Roman Cavalry Choirs, Because That Was A Thing

A friend of mine aptly pointed out the “meaningful meaninglessness of song lyrics” in a lot of alternative music (wrote about it here), whether it’s “Roman cavalry choirs singing” or “Yesterday I woke up sucking on a lemon, everything in its right place.” This sort of nonsense masquerades as something quite Eliotic or poetic—the conjunction of disparate images or ideas. But, unlike Eliot, the conjunction of these disparate ideas is totally random. As my friend asked, what, exactly, is a Roman cavalry choir? It Means Nothing. It just reminds you of Eliot because it’s difficult to parse meaning. Fortunately, no meaning was actively put into the lyrics, but that doesn’t stop thousands of listeners posting their interpretations on internet forums (always prefacing with a cautionary this-is-just-how-I-interpret-it-and-there-are-many-equally-valid-interpretations).

Chris Martin would probably say that this more or less meaningless mess of sentence fragments allows for a wealth of possible interpretations, more so than if he had carefully crafted his words with actual intent. Chris Martin would say something like that. My friend just called it lazy. If It’s Obscure It’s Profound is the sort of trick you should grow out of in 8th grade English, but, well, gosh, clarity and intentionality require hard work. And they’re much less marketable to the alternative audience, I guess.


  1. Hannah R · April 22, 2013

    I would always make an exception for Paul Simon, because I think his lyrics probably do actually mean something Eliot-y, and if not, well, darn it, I like them. They are at least clever, if nothing else.

    But the really great thing about meaningless lyrics is the possibility for Mondegreens. If the context doesn’t help you to understand what they’re singing, then they could be singing anything, and your brain fills in the rest. So “I hear Jerusalem bells a ringing/Roman Cavalry choirs are singing” becomes “I hear a generation of elves are bringing/Roman Catholic choirs for singing”… and it makes just as much sense. Maybe more.

  2. Pingback: “Weeping Or Lost You, American Mouth” or Just Lyrical Nonsense? Part 1 | The Thought Vault
  3. cdspratt · April 23, 2013

    Of course, your innate perception of the punctuation is influencing your interpretation of how meaningless this phrase is. If, instead of “Roman cavalry choirs are singing,” we read (or heard) “Roman cavalry, choirs are singing,” then we make “Roman cavalry” an independent member of a list of what the writer heard (I hear Jerusalem bells a-ringing, Roman cavalry, choirs are singing.) This does add meaning to the song, which I think is about a man coming to the humility under the Holy Spirit, which would make sense of the crucifixion images.

  4. cdspratt · April 23, 2013

    And my interpretation is correct, darn it.
    I’m a contrarian, remember.

  5. John Richard Ahern · April 23, 2013

    Huh. I’m not convinced, but still I don’t think the vocative “Roman cavalry” vindicates Coldplay, because that just indicates they’re really good at writing really awkwardly.

  6. Santiago · April 24, 2013

    I couldn’t resist the itch to continue researching “meanings” for Viva la Vida and these made me laugh: “Mmm..Chris Martin gained a 1st class honours degree from University College London in Ancient History / Latin and he would know if Roman cavalry choirs existed.”

    And then this one, which surely must be the main Silmaril set on the crown of relativism: “I loved this song for ages before one day I decided to actually stop and listen to the lyrics (that’s common with Coldplay-their music is always beautiful) and I was shocked that I didn’t see it before. This song is about Lucifer. “

Think aloud.

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