Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Ubiquity of the Monosyllabic Affirmative in Popular Song
By Danny Lindsay
Consensus is unanimous across English dictionaries that yeah is the informal pronunciation and spelling of yes. Stuffier tomes consider yeah a slang word, but I remain unconvinced that a word so old and so universal deserves a vulgar designation. The Oxford English Dictionary places the etymological origin of yeah at 1900. It has been around far longer than other vulgarisms now considered legitimate, such as booze and slacker and cool. Surely, by now, yeah is it’s own word.
Informal? Yeah. Slang? Nah.
Yeah is the second most important word in the English language (no being the first). Yeah is generous, while no is abstemious. Yeah is invitational and inclusive. No is an absolute terminus of abnegation. Yeah means yes. No means no (which is why it is so important). No establishes and enforces limits, as in: “No, you can’t touch me”. No is essentialist as in: “No human can breathe in outer space”. No prompts us to remember our responsibilities as in “No, I can’t go to the park because I have homework.” But despite the indispensable utility of no in its ability to set terms of social contact, the word simply can’t compete with yeah in the aural arena, particularly in the world of popular song. This isn’t to say there aren’t any good no songs (2 Unlimited, anyone? That irresistible first Destiny’s Child single?). But no simply lacks the phonetic freight and malleability of its more musical sibling.
This musing will focus chiefly on the two most common uses of yeah in pop music and its application as either:
1) a cipher, or code word that can convey an astonishing range of emotions, such as excitement, happiness, melancholy, bitterness, wistful nostalgia, etc.
2) a meaningless placeholder that is used to simply add some vocal personality to a given part of a song
Yeah can be silly. But yeah can also be sublime. In either case, yeah is a godsend for stumped lyricists who wish to convey a feeling but lack the emotive vocabulary to do so. So they turn to yeah. Yeah can sound triumphant. But yeah can also sound savage or primitive. The word almost seems to be custom-fit for the vulgar vocal ejaculations that characterize most pop music. Theodore Dresier, a man who himself struggled mightily with language, once wrote: “How true it is that words are but the vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes.”
Yeah. What Theodore said. Describing “inaudible feelings” is one of the many purposes yeah was built for. It can also say what cannot be said. This article is not exhaustive and in many glaring ways betrays my own biases towards guitar-based music (though the sheer mutability of yeah guarantees its presence in other genres that could and should be explored by other writers). Yeah is calculated, not casual. Yeah isn’t frivolous, and though there is sometimes a gulf between its intended and actual effects, it always carries the potential to dramatically alter the mood and attitude of a song.
“Yeah” is often employed as a means to enter a chorus from a verse. Depending on the listener, yeah can be emotionally flippant or deeply meaningful. This yeah falls somewhere in the middle. It’s not a heartfelt plea, but I feel like Tom Petty means it here. I believe he’s truly tired of waiting. He sounds haggard, but hopeful. Weary, yet cautiously optimistic. See if you don’t think so. LISTEN
Bryan Adams has carved an entire career out of singing blatantly saccharine teenage love songs. His trademark gravelly delivery conveys the ever passing moment, the irrevocability of now. The degree to which you are moved by the following yeah is directly proportionate to how sympathetic you are toward his blandly anthemic rock, and also how sympathetic you are to the fact that his acne-scarred face suggests an adolescence spent entirely within his bedroom, which is the exact opposite of what he usually sings about. LISTEN
As with Bryan Adams, this yeah is either plaintive or annoying depending on how you feel about Courtney Love (and how you feel about her now, not how you may have felt in 1994). If you must know, I pitch my tent firmly within the support camp. I support Court. I love Love. Her exaggerated lilt on the “a” vowel conveys a particular kind of late-night jadedness. Her smokers rasp and casual delivery is, for me, more effective than the infamous line “I want to be the girl with the most cake” that appears later in the song. This “yeah” encapsulates the kind of snarling cynicism Love was known for, while also sounding strangely pretty. LISTEN
For a rock star who dresses like a street urchin and who may hold the distinction of enjoying the most privileged childhood of all-time, The Strokes’ Julian Casablancas is actually a criminally underrated lyricist. “The hateful things you think you want to say/time will turn them into jokes” is a very fine couplet. Worthy of Dylan. But it works even better with a glib, emphatic “yep” tacked onto the end. Yep is not yeah, but it’s close enough to warrant mention. LISTEN
Doris Troy uses “yeah” for emphasis and a bit of sass. Yeah yeah yeah she was wrong.
