Do I need to spell it out for you?
There are times when we’re talking to someone and we come across a word that we don’t understand, we ask the person to spell the word for us. Sometimes, we spell out a word or words as a form of code which others within earshot shouldn’t hear. While others use acronyms because saying the phrase or sentence in full is just too darn lengthy. This holds true especially in songs. If they don’t use acronyms, they spell out the title or parts of the lyrics. It’s a catchy way to phrase the words with the music, also a clever means of creating a hook for the song. Today, we check out some of the most popular acronyms in songs and many that spell out its title or some words in the song.
We’re all familiar with the International Morse Code that utilizes dots and dashes in different signal duration sequences as encoded text characters, the most popular being the distress signal S.O.S., a coded signal for help. The code brings to mind the Swedish quartet Abba’s hit single of the same name. It also reminds us of the hit Brit trio The Police’s “Message In A Bottle” with the memorable “sendin’ out an S.O.S…” line in the song, sang over and over repeatedly, just like the code itself. Other songs that come immediately to mind are the Village People’s “YMCA,” a catchy 70’s disco hit whose underlying gayness remained embedded in its pop hookiness. Remember Ottawan’s “D.I.S.C.O.”? Or Edwin Starr’s uber-danceable “H.A.P.P.Y. Radio,” a guaranteed dancefloor filler back in its heyday.
Disco songs weren’t the only stakeholders in acronym-titled songs, so were some Post-Punk classics. British band The Fall’s “C.R.E.E.P.” was one catchy tune whose words you could hardly decipher, but the chanted acronym chorus was enough to get your head bobbing. While some songs settled on using acronyms as their titles, some had its singers spelling out its title, much like Robert Smith does on The Cure’s classic “Fire In Cairo.” The Clash turn a similar trick on the tail end of “Jimmy Jazz,” where the late Joe Strummer playfully spells out j-a-zed-zed on one of the bluesier numbers from London Calling.
Spelling out the letters in song weren’t enough for some bands, they had to chant it. The Bay City Rollers did it on their 1975 hit “Saturday Night,” where the song starts off with its now-famous S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y NIGHT intro, which added so much to its teen idol appeal. Spelling wasn’t reserved just for the title nor the chorus. Some singers, like Scotsman Roddy Frame of Aztec Camera, chose to spell out a key word (“p-e-r-s-p-e-c-t-i-v-e..”) instead from his 1988 ballad “How Men Are,” giving the otherwise staid slow song some dimension.
But what, you may ask, are some of the more clever ways that singers and songwriters used spelling out words or acronyms? Stating the obvious, our go-to song would be The Beatles’ “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds,” a song that has long been suspected to contain the secret acronym LSD. Some other songs don’t spell the title or the song’s main character but the words that rhyme with them, like in The Kinks classic “Lola.” Singer Ray Davies doesn’t spell out “Lola,” but its rhyme, “c-o-l-a cola..” to great effect. An equally creative spell song belongs to Pat Wilson. “B-o-p-g-i-r-l” is so catchy, its infectious spelling makes the bouncy “Bop Girl” simply irresistible.
Fast forward to the not-so distant present, Dua Lipa had a risqué hit with her acronym-titled “IDGAF.” Just use your imagination for this one. Speaking of which, have there been similarly taboo themed songs in the past? You betcha. Try Grand Funk Railroad’s “T.N.U.C.” or Cream’s “NSU.” The former requires equal use of imagination, as does the latter, which in medical terms, is an STD.
There are also the tame and the wild, when it comes down to it. The piano half of Steely Dan, Donald Fagen’s 1982 hit “I.G.Y.” actually stood for International Geophysical Year, a song that related the kind of life baby boomers could look forward to, where everyone would be eternally free and eternally young. The late folk singer Harry Chapin had a song about a radio station, “W.O.L.D.”
Speaking of radio stations, the theme from the hit TV sitcom about a radio station “WKRP In Cincinnati” by Steve Carlisle was a hit in its own right. As for the wilder bunch, there was the Sex Pistols’ tirade about EMI, the record label they promptly signed with after a swift deal with A&M records went sour. For me, though, the catchiest a band has ever utilized spelling in a song goes to Canadian rock band April Wine. Their song “If You See Kay” takes the cake. Again, closer scrutiny reveals the song’s playful true intent.
There are many more similar songs out there, but we’ll leave the rest for you to discover on your own. After all, that’s part of the beauty of music. The discovery and appreciation that goes along with it. It makes the experience much more pleasurable and priceless.