Originally published in Revoice! Magazine Issue 1
A bloke with a guitar is haunting our public spaces – a bloke with a guitar playing Wonderwall.
Perhaps you haven’t met him, but Wonderwall Lad is a danger to the musical wellbeing of you and everyone you hold dear. He comes in many forms, but here are some of the most common: bloke at an open mic night playing Wonderwall; bloke at a house party, with an acoustic guitar he’s brought himself, playing Wonderwall; bloke on a street corner, busking, playing Wonderwall. From these descriptions, you might think Wonderwall Lad sounds harmless enough. But he isn’t.
To understand this, let’s examine how Wonderwall is represented in the form of media which, perhaps more than any other, has its finger on the pulse of popular culture – memes. Traditional academia has yet to fully acknowledge the power of meme interpretation, but it’s only a matter of time. All images here were taken from meme compendium and database knowyourmeme.com.
EXHIBIT A: photographic evidence of Wonderwall Lad caught in the act, callously flaunting his embarrassingly small guitar repertoire
EXHIBIT C: The video that, according to knowyourmeme, spawned a thousand imitators
EXHIBITS D- ∞:
How did Wonderwall Lad’s reputation get this bad? What is it about Wonderwall specifically, more than any other song, that has led to this reputation? After all, what all these memes suggest is that Wonderwall is bad because it’s overplayed (Wonderwall is one of the most covered songs of all time) – why, then, is it played so much in the first place?
Let’s look at Wonderwall from another angle. There’s another category of song that Wonderwall falls into – the ‘end of night banger’. For readers who might not have experienced this type of song, I’ll describe the scene for you: a group of people, on a night out, or at a party. It’s nearing the end of the night, everybody looks a little drained, everybody sort of wants to go home but nobody really wants to admit it yet. Then the DJ puts on Wonderwall. The crowd may be the same people that turn up their noses at Wonderwall in any other situation. The crowd are almost definitely not the rare type who listens to Wonderwall alone for their own personal enjoyment. But before long, everybody is in a group hug shouting the words into each other’s faces. Perhaps they know very well Wonderwall’s reputation as a song tainted with negative cultural associations, but nevertheless, in the moment they’re singing along like everyone else. If we put aside for the moment the role social pressure plays in situations like these, it’s clear Wonderwall has an unusual ability to coerce large groups of partygoers into group hugs.
Wonderwall’s affective powers sit at two very different sides of the emotional spectrum. On one hand, Wonderwall has a reputation as a terrible plague on the captive audiences of guitarists everywhere. On the other, it’s the ultimate singalong song. But what gives Wonderwall this unusual affective power in these very different situations? The answer might lie in the elements of the music traditionally considered to be the foundational materials of the song itself – the lyrics, form, harmony and melody. From a songwriting perspective, Wonderwall is arguably a very well-crafted and produced pop song (although one of the worst offenders in what has been called ‘The Loudness Wars’, the practice of compressing the dynamic range of music to make it easier to listen to, at the expense of detail). Or at least, it fits perfectly into the standard modern pop song mould. But it’s not just a well-made pop song – it’s an extremely vague well-made pop song. Lyrically, Wonderwall is (to its credit or otherwise, depending on your viewpoint) vague to the point of being almost meaningless. Barely anything concrete happens in the song at all. Noel Gallagher has said Wonderwall is addressed to ‘an imaginary friend who’s gonna come and save you from yourself’. Details are fuzzy on who this friend is or, what specific problems are being faced here. Wonderwall, then, is a song for every situation – any person can put themselves in the place of the singer, any friend can be in the place of the addressee, any problem can be the one the singer needs saving from. It’s a perfect blank canvas onto which anybody can project their own worries. Even the title of the song itself is whatever you want it to be – Liam Gallagher has said basically anything can be a wonderwall, even a public transport crisis: ‘It’s just a beautiful word. It’s like looking for that bus ticket, and you’re trying to fucking find it, and you pull it out, ‘Fucking mega, that is me wonderwall.’ But Wonderwall doesn’t just trick you into relating through its incredible vagueness – it tricks you into thinking it’s specific. With the line ‘I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now’, the song glues itself to whatever the listener is experiencing at that moment in time. Think of any social interaction you’ve ever had with anyone, and this is an appropriate phrase, whether you’ve suddenly fallen madly in love with them, or you’ve just found out they’re responsible for the death of your cat. ‘I don’t believe that anybody feels the way I do about you now’, you could tell someone right after they’ve told you they’re out of milk. It’s relatable, but feels specific.
It’s not just easy to relate to, it’s easy to play – almost anything can be a wonderwall, but also, almost anyone can play Wonderwall. It’s no surprise Wonderwall is one of the first songs many guitarists learn. Wonderwall’s signature sound comes from a very simple trick – the guitarist holds two fingers on the third fret of the highest two strings throughout. This sustains the notes G and D throughout, giving the song its distinctive shimmery sound. Many songs use the same chords as Wonderwall – Em, G, D, Am – but most of these chords require the guitarist to use all four fingers on their left hand. Playing Wonderwall, two fingers don’t even have to move. If you can get the strumming pattern right, It actually takes less physical effort to play Wonderwall than nearly any other popular guitar classic.. Is it any surprise that this song, more than any other, has reached the top of the pile for guitarists everywhere? It can mean anything, be addressed to anyone, and is almost uniquely easy to play.
Of course, the two situations outlined above are very different, and because of this, listeners will experience the song very differently in each. This is what Wonderwall Lad fails to take into account – music can’t have the same power in every context. A huge orchestral symphony will have a very different effect played in a nightclub, or a jazz bar, or a salsa class. Wonderwall Lad is guilty of completely misreading his audience, and assuming music has the same power in every situation, a ‘magic pill’ to bring listeners instant joy. And it’s not just context – everyone who hears Wonderwall will have a different response to it. Observe, for example, the response of a typical native Mancunian to the song Wonderwall. It’s not an uncommon practice among Mancunians, both in and out of Manchester, to request the song Wonderwall in every club they find themselves in. Hearing a busker play Wonderwall, my first reaction (I’m not from Manchester, I’m from nearby Bolton, but give me some creative license here) is to think to myself ‘oh God it’s another Wonderwall Lad’, but this is immediately followed by nostalgia for the North, and if I’m outside of Greater Manchester, a bit of homesickness. On the other hand, there are many from inside and outside Greater Manchester who just find Oasis’s Gallagher brothers completely insufferable, forever linked to a certain kind of arrogant, swaggering, annoying type of person, and can’t hear the song without these associations popping up. You can’t please everyone.
If you’re in the right situation, and if you’re the right sort of person, with the right people, Wonderwall can work unusually well as a vehicle for all your strongest feelings. All the things you would feel weird saying to the people you love directly are given an easy outlet by the song, with the added bonus that if anybody calls you out for being embarrassingly over-sincere you can blame Oasis. Wonderwall Lad is, perhaps, just trying to channel these feelings of warmth, connection and community, and spread a little love in a dark and stressful world. However, I would like to make it absolutely clear that he’s wrong, he’s embarrassing himself, and he should stop. Wonderwall remains only powerful as an end-of-night banger, or in the hands of a very talented cover artist. Anyway, here’s Wonderwall.