How to Sing the Right Zombie

The Cranberries‘ song Zombie gets dusted off every year for Hallowe’en singalongs. What’s in your head when you power into the chorus? Something undead, slow-moving, with outstretched hands and a George Romero flavour? You’re trapped in 2016.

When Dolores O’Riordan wrote Zombie in 1994, the word conjured up a different image. A human being, alive but unthinking. Gore score 0. You’ll see it in the desolate documentary footage of the video and the relentless repetition of “With their tanks and their bombs/And their bombs and their guns”:

Back in 1994, when Dolores O’Riordan wrote Zombie, most English speakers understood the word zombie to mean: “a person who has no energy, seems to act without thinking and does not notice what’s happening.” Not Zombies, Run! more Zombie? So what?. 

Dolores O’Riordan had a standard 1994 zombie in her head when she wrote her song, in direct, shocked response to the deaths caused by the IRA Warrington bomb attacks, back in a time when her country, Ireland, seemed locked for ever in relentless violence. The power of her song lies in the contrast between the passion in her voice as she tries to shake life and action into the zombie of pitiless inhumanity she sees all around her.

zombie, in Dolores’ song, encompasses both the numb, enervated people of Ireland and the indiscriminate perpetrators of violence. The jumpy British soldiers, the IRA, and all the rest. All acting without thinking.

It’s the same old theme since nineteen-sixteen

If you’re writing a song in English, notice this: Dolores starts Zombie slowly. Most of the sounds in the first verse are natural brakes to slow the action of the singer’s mouth: the languorous, rounded diphthong /əʊ/ in lowly/slowly, the sticky ng of hangs, the long, open-ended vowel sounds of who, we and are.  The sounds force a funeral pace on the singer, if she forms them correctly.

The second verse gathers pace. Words are either single syllables: bomb, gun, me, and, with or longer words chopped into chunks by consonants: fa-mi-ly, figh-ting. There’s an effect like the rat-tat-tat of gunfire. Something like Wilfred Owen’s Anthem for Doomed Youth.

Then there is the single word that Dolores chooses to repeat, 17 times. Head is one of those deceptively simple ‘take no notice of me’ English words. Its short /e/ vowel sound sits ready to be opened up and stretched in song. From head through he-ead to he-e-e-ead. From the round, hairy thing worn under a hat or helmet, all the way through imagination, bigotry, belief, perception, mind, fear, thought and everything else that simmers invisibly inside.

If English isn’t your first language: listen to Dolores as she sings the word head. Does she sing it exactly the same, each of the 17 times? 

Is she simply stretching the word you learned in English class, like a piece of chewing gum? (No) Is she imagining the word head in the same way each time she sings it? (No). The power of repetition lives between the subtle differences she shades into each melisma. Remember, Dolores wrote the song. She chose to use the word head 17 times. Why?

Dolores moves from the ordinary, physical head of the first line through all the changes to the final, despairing wail of he-e-e-ead. You don’t have to copy her (don’t copy her, unless you understand her choices), but if you sing the word head exactly the same each time – it appears 17 times in Zombie – then you’re wasting it. Remember how many meanings the word head carries in English. Here are some of them. In song, it carries even more. Use it wisely and well.

In the chorus, Dolores sings the suffering of each individual family  as they crash into the unmoving, uncaring, inhuman brick wall of civil war. The zombie. That unexpected juxtaposition of the most powerful vocals with the most bloodless word shocked the 1994 brain into thought.

There’s a logic to the word zombie’s position, but you have to think to work it out. That’s what Dolores is looking for: a moment of clear, conscious thought, instead of numb endurance. The best anti-war songs force the audience to think as individual human beings.

In 1994, only art house cinema-goers would have seen Night of the Living Dead. Zombie films were underground, cult classics, not widely popular. In a time before DVDs, the public was at the mercy of the local cinema or the two British TV channels. When most 1994 people used the English word zombie, they weren’t thinking of the undead. They were thinking of a being without energy or thought. A milder version of undead.

When you sing the word zombie, clear the energetic ghouls of George Romero from your mind. Think apathy and porridge. Remember why Dolores placed the word at the pinnacle of the song.

