Superficiality, Alienation, Rhythm: Snoop, Clueless, Woody Allen, and the English Language

(Editor’s note: had to re-post to fix the numbering.) Because this is a post about language, we have to have a bunch of quotes right up front.

It’s the capital S, oh yes, the fresh N double O P
D O double G Y D O double G ya’ see […]
Never let me slip, ’cause if I slip, then I’m slippin’
But if I got my Nina, then you know I’m straight trippin’
And I’m a continue to put the rap down, put the mack down

-Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre, “Nuthin’ But A G Thang”

So, OK, you’re probably thinking, is this, like, a Noxzema commercial or what? But seriously, I actually have a way normal life for a teenage girl. […]

Like right now, for example, the Haitians need to come to America. But some people are all, “What about the strain on our resources?”
-Alicia Silverstone as “Cher” in Clueless

You know, we had a saying, uh, that “Those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym.” And…uh, h’h, of course, those who couldn’t do anything, I think, were assigned to our school.
-Woody Allen as “Alvy Singer” in Annie Hall

Today’s entry comes courtesy of a reader who, having perused the thread “On Feminism and I Blame The Patriarchy,” sent me the following via e-mail:

I do have a pet peeve: I am completely against misspelling and text abbreviations in any form: computer chat, advertising, etc. Thus, “because” rather than “cuz”; no tty, lol, etc. Companies who use the term “lite” should be closed and their assets confiscated.

Naturally, the target of this comment was the word “cuz,” which, in some cases, I’ve begun substituting for “because.” The writer is completely fair in his dismissal of corporate selling words like “lite” — their only purpose is to under-determine meaning by using a misspelled variant that refers exclusively to a product modified according to your supposed wishes.

That said, I’m going to take my stand right now for the version of the English language that I speak, including where it starts to merge with the English that I write in informal settings such as blogs. It is, I believe, an increasingly hysterical language, an increasingly rhythmic language, and a language increasingly skeptical of the person and situations it claims to express. The point is to show, first, that all the quirks and facts of language have meaning; second, that what may appear to be the idiocies or stutters of modern English are actually crucial to its truth. (Academic note: It is a hilarious coincidence that I am currently reading Michael North’s book on impure English in the Modernist period, The Dialect of Modernism.)

1. Get Rhythm

Want to remember how it used to be? Go back and listen to a Frank Sinatra song like “The Girl Next Door”:

So it’s clear to see there’s no hope for me
Though I live at fifty-one thirty-five Kensington Avenue,
And she lives at fifty-one thirty three.

One reason that Sinatra is so famous for his “phrasing” is that the songwriters routinely handed him material with lyrics that didn’t fit their allotted spaces. In fact, it was considered pleasing to occasionally shake things up with an overcrowded line. Thus Sinatra painfully enunciates his way through “fifty-one thirty five Kensington Avenue” at the jarring speed of a television commercial announcer reporting drug side effects.

Thank God Elvis showed up, with his intuitive understanding of the dynamic possibilities of rhythm. He came bursting onto the scene with “That’s All Right, Mama,” a song whose outstanding lyrics included the following: “Ah da da dee, dee, dee-dee, dee dee dee-dee, dee dee dee-dee.” I was amazed to read, in a newspaper article quoted in Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, that teenagers in Memphis would actually greet each other with this line of nonsense. It wasn’t nonsense, though. It was a rhythmic expression of confident excess, just like Little Richard’s “Womp-bomp-a-loo-bam-a-lomp-bomp-bomp,” which has to be the most influential three seconds of music ever recorded.

The conversational style of Sinatra and his followers was shot right to pieces. There were evolutions of all sorts to follow, hand over fist: James Brown’s half-screamed, half-coughed singing style; the syncopated Bee Gees; the mumbling of the Ramones. When the spoken word finally re-asserted itself in music, it did so through hip-hop, which proved to contain such a huge variety of linguistic tricks that they started entering the language by the dozen.

Think of the way Snoop mocks his audience with his debut rap: he spells out his name, as though to help you remember and repeat it, but he does so in such rapid and agile fashion that it’s almost impossible to imitate without practice and repeated listens. That’s why he’s getting to rap alongside of Dre, and you’re not. It’s an astounding act of doubling: two syllables per beat, two rappers combining forces, and Snoop’s twice the man you are (because he’s a “double G”). Dre’s verse shows him first acting out sheer stuttering anxiety (“slip…slip…slippin'”), and then acting out cycles of tense readiness and confident relaxation: “I’m-a continue to put the rap down” is two and a half times as fast as “put the mack down.” Now that’s what I call phrasing.

