Some of the first songs that we ever learned taught us how to spell. Whether it was the ABCs, Bingo, a solid portion of Sesame Street’s programming, or The Mickey Mouse Club, music and spelling are tools that are mutually beneficial. Through song, the letters of a word (or in the ABCs’ case, the letters of the alphabet) can be ingrained in the mind, while the punchiness of spelling to music helps create a lasting memory of a tune. In one of the most iconic examples, the letters Y-M-C-A were spelled out with accompanying hand motions, creating the trifecta of song/spelling/dance that might never be matched.
And it’s a songwriting tool that doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Rap lends itself particularly well to this style while pop music also uses this easy tool to make cheerleading camp choruses all the more memorable. But with the likes of John Cougar Mellencamp teaching us about “R-O-C-K in the U-S-A” and Bay City Rollers getting us amped for a “S-A-T-U-R-D-A-Y” night, rock certainly has placed its stamp on the history of spelling songs.
But what are the best of the spelling songs? Below we’ve curated 10 favorites that hit on all these genres, dating from the ’60s to the present, teaching us less about how actual words are spelled and more about the power and purpose behind spelling something out.
10. Kesha – “Dinosaur” (2010)
The Word(s): D-I-N-O-S-A-U-R, O-L-D M-A-N
Can You Use It in a Sentence? D-I-N-O-S-A-U-R a dinosaur/ And O-L-D M-A- / You’re just an old man/ Hitting on me what?/ You need a cat scan
Degree of Difficulty: 5/10. Dinosaur isn’t a particularly difficult word to spell, but consider the target Kesha is spelling it out to. Depending on how old the man hitting on her is, spelling out dinosaur could be a helpful tactic for thwarting an unwanted suitor, infantilizing him and speaking in a language he can understand.
What Have We Learned? Kesha isn’t into old dudes. Period. The whole song is one takedown after another, mocking everything from their toupees to their oxygen tanks. In Kesha’s eyes, the experience is both exasperating and hilarious, a full-length song of Cher’s “as if” sentiments from Clueless. It’s fitting that this song was co-written by Max Martin and Shellback and not her frequent collaborator/abuser Dr. Luke, for whom the lyrics of the song could practically apply. –Philip Cosores
09. Run the Jewels – “Stay Gold” (2016)
The Word(s): G-O-L-D
Can You Use It in a Sentence? She got a mean bop/ I got a lean to the way I walk/ And they get it like gold/ G-O-L-D G-O-L-D, it’s gold
Degree of Difficulty: 2/10. Unless Run the Jewels is drawing more toddlers to their records than their live shows indicate, only fans who were smoking joints with Mike and El before the show would need help with this four-letter basic. All the spelling is done for emphasis here.
What Have We Learned? Staying gold has been an instruction since the poetry of Robert Frost, borrowed by the likes of First Aid Kit and Ponyboy Curtis to instruct on the nature of mutability. In the hands of RtJ, it’s fodder for many golden references, with grills, geese, and Gadaffi all making glittery appearances. And the G-O-L-D cadence is infectious as all hell, leaving the centerpiece for the song in the audience’s head long after the music stops playing. –Philip Cosores
08. Hot Chip – “Over and Over” (2006)
The Word(s): K-I-S-S-I-N-G, S-E-X-I-N-G, C-A-S-I-O, P-O-K-E, Y-O-U, M-E, I
Can You Use It in a Sentence? The smell of repetition really is on you/ And when you look this way, I really am with you/ K-i-s-s-i-n-g/ S-e-x-i-n-g/ C-a-s-i-o/ P-o-k-e/ Y-o-u/ M-e/ I
Degree of Difficulty: 4/10. Listen, gerunds aren’t super difficult: Just throw an -ing on that verb, baby, and you’re set! Alexis Taylor is getting away with some sly lyrics in this song, but it certainly isn’t coming from the words he’s spelling being super complex. The difficulty level gets bumped a little for the sheer number of words, but nothing too tough.
