PSY released his album PSY 9th on April 29, 2022, and I got the album immediately, because I like PSY. I like everything about PSY; his voice, dance moves, compositions, and especially his sly and subversive lyrics. At first listen, his songs are slick and high-quality K-pop. But when you listen more carefully, you realize that some of the lyrics, even after they have been translated into English, are ironic and poke fun at everything that’s considered popular and desirable.
He and co-producer and writer SUGA did this on by artfully mixing up Korean and English in the lyrics. In the process they created complicated pieces of satire, disguised as Absolutely Perfect K-pop.
While the melodies on the album might be textbook-perfect compositions, with three-part harmonies and unstoppable rhythm, there is always something unusual about PSY’s songs, just beneath the surface.
Mixing up the languages
Look at That That, the title track on the 9th album, for example. That That was produced by, and features, SUGA, real name Min Yoon-gi, of BTS. (If you have to ask what BTS is, I’m sorry, but have you just woken up from a long hibernation? Possibly been unconscious since 2013? Just google it.)
To get SUGA on this track was certainly a coup by PSY. The lyrics to That That is the same mix of Korean and English that I’ve come to expect from a PSY song.
That is what sets the language fusion in PSY’s songs apart from any other European-language song in which the occasional English word gets dropped in: Korean and English are completely different languages that have hardly anything in common. The fusion in this album, same as with his other albums, extends beyond the languages of the lyrics, to the music genre and expression.
The song appears to be, at first listen and look, Cowboy Pop, an American genre, but it fuses into K-pop. What would you call the type of slang they used in the lyrics – Korelish? Englean? PSYdarin? Despite the mixup, the English lines still scan and rhyme, same as the Korean lines do.
In That That there are full English lines in-between the Korean lines, and the English and the Korean lines rhyme when you hear the end words: bokgo/loco; over/oiyeo; ayy/air; araero/four; saramdeura/set, go; harago/oh-oh-oh; norabojago/oh-oh-oh:
KOREAN AND ENGLISH: CHORUS 준비하시고 (go) 쏘세요 (oh) That, that, I like that (like that) 기분 좋아 babe (babe) 흔들어 좌우, 위아래로 (sing it) One, two, three to the four (sing it)
ROMANIZED KOREAN & ENG.: CHORUS junbihasigo (Go) ssoseyo (Oh) That that I like that (Like that) gibun joa Babe (Babe) heundeureo jwa u wi araero (Sing it) One two three to the four (Sing it)
ENGLISH TRANSLATION: CHORUS Get ready (go) Shoot (oh) That, that, I like that (like that) Feel good babe (babe) Shake it left and right, up and down (sing it)
The words of the chorus are pretty simple – basically slung-together common, simple phrases and expressions – but the chorus is supposed to be the hook of the song where the melody and beat are more important than the lyrics or the rest of the song.
Are you hearing how it rhymes?
To check how and whether they rhyme, English-language fans have to listen to the song, rather than rely on the lyrics, because we have to read the Romanized (Roman alphabet) version of the Korean words. I do not recommend the Romanized transliteration that can be found on a number of lyrics and fan sites because I have no idea which is the most correct version. I listened to the song and decided whether or not the Romanized Korean looked (and sounded – as I voiced it internally) like what I was hearing on the song.
That That is a hit so far. The video premiered on YouTube on Apr. 29, 2022, and by June 3, 2022 has had more than 203,687,461 views. So, obviously, the language fusion worked.
What happens when you make up words
Izz-ing on Double Dutch Bus
While I was listening to PSY 9th, I was also doing Timbaland’s online music production MasterClass, and he mentioned a very strange song in which the sounds made by the vocalist equalled the sounds produced by a music instrument. It’s Double Dutch Bus, by Frankie Smith, from 1981. The lyrics of this irresistible funk song contains the “-izz-” infix (inserted into the word) form of slang – like Pig Latin. I’m amazed that the singers in the video could even get their tongues around it.