This is my favourite yeah of all time. In November 1969, miraculously gifted session vocalist Merry Clayton joined the merely competent Rolling Stones to provide some sonic personality to the chorus of their Vietnam-era stomper “Gimme Shelter”. The song’s refrain is roundly acknowledged as being about the brutality of war: “rape/murder/it’s just a shot away”. Midway though the song, on the word “murder”, Clayton’s voice cracks. It is arguably the greatest voice-crack in the history of recorded music, but Clayton stops for a brief second. One can sense her hesitation. Should she stop the take? Should she keep going? Though he lacks Merry Clayton’s stylistic muscle, Mick Jagger knew a good thing when he heard it, and so shouted “yeah!” into the vocal booth for encouragement. Clayton soldiered through, ending the bar with a sultry declining vocal run on the word, you guessed it, yeah. It’s a remarkably human exchange, and perhaps a necessary bit of levity in a song about the darker nature of humankind. LISTEN
This is a song about a guy who promises to come home from his travels as long as his girlfriend has a candle burning in the window. For all of it’s problematic gender assumptions (man goes out, woman stays home), I always got the sense that the nameless girlfriend said “screw you, buddy” and blew the wick on purpose. John Fogerty’s howl at the end sounds a little too primal for a man who has come home. I feel he’s angrily roaming the streets after realizing the locks have been changed on him, trying to revel in his freedom but actually kicking himself for abandoning a good woman. I may be wrong, but this isn’t just a placeholder yeah. One can hear the emotion behind it. LISTEN
Like everyone else who has heard this song, I initially assumed it was Sting singing it. The resemblance isn’t just uncanny, it’s frightening. So much so that it may as well be Sting singing the song. From the sandpaper grain of the voice to the spot-on accent, I have never heard someone sound more like Sting than the singer in this now-forgotten English rock band The Outfield. But I can forgive him his blatantly imitative voice because, if I may use a baseball metaphor inspired by the group’s name, this song is a grand slam. It contains one of the catchiest choruses of the 1980s. If you listen to the whole clip you will find yourself humming the song three days later. It is undeniably cheesy but it is also undeniable. I have yet to meet someone strong enough to resist it. I recommend hearing the whole thing (for there are other yeahs throughout), but I’ve started you toward the end at the last yeah because it’s the most poignant. It’s almost a meta-yeah. It’s a yeah that seems to refer to itself. The band’s triumph is palpable when you hear this song; they knew damn well they had written a smash hit, and this final yeah recognizes and celebrates that fact while also regretting it, for they likely knew they’d never again hit a home run like this one. And as the song plays itself out (using the overlong fadeout that songs from the 1980s seem to have been contractually obliged to employ), Sting’s identical voice twin shouts a glorious “yeah” as he rounds third base and heads for home. The day belonged to The Outfield. LISTEN
Here, The Offspring’s Dexter Holland chants the word to emphasize and affirm the frenetic, anti-establishment punk ethos expressed throughout the song. It’s difficult to imagine the tune packing the same energetic punch if “yeah” were replaced with “no” or “la” or “dee.” LISTEN
Genre-hopping parodists Ween employ a nasally yeah to humorously lampoon the cocaine-fuelled vocal histrionics of The Guess Who’s Burton Cummings. This song is not to be taken seriously, but the Cummings impression is uncanny.
Marcy Playground use “yeah” to emphasize the cool slacker vibe that bubbles beneath this acoustic dirge. LISTEN
This one is perplexing. Maybe nobody told Adam Duritz the song was over. He does sound tortured, though, so perhaps he was expelling all that was left of his churning emotions into a bizarre, a cappella performance after his band stopped playing. I know he’s trying to get the listener to feel something, but all I feel is alienated and alarmed. See what you think. LISTEN
That’s all folks, for yeahs that pack poignant punches (or try). We’ve now reached the second section of the essay where yeah works as a placeholder or vocal accessory, something that adds some sonic personality to a song without actually saying anything. For example, I can think of no other reason for this yeah to be here other than to say “yes, the song has now started.” LISTEN
Yeah spread through the 1990s like water through a flood plain. Here’s the same band an album later, with Chris Cornell sounding a little more wistful, yet still emotionally hollow. LISTEN
While trying to write lyrics for “Lithium”, I think Kurt Cobain grew tired of defining a generation and just needed to buy a vowel (or ten). LISTEN
As with the Nirvana tune, I can’t think of a reason other than laziness for this chorus. Which is fine. I don’t need Faulknerian insights from my Irish pub bands, do you? LISTEN
Cobain’s pal Michael Stipe can’t even pretend to sound enthused to sing this clunker by REM. I elect it for most bored sounding yeah of the decade.LISTEN