What Have We Learned? Whether it’s the synth melodies of their songs or the sweaty physicality (dance floor appropriate and otherwise) induced by them, Hot Chip sure know a thing or two about repetition. As such, they weave the instructional wisdom here about both their keyboards of choice and the saliva-swapping, body-moving business, getting everything all mixed up with a wry smile. With “Over and Over”, Hot Chip get you to mindlessly spell things out while also noting that it’s happening over and over, calling you out for being “like a monkey with a miniature cymbal.” Sometimes the simplest quizzes can reveal the most. –Lior Phillips
07. Grimes – “Kill V. Maim” (2015)
The Word(s): B-E-H-A-V-E
Can You Use It in a Sentence? B-E-H-A-V-E/ Arrest us/ Italiana mobster/ Looking so precious
Degree of Difficulty: 4/10. A six-letter word is a little trickier than your typical spell-along chant, though “beha ve” isn’t exactly a puzzler. If we’re grading on a curve, though, it’s a little tougher than a four-letter chant, I guess?
What Have We Learned: “Kill V. Maim” is written from the perspective of Al Pacino’s Godfather II character, Michael Corleone, except he’s also an intergalactic vampire. As you might expect from a blood-sucking mobster, the song and video have their share of aggression and violence, and yet the cheerleader-esque chant urging him to “b-e-h-a-v-e” comes in as a daring taunt to keep on the straight and narrow. The contrasting voices, gender-fluid terms, and complex musical palette add even more depth to the seemingly simple chant-along chorus in a way that only Grimes could produce. –Lior Phillips
06. Gwen Stefani – “Hollaback Girl” (2004)
The Word(s): B-A-N-A-N-A-S
Can You Use It in a Sentence? Let me hear you say, this shit is bananas/ B-A-N-A-N-A-S
Degree of Difficulty: 5/10. I mean, when you start in on the second round of “N-A,” you kind of just want to keep going. B-A-N-A-N-A-N-A-N-A… It’s a lot of fun. But knowing when you have too much of a good thing is important here (as with listening to it too many times).
What Have We Learned? The key here is that The Neptunes can turn anything into a smash. The duo of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo have crafted plenty of mega-hits, and yet one surrounding a repeated chanted spelling of a piece of fruit, lots of high school talk, and whatever you feel a hollaback girl is … now that’s quite an unlikely success. But that’s what happened when you’re fueled to spite Courtney Love; the song was reportedly a response to Courtney Love, who had rolled her eyes and compared Gwen Stefani to a cheerleader. But the No Doubt frontwoman took that and spun it into a weirdo, marching band-driven cheerleader tune that’ll never leave your head. –Lior Phillips
05. Jay Z – “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” (2001)
The Word(s): H-O-V-A
Can You Use It in a Sentence? H to the Izz-o, V to the Izz-A/ Fo’ shizzle my nizzle used to dribble down in VA (Is that a sentence?)
Degree of Difficulty: 7/10. Sure, Hova isn’t a very long word. It’s actually not even a word at all, which makes Jay Z’s spelling help all the more useful. Of course, he obscures things with izzle gibberish, so even if you are figuring out how to spell Hova from this song, it’s not necessarily a straightforward task.
What Have We Learned? Well, we learned what in the hell a Hova is. It’s a Jay Z! Jay Z is a Hova! They are each other! The name apparently derives from the name of god, Jehovah, in which Jay gives his spin and dubs himself Jayhova. Good thing Indiana Jones didn’t hear this song before his last crusade, or else he might have had more difficulty in that stepping-stone spelling challenge. Sure, Jehovah starts with an I, but what about Jayhova? –Philip Cosores
04. Kendrick Lamar – “Backseat Freestyle” (2012)
The Word(s): C-O-M-P-T-O-N
Can You Use It in a Sentence? C-O-M-P-T-O-N, I win, then ball at your defeat/ C-O-M-P-T-O-N, my city mobbing in the street
Degree of Difficulty: 6/10. Compton is a phonetically spelled word, making it easy to sound out even if you couldn’t spot the South LA community on a map. Still, it’s generally an unfamiliar word to anyone outside of rap fans who have had NWA to familiarize them. That makes Kendrick Lamar’s spelling of his hometown all the more necessary, using his word like a hot branding iron to burn its existence into the listener’s memory.