If you sing an undead zombie into the song on YouTube, the image you paint with your imagining won’t sit well with the other words in the song.

Enjoy the swoop up into the zombie chorus on a Hallowe’en karaoke night. Give it all the power it needs. Remember: the power of the vocals contrasts with the powerlessness of your zombie. That’s the power of the song. Sing the right kind of zombie with the right amount of vocal power.  

The wrong kind of zombie is like the wrong kind of jamming.

Don’t jump on the word zombie with too much one-dimensional excitement when you sing Dolores’ song. Understand its complexity, as the word chosen to be the title of the song. Yes, Dolores sings it with intensity, but her intensity is born of frustration and anger. She builds up to the word with careful layers of sound and meaning. Zombie carries the punch of the song because it represents the inhumanity of war and the random, thoughtless nature of the deaths caused by both sides.

If English isn’t your first language: don’t throw all your energy onto the word zombie. It’s easy to pronounce and, nowadays, it’s a word that you probably know, but don’t ignore the words that lead to it and surround it. If you want the song to sound right, check:

  1. With their tanks and their bombs/And their bombs and their guns sounds confusing unless you get your soft English th exactly right. Look here and here if you’re not absolutely sure about the sound you need. You’ll confuse and distract your audience if you sing Wid derr tanks and derr bombs instead of With their. 
  2. The first word in the song: Another, has a soft beginning. It’s not hanother. Be careful to whisper it into life. It’s a sad beginning, speaking of the death of children: Another head hangs lowly
  3. Remember: the first three vowel sounds of the song are schwa sounds. What’s a schwa sound? Look here and here.
  4. Remember to pronounce the at the end of in your head.
  5. Remember that the of zombie sounds like this.
  6. It’s hard to hear the at the end of crying, but it’s important.
  7. Dolores is Irish and she sings her song in the voice of her country. If you’re going to copy her pronunciation, you’ll need to be consistent. If you sing guns with an Irish accent, but everything else with a BBC English accent, then you’ll sound odd and your audience will get confused. It will be hard for you to use an Irish accent without sounding as if you’re mimicking Dolores. Avoid it unless you were taught English for years by a native Irish speaker and your whole understanding of the English language has been informed by them.

As I was looking at the lyrics of Zombie to write this post, it struck me how the close repetition in the song intensifies the feeling of a country trapped in a neverending cycle of violent acts With their tanks and their bombs/And their bombs and their guns. The tanks belong to the English army, the bombs to the IRA. The guns to both. Round and round and round again.

As Dolores puts it: The same old theme, since 1916:

It was unimaginable back in 1994 that Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party would be running Northern Ireland together today. That the bombs would stop and the tanks would leave.

Zombie is a desperate cry from one of the darkest points in the 30 years of conflict in Ireland. The dark before the dawn. You don’t need to study Irish history to sing the song well, but the emotional power of its words deserve your thought and respect.

On a practical level, the song only works if you’re singing the right kind of zombie. Leave your 21st Century zombie to rampage outside. Slide its catatonic 1994 zombie cousin into a soft armchair in a corner of your mind, ready to be shaken into life by the chorus. Open your mouth and sing.

By the way: as a 21st century human, what meaning do you hear the first time Dolores sings the word zombie? Can you feel yourself readjusting the meaning as she sings?

© Sing Better English, 2016 

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2 thoughts on “How to Sing the Right Zombie”

  1. Interesting. I think I imagined a thing without a mind. I didn’t think of it moving. I think the way that she sings stops you imagining a monster somehow.

    What do you think The Zombies band from the 1960s were thinking of when they chose their name?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi RF – thanks for that. Yes, there’s something contained about the force Dolores uses to sing the word ‘zombie’, isn’t there? She’s clear about what the word represents to her and, I think, her own clarity of thought frames the word for the listener. I think her meaning would be clear even if the word ‘zombie’ comes to mean something quite different in the future. The word will always hold a scrap of the idea of an unthinking, empty creature. She sets fire to that part of its meaning.

      I just read a very interesting article on the power of song to shift as time passes and to live in an eternal present. You might enjoy it: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/122674/whats-behind-music-isnt-nearly-important-song-itself

      Liked by 1 person

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