In turning to the rainbow as a metaphor for happiness, [lyricist Yip] Harburg also drew on decades of American songs. In 1918, a minor Broadway show, Oh, Look!, gave the world a major tune, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows”, one of the most popular of its day. (Its closing lyric runs, “I’m always chasing rainbows./ Waiting to find a little bluebird in vain.”) Ten years later, Billy Rose and David Dreyer contrived a popular hit, “There’s a Rainbow Around My Shoulder”....But now aren't you thinking of exceptions? I immediately thought of Lesley Gore singing "Sunshine, Lollipops and Rainbows" ("Everything that's wonderful is what I feel when we're together"). And for "bluebird"... come on, I feel sorry for Stephen Stills that Maslon threw in the part about "bluebird":
Why would Yip Harburg, a man of considerable imagination, take yet another drink from such an oft-dipped well? Part of it was his conviction that the rainbow image would be useful for the rest of the picture.... Also, Harburg must have intuited that such an image would have seemed ridiculous and corny if were sung by, say, a Manhattan cigarette girl singing on a penthouse balcony. But for an untutored farm girl from Kansas, living in some indeterminate point early in the 20th century, the very predictability of the rainbow image speaks to her old-fashioned values and lack of pretense....
[The song] is a seminal influence on the imagination of impressionable youths to this day, truly a brilliantly crafted song, with Arlen’s achingly adult melody set off by Harburg’s sophisticated use of childlike simplicity. Rarely has such a juxtaposition yielded such a felicitous result. Harburg’s lyrics are so successful, in fact, that they essentially demobilized the words “rainbow” and “bluebird” from serious use in popular song forever after. (The two exceptions, ironically, are Harburg’s own “Look to the Rainbow” from Finian’s Rainbow and Arlen’s collaborator, Johnny Mercer’s, use of “rainbow’s end” in “Moon River.”)
Listen to my bluebird laugh.Somehow I don't feel sorry for Paul McCartney ("I'm a bluebird, I'm a bluebird, I'm a bluebird, I'm a bluebird, Yeah, yeah, yeah"). I don't think he was really even trying there, and besides, he's demobilized "blackbird."
She can't tell you why.
Deep within her heart, you see,
She knows only crying.
Yet copying the Stills' lyrics, I see that it is obvious that the lyrics without the music don't make much of an impression at all. Perhaps it's not -- after all -- a "serious use" of the word.
So, what songs have used a particular word in such a way as to take it off the list of words a serious lyricist can use? (Do we still have such people?) What does it take to demobilize a word?
Perhaps sometimes this happens only within a particular type of music. Can I think of a good example of that? Betraying my age once again, I think of the mid-60s word "groovy," which spiked in popularity and then became unusable. In 1966, there was "A Groovy Kind of Love" (which was 34 on the Billboard 100 that year -- that great year). When that song came out "groovy" was nearly unknown slang (at least in the U.S.). The following year there was "The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin' Groovy)," the Paul Simon song that was a hit by Harper's Bizarre. It's 98 on the Billboard 100 for that year. And, the same year, there's also "Groovin'" by the Young Rascals (11th). When these songs were hits, "groovy" had become a word that no one would actually use in conversation. You might hear it on a TV show, but it would be embarrassing to say it unless you clearly conveyed that you were making fun of the word. But this is a big digression, because no song lyric killed "groovy." "Groovy" was killed by its own sudden, extreme popularity.
So back to the real question. Can you think of a word that is used so decisively well in a song as to remove if from a good lyricist's vocabulary?
The article about "Over the Rainbow" raises a second issue: "it’s the only adult song in the popular canon to be sung by a child." Is it?
(Here's the recent example of a 6-year-old singing the song -- with the audience melting like lemon drops. And here's Katharine McPhee singing the song to great acclaim on "American Idol." I'm on record hating it, by the way.)