Four years ago Vampire Weekend had a moderate modern rock hit with “Oxford Comma,” an ode to what many consider a superfluous punctuation mark. You know the song, the one that begins with the catchy — and crass — “Who gives a f*** about an Oxford comma?” As one who loves his punctuation — especially the semicolon! — I answered Vampire Weekend’s musical question with a resounding, “Me! I do! I give a f*** about an Oxford comma!”
(For those of us who are a few years away from our last English class, here’s a little review: an Oxford comma is a comma used before the conjunction at the end of a list.)
I know my love of quotation marks, exclamation points, parentheses, and the like is pretty old school, especially when I incorporate this formality into my text messages. But what can I say? Punctuation helps clarify the meaning of words and sentences. Plus, when punctuation marks are strung together they make awfully cute emoticons. 😉
Nowhere is this more evident than with song lyrics (except the emoticon part.) Even though we can’t see the lyrics — let alone the punctuation — when we listen to a song, the interpretation of where said punctuation falls can completely change the meaning of the tune.
The first time I gave this its due consideration was when I was discussing Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” with a friend. I took the title/chorus at face value. Don’t dream it’s over… meaning, it’s not over. In fact, it’s so not over that you shouldn’t even dream it. She inserted a comma into her interpretation: don’t dream, it’s over. As in: don’t even dream about it, baby. It’s OVER. That one comma completely changes the song’s meaning. We dubbed this phenomenon “the drama of a comma.”
Here are some more examples:
I DON’T KNOW HOW TO LOVE HIM
This ballad from Jesus Christ Superstar was a hit for both Yvonne Elliman and Helen Reddy in the early 70s. Elliman played Mary Magdalene in the movie and she sings this song of unrequited love about the J-man himself. Early on she sings, “I don’t know how to take this. I don’t see why he moves me. He’s a man. He’s just a man.” What follows has always baffled me. Is it: “And I’ve had so many men before. In very many ways, he’s just one more.”? Or is it: “And I’ve had so many men before in very many ways. He’s just one more.”? Does the “in very many ways” refer to how she’s had her many men before (you go, girl!), or does it refer to the fact that Jesus, in very many ways, is just like the other men she knows? Totally different meaning, depending on where one places the period. I know I could look this up on the interweb, but that would spoil all the fun of multiple interpretations.
This Toad the Wet Sprocket ditty throws me for a loop right out of the gate. The song begins, “Nothing’s so loud as hearing when we lie” which is immediately followed by, “the truth is not kind. And you’ve said neither am I.” Or could it be, “the truth is not kind. And you’ve said, ‘Neither am I'”? In the first version we can assume he’s singing to a girl and the girl thinks he, like truth, isn’t kind. In the second version, the girl is saying that she herself isn’t kind. Get it? This is really heavy stuff, depending on where one mentally puts those periods, commas and quotation marks.
WALK ON BY
Dionne Warwick makes it very clear from the get-go: “If you see me walking down the street and I start to cry each time we meet… Walk on by.” She begs him to stay away because she’s not over him yet. When her back-up singers help her with her plea, are they supporting her words (“Don’t stop!”) or contradicting her (“Don’t! Stop!”) I kind of like the latter, as I figure she’s putting on a good facade but she really doesn’t want him to walk on by and would prefer that he stopped to chat with her. Don’t! Stop!
Okay, I doubt that many of you have heard this song, but it is one of my favorite gems from Syd Straw (who you’ve probably never head of, either.) It’s this great nostalgic tune about an old flame of hers. Each line begins with her asking him if he remembers her, followed by a little reminder of what they did. “Hey, remember me? We met ten years ago at CBGBs on New Year’s Eve.” “Hey, remember me? You took me to the movies to see Soylent Green.” At the end of the song she repeatedly sings (shouts?), “Hey! Remember me? Hey! Remember me?” But at a certain point I feel like the question becomes a command, “Hey! Remember me! Hey! Remember me!” She’s no longer asking if he remembers her, she’s demanding that he remember her. In my mind, the question mark has become an exclamation point. Drama!
Do you have any examples of how the placement of punctuation changes the meaning of a song? Do you give a f*** about an Oxford comma? Or am I the only one who ever thinks about these things?
Fair enough. The cheese stands alone.
Guns N’ Roses
Panic! at the Disco
For the latest pop culture news and voting, make sure to sign up for the People’s Choice newsletter!