Hizzey, gizzirls! y'izzall hizzave t' mizzove izzout the wizzay sizzo the gizzuys can plizzay bizzasketbizzal Izzsay whizzat? nizzo yizzou izzain't Y'izzall bizzetter mizzove! Izzsay whizzat? willze illzain't millzovin' Shillzu-gillza! milzza nilzza bilzzaby!
The title, Double Dutch Bus, refers to the buses that Smith was riding in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and the Double Dutch skipping game, with two ropes, that kids played. The -izz amendment of the words is actually a form of slang used by African American pimps and jive hustlers in the 1970s. You can’t ask Smith why he did this, since he died in 2019, but some people have commented that Smith was expressing his anger by using slang associated with gangs.
The infixes are so interwoven with the normal English words that it just segues normally from the one to the other. These slang lyrics are hidden behind the funky beat and the singing, dancing, skipping kids, making it all sound peppy and cool, while, probably, the lyrics don’t mean that. The song was a hit for Smith and has been sampled in songs by Missy Elliott, Kylie Minogue and Madonna.
Toplining: From word-like sounds to lyrics
Back in 1981, Frankie Smith did what top-line writers, or top-liners/topliners, do these days in EDM (Electronic Dance Music) production. Topliners write or make up lyrics over a pre-made beat track. What they sing, in a sort of a creative jam session, can sound like a meaningless muddle of common phrases and words. Those vocalizations eventually get comped to sound like something meaningful. Timbaland – “Tim” – demonstrates that in his MasterClass, with a vocalist/top-liner Adrian doing it on the fly in the studio.
Top-liners don’t create a song from scratch, but rather make up the lyrics and melodies over an existing beat, base tune, or set of chords (sometimes a complete music track without vocals). But the gobbledygook they come up with might end up as meaningful lyrics, depending on whether the producer and sound engineer can find a place where they fit together. Sometimes that is literally just one word, phrase, or unusual sound, that gets developed further.
Italian gibberish from before EDM
Adriana Celentano’s unpronounceable song
However, even before there was EDM and music production software, an Italian singer called Adriano Celentano, now 84 years old, stunned Europe in 1972 with the strange song called (deep breath!): Prisencolinensinainciusol. Though the song remains popular, and now has become a meme in its own right, I just liked it the first time I heard it, way back when. The beat is really irrisistible.
Celentano took the mixing up of language a step further than just adding in a couple of words of phrases from another language: he kept the syntax and made up the phonology. He wanted the song to sound to his Italian audience as though it were sung in English spoken with an American, Elvis-Presley-drawl accent. However, the words are gibberish – he made them all up. The lyrics have typical American English sounds, or phonemes, but are not real words.
The most recognizable line in the song is: “Prisencolinensinainciusol ol rait” (all right):
Prisencolinensinainciusol In de col men seivuan Prisencolinensinainciusol ol rait Uis de seim cius nau op de seim Ol uait men in de colobos dai Trrr ciak is e maind beghin de col Bebi stei ye push yo oh Oh sandei Ai ai smai sesler Eni els so co uil piso ai In de col men seivuan Prisencolinensinainciusol ol rait
On lyrics platforms there are “translations” into English. The results are so bad they’re hilarious. In a 2012 interview on the American radio station, NPR, Celentano said that;
It was a big hit for Celentano, and is probably the song that he will be best remembered for – not so much for the weird lyrics but rather for the unvarying, driving beat, like jungle drums, the effective drop and bridge after those words, “ol rait”, the whining harmonica, and the sexy voice of his wife Claudia Mori, who solos in a chorus.
So why the fuss?
As the MD of a language teaching college explained to me this week, English words and sentences sound completely different to people from different parts of the world, and they can attach a completely different meaning to a word or phrase than someone else would do. The variations and interpretations are endless. Purists beware – there are no end to the variations and interpretations. People use whatever will make them understood and will produce the reaction that they want.
So, while musical sound is a language that is universally understood, and actually affects most people in similar ways, the lyrics of songs are processed in a different part of the brain and can be heard and interpreted completely differently, depending on the individual.
If a musician wants their music to be understood in the same way as they intended it to be understood, they have to write lyrics with words that are clear and easy to understand by the majority of their intended audience. Basically, the simpler, the better – as PSY and SUGA proved with That That.