Did an Italian Singer Score a Hit Song Using ‘Nonsense’ English Lyrics?

A decades-old cross-cultural hit by Adriano Celentano and Celeste Mori was brought back to light both in the U.S. and the pair’s native Italy in November 2020, thanks to social media and a Scottish artist.

First, the song:

Harriet Mould found herself becoming covered by the press in her own right after tweeting about “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” the 1972 track Celentano wrote that was famously intentionally unintellgible aside from the phrase “all right” appearing.

Mould originally wrote:

Italian singer Adriano Celentano released a song in the 70s with nonsense lyrics meant to sound like American English, apparently to prove Italians would like any English song. It was a hit, and resulted in this: THE GREATEST VIDEO I HAVE EVER SEEN.

Her tweet has been shared shared more than 56,000 times since she published it on November 26, 2020 and highlighted (“liked”) more than 194,000 times.

“It’s a bit overwhelming, to be honest,” said Mould, who also works in public relations for the Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh. “I’ve had the odd viral tweet before, but never with this level of rapid, enthusiastic interaction. The number of comments from people saying it’s brightened their day is so lovely, especially considering the year we’ve all had. Plus, it’s a banger of a tune. I’d never heard it before, so I’m glad other people are getting as much of a kick out of it as me.”

Mould said she first found the video — taken from a 1974 episode of the variety show Milleluci where Celentano performed the track alongside Raffaella Carrà — on Facebook. That post, first published in 2014, has been shared more than 18,000 times on that platform at the time we published this story.

Whether Celentano wrote “Prisencolinensinainciusol” out of a desire to prove how much his countrymen loved anything sung in English is unconfirmed; in marking the song’s 40th anniversary in 2012, he told NPR through an interpreter:

Ever since I started singing, I was very influenced by American music and everything Americans did. So at a certain point, since I like American slang — which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than to sing in Italian — I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate. And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn’t mean anything.

So to make a comparison, it’s like what happened with the Tower of Babel. Everyone wanted to go towards the sky, and they were punished because God confused all the languages and no one understood each other anymore. This is the reason why I wrote this song.

Celentano also said at the time that he did not write down any of his lyrics before recording the track.

“I made a loop of four beats, four drumbeats,” he explained. “And so then, I went to the microphone in the recording studio, and I started improvising. And based on that song, I made the arrangements.”

He also noted that “Prisencolinensinainciusol” did not get much attention during its initial release. But things turned around after he performed the song again on another program, Formula Due, dressed as a teacher singing to a group of schoolgirls; the song subsequently reached the Top 10 in not only Italy but Belgium, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. He also said that the song reached No. 86 on the American Top 100, but we have not been able to confirm that.

Yet Celentano, aged 82, is no one-hit wonder. He remains active and last released an album in 2019. NPR host Guy Raz described him to American listeners by saying, “Imagine the love child of Jim Carrey, Bill Maher and Tom Jones, and you get Celentano.”

Similarly, Mould’s tweet did not mark the first time “Prisencolinensinainciusol” grabbed a wave of new listeners. For example, the song received a boost in 2009 when it was covered by the popular blog BoingBoing. Then co-editor Cory Doctorow, who wrote the post spotlighting the track, told NPR:

It actually reminded me a lot of a friend of mine who — his background is Canadian and Finnish. And he was always able to talk in nonsense Finnish in a way that Fins, when they heard it, it was like his greatest party trick. And that’s exactly what it sounded like to me. I finally had the experience of what it’s like to be on the other side of that. It really sounded English-y.

The song has also appeared in two separate shows aired on the FX network in consecutive years — first on Fargo in 2017, and a year later on the show Trust.

Celentano also performed the song with musician and polyglot Manu Chao:

The resurgence of “Prisencolinensinainciusol” also spurred a new round of press for the song in its homeland, with the newspaper Corriere della Sera saying, “The moral of this story? It is said that the Queen of France Marie Antoinette complimented her milliner who invented her hats: ‘You always have new ideas.'” And the seamstress in return: ‘Thank you my sovereign, but there are no new ideas, only what you no longer remember.'”