Here's the meaning behind 12 catchy songs with completely nonsense lyrics
Discover what it means to sing these doo wah ditty ditties.
Image: Disney–ABC Domestic Television
It's one thing to hear a poetic lyric and wonder to oneself, "But what does it really mean?" It's quite another to listen to a singer belting out nonsense lyrics, where the confusion is much more genuine. In both cases, though, a song can end up reading completely meaningless and still become a giant, huge hit. These are the songs that definitively prove that point.
In the history of music, there are plenty of "Oh-oh-ohs" and "Ahhhs" to be heard, the sweet sounds singers make to hold a sentimental note. The earliest folk songs are often best hummed, their melodies oftentimes more significant than the words that go with them. Later on, doo-wop shook up that spirit and added some flavor, with bands like The Edsels harmonizing angelically over words like "Rama Lama Ding Dong" in the 1950s. Then girl groups of the 1960s kept this tradition going with hits like The Crystals' "Da Doo Ron Ron." It seems no matter how music evolves, there's always some artist, struggling to find the right words or else looking to make up a new phrase that helps his or her song stand out.
By now, every genre of music has sampled this long-time habit of spouting nonsense lyrics. Here, we go through some of our very favorites and attempt to explain the meaning behind the most befuddling choruses that for years have inspired the world's most curious singalongs.
1. The Police - "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da" (1980)
Some songwriters admit they made up their nonsense lyrics on the spot. Not Sting. He intentionally wrote this song because he wanted to make a statement. "People love simple songs" – at least that's what Sting wanted his single to say. Instead, many listeners insisted, much to his frustration, that the song just reminded them of a baby chattering.
2. Manfred Mann - "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" (1964)
“Do Wah Diddy Diddy” became a hit in 1964 when British band Manfred Mann covered it. Many many years later when the band reunited, singer Paul Jones confessed he finally looked at the actual sheet music and realized a couple decades too late the lyrics were supposed to be “Do Wah Diddy Diddy DOWN Diddy Do,” not “dum diddy do,” as we’re all used to singing. Jones said that while the lyrics may not have meaning, they do uphold a long tradition of British folk songs in inventing words to convey a feeling, such as “With a hey, and a ho, and a hey-nonnyno!”
3. The Dixie Cups - "Iko Iko" (1965)
“Iko Iko” has been covered by many, but the great girl group The Dixie Cups made it famous in 1965. A few years later, "Sugar Boy” James Crawford sued the group due to similarities between their song and his, “Jock-A-Mo.” The lawsuit was settled by splitting the credit among them. As for what “Iko Iko” means, Crawford has said it refers to a victory chant repeated at parades for Mardi Gras in New Orleans.
4. The Beatles - "Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da" (1968)
By 1968, Paul McCartney, like everyone else in England, was bit by the reggae bug. The Jamaican vibes had travelled overseas, and McCartney wanted to write a song that echoed its influence on him. At the same time, the Beatle had befriended a Nigerian conga player named Jimmy Scott-Emuakpor, whose favorite expression at the time was “ob-la-di, ob-la-da, life goes on, brah.” Feel free to sing it that way next time you hear the familiar tune.
5. Phil Collins - "Sussudio" (1985)
“Sussudio” is an example of a singer’s substituted lyrics accidentally sticking. When Phil Collins wrote the song, he was just goofing off with a drum machine, and he simply sang those random sounds over it. Unable to later find real words that fit with the flow and theme of the song, his improvised lyrics became a chorus nobody really knew why they were singing.
6. Trio - "Da Da Da" (1982)
The full title of this song is a super-crazy mouthful: “Da Da Da (I Don’t Love You You Don’t Love Me Aha Aha Aha).” But the way it was conceived was due to even more artists in search of simplicity. Trio as a band was dedicated to stripping back their songs so they were structured as practically as possible. So while this song may seem extremely repetitive, just know it’s that way by careful da-da-design.
7. The Crystals - "Da Doo Ron Ron" (1963)
This hit song was written by Jeff Barry (who also wrote "Do Wah Diddy Diddy"), Ellie Greenwich (of “Leader of the Pack" fame) and the legendary Phil Spector. It was made famous by The Crystals in 1963, then again by Shaun Cassidy in 1977. Like Collins’ hit, the nonsense lyrics here were sung at first as placeholder lines until they could finish up the lyrics. It was Spector who loved them and insisted they remain gibberish, believing any attempt to rewrite the lyrics would take away from the song’s simple story about a girl who meets a boy (named Bill and her heart stood still).
8. The Edsels - "Rama Lama Ding Dong" (1961)
“Rama Lama Ding Dong” came about in the era of doo-wop, which sparked so many of the nonsense refrains we love to sing along with. It was released by The Edsels and remains their biggest hit, influencing the early ‘60s hit “Who Put the Bomp,” as well as the hit 1970s movie Grease, referenced in “We Go Together.”
9. ABBA - "Dum Dum Diddle" (1976)
Like “Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da” and “Iko Iko,” the insanely popular ABBA hit “Dum Dum Diddle” takes inspiration from folk songs, but really it’s the exclusively ABBA-ness of ABBA that helped this song take off. In subject matter, it shares a lot with the Jean Shepard 1964 country hit “Second Fiddle (To an Old Guitar),” but that’s about the sum of what the songs have in common.
10. Piero Umiliani - "Mah Nà Mah Nà" (1968)
Many remember this catchy song thanks to the pink Muppets who sang it on the first episode of The Muppet Show, but it’s actually written by Italian composer Piero Umiliani. The song was his successful take on scatting and part of an exercise to write a song with no real words in it.
11. Roger Miller - "Do-Wacka-Do" (1965)
By 1965, Roger Miller had already proven he was “King of the Road” and he’d gotten us to get pretty goofy singing songs like “Chug-a-Lug” and “Dang Me.” His silliest number, though, came that year in “Do-Wacka-Do.” Surprisingly, it’s the first song on our list that actually has some semblance of logic to it. The way Miller tells it, the whole song is about envying someone who’s “doing well” and wishing you could trade places with them and do like they do. That’s how Miller got to “Do-Wacka-Do.” It’s a variant of “do like I do.”
12. Gilbert O'Sullivan - "Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day" (1972)
Seven years after Miller’s wacky country hit tapped our toes, Irish songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan charted with the similar-sounding “Ooh-Wakka-Doo-Wakka-Day.” There’s not a ton of info out there on this one, so if you have a theory as to what these lyrics mean, we’re sure it’s as good as ours!
See also: Can you match the one hit wonder to the correct decade?
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