Vampire Weekend, Lil Jon, the Dalai Lama, & the Oxford Comma: a fuller consideration


You have probably by now heard all about this week’s dust-up, kerfuffle, brouhaha, call it what you will, about the Oxford Comma:

By Associated Press, Published: June 30

LONDON — A report that Oxford University had changed its comma rule left some punctuation obsessives alarmed, annoyed, and distraught. Passions subsided as the university said the news was imprecise, incomplete and misleading.Catch the difference between the two previous sentences? An “Oxford comma” was used before “and” in the first sentence, but is absent in the second, in accordance with the style used by The Associated Press.
Guides to correct style differ and the issue became heated on Twitter after reports of the Oxford comma’s demise.
But have no fear, comma-philes: the Oxford comma lives.
Oxford University Press, birthplace of the Oxford comma, said Thursday that there has been no change in its century-old style, and jumped into the Twittersphere to confirm that it still follows the standard set out in “New Hart’s Rules.”…
The kerfuffle at least answered the musical question posed by indie band Vampire Weekend: “Who gives a —- about an Oxford comma?”

This must have been one of those occasions where a million people at once (myself among them) thought it would be at least mildly clever and apt to reference the Vampire Weekend song (“Oxford Comma”).  I wonder if it shot to the top of the iTunes download charts this week.

I had never paid close attention to the lyrics to the song.  First of all, although by some standards I could probably count as a “punctuation obsessive,” as this A.P. piece rudely puts it (I prefer “comma-phile”), I’ll admit didn’t precisely know the definition of an Oxford comma.  But I took the concept to stand for snobby/fussy/elite punctiliousness among the educated/preppy classes… a perfect objective correlative for Vampire Weekend, as they style themselves as auto-ethnographers of that world.

Here are the full lyrics:

Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?/ I’ve seen those English dramas too/ They’re cruel/ So if there’s any other way/ To spell the word/ It’s fine with me, with me

Why would you speak to me that way/ Especially when I always said that I/ Haven’t got the words for you/ All your diction dripping with disdain/ Through the pain/ I always tell the truth

Who gives a fuck about an Oxford climber?/ I climbed to Dharamsala too/ I met the highest lama/ His accent sounded fine/ To me, to me

Check your handbook/It’s no trick/ Take the chapstick/ Put it on your lips/ Crack a smile/ Adjust my tie/ Know your boyfriend, unlike other guys

Why would you lie about how much coal you have?/ Why would you lie about something dumb like that?/ Why would you lie about anything at all?/ First the window, then it’s to the wall/ Lil’ Jon, he always tells the truth

First the window, then it’s through the wall/ Why would you tape my conversations?/ Show your paintings/ At the United Nations/ Lil’ Jon, he always tells the truth

“Oxford comma” turns into “Oxford climber;” punctiliousness about obscure grammar rules associated with social climbing and Anglophile snobbishness.

Wiki tells us that:

on January 28, 2008, Michael Hogan of Vanity Fair interviewed Ezra Koenig regarding the title of the song and its relevance to the song’s meaning. Koenig said he first encountered the Oxford comma (an optional comma before conjunctions at the end of a list) after learning of a Columbia University Facebook group called Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. The idea for the song came several months later while Koenig was sitting at a piano in his parents’ house. He began “writing the song and the first thing that came out was ‘Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?'” He stated that the song “is more about not giving a fuck than about Oxford commas.”

Someone here explicates the line “Why would you lie about how much coal you have?:

Lying about how much coal you have can easily be done through the omission of an oxford comma.

An oxford comma is the comma right before the and in a series.

I have 100 pounds of iron, 50 pounds of steel, and coal.
I have 100 pounds of iron, 50 pounds of steel and coal.

In the first example, the amount of coal is not specified, while in the second example there are clearly 50 pounds of coal. By omitting the oxford comma, you can let people think that you have 50 pounds of coal, even if you do not, as the oxford comma is often viewed as optional.

But why would you lie about how much coal you have? why would you lie about something dumb like that?

What worries me a bit about this analysis, however, is that when I Googled “Oxford comma, steel, coal” in a few variants, I kept getting references to Vampire Weekend and none to the steel/coal sentence as a classic one used to explain the grammar rule in Britain.  Perhaps I needed to go further down the Google pages, though.

