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November 12, 2010

Book Notes - Allan Metcalf ("OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Allen Metcalf's new book, OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word, traces the history of the word "OK." However, Metcalf goes beyond the mere history of the word's adaption into American usage, he delves into its integration into pop culture as well.

For someone who loves words and has more than a passing interest in etymology, I found OK to be a fascinating history of one of this country's most widely used words.

In his own words, here is Allan Metcalf's Book Notes music playlist for his book, OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word:

OK. Is there any other expression so common, so necessary to everyday dealings, as OK? It's the greatest word ever invented in America and our most successful export, known and used around the world.

You could write a book about OK. I just did – it's called OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word, published by Oxford University Press in October 2010. And OK is indeed the greatest. From its awkward beginning in an 1839 Boston newspaper as a dumb joke (abbreviation for "all correct"), through a series of improbable accidents, OK managed to overcome its humble origin to become arguably the most important word in our language.

And yet, though it expresses a distinctive American attitude and is on everyone's lips, OK is rare in music. That's because OK is, frankly, not very musical. It's just . . . OK.

Music stirs the emotions—happiness, heartbreak, enthusiasm, despair, love, lust, hate. In the words that go with the music, you want something that expresses emotion, or something that soothes it. But OK is passionless, neither exciting nor calm, just neutral. It doesn't imply either joy or sorrow, agitation or tranquility, only that something is satisfactory. Even yes and no have more passion than OK. That's why we use OK so often, just to get through the routine business of the day. Very few of us are passionate all the time.

But there are musicians who discover musical potential in OK. Here is a baker's dozen of them, each OK in their own way. And it's appropriate to get going with an OK, go!

"White Knuckles" - OK Go!
OK: Pay attention

One use for OK is to call for attention. "OK . . . Go!" is what two 11-year-olds heard from their art instructor at the Interlochen summer arts camp in Michigan when it was time for them to start drawing. Years later, they chose that energetic command to name their musical group. The energy came from go, not OK, so perhaps it's not surprising that they don't bother use OK in their songs.
Not that it really matters what they say or sing. If you do YouTube, you know OK Go! is famous more for their videos than for the music that goes with them. Who can pay attention to the music anyhow, with such amazing marchers, machines, or performing dogs?

For purposes of OK, one OK Go! song is as good as another. Might as well go to the dogs. So let's make it White Knuckles, and be sure to watch the video.

"Vuvuzelas" - OK Music
OK: Calm

There's a group recently formed in Los Angeles that calls itself OK Music. Are they joking? Maybe not. Without a hint of irony, they say theirs is "Music That Makes You Feel OK." And how do they do that? By combining voice, violins, cello, keyboard, and drums for what they call "themed improvisations."

They explain on their website that "OK is a colloquial English word denoting approval, assent, or acknowledgment. Performances include elements of audience participation, where the listener may be able to suggest themes for the band to use as part of their improvisations."

At their very first performance in June 2010, they improvised a piece they called "Vuvuzelas." There was no vuvuzela in the room; the name was just a suggestion by Doris, an audience member. But it does have the same power to make you feel OK as . . . a quiet vuvuzela does, if you can imagine such a thing. And if you can't, give a listen.

"Good Morning, Good Morning" – the Beatles
OK: Monotonous

But what about songs that actually use OK? They can be bleak indeed.

And the Beatles know how to do bleak. Nothing expresses the bleak blandness of OK better than this Beatles classic about the monotony of daily life—"Everybody knows there's nothing doing"—with the repeated line "I've got nothing to say, but it's OK."

"Be OK" – Ingrid Michaelson
OK: Not Not OK

OK may be unexciting, but it's still a lot better than Not OK. From the perspective of "a gallery of broken hearts," Ingrid Michaelson's tribute to OK is uplifting, with its refrain: "I just want to be OK, be OK, be OK; I just want to be OK today." She uses her song in support of the "Stand Up to Cancer" campaign.

"I'm OK" – Christina Aguilera
OK: Not Not OK

Christina Aguilera also makes OK a good place to be, at least in contrast with growing up "in a war called home" with an abusive father. "Every morning that I wake I look back at yesterday," she declares in this 2002 song, "and I'm OK."

"It's Not Right but It's OK" – Whitney Houston
OK: Not Not OK

Whitney Houston sings of a lover leaving, saying that's OK—she'd rather be alone.

"It's Alright, It's OK" – Ashley Tisdale
OK: Not Not OK

Ashley Tisdale is positively enthusiastic about her lover's departure. "I'm so much better without you," she sings, as she flings (in her video) with a succession of replacement hunks.

"Watching the Wheels Go Round" – John Lennon
OK: Less Is More

Sometimes it's success that's not OK. John Lennon sings of "just sitting here watching the wheels go round and round": "People say I'm crazy doing what I'm doing. Well, they give me all kinds of warnings to save me from ruin. When I say that I'm OK, well they look at me kind of strange."

"OK, OK" – Juliana Hatfield
OK: More Is More

One way to ratchet a little excitement into OK is to repeat it until it becomes angry or defiant. Juliana Hatfield takes this to the limit in her song "OK, OK," which leads from five "shut up"s to the chorus: "OK OK, whatever you say, OK OK, I did it but I didn't. OK OK, don't make me get crazy. OK OK OK OK OK OK."

"My Boobs are OK" – Lene Alexandra Øien
OK: Exotic American Word

To an American, OK is just OK, but to the rest of the world, sometimes it's an exotic American word, conveying the glamour and excitement of America. At least that could be an explanation for the use of OK by the Norwegian singer Lene Alexandra, known in Norway by her full name Lene Alexandra Øien (try pronouncing that, you Americans!). As if anyone would argue otherwise, Lene declares in a perky song that her rather substantial boobs are OK, as she demonstrates in her almost X-rated YouTube video.

"I'm a Lumberjack and I'm OK" – Monty Python
OK: Exotic American Word

A British group gives another exotic twist to OK in what is the funniest OK song of all time. It's about a man who dreams of being a lumberjack in British Columbia. He repeatedly declares he's OK. He sleeps all night and works all day . . . sure, that's OK. He cuts down trees, he eats his lunch, he goes to the lavatory . . . huh? And it goes downhill from there, but he's always OK.

"Just Dance" – Lady Gaga
It's OK to Dance

So much for the various meanings and philosophies of OK. It can just come down to this: Dance, and you'll be OK. That's Lady Gaga's message in "Just Dance." She says she's "had a little bit too much much" and asks "What's going on on the floor?" but provides the remedy: "Just dance gonna be OK da da doo-doo-mmm."

"Stayin' Alive" – Bee Gees
OK Power

"I've been kicked around since I was born," goes the song from Saturday Night Fever, but "now it's all right, it's OK, and you may look the other way." It's hard not to get up and walk with the Bee Gees to the disco beat of "Stayin' Alive." It even helps revive people whose hearts have stopped—the 103 beats per minute are the perfect rhythm for CPR. OK? I'm dancing out on this one.

Note on source for OK Music (second number above)

[In compliance with Creative Commons policies, anyone is free to use, modify, distribute and broadcast our music for non-commercial purposes as long as credit is given to "OK Music" during its acknowledgements.]

Allan Metcalf and OK: The Improbable Story of America's Greatest Word links:

the author's website

Boston Globe review
Fritinancy review
FrogenYozurt review
Languagehat review
Newsweek review
Sistema Limbico review
Washington Post review

Voice of America interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)

Online "Best Books of 2010" lists

52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists