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Emily Petermann

Abstract

Though the term ‘nonsense’ in a literary context is most often used for a narrowly defined genre with origins in the work of nineteenth-century English writers Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, it is fruitful to consider it instead as a set of often ludic techniques for subverting the familiar common-sense order – from wordplay to inversions on the level of content to non-sequiturs, unexpected juxtapositions, and other manipulations of expectations – that may occur in a wide range of genres and media, from theater of the absurd to surrealist film, painting, and music.

In multimedial contexts, an important part of that meaning-making process is the interaction between media. The nonsense of a song characterized by “surrealistic absurdism” (Ellis 2008: 211) may lie primarily in the lyrics, in the music, in the images of the music video, or especially in contradictions between these medial components. The present paper examines nonsense in all three medial components of a music video, focusing on “Birdhouse in Your Soul” by the alternative rock band They Might Be Giants. Beginning with an analysis of nonsense strategies in the song lyrics (nonce words, incongruous situations, lack of closure), it asks to what extent parallel strategies can be found in the music (abrupt key changes, unexpected instrumentation, stylistic juxtapositions), and in the video (surrealistic imagery, disjunctive editing), as well as in their interaction.