The joy of parentheses (in song titles)

Punctuation, or rather bad punctuation, is something that many people get peevish about. For some it’s the so-called grocer’s apostrophe, for others it’s commas, or the overuse of exclamation marks.

The use and misuse of parentheses (or brackets, as we tend to call them in the UK) doesn’t get talked about as much but there is one publishing category where parentheses seem to be used in a playful and wilfully arbitrary way – in song titles.

I can think of no other category where parentheses are sprinkled like confetti. They don’t tend to get used in book or play titles, where a subtitle will follow a comma, colon or semicolon.

Twelfth Night, Or What You Will (no parentheses)

And you don’t see film titles with parentheses either. Although, they might have come in handy for the 1964 black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

In writing, parentheses are used to enclose extra information or explanations which would otherwise interrupt the flow of a sentence.

And, sometimes, the use of parentheses in song titles sort of follows this rule, especially when the first line of a chorus is the bit put in brackets, such as The Rolling Stones’ (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, Jackie Wilson’s (Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher, and more recently Florence and The Machine’s Rabbit Heart (Raise It Up).

Parentheses are also used in print to enclose acronyms that will then be used to avoid writing out the full name of an organisation every time it’s mentioned (e.g. NASA). So  Michael Jackson’s PTY (Pretty Young Thing) – neatly subverts this ‘rule’.

Noel Gallagher once cheerfully admitted to the NME that he didn’t know why people used brackets in song titles but he was inspired to use them liberally – e.g. (What’s The Story?) Morning Glory and (Get Off Your) High Horse Lady.

In the end, you have to assume that songwriters use parentheses either for fun or because they can’t help being pretentious.

Some ‘fun’ examples:

You Can Make Me Dance, Sing or Anything (Even Take the Dog for a Walk, Mend a Fuse, Fold Away the Ironing Board, or Any Other Domestic Short Comings) – The Faces

Winker’s Song (Misprint) – Ivor Biggun and the Red-Nosed Burglars

(Get a) Grip (on Yourself) -The Stranglers

(I Don’t Want To Go To) Chelsea – Elvis Costello

Ever Fallen in Love (With Someone You Shouldn’t’ve) – Buzzcocks

I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That) – Meat Loaf

(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party) – Beastie Boys

Some ‘pretentious’ examples:

A track from The Flaming Lips’ album The Soft Bulletin –

What is the Light? (An untested hypothesis suggesting that the chemical [in our brains] by which we are able to experience the sensation of being in love is the same chemical that caused the “Big Bang” that was the birth of the accelerating universe)

Then there’s Frank Zappa’s album Apostrophe (‘) – the brackets here helpfully illustrating what an apostrophe looks like.

Perhaps the prize for the most pretentious use of parentheses should be awarded to the Icelandic band Sigur Rós, for their 2002 album ( ). As described in Wikipedia, the album comprises eight untitled tracks, separated by a 36-second silence.

Sigur Ros: album titled ()

Although Radiohead’s 2003 album Hail To The Thief (The Gloaming) should also be mentioned here as each track comprises a title with parenthetical subtitles, including  2+2=5 (The Lukewarm).

Of course, the line between fun and pretentious is all a matter of individual taste. However, of all the musical genres, surely Country & Western is the king of the glorious song title (with parentheses):

Mama Get The Hammer (There’s A Fly On Papa’s Head)

If You Keep Checking Up on Me (I’m Checking Out on You)

Curiously, there are some titles that you’d assume were crying out for brackets but they didn’t get used:

Get Your Tongue Outta My Mouth ‘Cause I’m Kissing You Goodbye

Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through The Goalposts Of Life

I’m Just A Bug On The Windshield Of Life

And that goes for other musical genres too. I reckon Arctic Monkeys’ Don’t Sit Down ‘Cause I’ve Moved Your Chair would look better with everything after the first three words contained in parentheses.

Brackets are still being used in song titles but not to the same extent.  Most often brackets are used to show the track is a (Remix). A quick look at the most recent Official UK singles chart (for 8 April 2012) shows that 13 of the top 40 titles included guest artists in brackets – e.g.  Goyte with the song Somebody That I Used To Know (feat. Kimbra). I guess it could get complicated if there were brackets within brackets.

Whether you deem the use of parentheses as witty or pointless, there’s no denying that they do lend an extra dimension to a song title.

So what’s your (favourite)?

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