DVDs, meaning that if you tried to time travel with it to even a decade before its 2009 release date, you’d have some explaining to do–even more so if you traveled earlier than the 1980s, where the more general concepts of a game console and a home method of playing recorded movies on a TV screen would be less familiar. On the other hand, John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” is on my list of darn near universal songs: as long as you’re in a settlement that understands that its landform is not the only landform, you’re good to go. (Different cultures might assume different things about the singers than the culture in which Denver wrote it, but that’s part of the fun.)


It’s kind of fun to notice which songs require which things. You think you’ve got a solid ballad concept for the ages, and then you notice that it leans on astronomical concepts like the moon having a generally-dark side. Or you get to thinking about what isn’t actually universal but feels that way from here: the existence of streets is a big one. Windows and mirrors–and the idea that everyone has windows, everyone has mirrors, not just rich people. Folk music seems like it should be a rich vein of songs for singing to time travelers, but in fact folk music often talks about very specific transportation technologies, specific ways of making a living with their own terminology and technology, etc. Also this can turn into a game of “which thing predated which other thing,” which is good nerdy fun. I’m particularly glad I shared this game with Mark and Tim so that we can be driving down the road and blurt out, “domestication of herd animals!” or “Christian era!” in the middle of a perfectly nice song that isn’t really about that. So I thought I’d share with the rest of you too.


Also I want you to be prepared. I would hate for you to be catapulted back to 825 with magical translation powers and yet nothing to sing.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: ethelmay
2015-03-24 05:16 pm (UTC)
Re Annie's Song: when did people first start mixing up "lay" and "lie"?
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-24 07:08 pm (UTC)
Mixing grammatical prescriptionism with the idea of a Hesiodic golden age is pretty dangerous.
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[User Picture]From: redbird
2015-03-24 05:20 pm (UTC)
The other question that immediately comes to mind is, the year 825 where? Any song about a horse would be incomprehensible anywhere in North America more than a few centuries back.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-24 05:22 pm (UTC)
Yes, while I generally go for "Anglophonie," Modern English only goes back so far, and then you're having to deal with magically enabled translations of some sort. But yes, fields of wheat, riding on your horse, etc. is much earlier for Old World than for New; corn depends on which meaning of corn you're using (generic grain or maize).
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[User Picture]From: rosefox
2015-03-24 06:36 pm (UTC)
I'm reminded of Glory Road, wherein the protagonist travels to a foreign land (or parallel dimension) and is revered as a great epic poet after his dramatic recitation of "Casey at the Bat". This is all much easier if you don't have translation powers and can get by on intonation and body language.

That said, the first song that comes to mind that I think would work pretty universally is Oingo Boingo's "Insects". I suppose "They know they'll rule the world someday" is based on notions of mass extinction that weren't so much in vogue in 825, but the sentiment is quite comprehensible.

Sappy bullshit like "When You Wish Upon a Star" would also probably pass muster.

Edited at 2015-03-24 06:37 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-24 07:07 pm (UTC)
Yeah, sappy bullshit is a good choice for this. "Nature Boy" only really requires the rise of monarchies, for example.
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[User Picture]From: pameladean
2015-03-24 07:39 pm (UTC)
This is unexpectedly good at getting rid of earworms. "Oh hello, song, I do like you, but NOT NOW. Hmm, alarm clock, television, the idea of a set of chords, at least part of an audience for whom it is at least provisionally all right if the narrator is an atheist," and the earworm is gone.

P.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-24 07:51 pm (UTC)
Glad to help!

The other earworm tricks I know are 1) sing the song in the style of Bob Dylan; 1b) if it is a Bob Dylan song, sing it in the style of William Shatner; 2) sing the theme song from Disney's Robin Hood.

I suspect that #2 only works for me and my mom, but it works beautifully for us.

Of course, then we have the theme song to Disney's Robin Hood in our heads, but I'm told one can't have everything due to storage concerns.
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[User Picture]From: adrian_turtle
2015-03-24 07:44 pm (UTC)
A lot of hymns need relatively little explanation. They tend not to be classified as "popular songs," despite being known and liked by lots of people. (More so before personal music gadgets, and even more before radio/jukebox.) The most popular are explicitly Christian, so that's Christian era. But quite a few are just monolatrous, and that's comprehensible WAY back.

I'm not sure a reference to the "dark side of the moon" relies on any concrete astronomical concept. A person might think of going to the moon by magic (or when pigs fly) and discovering fantastic things behind it.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-24 07:52 pm (UTC)
Yeah, actually we had more fun thinking of what hymns wouldn't pass for the entirety of the Christian era (I'm looking at you, "Earth and All Stars"!).
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[User Picture]From: arkessian
2015-03-24 07:50 pm (UTC)
Pretty well rules out all the Queen anthems of my youth...

