Lyric Theory: “Yakety Yak,” The Coasters (1958)

A 56-year-old mystery …

Thanks to my ole buddy Mark in Chains for inadvertently giving me a new subject idea! My friends and family and I have spent way too much time analyzing lyrics (often, the more inane the better), so why not regurgitate some of those debates here?

My Dad and I have a lot in common.  We both needed glasses at a young age, we both have bad luck with customer service, and we both misheard the lyrics of  “Up On the Housetop” as “reindeer paws” (not a thing) vs. “reindeer pause” for decades.

But we fundamentally disagree about the gender of the child being barked at in the 1950s hit “Yakety Yak.” To review, the narrator of the song is a dissatisfied parent, nagging his offspring about various neglected chores and character flaws. We don’t learn much about said child, but I believe it’s a son — Dad thinks it has to be a daughter.  Let’s break down the lyrics for evidence.  Forgive any stereotyping below; we’re time traveling back to 1958 here.

Take out the papers and the trash
Or you don’t get no spendin’ cash
If you don’t scrub that kitchen floor
You ain’t gonna rock and roll no more
Boys take out the paper.  Boys rock and roll.  Girls, however, do scrub the kitchen floor.  Still, the first-stanza advantage goes to the boys.
Just finish cleanin’ up your room
Let’s see that dust fly with that broom
Get all that garbage out of sight
Or you don’t go out Friday night

Presumably, both sons and daughters had to clean their rooms.  And since the father figure has already bitched about taking out the trash, I assume the “garbage” here is just filth in the kid’s bedroom.  I’d say this verse could go either way.

You just put on your coat and hat
And walk yourself to the laundromat
And when you finish doin’ that
Bring in the dog and put out the cat

Hmmm.  One would think that, back in 1958, girls were on laundry duty.  Pet duty?  Could go either way. So perhaps this verse swings slightly toward the fairer sex.

Don’t you give me no dirty looks
Your father’s hip; he knows what cooks
Just tell your hoodlum friends outside
You ain’t got time to take a ride

Here’s where it becomes completely obvious that we are dealing with father-son tensions. Let’s leave aside the hepcat lingo and focus on those “hoodlum friends” wanting to joyride. Dads try to protect their daughters from one hoodlum boyfriend taking her to park. Joyriding with multiple friends? That’s the stuff of young men. At least in the 1950s.

Convinced?

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5 thoughts on “Lyric Theory: “Yakety Yak,” The Coasters (1958)

    • Yeah, Dad’s theory is that it is the daughter’s hoodlum beau (and his friends, I guess? Freaks and Geeks style?)

  1. Hoodlum is a weird word, definitely only applicable to guys. However, I’m even more interested in the idea of a “laundromat” in the late 1950s. Originally this was a brand name for Westinghouse’s automatic laundry machines. But in this song, the boy has to put on his coat and hat before going to the laundromat, so clearly this family isn’t rich enough to have its own automatic laundry facilities in the home. Commercial laundering is an old business; witness the 19th century stereotype of the immigrant Chinese launderer.

    One could argue that the boy is getting off relatively easily in that he doesn’t have to wash clothes manually at home, as would have been the habit in lower class homes of the early 20th century.The 50s were a time of great advances in automation, when machines seemed like the solution to improving work efficiency and increasing leisure time in the home, leading to the transitory phenomenon of the “housewife.” But it wasn’t long before automation went to the factories as well, and people began to fret whether the efficiencies which lowered the cost of goods were worth the jobs being displaced by machines. Progress marches on.

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