I remember the first time I listened closely to “Thriller” and noticed all the incredible nonverbal utterances Michael Jackson makes between the regular lyrical passages, and how much those utterances affect the mood and potency of the whole experience. The variety and quality of these strange vocalizations is really interesting if you really tune in on them, although I don’t think you’re really supposed to. They operate on a more subconscious level and have just as much affect if you’re paying close attention to them or not consciously noticing them at all. But they really are quite amazing when you focus your attention on them.
Michael Jackson – Thriller
Pop music is full of examples of little nonverbal interjections punctuating traditional lyrics: the “whoas” and “ohs” of countless blues songs, the powerful screeches of James Brown, the early Beatles “Wooooo”. If we observe our own perception of these songs, we find that often these nonverbal noises devoid of all textual meaning are often the most emotionally powerful moments of those songs. Just watch one of those early Beatles concerts and look for when all the girls go the most crazy. Hearing Michael Jackson say “You try to scream/but terror takes the sound before you make it” doesn’t have near as much power as a single high-pitched guttural “GUH” that follows a few lines later.
There is certainly evidence that experiencing language activates more than just the language centers in our brains, that certain sense-oriented brain regions activate when reading or hearing the words of sensually charged ideas in the same way they would activate when in the presence of those actual objects the words refer to. This explains much of the power of poetry, literature, and song lyrics, but not these other vocal sounds that are not as strictly tied in with language. It turns out there is also evidence that this kind of mental activity takes place in response to all sorts of nonverbal stimuli as well, that performing a certain action and watching someone else perform that same action are nearly identical brain processes. It seems that in the case of music, this second phenomenon might actually be just as effective (if not more) than the first. Hearing the sharp, restrained stabs of sound from Michael Jackson’s throat makes us feel almost as restrained, trapped, and powerless as if we were in a situation ourselves where those kinds of sounds were being forced from our own throats. The power transcends language and any kind of textual meaning, yet the impact incredibly effective. Not to say that the textual component should be done away with, I think if Thriller was stripped of its traditional lyrics, it would not be nearly as successful as it is now. But I think it is also true that muting all the “DAs” and “UHs” would possibly just as negatively impact the immersiveness and power of the song. I think the same is also true of the other examples I listed above, imagine “Please, Please, Please” without the heart wrenching screams and shouts that almost outnumber the lyrics of the song, or “She Loves You” without the “Woooo”.
In rap these kind of effects fall under the slightly broader category of “ad-libs” that also include verbal statements but are often newer, more developed versions of these same kinds of effects we’ve heard for decades. Waka Flocka can be credited with the prominence of the ad-lib in rap now, but I think the most effective examples come from another Atlanta rapper.
Rich Gang – Tell ‘Em
I had the same reaction to this song that I did that first time I tuned into the secret power of “Thriller“. Young Thug’s “GAHH” makes me feel more things than most entire rap verses, even his own. I don’t think people talk about these kinds of effects as much as they do lyrics because they’re harder to pin down and rely so heavily on how and when they are delivered that it’s difficult to discuss them without totally losing the power. A lyric can be easily transcribed into text and retain much of its power, but you can see from my attempts at transliteration here that the same process is extremely ineffective for these kinds of expressions. They should be as valued and respected as lyrics are though, because in many cases they have the ability to surpass verbal expressions in weight and emotion, and the skill it takes to dream up and perform these sounds is extremely rare.