Arcade Fire, Singing in Unison, and the Wordless Refrain


Through the years, the world of music has delivered immeasurable lines of lyrical greatness. If I asked someone to hum “Hallelujah,” they’d know right away that “it goes like this/The fourth, the fifth/The minor fall, the major lift.” Others like it exist. “You may say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one.” Inspiring. “One life, but we’re not the same/We get to carry each other.” Brings me to tears. “Whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh.” Tugs right at the heartstrings, that one, second only to the grandness of “Hey-ey-ey,” or maybe “Oooh-oooh-oooh.” All excellent contributions.

Well, if you hear them, I mean. If you can experience them, even better. And if you can sing along, then you may have a stake in a perfect moment within the whole of human existence.

In 2008, Coldplay frontman Chris Martin named Arcade Fire and Sigur Rós the best bands in the world. Indeed, both groups remain to this day two of the most influential forces in music, each of them—I’d argue—the modern-day deliverers of the wordless choruses in the similar case of “Hey Jude” or the end of “Born to Run.”

Few 20-somethings with an interest in modern music, for example, might be able to deny the legend of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up” (which celebrated its 10th birthday last week, thus inspiring this blog) and the reemergence of the “Whoa-oh” as we know it, necessitating huge choruses of perhaps the most orchestral sing-along in pop music:

Sigur Rós takes the concept even further, summoning a choir to join in on the beautiful sounds of what begin as Icelandic lyrics, but then transcend into a make-believe language of frontman Jónsi’s own emotional whims (I suppose someone must understand the Icelandic language to receive that full effect, but the feeling doesn’t change). Like Arcade Fire’s most recognizable song, the audience doesn’t need to know any lyrics to participate. Although I admit… singing along to Sigur Rós requires quite the honed voice box:

Attending concerts, like seeing movies in the theatre, requires a unique combination of social states. That is, their purpose generally benefits from large crowds, and yet their impact depends on the individual—all individuals feeling the same thing, but for different reasons, without any clues usually granted by conversation or gesture. One could argue, even, that the concert (or the choir), where people sing in unison, takes highest honors as the most unifying experience within the spectrum of the arts.

Some studies suggest that singing together synchronizes heartbeats, muscular movement, and neural activities in the choir of voices. Hearing a pleasant chord can alert dopamine to flood to the part of the brain associated with addiction, reward, and motivation, and send physical chills down people’s spines. Pretty much any musical genre can cause these reactions, but something about the choral refrain—devoid of lyrics in favor of a universal exclamation encompassing pain and joy simultaneously—seems to be a favorite even among visual artists, particularly the category of film trailers, when a lasting impression matters more than anything.

Spike Jonze’s tragically underrated Where the Wild Things Are and its trailer, for example, use Arcade Fire’s aforementioned “Wake Up” as a way to rally the fear, emotion, and energy present in the song’s overall theme of growing up. Coming of age, after all, can be something of a group effort, linking every person who ever lived across all cultures, countries, and imaginations.

The film version of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty also produces a similar, sweeping effect via José Gonzáles’ “Whoa-oh-oh”s in “Step Out” to emote the same themes about the journey to reconcile growing pains, even as an adult.

Recently, the trailer for the sports film When the Game Stands Tall employs the “Whoa-oh” portion of Tim Mayers’ “Hills to Climb” to get the audience excited.

Mumford and Sons may have even built a career around the success of “Little Lion Man” and its choral “Hah”s, and years later saw its rebirth as the “Oh”s in Phillip Phillips’ “Home”.

Similar as these themes are, I can’t ignore their testament to the universal cry—to the almost paradoxical communal liberty of singing in unison to language-less words. And if this should be the type of lasting impression we celebrate ten more years down the line, and if a world divided can be brought together by these battle cries in all their sublimity of joy and sorrow, then I think, perhaps, we might finally find the words to say.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s