Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand): Ostranenie

An ordinary word sung in an extraordinary way is a treat. A parallel universe frisson of excitement. We pay extra attention whenever the familiar is made unfamiliar.

Ostranenie works its magic in Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand). The backing singers offer such an unusual version of the word’anyone‘ that they throw the slow honey of Irma Thomas’ voice into reassuring relief. They pronounce anyone as nobody pronounces anyone. Irma’s telling a love story, so she sings anyone as a deep, warm version of itself:

Why choose anyone as the word to defamiliarize? Why don’t the backing singers sing a speeded-up version of understand instead? Understand’s in the title, so it must be important. It has three syllables, just like anyone. It would fit the music. You can speed it up without tripping over your tongue.

So, why speed up anyone and slow down understand?

Imagine (try singing) the song with understand instead of anyone as the speeded-up, repeated backing-singer word. How does the meaning and the feeling of the song change for you?

For me, the light, quick repetition sound of anyone invites me to agree with Irma. Anyone will understand. The backing singers make it sound perfectly reasonable and easy. Anyone’s a word that makes no demands. It’s neutral and unspecific. We’re all anyone.

If the backing singers repeated and repeated the word understand in the same way, it would sound desperate and annoying. Understand has its middle and final thump of a d sound. The word’s too heavy to repeat without sounding like a plea or an order. Understand, understand, understand. Too direct. Like bad hypnotism.

If you write songs in English: as always, choose your words with love and care. Anyone and understand have 3 syllables each. They’d fit the same space in your music, but they’ll take your audience in different directions, not just because of their meaning but, more powerfully, because of the shape of the words themselves. Always think of the shape of a word as it’s sung. The word in the mouth of the singer, not just the look of the letters on the page.

Does that mean that the English word understand always sounds and feels the same when it’s repeated in a song? Not at all. The central can provide a useful beat, a useful bit of sound punctuation, and you can ghost the final d. Watch Julian Cope use understand to rhyme with Charlotte Anne. Like a magician, he sets us up to expect the final of understand. We know it’s coming for the rhyme we expect (Charlotte  Anne/understand) and for the sake of the sense of the word. We hear understand in our imagination, not through the sounds actually reaching our ears. Julian ghosts the final d. He needs persuasion, not bullying, from the word understand, so he shapes it to his needs. He’s asking for understanding. He’s not grovelling:

Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand) needs something different from the word understand. Julian sets up an expectation of a rhyme which leaves him free to swallow the final d of understand. We’ve imagined the rest of the word already. Irma’s backing singers, singing understand as a word alone, with no rhyme, don’t have that luxury.  Sung as a repeated word, alone, in an ordinary way, understand lands on the final quite hard. So what can they do?

They stretch it. They sing understand into the long shape of a cat stretching luxuriously in the sun. Stretching and smoothing the word understand softens its lumps and bumps of d sounds into smooth, effective persuasion. We understand. We don’t feel battered into understanding. We feel stroked into understanding.

All English words wear different costumes when they’re sung. Their meaning changes, subtly but powerfully, depending on the shape they take in the mouth of the singer, informed by the needs of the song. From tiny commonplace words like do here to unusual words like Wuthering here. All words have an effect that goes far beyond dictionary definitions.

When you write a song in English you need to place your words where they can work best and hardest.

Back to anyone. When you can actually see backing singers singing the anyone of Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand) you can see that they switch between thinking of the word as having a meaning and sometimes simply for providing a useful sound. Samantha Whates’ cover version with the Chaps Choir is a perfect opportunity to see anyone and understand in action, in the minds and mouths of the choir. Watch the choirmaster:

I’d guess that Irma’s backing singers are offstage partly so that we don’t ‘read’ their faces as they sing the word anyone. They provide sound alone. In Seal‘s cover of Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand), his backing singers are nowhere near the foreground. In the video they’re offscreen, for the audience in the venue, they’re in shadow at the side of the stage. The conga player is in our central line of vision. When Seal walks over to the backing singers, he brings them  into the foreground for a moment, then he leaves them again. Watch the conga player. His body movements – slow and smooth with sudden bursts of energy – are like a visual representation of the song:

‘Anyone is light enough to sound interesting without causing a headache, even when it’s speeded-up and compressed. The consonants are springy, not heavy. The elastic sound of the y gives them extra bounce. Anyone marries sound and meaning perfectly for  the needs of this song.

As the backing singers repeat it, anyone swims in and out of our consciousness. It moves between being a simple collection of sound syllables: something like a handclap or a shalala, then back into its  pure, dictionary meaning – especially towards the end of the song, when we’re feeling closest to Irma, after she’s sung us her story.

It would have been a waste of sound if the backing singers had sung a nonsense word or a space-filler. A swift wah-wah-wah or a speedy yeah, yeah, yeah would have lost our attention and become background. Anyone steps in and out of the foreground. We notice it, when we need to.