What Have We Learned? “Backseat Freestyle” and its Compton line is one of the least central spelling examples on this list, but its placement and overall effect make it essential. On a song filled with memorable lines, all roads lead to Compton, where Lamar constructs his whole world within the Good Kid, M.A.A.D City album. The Compton line also places Kendrick among his predecessors, hearkening back to when Dr. Dre spelled the same word on “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang”. It’s not surprising that a single line, a single decision, can have a multitude of reference points for Lamar, and it speaks to just the kind of genius he is. –Philip Cosores
03. Them – “Gloria” (1964)
The Word(s): G-L-O-R-I-A
Can You Use It in a Sentence? G-L-O-R-I-A. Gloria! I’m gonna shout it all night.
Degree of Difficulty: 4/10. And if anyone had trouble spelling Gloria (one of the least useful words to learn how to spell), by song’s end all should be remedied. First, there is the slow spell-out, where Van Morrison teases every letter before losing his cool on “i” and forgetting to finish the goddamn word. That’s cool, though, since he spells the word like 74 more times during the song. He really likes Gloria, and he wants you to know that.
What Have We Learned? What would be creepy from any other dude is endearing and romantic coming from Morrison. We get it. He’s Irish, he sings with the raspy splendor of a barroom angel, and he’s straightforward (we know little more about Gloria other than the fact she comes around, she’s 5’4″, she’s a sender, whatever that means, and she makes him feel good). Bonus points for inspiring Patti Smith’s version, which inserts 100,000x more poetry into the song without taking away much of the spelling fun. –Philip Cosores
02. The Kinks – “Lola” (1970)
The Word(s): C-o-l-a, L-o-l-a
Can You Use It in a Sentence? She walked up to me, and she asked me to dance/ I asked her her name, and in a dark brown voice she said, “Lola”/ L-O-L-A Lola, lo lo lo lo Lola
Degree of Difficulty: 2/10. Names can be tricky, but this one’s pretty simple. It goes just like it sounds, rolling off the tongue in two syllables. You know, it rhymes with that fizzy beverage varietal best exemplified by Coke and Pepsi? You got it.
What Have We Learned? Well, for one, we’ve learned that names can be incredibly iconic, and yet there can be a lot of complicated identity going on under that powerful face. The repetitions of the name in “Lola” are so clawingly easy — just as easy, in fact, as the connection the singer has with Lola. And yet as the song goes on, it becomes more clear that the woman he meets might in fact be a man. Discussing transgender issues in songs is still pretty uncommon today, and yet this song tackles the subject deftly, all through a sweet little name. –Lior Phillips
01. Aretha Franklin – “Respect” (1967)
The Word(s): R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Can You Use It in a Sentence? R-e-s-p-e-c-t/ Find out what it means to me/ R-E-S-P-E-C-T/ Take care, TCB
Degree of Difficulty: 4/10. This one would be a little higher if it weren’t for the fact that the Queen of Soul quickly turned this song into one of the most iconic hooks of all time. Decades later, Aretha Franklin’s quick-sung demand for dignity and care just tumbles out starting on the first letter.
What Have We Learned? Though it works as a spelling lesson, the hook to “Respect” is an easily digestible explainer on the common decency and goodness that each and every one of us deserves. Initially a lesser hit for Otis Redding, this one found the perfect vocalist and moment in Aretha Franklin and 1967. America was still in the thick of the Civil Rights Movement, not to mention a burgeoning wave of feminism, and this song finds the passion of both — beyond just being an absolutely stellar arrangement and all-time great chorus from one of the greatest vocalists of all time. –Lior Phillips