On Transcribing the Lyrics to Pop Songs


Our Correspondents

A still from “Prisencolinensinainciusol”

Still from Adriano Celentano’s music video for “Prisencolinensinainciusol.”

You really can’t tell what a song is going to look like until you type it, and that fact itself is interesting to me. When you listen to a song, for instance, you don’t know whether its “stanzas” are in quatrains or tercets or what. The stanzas and line breaks you install when you type the lyrics simply were not there before you typed them. They were not in your head, and they were not really in the song either. 

You discover all kinds of things. For example, I recently typed up the words to Cream’s “White Room” (1968). Before doing that, I didn’t know that the song does not rhyme. If someone had asked me if it rhymed, I would’ve had to sing it to find out. It somehow seems like it rhymes? But how is that possible.

I go around telling people that 99 percent of songs rhyme. Is that true? It might not be. Maybe songs all seem like they rhyme, but when you actually check … ? 

Rick James’s “Super Freak” (1981) has just a little dab of semi-rhyme (freak | magazines | meet; and, of course, ménage à trois | oo-la-la!). But mostly it does not rhyme. Why did I not notice this before typing out the lyrics? (Again, I want to say the song “seems” like it rhymes. It appears that the thing I call the rhyme effect does not actually require rhyme.)

It is pleasant, sometimes, to transcribe songs simply for the sake of the difficulty. I recently got down all the words to Willi One Blood’s “Whiney Whiney,” from the sound track to Dumb and Dumber (1994). You wouldn’t know the song from the movie; you have to have the sound track. So nobody knows what I’m talking about.

The song doesn’t seem to admit of transcription, because it has all these machine-gun bursts of superheated, fake-Caribbean spangablasm. Even so, I think I got it. I submitted my version of the lyrics to some lyrics-finder website and, following peer review, I got a personal e-mail informing me that my work was accepted. Click on the hyperlink above and check the comment thread.

My masterpiece, however, is my Anglophone transcript of “Prisencolinensinainciusol.” It took hours to make, and it really is a useful piece of work. The song, cooked up by Adriano Celentano in 1972, is composed entirely of words that belong to no language at all, but which sounded to Celentano like English as it was sung in the American dance music of the period. Heavy dance music. And he was not wrong; the song does sound like English. And, more importantly, it’s a good song. One chord, no content. 

Check it out for yourself. Click on the link above, and sing along …



     You de kohl mayn saywum
     all right

[music starts]

We d’same t’choose now 
hole beel d’same in a hole-rate 
maybe is de cuddle balls die

chanz de my b’gee-d’kohl
baby sustay yeah been jo whoa

We d’same t’choose now 
whole beel d’same in a hole-rate 
maybe is de cuddle balls die

Whether s’sane aintchu de coffee steen 
you never truvva nuvva jerseyguhl 
baby j’jam

You de comin’ up choose 
no bife f’not soul 
hobo-hobo dis gettin’ louda kubba no time

Oh but divisistan 
lie d’shoes d’gubbaman 
you because tribimaht call dovráy d’girls

Oh sanday …

     Ay ay zmai sezlin
     anyghels so gowin beezo

     You de kohl mayn saywum
all right

     [metallic female voice:]

     Ay ay zmine senflint
     anygoals so gowin beezo

all right

Well I s’no schemin’ aina given the sin 
t’line t’choozin-oava-jove ho hadda good time 
like faze t’go

We d’sen in d’sen 
in d’shoes to gobbo ben 
is d’two wullaguys they love a flow 
well de guy just ate

     Ay ay smai chenslet
     anyhills so gowin beezo

     You d’collin may de saywum
     all right

You doice y’know 
billy zeekee hollomun dohl 
es baby d’lie s’like bikme ohl

     Ay ay zmai senflen
     anyghesso gowin beezo

     You de kohl mayn d’saywum
     all right

You doice y’nop 
billy zeekee hollomun dohl 
es baby-de-lak s’lak blikme ohl

Anthony Madrid lives in Chicago. His poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2013Boston Review, Fence, Harvard Review, Lana Turner, LIT, and Poetry. His first book is called I Am Your Slave Now Do What I Say (Canarium Books, 2012). He is a correspondent for the Daily.