Everyone, even the harshest and most jaded of critics, had their first musical loves. One of ours was Weird Al Yankovic, that delightfully geeky master of parody. A decade and a half later, we still adore him — and a recent, non-musical stunt only renewed our passion. We won’t spoil the video for you, but we will say that it’s 20 seconds of pure, grammar-worshipping goodness.
The clip got us thinking about the way two of our favorite things, music and language, can join forces to create epically wonderful songs. English majors and fellow fans of grammar, vocab, linguistics, and literary devices in general, this mixtape’s for you.
Vampire Weekend — “Oxford Comma”
The Vampire Weekend boys may be cavalier about their relationship to grammar. “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma?” they ask us. But these days, only true grammar fiends would even know what to call the serial comma, much less have an opinion on it. (In case you were wondering, we at Flavorpill are emphatically for it.) The lyric itself is a throwaway line in an enjoyable but otherwise somewhat nonsensical song. Still, for those of us who don’t travel without a copy of The Elements of Style, it made for some fun, geeky inside joking.
Kleenex Girl Wonder — “Amelia”
This fairly little-known single is the sine qua non of musical vocab geekery. Check these lyrics: “I can’t take recidivism/So hit me with some criticism/Look at a rainbow through a prism/All you see is light/Amelia, ameliorate me.” That’s two SAT words in one chorus. Later in the song, we get “trepidation,” “piebald” and the boast, “I’ve got an eagle eye for recurring themes.” If that isn’t enough to make you want to marry KGW mastermind Graham Smith, well, the backbeat ain’t bad, either.
Jurassic 5 — “Quality Control”
Parts of this classic Jurassic 5 track sound like they come straight out of Schoolhouse Rock. A few verses after we’re reminded about verbs, subjects and predicates comes the exhortation: “You gots to get up on your vocab, you gots to have vocab/Letters make words and sentences make paragraphs.” Are you taking notes for the quiz?
Danielson — “Ship the Majestic Suffix”
Our best guess as to what this song is about has something to do with nouns as ports and suffixes as ships arriving to complete them and alleviate their loneliness. Sings the ever-cryptic Daniel Smith: “She tows lines/Transforms words/To be more than they are/When they are alone/On their own/Pointing to no one.” Bonus double entendre: “-ship” as suffix.
Joanna Newsom — “This Side of Blue”
We first fell in love with Newsom when we heard this track on her debut album The Milk-Eyed Mender. The line “And the signifieds butt heads with the signifiers” made us positively swoon with word-geek love. Linguists of the world unite!
The Magnetic Fields — “The Death of Ferdinand de Saussure”
Speaking of linguists, the always erudite Stephin Merritt wrote a song in which he imagined murdering one of the field’s leading lights.
Built to Spill — “Distopian Dream Girl”
No one gets out of high-school English without reading their fair share of dystopia novels. 1984, anyone? How about Brave New World? Perhaps Built to Spill should get a few points off the quiz for misspelling “dystopia” — but there’s no way you’re understanding what this odd song, full of non sequiturs (“My stepfather looks just like David Bowie/But he hates David Bowie/I think Bowie’s cool”), means without some good, old-fashioned knowledge of literary vocab.
Edan — “Fumbling Over Words That Rhyme”
Equal parts tough and nerdy, Edan’s ode to his beginnings and the old-school emcees that influenced him, from Grandmaster Flash to Kool Moe Dee to Slick Rick, is also a paean to language and learning: “Fumble over words that rhyme with a verse divine/I backtrack and think of the greatest of all-time/Class is in session, master this lesson/Teacher was a student, studied like a Buddhist.”
Matt and Kim — “Verbs Before Nouns”
So, this track’s titular parts of speech exist on more of a “meta” level than as anything more concrete. But the adorable Matt and Kim had us at the bouncy synths and gritty, sing-along vocals. Plus, we like to think of “verbs before nouns” as the “bros before hos”/“chicks before dicks” of the word-nerd set.
The Fall — “Repetition”
You may have learned the “three R’s” as “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.” Well, in the cantankerous world of Mark E. Smith, they’re all about “repetition, repetition, repetition.” It’s there in his lyrics and in the song’s repeating riffs. And hey, it’s a literary device, too.