WHOA. YEAH. A Retrospective

Hey Guys,

I gratefully accept the invitation to write for this esteemed publication. Now, I provide a salvo, if you will, a retrospective look at WHOA and YEAH as perhaps the ultimate, essential linguistic element in our popular music and culture. I hope it is enjoyable enough for you to poop on.

It has occurred to me lately that over the past calendar year we have seen a new creative renaissance for WHOA (and its cousin, OOH, which I will address later). The WHOA Renaissance in my opinion began early last year when Beyonce decided it was time to hold a musical seance with Janet Jackson to produce this dance smash:

Beyonce - Single ladies from morespace.webs.com on Vimeo.

Undoubtedly, this marks a point where the wizards behind big "P" pop music decided it was acceptable to bring back the onomatopoeia into the fold. It also is what sparks the necessity for this retrospective, as it beckons the eternal question "did 'WHOA' ever leave?".

In the Beginning - What is a WHOA? A YEAH? AN OOH?

At the outset here it is important to establish exactly what WHOA, YEAH and OOH are meant to stand for. Of the three I believe WHOA to be the most basic. WHOA is an expressive sound with no explicit meaning. That is to say I am distinguishing it clearly from the word 'wow', which when sung may sometimes sound similar but is almost always differentiated on the lyric sheet. It is a sound, not a word. OOH is very closely related to WHOA in that it is sometimes used to convey similar expressions, indeed often times WHOA and OOH are indistinguishable. It is these times where it is indistinguishable from WHOA that I will be addressing (it's other use, to which we can refer to as simply 'oh', is more of a tool of poetic apostrophe).

Now we turn to YEAH, which is a little trickier to define. YEAH undeniably carries an affirmative meaning and its use in popular music has a very particular corner. For the purposes of this retrospective, let's limit ourselves to the study of YEAH as it exists to concretely affirm the more vague implications of WHOA and OOH, as demonstrated nicely in the lead single off Jenny Lewis' newest album:

At the root of popular music there are two neatly defined uses of these expressive sounds, and it so happens that they fall neatly into styles of music that were segregated until the early 1950's. From what I can tell, the entirety of high-class continental music from the Italian renaissance through the 1930's was entirely dependent on the syllable "WHOA", and it didn't even know it. See this :57 of this clip from Verdi's Il Travatore as exhibit A:

In this example we see the simple, utilitarian necessity of WHOA in Western music. Also this in many ways shows how WHOA (and it's bastard brother OOH) did in fact predate YEAH in a musically expressive context. The utility of WHOA should be apparent, and its language universal, but it is indeed something different in the classical Western canon than it is in the African-American context to which we will now turn.

Where Pavorroti is pushed towards WHOA because there is no real discernible syllable that could more adequately achieve that impressive pitch, African-American Blues reached for WHOA to express emotions too big for the English language. WHOA became in blues the way to vocally approximate the emotive nature of their instruments (primarily the guitar). While its use was a little more reserved during the Prewar era, the Chess Records set had certainly incorporated it into what we now consider to be the canonical Blues music as evidenced by this clip from Little Walter:

Now the groundwork is laid for the confluence of the continental syllabic utility and Afro-American expressiveness better known to the young folk as Rock N' Roll.

Rock N' Roll Music - This is your Daddy's WHOA

This confluence was definitely a gradual one, it is hard to pinpoint the first recording where both uses are at hand, but I think we can get a good ballpark date. An important moment is the introduction of the classic Afro-American use of WHOA into Caucasian adaptation of Rock N' Roll, which I don't think happened any earlier than Jerry Lee Lewis' recording of "Great Balls of Fire", see the 1:25 mark of this clip:

This recording is from 1957, but it is still a classic Afro-American use of WHOA, in this case to emphasize the rollicking tempo and pitch that precedes the last verse of the song. In fact, it may not have been until the Beatles that we saw a solidified example of WHOA or OOH being blended between continental and Afro-American usage. The lead single and title track of Please Please Me (1963) is really the first time we see it all come together, the use of a WHOA YEAH to both express a certain (though perhaps at the time, unspeakable) desire attached to the ambiguous request that is the song's title as well as accommodating a pleasing, useful melodic construct. Observe:

Here is where things really get rolling. From what I can tell it took American music about a year and half to two years to really catch up from a songwriting standpoint, but one band was able to pick up WHOA, take it to new expressive heights as well as properly introducing YEAH as a standalone musical point; that band was the Kingsmen and the recording was their rendition of Richard Berry's tune 'Louie Louie' from later in 1963. Seriously, WHOA and YEAH are the two most important lyrics in this song:

It's also worth mentioning that YEAH is introduced here not quite as a standalone, but as a triptych of YEAH's. From this recording on, YEAH is established not only as an expressive syllable, but as a rhythmic vocalization as well. From 'Louie Louie' we can also being to trace WHOA and YEAH to the style of music that would become its main residence for the better part of 30 years, Hard Rock. The recklessness of the Kingsmen surely influenced the slowly burgeoning Hard Rock scene, and WHOA was along for the ride. We see in this clip from the Yardbirds, a supergroup which featured hard rock legends Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck, WHOA converging with a new 'eastern' vibe and the earliest recorded use of a fuzz box:

Whole Lotta WHOA - Hard Rock and Psychedelia

The late 60's and into the 70's Hard Rock and Psychedelia became the demonstrative champions of WHOA and YEAH. Truly this is where WHOA and YEAH reached their apex in popular music. Both the hippie set and the new fangled metal-heads took WHOA and YEAH to places it hadn't gone before and would really never go again. The distinctive lack of polish and precision lathered over well worn but well constructed blues and funk grooves lent delivered WHOA and YEAH to their home as truly interjectory expressions, appearing wherever the singer felt they should appear. From the hippie side, the true champion of WHOA and YEAH actually comes from Janis Joplin, who never admitted to using psychotropic drugs (she refferred to herself as a 'drunkadelic'), but nonetheless was a hippie hero and 'Piece of My Heart' is a canonical WHOA and YEAH song:

It was all over the place and it was sloppy, but in ways that just feel right. A balance that many after her would try, and fail at matching.

The same year, Led Zeppelin released II. While it would be two more records before they were cemented as the greatest hard rock band of all time, this record unleashed "Whole Lotta Love". The second half of this track dropped the pretenses that were behind the WHOA YEAH in "Please Please Me", understood the utility of an inflexive WHOA or OOH much the way Verdi did, and was pushed by its surroundings to a bigger, more emotive place.

There is very little that is careful about Robert Plant's vocal track on this song, yet he seems to have consumed the utility of the continental canon of WHOA and allowed it to flow naturally out of him in places that clearly mark it as Afro-American influenced. Truly, these were WHOA's and OOH's and YEAH's that you could lose yourself in. They were intended to make your head swim, and I'd say they more than achieved that goal.

Yet, Zeppelin and Joplin were meddling in a dark art of sorts. Quite quickly, this artful sloppiness got way, way out of hand and lent itself almost too easily to parody and laziness began to take over. That and there was disco. Disco nearly fucking killed WHOA and YEAH.

Part IV - The Part Where Disco Nearly Fucking Killed WHOA and YEAH

I can't say it enough, I would blame cocaine for all of this, but that would be an insult to cocaine.

Oh Thank God, Or How the Boss and the Godfather saved WHOA and YEAH

Seriously, disco was some pretty bad shit, people. ABBA? The Bee Gees? I want to kill myself and I wasn't even around then. But thank the Lord for African Americans and working class white folk from New Jersey. There were two acts that carried the torch for WHOA and YEAH through the 70's once Hard Rock went off the deep end and the disco abomination started. Those two men were James Brown and Bruce Springsteen.

For Brown, while at this time there wasn't much innovative about his WHOA and YEAH, carried the torch for the funk interpretation of WHOA and YEAH (also GOOD GOD and ALRIGHT, but I digress) throughout the decade, most prevalently releasing "Get Up... Sex Machine" in 1970 and "Get Up Offa That Thing" in 1975.

The Boss, however, was able to do something special. With the support of the E Street Band, Springsteen was able to recapture the youthful innocence of the early years of rock while incorporating a lot of the unhinged vocal stylings berthed by hard rock. The seminal example being the 1975 cut "Born to Run" at the :37, 1:25 and 3:28 marks here:

In truth, this recording is like a sun bursting out its last rays before it goes cold.

The Eighties - Where WHOA and YEAH Head to the Desert

If the late sixties and early seventies were the apex of WHOA and YEAH in popular music, the eighties represented the nadir. Glam metal gave WHOA and YEAH a pretty bad name, but to their credit they were really the only ones keeping it going. WHOA and YEAH were replaced in Pop by Michael Jackson's HEE-HEE's, and the scrubbed, squeaky clean production values of most of the Pop field didn't really allow for vocals with a lot of fat to them (and that was probably for the best). That said, some cream had to rise to the top, right?

Picking up where Led Zeppelin left off, David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen took Zeppelin's attitude to the logical extreme and WHOA and YEAH went along for the ride. DLR may be infamous for incredibly fatty, ugly, abuses to WHOA and YEAH, but those standalone vocal tracks are admittedly a little unfair. By the release of "1984" Van Halen embodied what 80's music was for most people - fun. Sure, it's vapid, essentially meaningless, indulgently silly and an almost irresponsible waste of time and money, but if you didn't spend at least an afternoon as a child rockin' along to "Panama", you never lived:

Again, WHOA and YEAH lack all art in this music, but it is nonetheless true to some basic principles of expression that were championed a decade earlier by Plant and Zeppelin.

