Yira yira: Quintissential Tango Nihilism
Making sense of the lyrics...
Enrique Santos Discépolo was one of tango’s greatest creators and perhaps the embodiment of tango and porteño angst. No one did a better job at conveying (via excellent music and lyrics) these classic negative sentiments: the world is a mess (Cambalache), a woman stole everything from me (Chorra), try to be a hero and you will be betrayed (Fangal), If you love you’ll lose (Uno)…and the list goes on and on.
But Yira, Yira, one of his earliest tangos, takes the cake. This is nihilism in three minutes. Nihilism, according to Webster’s, is “a viewpoint that traditional values are unfounded and that existence is senseless and useless.” The term comes from the Latin world nihil, which means “nothing,” and if we look at the chorus we’ll see the word is Spanish, nada. According to the narrator, who is giving sage advice, nothing in life is about love…everything is a lie. No matter how much you suffer, the world just keeps turning, indifferent. Don’t ever hope for a helping hand.
Discépolo, one of tango’s most skilled poets, shows off a very tight form here. The two verses unfold as a pair of lists, with the main thought delayed until the last three lines. In the first the narrator says “you’ll feel the indifference of the world,” but he only says it after listing a number of misfortunes: being down on luck, out of money, with no work. After all of those things happen, he says, you’ll realize that the world is indifferent. The second verse uses the same device: the narrator says “you’ll remember this old fool who once complained.” But you’ll only remember me, he says, after you’ve been through another litany of misfortunes, including people trying on the clothes you’ll leave behind when you die!
And the chorus (which is the old fool’s complaint) reads like a nihilist manifesto: there is no love, it’s all lies, the world keeps turning! Whatever you do, don’t ever expect a helping hand!
Pretty bitter stuff. Also pretty essential reading and listing for those who want to dig into the tango and porteño psyche. I don’t want to imply that this represents its essence, but it’s certainly there in the rich, living cultural history of tango.
Music & Lyrics: Enrique Santos Discépolo