hebicentric

There was a time, I remember, in the 1990s, when it was considered deep and true and honest for singers of popular songs to sing with a certain… “style,” what one might think of as “poor voice placement” and a lack of what one might call, um, “tuning.” A sort of strained half-shriek, half-grunt one might hear from someone with a cold and dysentery who is sitting in an outhouse and has just seen a hornet headed straight for him. It was not eccentric, not exactly; that would mean they were off-centre, and as far as this goes that’s beside the point, because if the fashion is to be unfashionable, well…

Anyway, as I worked away in the mail room at the Tufts library to pay some bills while I was dissertating, I would have the radio on, and the local station would play stuff by, you know, Porno For Pyros and Bush and Jane’s Addiction and The Wallflowers and so on, and there was no lack of this style. And then I heard a song use a word that seemed like the mot juiced for this whole thing, this, um, kind of rough and underripe vocal styling paired with expensive studio production values that were pretending not to be expensive (like high-priced fake craquelure). The song introduced the word but didn’t explain it, just threw it down there, which was also so damn typical of these uber-cool guys who were trying so hard to be hip it was tragic, and were so tragic it was hip. (To be fair, the singer of the song in question was actually able to sing well when he chose to, which at key moments he did not.)

The etymology of the word was not completely obvious. The second part was clear enough: centric. But the first part? It sounded like “heb-I” or “heb-eye” but I assumed it was spelled hebi. The thing is, there’s no classical root that matches that. But there is a Greek root hebe-, referring to youth; perhaps it was blended with bi, meaning ‘two’ (as in the duality of expensive production values and good instrumentals with a singing style that I had always known as “bad”). Or maybe they were just being deliberately obscure and difficult. Like, hey, I just mutated this word, isn’t it so awful you have to love it and buy it. But there was no doubt that the song was about someone who embodied this value, because they sang it over and over again: “You are a hebicentric! You are a hebicentric!”

I suppose if I had already been studying linguistics at the time (I was still a drama scholar) I might have decided that it was deliberately incomprehensible, like the famous sentence confected by Noam Chomsky to illustrate that a sentence could be syntactically coherent but semantically incoherent, “colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” After all, the whole line I heard sung was “That’s when the hornet stung meeee, and I had this furious dream! You are a hebicentric! You are a hebicentric!”

In the end, though, I realized that I had created a mondegreen (but one every bit as plausible as classiomatic, I’d say). What I was actually hearing, which even contained the title of the song (not that radio deejays ever bothered saying the titles of the songs), was “You are ahead by a century.” (Also, the words before it were “feverish dream” and later “serious dream” but never “furious dream,” alas.) But I still think hebicentric is a good word for that hiply tragic, tragically hip style…

Anyway, here, if you don’t know the song. It’s “Ahead by a Century” by The Tragically Hip, from 1996.

3 responses to “hebicentric

  1. I tried hard -for months- to make out what one of the jingles playing in volleyball matches worldwide. My mind got stuck to “itirazlar hu hu” (which it couldn’t be). Much later I found out that the hebicentric performer was actually singing “here comes da boom boom.”

  2. When I saw the word, I immediately thought of “hebephrenic,” which seems eerily appropriate, describing “a form of schizophrenia characterized especially by incoherence, delusions lacking an underlying theme, and affect that is usually flat, inappropriate, or silly.” https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hebephrenia

  3. I’m glad I’m not the only one who doubts the usefulness of indestinguishable sung words as a form of expression. (My husband likes such music, it’s our only mismatch point.)

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