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It’s something you don’t notice, until you do, and then can’t not notice. Call it, “Now Abuse”—the habit many singers have of ending random phrases with “now.” Saying “now” might not make sense in relation to the rest of the song, but many singers say it anyway. You hear it all the time. It’s like a person who says, “you know,” after just about everything.
“Kafka was really insecure. You know?” “The triangle is an important shape. You know?”
Once you hear it, you can’t stop hearing it. “Now” is a musical “you know.” Here are a few classic examples.
This is from “Joy to the World,” Three Dog Night’s biggest hit.
"Joy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me"
I doubt Hoyt Axton, the songwriter, wrote “now” as a lyric and when the other band members sing the chorus over and over in harmony at the end of the song, they don’t say it. But for some reason, Chuck Negron, the song’s lead singer, felt he needed a “now” when singing alone.
Mick Jagger is another notorious interjecter of “nows.” He added them all the time. Check out “Brown Sugar” (and the second chorus is more blatant than the first).
How come you dance so good?
Just like a young girl should
It’s not like “now” has anything to do with the song’s meaning. Jagger isn’t asking the young dancer to dance, he’s merely commenting on her great dancing skills. Why “now?”
Even James Brown—a veritable thesaurus of exclamations, grunts, and “Good Gods”—wasn’t immune to inserting a well-placed “now” or two.
But why? Why the gratuitous “nows?” What are singers thinking about when singing? Does science have something to say about it?
The simple reason, maybe, is that rhythmically—based on how the words and melody sync up with the rest of the song—the vocal part feels incomplete. That perceived rhythmic pause makes the singer feel naked, or at least awkward, and he has an urge to say something. He could say anything, but for some reason he opts for “now.”
Maybe, and again I am hypothesizing, the reason could be that the singer sees himself as a leader, which in a sense, is true. His role in the band isn’t just as crooner or eye candy. His function, especially live, is to engage the audience. You expect him to bark orders. “Put your hands together!” “Sing it with me!” “Shit. Goddam. Get off your ass and jam.” (Thank you George Clinton.) He isn’t telling you to put your hands together, or sing, or get up and dance whenever the spirit moves you. He expects you to do those things—whatever they may be—now.
Since he’s telling you what to do, and he’s telling you with a sense of urgency and for the sake of a great experience—he is your leader—when his vocal line ends in an awkward spot, or when his rhythmic sense dictates a need to say something, his obvious go-to word won’t be a grunt or a moan, but a monosyllabic command.
That works, but I think the reason may be deeper.
The singer’s—or really any musician’s—perceived role as leader is real. It is more than just as cheerleader or master of ceremonies, it’s rooted in how you listen to music. Or more accurately, how music gets you to listen to it.
Music, at its core, is a language, but it is different from other languages. Music’s vocabulary is universal—and always expanding—and things like cultural bias, time period, context, and even mutually agreed upon assumptions don’t apply. Those factors may help you have a richer and more rewarding listening experience, but they aren’t essential—new or alien musics will move you, too. What’s more, you can hear a performance from a person you don’t understand—or even like—and feel connected. Music breaks down barriers—be they political, religious, cultural—and speaks to your inner you.
Music does that because music—the way you listen to it—isn’t intellectual. Music has an intellectual component for sure, but the intellectual part of your brain is secondary to how you process it. You don’t experience music the same way you would a lecture or conversation. Your experience is something other. Call that what you want—emotional, spiritual, mystical, holistic—the words aren’t important. What is important is that the experience is different. Listening to music reroutes the signal flow to a more primal part of your brain.
Researcher Daniel Levitin, in his book, This Is Your Brain On Music, describes how your brain processes music, particularly a steady rhythmic pulse or groove. “[The] emotional response to groove occurs via the ear-cerebellum-nucleus accumbens-limbic circuit rather than via the ear-auditory cortex circuit. Our response to groove is largely pre- or unconscious because it goes through the cerebellum rather than the frontal lobes. What is remarkable is that all of these different pathways integrate into our experience of a single song.”
I don’t know the difference between an accumbens-limbic circuit and a light switch, but what Levitin seems to be saying is that when music—particularly groove—enters your ears, you don’t process it using the intellectual or cognitive parts of your brain. Rather, you connect to it in a more primitive way. It bypasses your intellectual centers.
Or more simply: you don’t tap your foot or get-down-and-boogie because you think, “Man, this is funky. I need to move.” You just do it. Your body tells you to do it and you may not even realize you’re doing it.
That makes music—and by extension the musician—powerful. Music doesn’t just entertain. It does something more.
Society seems to acknowledge that, too.
Music is used to get people pumped and focused at sporting events, tailgate parties, and political rallies (“Rock N Roll Part 2,” “We Will Rock You,” those songs will never die). Armies use music to send their troops into battle. Music is played at parties, in clubs and bars, prior to concerts, and around campfires to set a tone and create mood. Music is an essential part of the spiritual experience as well, be it formal religious services or in an informal setting. Music changes moods, uplifts the soul, gladdens the heart—can I get even more cheesy?—and it does it in a way that an inspirational message or motivational speaker can’t. Music doesn’t need words to work its magic. It just does. Musicians don’t make nice sounds for you to enjoy. They communicate in an intuitive, nonverbal way. What’s more, you understand what they’re saying. It works. You feel it. It is powerful.
That said, when a singer—whose instrument is his voice and whose note choices are words—feels a need to interject an utterance, he’ll grab a word consistent with what’s happening. He probably doesn’t think about it, he probably isn’t even aware of it, but more-often-than-not—in lieu of a grunt or an “oh yeah”—he’ll issue a command.
And that command is something he wants, “now.”
That, at least, is my theory. Maybe it’s bogus. I mean—to return to my examples—maybe Chuck Negron was coaxing his listeners to yearn for a world of joy, or Mick Jagger was reveling in the immediacy of women in motion, or James Brown just happened to feel really, really good. “Now” is a conscious affirmation of the song’s inner meaning.
But I doubt it. I tend to think it’s something more. Music is deep. It moves both artist and audience on multiple levels and the experience isn’t something you overanalyze, at least, not at the time. Some thoughts come from the subconscious.
But regardless, I hope I didn’t ruin music for you. You’re going to hear “nows” all the time. “Nows” are everywhere. They may start to drive you crazy, you know?
I mean, now.
Tzvi Gluckin is a freelance writer and musician. In 1991, he was backstage at the Ritz in NYC and stood next to Bootsy Collins. His life was never the same. He lives in Boston.