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Songs for Whistling

by Raymond Cummings  |  July 11, 2013


Whistling is a funny, deeply perplexing thing. As a habit, it's downright insufferable; my estimation of a person takes a nosedive if whistling is a persistent habit, because it betrays a lack of concern for the sensitivities. On the other hand, whistling -- natural or artificial -- can have the effect of accentuating or bolstering an otherwise adequate pop song.

The two best-known whistling pop songs -- Otis Redding's ("Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay" and Bobby McFerrin's "Don't Worry, Be Happy" -- are sterling examples. The whistle solo that closes Redding's classic helps blur the line it toes between melancholy and sloth, while the chipper whistle that forewords McFerrin's island-time Zen exhortation to chillax lends the song a dreamier cast.

On "Sea Ghost,", The Unicorns employ whistling as a fanfare portending nautical weirdness. Whistling arrives late in Foster the People's "Pumped Up Kicks," seemingly as an interlude, until it re-emerges shortly thereafter, woven into the tune's DNA; on "How Soon Is Now?", The Smiths use it more subtly (and spookily). Emcees Juelz Santana and Flo Rida crafted hit singles around sexualized notions of whistles: the manifested machismo of men on construction sites and the police whistle as phallic stand-in, respectively.

In the cases of Peter Bjorn and John's "Young Folks" and The Bangles' "Walk Like an Egyptian" -- radio touchstones separated by two decades -- the whistle is permitted roles that are more central and iconic, almost becoming characters integral to the melodic action. Then there are the slide-whistle sidles: Clipse employing them to side-step accusations of catting around ("Ma I Don't Love Her"), and Tony! Toni! Tone! telegraphing a desire to hit the skins of "All the Way." Post-punk legends Husker Du whipped the slide out for a creepy blink-and-miss-it interlude ("The Baby Song"), while party-pop crusaders The B-52's utilize it to up the barnstorming ante of "Party Out of Bounds" live.

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