In Praise of Whistling in Pop Music

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    When Billy Joel was working on what would become his breakout 1977 album, “The Stranger,” he played the opening chords of the title track for his producer Phil Ramone, whistling a melody that he imagined another instrument would play in the final recording. “I whistle the whole thing and I finish,” he wrote in 2013, “I look at him and I say, ‘So what instrument should that be?’” Ramone responded, “You just did it.” The rest is music history.

    On Monday, Joel announced he’ll be releasing his first new pop single in nearly two decades next week. Fortuitous timing! While listening to “The Stranger” over the weekend, I found myself considering the pop musical whistle.

    It’s such a simple expression, but in a song it can convey a wide range of feelings and tones. A whistle can be childlike and playful (see: the whistle solo on Paul Simon’s “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”) or it can be an adult expression of vulnerability (like the broken whistle that John Lennon musters on the wrenching “Jealous Guy”). Some whistles are innocent as lambs, and others — particularly those of the “wolf” variety — are unmistakably lascivious. Best of all, though, it’s a free instrument that almost all of us carry all the time. You don’t even need to take lessons to play it passably.

    While we await Joel’s latest, “Turn the Lights Back On” (which may or may not feature a whistle break), today’s playlist is a homage to the pop musical whistle, in all its glory and multitudes. I hope these 10 songs will wet your … well, never mind. And if you don’t know how to whistle along, you can always consult Lauren Bacall.

    Listen along on Spotify while you read.

    The aforementioned whistle acts as a kind of theme for the album “The Stranger,” setting its tone and recurring later, at the tail end of the closing track. Joel said the feeling he was going for was the “sound of a man walking down a Parisian street at night, and the streets are all glistening from rain.” (Listen on YouTube)

    A repeated, beckoning whistle urges on Caroline Polachek’s restless heroine in this 2021 single, which plays out like a kind of pop travelogue. (Listen on YouTube)

    Peter Gabriel, hauntingly, depicts war as a kind of children’s game on this lilting hit from 1980, which features backing vocals from Kate Bush, invoking the French name of the European game show “Jeux sans frontières.” The whistled motif that echoes throughout is at once playful and eerie. (Listen on YouTube)

    I almost included this 2006 tune on my “Summer of Saltburn” playlist a few weeks ago, but it’s an even better fit here. “Young Folks,” the best-known track from the Swedish indie-pop group Peter Bjorn and John, has a happy-go-lucky whistled refrain that immediately recalls a particular sense of mid-2000s whimsy. (Listen on YouTube)

    Speaking of whimsy, here’s a Paul Simon classic that also made an appearance on my Wes Anderson playlist last year. The song’s arrangement is so light and childlike that a midsong guitar solo would be too intense — so, Simon wisely reasoned, how about a whistle solo? (Listen on YouTube)

    You may recognize this one thanks to Beck, who memorably sampled it in the intro of his “Odelay” track “Sissyneck.” A whistled melody snakes through a 1969 song from the jazz pianist and electronic music pioneer Dick Hyman, who contrasts familiar human-generated sounds with the synthetic ones made with the a Moog synthesizer, then a novel instrument. (Listen on YouTube)

    A minimalist, melodically descending whistle provides the infectious hook for this 2005 hit by the New York rapper and Cam’ron collaborator Juelz Santana, and provides the main reason this song still gets stuck in my head all the time. “I decided to simplify,” Santana once said of the song’s composition. “I knew that the whistle would be something that people would come back to — and be distinctive. People don’t want to hear too much.” (Listen on YouTube)

    I appreciate the wobbly imperfection in the whistling solo in the middle of this one because it heightens the vulnerability that Lennon channels throughout a deeply personal song. (Listen on YouTube)

    A karaoke standard — even more so if you can match Axl Rose note for note in his extended whistle intro. (Listen on YouTube)

    Finally, I’ll play you out with this all-timer from Otis Redding, who perfectly captures the laid-back feeling of “sittin’ on the dock of the bay, wasting time” by idly whistling a tune as the song fades out. (Listen on YouTube)

    Whistling tunes we hide in the dunes by the seaside,

    Lindsay


    Listen on Spotify. We update this playlist with each new newsletter.

    “In Praise of Pop Music Whistling” track list
    Track 1: Billy Joel, “The Stranger”
    Track 2: Caroline Polachek, “Bunny Is a Rider”
    Track 3: Peter Gabriel, “Games Without Frontiers”
    Track 4: Peter Bjorn and John, “Young Folks”
    Track 5: Paul Simon, “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard”
    Track 6: Dick Hyman, “The Moog and Me”
    Track 7: Juelz Santana, “There It Go (The Whistle Song)”
    Track 8: John Lennon featuring the Plastic Ono Band, “Jealous Guy”
    Track 9: Guns N’ Roses, “Patience”
    Track 10: Otis Redding, “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay”



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