Rock and roll has always been about authority; mostly about subverting it. Grammar, too, is inherently political – communication is an act inherently infused with power dynamics, otherwise its freedom wouldn’t be such a fierce issue – and a battle between prescriptivism and descriptivism rages on in the dictionaries and universities of the world. That a deep connection exists between grammar/punctuation and rock music should be obvious – evidenced not only by the fact that the Wikipedia entry for “rock and roll” feels it important to state that the name of the genre is “often written as rock & roll or rock ’n’ roll,” but also by explicitly punctuation-conscious songs such as Vampire Weekend’s “Oxford Comma.”
The Oxford comma, or serial comma, is, also according to Wikipedia, “a comma placed immediately before the coordinating conjunction (usually and, or, or nor) in a series of three or more terms.” Its utility is in eliminating ambiguity in sentences; for instance, the phrase “The attendees at my birthday party included my best friend, an astronaut, and a three-toed sloth” means something quite different with that third comma and without it. Whether or not the Oxford comma should be mandated in writing is a controversial subject. Among its proponents are the Modern Language Association, the Chicago Manual of Style, and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. Against its general use are the Associated Press and other such muckraking advocates of dubiety.
In response to discovering a Facebook group called “Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma,” Vampire Weekend’s vocalist Ezra Koenig wrote the song as an expression not only of his opposition to the Oxford Comma in particular but seemingly in support of descriptivism in language generally. When Koenig sings, “I met the highest lama / His accent sounded fine to me,” the implication is that perception of a speaker’s authority should not be dependent on how strictly he or she conforms to more or less arbitrary linguistic conventions. In 2011, when the University of Oxford Styleguide itself decided to reverse its longstanding policy by recommending that use of the serial comma should be avoided as a general rule (despite the fact that the serial comma’s sobriquet is named after Oxford!), it was largely regarded as a heresy, and it ignited a debate that rages to this day. In answer to Ezra Koenig’s seemingly rhetorical question, “Who gives a [expletive deleted] about an Oxford comma?” the answer is: a great many people. Mostly grammar nerds. But still.
Your mom, that’s who. That’s whom? No, no, it’s definitely who. I’m like 99% sure it’s who.
Vampire Weekend’s opposition to the glorious Oxford Comma, though tragically misguided, is appropriately characteristic of the rebelliousness that typifies Rock Ampersand Roll music generally and especially the punk subgenre and its descendants. For decades, lyricists have abused grammar to fit frameworks that they deemed to be more important such as rhyme, metre, mood, and so on. But bands have also used and misused punctuation in their very names to signal their ideological opposition to traditional structures of power and to the hierarchy of advanced capitalism and bourgeois society.
So first of all, there’s a band called fun. Just typing that sentence was kind of weird for me. The name of the band is, officially, “fun.” All lower-case, and with a period at the end of it. They’re your typical indie rock band, basically, but the disruptive punk ethos to which they (and, let’s face it, every single rock band ever) aspire is quite evident and clear in the irony of their name: lower-case letters are not fun, and the period is perhaps the least fun of all punctuation marks. It literally denotes the end of whatever was happening before it showed up. The period is the guy that, when he arrives at the party, you know it’s over. The period is the ultimate buzzkill; that’s why I prefer the stately semicolon; with semicolons, the sentence can just keep on going, going, and going; at least it can continue until that stodgy old period shows up to spoil everything.
Which is why the band name is so irritating and amusing at the same time, which is what most of post-modernity’s popular music is supposed to be; because you have to get it to get it; and if you don’t get it, that means you’re part of the problem, you’re a tool of the system, man; you give an eff about an Oxford Comma; and I admit that now I am just cramming semicolons in wherever I can out of nothing but pure spite. But for realsies, how are you even supposed to say the band’s name? Because I (admittedly not a major fan of theirs) feel compelled to speak it in a stentorian, authoritative voice to make sure that the punctuation is audible. It’s fun, full stop. Which is absurd. There’s no less fun way to say the word fun.
Moving from the declarative to the interrogative, we have Therapy? Punctuationally if not musically, Therapy? is the clear predecessor of fun. in that they both have inappropriate diacritical marks after a single noun, and that they both give Microsoft Word heart palpitations when it automatically capitalizes the following word and can’t understand why I keep going back and lower-casing it.