When you have no backing singers, you need to get your guitarist to twang an anyone substitute.  The vocalist needs a counterbalance to season the song. Watch Ruby Amanfu sing Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand) and watch her guitarist:

Anyone, as Irma Thomas’ backing singers sing it, is a masterstroke. Defamiliarizing while convincing. We pay more attention to Irma’s words because of that unusual anyone. It’s the pepper that spices the song.

I heard Black Mirror‘s Charlie Brooker choose Irma Thomas’ Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand)  as one of the 8 tracks he’d want to have with him on a desert island . He also explained a little about why the song features as a motif in his dystopian series here.

Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand), with the perfect incongruity of the backing singers’ efficient, speeded-up anyone fidgeting behind the smooth caress of Irma’s voice suits the Black Mirror universe, where nothing is quite what it seems.

Irma’s first song was (You Can Have My Husband But Please) Don’t Mess With My Man. Here she is singing it 34 years later, with B.B.King to provide the seasoning:

If English isn’t your native language: don’t over-shorten anyone in Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand). It’s still a word. It must be recognisable as a version of itself. Different enough to draw attention to itself, but not so different that it confuses and distracts your audience.



4 thoughts on “Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand): Ostranenie”

    1. Thanks for that. I haven’t come across The Music Man before. What a wonderful piece of choreographed sales talk.

      I’ll tell you what struck me as I watched – the number of shared cultural references that are instant and powerful metaphors for an American audience but leave a Brit like me flummoxed. I trip over Sen-sens, Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang and Q bans (is that how you spell it?). For me, the power of the mesmerising flow is interrupted because I have to stop and engage my brain to try to work out what he’s talking about. It’s like stepping out of a river and watching everyone else floating on by.

      I’d imagine that a sales spiel featuring shared British ideas of gap years, Hob-nobs or The Archers would work in Birmingham, UK, but struggle in Birmingham, Alabama. I think you don’t have pantomime in the US – not in the same way we do here? So, I’d guess the ‘Oh yes we are”/’Oh no you’re not’ exchange in Dad’s Army doesn’t immediately (or ever) remind you of classic pantomime audience participation:


      1. Ah yes, cultural references. I’m so steeped in my own, I don’t often stop to think about that side of things. The few times I’ve visited outside of the U.S. borders, I’m often flummoxed by such things. Yours is a good reminder.
        Watching that bit from the Music Man again, I’m reminded of how the call and response of ancient music never really goes away. I’m thinking, too, that the holler and yell-back is one of a number of cultural characteristics that may be universal?
        Seems to me that the pantomime of the Brits is a variant of that age-old call-and-response part of an entertainment or social or political event.
        Fascinating stuff, the stuff of ethnography. Thanks for stimulating my curiosity about popular culture!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. You’re absolutely right about cultural references. They’re invisible to us. I remember feeling very ‘foreign’ when workmates in LA would hum, what I later found out, was the opening title theme tune for Gilligan’s Island. We didn’t have Gilligan’s Island in the UK so the shared meaning of the theme tune was a mystery to me. I remember workmates exchanging knowing looks as they hummed it. I still have no idea what Gilligan’s Island ‘means’ and, without time travel and a childhood spent watching it, it will never mean the same to me, even if I write a PhD on it.

        Pantomime is one of the few places where call and response is encouraged here nowadays, now that music hall is no more. The Globe Theatre in London, with its ‘groundlings’: the members of the public who pay £5 to stand near the stage to watch Shakespeare, tries to encourage a little bit of ‘authentic’ audience interaction, but we’re culturally trained, from primary school, to be still and quiet while a performance is taking place. Unless it’s pantomime. So the groundlings never interrupt, shout out or intervene in response to the bullying of Shylock or the blinding of Gloucester. Nobody’s going to step outside cultural norms, not without safe, sanctioned rules of engagement and the assurance that you won’t be alone and stared at, or removed by security.

        Thinking about it, even in pantomime and music hall, the call-and-response is clearly signalled and tightly controlled. It has its own rules. Even in pantomime, the audience doesn’t shout out throughout. The villain appears on stage and the audience knows to boo at that point, or at the point when the villain expresses their evil plan, but they don’t keep booing for the whole time s/he is on stage. They relish her/his badness and want to hear her/his trickery expressed in words. There’s a fine balance between interaction and respect.

        I read a fascinating article about the changing behaviour of opera audiences through the centuries: and the unfortunate experience of Roberto Alagna at La Scala, when the loggionisti booed him and he chose to leave the stage: I suppose that when the rules of engagement have changed, booing from one section isn’t expected, isn’t an expression of the feeling of the whole house and isn’t something that a performer knows how to deal with.

        We are such subtle creatures, we humans.


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