Slinking off to sulk now.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-24 07:54 pm (UTC)
Actually, "We Will Rock You" only requires streets and canned goods. And if you use the mistaken lyric "kicking your kind" all over the place, you're pretty much good back a loooooong ways, providing, of course, that "rock" can be understood in ways like "the earthquake rocked the city." I expect Roman soldiers would love "We Will Rock You." Visigoths, too.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-24 08:04 pm (UTC)
Then, of course, there are the songs that have such a narrow range of comprehensibility that they're not suitable for now. The Beach Boys' "Surfin' Safari," for example: the only reason I know that a Woody was a faux wood-paneled station wagon is because of that song. If you asked a young person now what a Woody was, they would, depending on age, either reply, "The cowboy from Toy Story," or, "Aunt MaRISsa! Gnr gnr gnr."
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[User Picture]From: juliansinger
2015-03-24 09:28 pm (UTC)
This has caused me to realize probably no young kid knows of Woody Woodpecker, now.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2015-03-24 08:32 pm (UTC)
I continue to be pleased by the image of the Jazz age cover of "Gangster's Paradise" being sung to largely comprehending inhabitants of the 1920s.

I am also glad that this game has prompted so much discussion.

I was thinking that "Symphony of Destruction" was more dependent on knowing the Pied Piper story than anything else, but it uses "robot" as well. The version of "Shout" I'm listening to seems fairly time-traveler proof, though you'd run into problems with someone from before the advent of theories about the soul/hell, or people who hadn't encountered the metaphor of a broken heart or having a guard (vs melee/unarmed attacks).
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-24 10:14 pm (UTC)
We were thinking about the temporal distinction between "robot" and "cyborg" regarding TMBG's "Robot Parade."
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[User Picture]From: redbird
2015-03-24 09:01 pm (UTC)
I suspect I'm now going to spend some time trying to think of Pete Seeger songs other than "Turn, Turn, Turn" that would work well back in history.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-24 09:15 pm (UTC)
He's actually quite often very temporally specific.
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[User Picture]From: wshaffer
2015-03-24 10:40 pm (UTC)
I'm amused by the fact that the only word in Satyricon's "Dark Medieval Times" that I'm pretty sure would not have been understood in dark medieval times is "medieval".

Not that I would be singing that song in the middle ages or anywhere else.
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[User Picture]From: sartorias
2015-03-24 10:57 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I found that disappointing--seemed to me they could have got around pronouns and prepositions for the search.

I've always had trouble hearing the words of songs. Not only my crap hearing, but because melodies will trigger images, often that have nothing to do with the song.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-25 01:56 am (UTC)
That would make things doubly difficult!
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[User Picture]From: asakiyume
2015-03-25 02:30 pm (UTC)
I think a lot of technology (by which I mean things like roads as well as things like DVDs or cars) is understandable by analogy. Even if you don't have roads of a certain width, you have paths or routes you follow, and the concept of meeting someone on this path or route is going to be understood, for instance. As a kid, I didn't know what a tuffet was, and I didn't even know what curds and whey were, but I still understood that Little Miss Muffet sat down on something--something probably diminutive, because of the sound of the word--and that she was eating something that came in two parts.

Your mention of ballads got me thinking of something else, though: how ballads will mix and match things--so you get the Scottish ballads in the Appalachians, and you'll still have kings and ladies, but the setting will otherwise be very mountain-farming-esque.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-25 06:42 pm (UTC)
Hmm. Yes and no: walking through city streets aimlessly (which shows up in a lot of songs) is sort of like walking aimlessly through field and forest? But sort of really not. And while you could analogize "leaving on a jet plane" to be similar to "leaving in a wagon" or "walking off," there are things about it that are not at all similar.

The setting clash in your second paragraph makes me want to add the caveat that if you time travel to sing for historians and anthropologists, you may give them a headache, human nature being what it is.
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[User Picture]From: genarti
2015-03-25 07:00 pm (UTC)
This is a fantastic game, and I suspect I'll be playing it in my head a lot now.
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[User Picture]From: rubel
2015-03-30 07:11 pm (UTC)
I often think about how to explain various bits of technology to people from ages past (fictional or otherwise).

That is, when I'm not mentally shaving off the sticking-out edges of things on shelves or crooked corners or other non-uniform formations in some kind of OCD fantasy.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2015-03-30 08:24 pm (UTC)
The Singing To Time Travelers game actually came from Explaining To Time Travelers, which I also do a lot too.
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