According, again, to our friend Wikipedia, the story of the band’s same hits a similar territory to the effect of the name itself – I mean, again, try saying it aloud; try using it in the middle of a sentence, e.g. “I wanted to buy tickets to the Therapy? show but I spent all my allowance on a new thesaurus.” I tried saying it just now and gave myself a wicked case of hiccups. Anyway, the story:
Much has been made over the years of the unusual question mark suffix to the band’s name. In early interviews the band said that the name was “really deep” and intended to raise the question “do you need therapy?”, but in a 1992 interview guitarist Andy Cairns admitted that it was a chance design when he was working on band’s first record sleeve. Working with Letraset transfers, Cairns misaligned the band’s name, and used the “?” icon to fill the space to the right. “And then we thought, well maybe we can bluff our way through when people start reading into it.”
Which, again, frustrating + funny, or frustrating for humorous effect. Some people will look at this origin and interpret it as a sign of the band’s contempt for their fans, or as characteristic of pretension that manifests as trying to portray as deep the merely obscure. On the other hand, there also is a political significance to the name’s insignificance: the question mark serves also as an imperative to question. In particular, to question authority, and even more specifically, to question linguistic authority. While on the surface, “Therapy?” is a statement of powerlessness – not only does its speaker quite likely require the help of a mental health professional, but he or she can’t even make that decision on their own, they need someone else’s advice before they can be sure that getting help is the right thing to do – at the deeper level, when it is revealed that the question mark is really nothing but a typography glitch that stuck, our confidence in the authority of the organization it stands for (the band) is undermined. We thought they were trying to communicate something, but really they aren’t. And that undermining of authority, subverting the semiotic force of the band’s name itself, serves very well the mission of punk rock.
The response becomes not just “You can’t tell me whether or not I need therapy,” but moreover, echoing the “Death of the Author” literary theory of Roland Barthes, “You can’t even dictate what the words that you say mean when I hear them.”
The very same principle applies to the British indie synth-punk band “Does It Offend You, Yeah?” which has not only that terminating question mark but even a comma. Not an Oxford comma, but a comma nonetheless. At first glance, it seems like a rhetorical question, and even more than a little threatening. Like, this band will say things and do things that will probably piss you off, and you’re just going to have to deal with it. But, again, like Therapy?, the real meaning (non-meaning) is mundane as can be.
According to Dan Coop, synth player for the band,
Everybody thinks the name is some kind of statement but it’s a quote from David Brent in an episode of The Office. “When me and James Rushent first started writing music together we decided to put it up on MySpace. We needed a name to put as our profile name so just put what was the first thing that was said on TV, we switched it on and Ricky Gervais said “My Drinking – Does it offend you, yeah?” so we just went with that. No thought went into it whatsoever.
No thought went into it whatsoever, and that is precisely the point. Your search for intrinsic meaning in the statement is doomed from the start. In fact, meaning utterly fails to inhere. This too is a political statement. The “sensemakers” aren’t, and don’t. Those with systemic power over the contents of communication are incapable of installing in speech acts any single deliberate exclusive signification unless we voluntarily grant that power to them.
Possibly the most abstract of all band names presents, again, the same attitude. The band is called !!!. That’s three exclamation marks. In this case, the symbol is not being used in the typical way we’re accustomed to seeing it used in English – as emphasis or to underline the intensity of the preceding sentence. Really, it’s supposed to be the “pipe-with-a-dot-under-it” representing the International Phonetic Alphabet’s symbol for the postalveolar clicking phoneme in the Khoisan language spoken by the Botswana tribe in the 1980 film “The Gods Must Be Crazy.”
The sort of alienation effect that emerges from presenting listeners with a name that they probably will have no idea how to pronounce at first, and then if and when they learn to pronounce it will feel like kind of a tool actually doing so (since presumably they’re speaking in a language that doesn’t traditionally include that particular sound), evokes the same combination of frustration and humour that all the bands we’ve discussed here are probably going for. But even beyond that, the band have said that really, the correct way to say the name is just by saying any single syllable three times (they didn’t mention whether or not this will summon the band to your location, à la Beetlejuice, but I’m guessing it will). Thus, they further undermine their own authority by actually leaving it up to you how you say their name. Also relevant is that the name originates from “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” a comedy all about the dangers of ascribing undeserved authority, and it is appropriately ironic that the vehicle for delivering this relativist, egalitarian message is the most prescriptive, inherently structural figure of all: the humble punctuation mark.
- For more information on the Usage Wars, please consult “Authority and American Usage” by David Foster Wallace in the essay collection Consider the Lobster. Seriously, consult it. You’ll be a better person afterward. ↩
- And me, obviously, in case that sentence didn’t tip you off. ↩
- Like I’m pretty sure that the band Tool only chose that name so that they could laugh at their fans going around wearing t-shirts with the word “TOOL” on them. ↩