Now it should be mentioned that underground music did not disregard WHOA and YEAH in totality. On a whole it simply regressed to its more archaic, poetic roots like the subtle apostrophe of the opening line of "Losing My Religion" by REM. It was even more prevalent in the avante-garde and African-influenced music. A great reference point for this comes in the breakdown (2:09) of the Talking Heads' "And She Was" (1985):

The odd thing about this sort of avant-garde use of WHOA or YEAH is that it pretty much disappears after these artists leave the scene, only to return again over the last year or so.


Kurt Cobain and Nirvana may have instigated the Grunge revolution, but in terms of WHOA and YEAH the resurgence in Grunge has the other two guys (Eddie Vedder and Chris Cornell) to thank for rescuing them from the vacuous, emotionless pit that was Glam Metal.

Truly this is as heavy as WHOA ever got. In its later incarnations, the Grunge WHOA frequently drowned in its own self-seriousness, but early on Pearl Jam's Ten was the kick in the pants popular music needed to remember that WHOA must not be taken lightly. The Eighties were fun and all, but WHOA can go to more places than just evocations of the coital pleasures. The 4:17 mark of the soon-to-be classic rock staple "Jeremy" proves this point:

Chris Cornell, regardless of his reputation, has a voice that was made for hard rock and grunge. I don't think he knows how to do anything else (he certainly isn't very good at pop music). That lent itself to many a great wail but for some reason, it didn't really come through on record.

I'd be remiss if I went through the history of WHOA and YEAH in the 90's if I also didn't point you to the 2:26 point of this clip:

Really this is a point where the Grunge WHOA seemed to be crossing over into rapcore, but then again, the Beastie's always straddled that line between genre's.

The nineties also marks a point where it becomes very difficult to chart WHOA and YEAH. With recording and releasing records becoming exponentially cheaper and easier, its hard to say where the trends really were or to cover all of the bases. I could dig deep into the birth of indie here, but I'm reserving that for the last section. As Grunge imploded on itself, popular music was begat first to a new strain of garage rock heralded by Weezer (who put WHOA and OOH to excellent use on "Buddy Holly"), but the lack of output over the course of the late nineties allowed their influence to be spent on emo. Much like Van Halen and Weezer, Emo bands took Pearl Jam's emotive, brooding, self-serious WHOA and YEAH and took it to its ugly conclusion. All subtelty was lost and what was left was a bunch of whining brats and power chords.

The Modern Day: Beyonce, Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear and the WHOA YEAH Resurgence

Now to my real point. In the last year or so we have seen a renaissance in WHOA and YEAH. Tracing back through history we haven't seen WHOA and YEAH in this sort of prevalence across so many styles since the mid to late sixties. And to top it off, none of it is bland and all of it is cognizant of both the utility and the emotion that can come with WHOA and YEAH.

To start with the aforementioned clip from Beyonce. In "Single Ladies" Beyonce puts WHOA OOH through a workout that coalesces the rhythmic and demonstrative emotion. She is simultaneously sassing you about not proposing and letting you know exactly how to shake your ass. It sounds simple, but putting those two together doesn't happen enough.

In underground and indie music, Fleet Foxes got the ball rolling early last year. Hey four guys who can sing really well in harmony? Thats about all you need these days. They have a way of putting an acapella WHOA right at the beginning of a song such that it punches you in face and you're immediately transported back in time to a Brueghel painting or the woods of Lothlorian, whichever your pleasure. The best example of this is the track "Ragged Wood":

But really, they put WHOA to use in a lot of different ways and none of them feel indulgent!

Consequently, the two Album of the Year competitors from this year so far are also connoisseurs of the WHOA. Grizzly Bear has gotten as close to Pet Sounds as any band has since the Beach Boys almost did that one time. The lead track "Two Weeks" relies heavily on a well built and at times circuitous WHOA pattern that is aided by Victoria LeGrande of Beach House:

Whhoooooooaaaaaa OOOOOOOOHHHHhhhhOOOOhhhh WHHHHAAAAAAAaaaaaaAAAA. Seriously guys, this is the jam.

Remember how I said that the Talking Head's knowledge of WHOA went underground? Well the Dirty Projectors dug it up! Hooray! Dave Longstreth's compositional strengths are really evident, but this record isn't nearly as great with out those lovely ladies he's recruited. The intricate, innovative WHOA's and OOH's make the lead single "Stillness is the Move" and they'll certainly be talked about for a long time:

Alright guys, that's pretty much it. The long story behind this summers totally sweeeeeet jamzzzzzz. WHOA. YEAH.



If "OHH" is indeed the bastard child of "Whoa," then I hope he wears a sideways cap and exhibits a fondness for Andrew Dice Clay: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waacof2saZw

Quilliam said...

This post just needs some recognition for being so very insane. Well done, Jim. Glad that Bruce's WHOAH was given proper mention.

  © Blogger template Newspaper by Ourblogtemplates.com 2008

Back to TOP