Though this one from Bono comes close. Utterly banal. LISTEN
How about some yeah from the pop world? Britney can start the party. LISTEN
Mandy Moore can join the party. LISTEN
They may have been critical darlings, but even The Beatles weren’t above such laziness. LISTEN
This grating rocker sounds like it could be a Fatboy Slim b-side. I remember hearing it everywhere in the 90s, like a more insidious “Macarena.” LISTEN
Perhaps due to a superstitious phobia of the number thirteen, obscure desert rockers Kyuss needed a fourteenth track for their second album. This “song”, entitled “Yeah”, is the virtual definition of a filler track. LISTEN
No group is more emblematic of the testosterone-laden 90s male guttural yeah than Collective Soul. LISTEN
Collective Soul again. Fair warning: This “yeah” is impossibly bad. This yeah is the primary reason I am writing this essay. It deserves a category unto itself. I sincerely cannot auralize (like visualizing, but with one’s ears) a circumstance in which this yeah could ever sound good. It is an abomination. It is an affront to good taste. Not only is it repeated eight times over the course of the song, it just sounds irredeemably wrong. It sounds hopelessly out of context. There is some kind of distorted filter on the vocal track (but only on the “yeah” track), making it sound like some guy with marbles in his mouth was standing on the other side of the studio door during tracking, warbling “yeah”. This song came out in 2004 and I have spent the past ten years trying to figure out how any self-respecting record engineer, band, or producer could possibly think this yeah was a good idea. I don’t think I can overstate the impressive awfulness of this one. I envy you your first time hearing it, an experience I can never have again. LISTEN
This yeah is almost, almost as baffling as the last one, a turgid call and response between two garbled male voices. Again, what were they thinking? In what sonic situation would this sound good? LISTEN
As mentioned above, there was a baffling tendency in the 1990s for male singers to turn any vowel into a “eah” sound. Of course, I would never claim to be the first person to notice this. As I was working on this essay, a friend of mine sent me the following clip. For all it’s frequently offensive and/or hamfisted humour, Family Guy actually gets this one right. LISTEN
Like Kurt Cobain, indie rockers The Golden Dogs saw fit to make yeah the sole lyric in their chorus. They even made yeah the song title, with an exclamation mark for emphasis, probably for lack of a better idea. LISTEN
Chris Brown follows suit. LISTEN
Nas with Damian Marley uses yeah to psych himself up for his verse. Each “yeah” here is a code word for “Yes, I like this vibe.” LISTEN
Liam Gallagher sounds like he quite digs the vibe of this rave-up from Oasis. He rarely hits notes this high. Note how unusually low he is mixed, as if just another instrument. Yeah. He too is going with the vibe.
I can’t be certain, but the Flaming Lips may be making fun of the ubiquity of the yeah song here. The saccharine sweetness of the vocals suggests as much. I may be wrong, but I get the sense that this song is deliberately irritating. LISTEN
It’s frustrating when you realize someone isn’t trying hard enough to deserve your attention. I had a partner once who called this “yeah” the most irritating, unconvincing thing she’d ever heard. To be fair, the entire song is lightweight, both emotionally and sonically, but this yeah manages to be both cloying and utterly unconvincing. LISTEN
And as if that weren’t bad enough, there’s a pair of equally gutless yeahs later in the same song. LISTEN
I should stop now. As much as I would love to do a book-length study of yeah, the list would still have to end somewhere. From my list, I omitted songs by the Barenaked Ladies, OutKast, My Morning Jacket, Paul McCartney, and Led Zeppelin, among others, but I heartily encourage you to seek out your own yeahs.
Yeah is so much more than a cruder yes. Unlike “woah” or “no” or “la” or “da”, yeah is endowed with an almost miraculous ability to transcend time and genre. Yeah makes itself generously available for both utilitarian and emotional purposes, which grants it unique status among monosyllabic vocal placeholders in popular music. The sheer ubiquity of this convenient and chameleonic word is a testament to the inadequacy of language, because – though it may sound trite – language can sometimes fail us and words aren’t always enough. Admittedly, yeah is a word, but it doesn’t always mean yes.
With the possible exception of “Yeah” by Kyuss, songs are densely packed with meaning and warrant close listening. So listen closely the next time you hear a yeah (and believe me, it won’t take long). Investigate the yeah and mine it for its emotional or sonic meaning, if indeed such meaning is there. If no meaning is there, the yeah is yours to say no to. It’s also yours to nod along to, as if in silent agreement with the chords and contours of song.
Danny Lindsay is a writer and musician from Toronto Ontario. His written works have appeared in NOW Magazine, The Gargoyle and Feathertale, with an upcoming piece in Weijia Quarterly. He is is currently working on his Master’s thesis in English Literature at the University of Waterloo.