Finally! Whistling is cool again
A Swedish pop band resurrects a retro musical technique, and Boston goes with the flow
Barring an outbreak of chapped lips, or something equally unforeseen, Swedish pop sensations Peter Bjorn and John will take the stage Sept. 7 at Avalon in Boston before a crowd full of heads bopping, bodies bouncing, and hands clapping.
And lips puckering.
It promises to be a tooting tribute to the trio with the international hit single "Young Folks."
The song is built around a whistling hook so addictive that it has helped regenerate an art form long relegated to the realm of dog-walkers, bird-watchers, and the TV-hawked tunes of Roger Whittaker. (Those of a certain age will remember the incessant pitching for Whittaker, he of "Mexican Whistler," "Australian Whistler," "Irish Whistler," you get the idea.)
Like a crew of construction workers shrilly signaling their approval of a pretty passerby, "Young Folks" has drawn attention to whistling as one of music's most delicious techniques.
Here's what the British website teenfirst (teenfi.com) had to say about the indie anthem: "For so long the whistle has been in decline. . . . Now the whole world whistles with Peter Bjorn and John."
Professional whistler Linda Parker Hamilton, owner and moderator of the worldwide online whistling forum Orawhistle, says "Young Folks" has created more buzz around whistling than any other song in the last 50 years, or since the title track to the movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai" was released in 1957.
"It's definitely very catchy," says Hamilton, 55, who recently found herself in a Toronto hardware store when "Young Folks" popped into her head. She was moved to whistle along.
That's how it plays in Boston. A year after the song was first released, folks young and old are still whistling it like mad: on subway cars and street corners; at house parties and in dance clubs.
At some music venues like Great Scott in Allston, "Young Folks" has turned the puckered lip into as much of a symbol of the indie pop scene as fist-pumping is at a punk concert or moshing is at a hard-core show.
Jeffrey Sullivan, a 27-year-old travel consultant from Somerville, has been swept up by "Young Folks" whistlemania.
He whistles the song in the shower, on bike rides, at nightspots. He constantly notices the song breezing by him from others, on the sidewalk, in the office.
"It's a carefree song," Sullivan says. "Around Cambridge and Somerville, I always hear people whistling that."
Naomi Blumberg and her boyfriend, Joey Shapiro, were in a Somerville shop several months ago when they traded knowing looks. "Young Folks" was playing in the background, and one of the customers starting whistling it.
"It's gotten to the subconscious point," says Shapiro, a 27-year-old Somerville barista. "You hear the tune and start whistling."
Blumberg says she can hear Shapiro whistling "Young Folks" before he even reaches her Somerville apartment. She wishes she had his powerful projection because she fancies the song, too, but her attempts yield more of a wispy sound.
"I'd like to join in the fun of all the whistling," says Blumberg, 30, assistant curator at the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College.
Clubgoers say "Young Folks" and its accompanying whistle-alongs have become a signature sound on Friday nights at Great Scott, a venue of live acts and recorded Britpop known as the pill.
When the song is spun, they say, denizens immediately jump on the dance floor, where they use their lips for more than smooching and sucking on Pabst Blue Ribbon tall boys. They're whistling to a song about a guy and a girl trying to connect.
Back in the day, whistling was like that: a major part of the American music experience.
During the 1930s and 1940s, music historians say, many big bands incorporated a special whistling segment into their horn sections.
Then the simple, soothing whistling aesthetic was drowned out by everything from the hubbub of urban life to blaring TV shows to raging guitar solos.
Orawhistle says whistling is embedded in more than 350 popular songs, from Guns N' Roses' "Patience" to Pat Boone's "Love Letters in the Sand," and from Queensryche's "The Lady Wore Black" to Perry Como's "Magic Moments." Still, the style has been largely seen as something of a musical sideshow.
On "Young Folks" -- in which a female cameo sings the girl's part -- the whistling serves as the soul of the song.
Paired with a primal pentatonic melody, it's the distinct and wistful flavor of the whistle that lets the song float above the typical clutter on the airwaves, songsmiths say.
"It stands out as different," says Jack Perricone, chair of the songwriting department at Berklee College of Music. "We're all searching for sounds to intrigue the listeners."
In Boston, a college town with an indie-music streak, they've listened hard and long to the song: on TV, in a "Grey's Anatomy" episode; on the Internet, via a mixtape rendition by hip-hop star Kanye West; on the radio, from massive airplay on stations like WBOS, WXRV, and, especially, WFNX, according to Billboard magazine.
Brad Searles, author of a Boston-based music blog, Bradley's Almanac, says "Young Folks" has compelled him to whistle along in the car like no other song since he was a 10-year-old in the back seat of his parents' auto trying to emulate the sounds on Peter Gabriel's 1980 tune, "Games Without Frontiers."
He says he finds it almost impossible not to whistle along with "Young Folks."
"Yeah, I can't help it," says Searles, now 37. "It's just catchy as hell."
He believes that most anyone who hears it gets trapped by the tune, and is obliged to whistle, too.
"If they say they haven't," the Allston resident says, "they're probably lying."
That's because the utter freshness of the sound, along with memories of whistling it might trigger, causes a body to bolt to attention when the song plays.
"It will grab a lot of parts of the brain," says Suzanne Hanser, chair of Berklee's music therapy department.
Also, though not all of us can play along with a guitar or piano solo, most can whistle.
The ability to hear the tune over and over and over by whistling it is another reason why the song stays stuck in our heads.
"The very repetition hardwires it onto our brain," Hanser says.
Even those unfamiliar with the never-ending "Young Folks" effect seem smitten with the song the first time they give a listen.
Adena Atkins, a 24-year-old songwriting major at Berklee, hadn't heard the song until a reporter recently played the "Young Folks" music video for her lyric-writing class.
Now, Atkins says she'd consider using whistling as a musical vessel on a future recording.
"After hearing that, it's part of my consciousness," says Atkins, who writes progressive folk tunes on the piano. "It's an interesting sound that's as valid as any other."
Susannah Buzard, 32, of Somerville, is not a whistler by nature, but loves the song.
So when Peter Bjorn and John played the Paradise in May, Buzard, a learning specialist at Lesley University, was there and couldn't help but whistle as well.
If form holds true, she'll be at Avalon next month, her eyes gently closed, her mouth slightly parted, a trilling salute to Peter Bjorn and John and the wayward whistle.
Ric Kahn can be reached at email@example.com.