I've been into snotty looseleaf tea for a while now, but last night I wasn't feeling so great and the Lipton herbal mango in the back of the cabinet looked like a possible good idea. As I was putting the teabag in the water, the word "Lipton" on the tag kicked off an involuntary musical number in my head. This was different from the phenomenon of getting a song "stuck" in your head; it was a memory bomb that went off so quickly and resoundingly that I was left stunned and didn't realize until a few minutes later that I was humming and robotically piecing together words to a song I had not heard or sung in more than ten years.
It was "The Billboard Song," a summer camp staple. Doing a quick Google search has informed me of the fact that this song has a great number of variations, though the basic idea (and, I'm assuming the melody) is the same. This is the one, as best as I can remember, that I learned at Girl Scout camp:
I was walking down the highway, on a dark and dreary day,
I came upon a billboard, and much to my dismay,
The words were torn and tattered, from the storm the night before,
The wind and rain had done its work and this is what I saw:
Smoke Coca-Cola cigarettes
Chew Wrigley Spearmint beer
Ken-L-Ration dog food
Makes your complexion clear
Simonize your baby
With a Hershey candy bar
And Texaco's the beauty cream
That's used by all the stars!
So take your next vacation
In a brand-new Frigidaire
Learn to play the piano
In your winter underwear
Doctors say that babies
Should smoke until they're three
And people over 65
Should bathe in Lipton tea!
Now, I remembered this just about word for word, though I did need to jar my memory a bit with the first billboard stanza, and the only part I'm unsure about is "Texaco." I think I never quite knew what the word was to begin with, probably because there were no Texaco stations in the area where I grew up. In any case, though, it was definitely a struggle to remember the intro past the second line. There is also another little bit between the two billboard parts, but I didn't bother to put it in because it's missing in some versions anyway and I didn't have the faintest idea about how it started.
This may be a bit of a "duh" thing, but memory is oddly selective. The idea that rhyming is a mnemonic device is something that almost everyone has learned in school at some point or another. But obviously there are language factors other than rhyming that affect memory. I'm inclined to think in this case that I remembered the chorus verses simply because they were better and more fun to sing.
Ezra Pound said that language is literature charged with meaning. In this case, the language has been divested of meaning. That's the point of the song. And yet the nonsense bits are more memorable than the explanatory parts. It makes sense that the evolution of language, and as a result, society, would be more determined by arbitrary catchiness than, say, the work of Proust.
Some writers, such as Ezra Pound and also T.S. Eliot, have expressed the belief that the health and vitality of a country is linked directly to its language. A lot of Americans might be inclined to react by saying, "Oh, well, if that's true, we are really in trouble." I would disagree, mostly because of television and more specifically because of comedy. I find it oddly reassuring that so many people watch Tosh.O, a show that allows people a quick, occasionally clever option for their point-and-laugh fix, which is highly preferable to, say, Jerry Springer. It's easy to fall prey to the temptation of believing that American society or modern society in general is such a mess because no one knows how to enjoy a good book anymore. But I think fiction has probably always had less to do with the health of national language than we are nowadays inclined to believe. Actually, I take that back. It had more to do with the health of a national language back before fiction was taken seriously as an art form. But still perhaps less than we imagine, if only because prose uses words more than it accommodates them. The pure joy and complexity of language enters into our society in massive, uniform doses much faster and more easily through stand-up comedy and even occasionally through commercials than through books. Which doesn't mean that books are less important, just slower. And more a means of preservation and reflection, probably. People are deeply affected by books, perhaps more than they used to be, as a result of them being taken seriously as an art form. But language here is a means and a path of enjoyment for individuals, not the social commodity being sold.
In other words, I don't know if the overall health of language necessarily has to begin with solid, interesting ideas. I'm inclined to think it doesn't. Talking about anything in a way that makes talking fun and creative is better, to my mind, than waxing philosophical about big issues with a limited toolbox.
Still, I think it's time to go rinse the remains of that song out of my brain before it starts leaking Hershey's chocolate and gasoline into my frontal lobe.