Reading through old comments on the song’s entry on songmeanings.net, one oft-debated crux relates to the references to “Lil Jon” (the rapper) — or is it the former Australian Prime Minister?

The Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, was know as both Honest John and Little John. He very vocally supported Bush’s War On Terror, even going so far as to make a speech at the United Nations.

Possibly there could be an allusion there, but probably not, because “First the window, then it’s to the wall/ Lil Jon, he always tells the truth” is a citation of these Lil Jon lyrics from his huge (but crude, NSFW, sorry) hit, “Get Low:”

Get low, Get low, Get Low, Get Low
To the window, to the wall,
To the sweat drip down my balls

To all skeet skeet skeet skeet goddamn
To all skeet skeet skeet skeet goddamn [? or something]

So as someone commented (sorry I’ve lost this reference already), the line “To the window, to the wall, to the sweat drip down my balls” does not need an Oxford comma because “Lil’ Jon, he always tells the truth,” that is, unpretentious, crude American speech conveys its meaning very effectively.  It doesn’t really matter whether or not there is a comma after “to the walls” (although I actually am not sure what “meaning” that line conveys, but perhaps that’s the point, that meaning per se often matters less than rhythm, rhyme, and feeling).

Another crux relates to “I climbed to Dharamsala too/I met the highest lama/ His accent sounded fine/ To me, to me.”  Liddiloop explains that “Dharamsala is a village in Northern India which has been, since the early 1960s, the capital-in-exile for Tibetan refugees fleeing persecution in Chinese-occupied Tibet, and yes, the Dalai Lama lives there, and is the ‘highest Lama’ referred to in the song. He is known for his idiosyncratic english which is far from fluent, but loved by many – so i reckon the singer is pointing out that you don’t need to be word perfect in order to get meaning across…”

So the speaker links Dalai Lama and Lil Jon as speakers of improper, non-standard “weird English” that is preferable to the fussily grammar-obsessed language of the snotty interlocutor, presumably the singer’s English (or maybe Anglophile, just back from a year abroad?) girlfriend whose “diction drip[s] with disdain.”

Other cruxes: the “coal” — is this simply a reference to the sentence about steel and coal commonly used to illustrate the Oxford comma, or (also) a figure for wealth, possibly diamonds?  The chapstick: suggesting that the girlfriend is almost OCD in her fussy obsessiveness and concern with appearances?

Thinking about this has given me a fuller appreciation for the wit, density, and allusiveness of Vampire Weekend’s lyrics, and of the complexity and cleverness of their self-positioning in reference to prestige codes.  Also codes and implications of nationality and foreign travel, e.g. Oxbridge vs. Nepal vs the United Nations, different kinds of cosmopolitanism and the knowledge or wisdom it can but will not necessarily bring.  (One subtext: Vampire Weekend are often criticized or mocked for being too Ivy League, too “white,” pretentiously cosmopolitan in the way they draw on Afropop, etc.  So you can see why they might want to ally themselves with Lil Jon here — but as ever, they are smart and self-aware about that desire to achieve authenticity, too.)

Skeet skeet skeet goddamn! (Or is that skeet, skeet, skeet goddamn?)

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7 Responses

  1. I think you need to include this in L371 somehow. Or L202: look, this is how poems work! Surely this would get people’s attention. Of course, you’d also have to talk about sweaty balls in class.

  2. Yeah, the sweaty balls thing could be awkward. Anything to really connect with the kids, though, right?

  3. p.s. I also elided a yet-more NSFW (or for the classroom) line from that lyric…

  4. Amrak, mocking Vampire Weekend (or their fans) as “white boys” is so 2007!

  5. Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?…

    I believe the answers to this question, and possibly the question itself, are missing the (contextual) point. The question is from a song lyric (http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/vampireweekend/oxfordcomma.html), and I take the titular query to be a metap…

  6. […] not caring about Oxford Commas. I actually just looked up the song and its lyrics and found this really great blog post about “Oxford Comma,” Vampire Weekend, and actual Oxford commas among other things.  (You […]

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