This added layer of prosodic density is everywhere in hip-hop; when Eminem guests on Jay-Z’s song “Renegade,” he sings:

But I’m debated disputed hated and viewed in America
as a motherfuckin drug addict – like you didn’t experiment?
Now now, that’s when you start to stare at who’s in the mirror

The word “motherfuckin” here — it’s a complete break with the meter, which is otherwise iambic/anapestic and not trochaic, and creates a disgusted pause before Eminem repeats the accusation against him. In a referential, already-appropriated world of social interactions, words (including bad words) are used for their metrical power to cut against the grain of a sentence spoken unwillingly. Eminem continues this pattern of appropriation when he takes the scolding, parental phrase “Now now” and turns it into a sign of his victory in the doubled (because ideologically divided) present.

Rhythm, swearing included, is not sloppy excess. It is a means of subversion. Marshall Mathers takes his name, cuts it down to the sound of his two initials, and replaces his name with it: “M and M.” It’s him, and it’s not.

2. “I was like” and “He was all”: Valley Girl Talk

This is where we get to Clueless. When Cher starts talking at the beginning of the film, she drops in the word “like” as a pause right before she makes both a commercial reference (to Noxzema) and a gesture towards the skepticism of her audience. The pause is a sign to us that she finds the opening montage of teenage life as foreign and uncanny as we do. Her life is like her life, that’s all. If you don’t understand this, then you’ll get frustrated every time you hear somebody say, “I was like, ‘Wanna do something later?’ and she was like…” Look, modern speakers of English know that their lives are hedged in on all sides by cliché and over-determined language. Even when they are in the middle of supposedly meaningful interactions, they find themselves using the language of mass media. It’s actually much less worrisome to admit, through a common verbal tic, that what we say is an approximation, than to “own” as self-expression what is irreducibly borrowed.

There is, actually, a word for people who do try to perform the magic feat of authentically inhabiting these bits of ideation floating around in English. That word is “all.” Hence Cher’s paraphrase of the tragedy of the commons: “but some people are all, ‘What about the strain on our resources?'” Cher isn’t an idiot — she’s capable of using the English language properly, as she does in her paraphrase. However, the way she puts the matter makes it clear that precise diction is here just another sign of the miserly sensibility that seeks to defend itself with nationalism and a false appeal to the established citizenry (as though, within the United States, our resources were being shared equitably). The verb phrase “is all” is a critique of selfishness, when it tries to hide itself in pretentious language. That’s why the phrase shows up so often in recounts of fights.

But of course, when Cher does experience a triumph of selflessness (accepting the guests who have crashed her father’s birthday party), she’s thrown back upon linguistic poverty. She has nothing but clichés, so the Houdini word like comes roaring back to save her from an absolute identification: “But by the end of the day it was like, the more the merrier!”

3. Woody Allen, Our Beloved Hysterical Cassandra

How are we supposed to explain the fact that every joke in the quote from Woody Allen is preceded (in the screenplay, as well as in the film) with a tic? If you’ve watched Annie Hall more than once, then you know that you start laughing as soon as you hear the tic, not the joke.

Some of it is undoubtedly the same as with Clueless and Eminem — Allen wants to alienate himself from what he’s saying. But it’s worse even than that. In Allen all these little pauses end up standing for nothingness and horror: the Ivan Karamazov complex (cf. Love and Death). The whole reason we’re taken to his elementary school classroom, at the beginning of a movie which is basically about one failed relationship, is that Alvy sees his failed love affair with Annie as the more or less destined result of a series of disappointing and inhibiting experiences over which he has no control. He can see it all coming: the failed relationship with Annie, and (just as important) the end of human existence when the universe expands to the breaking point (the film shows him as a little boy, talking about this to his family’s doctor). This sense of predestined awfulness is confirmed when all the students around him look straight into the camera and explain the sordid things that will happen when they reach adulthood.

Thus Allen is doing two things when, for example, he breaks up his summary with the useless phrase “I think.” He is first of all trying to buy time, trying to postpone a narrative that he knows can’t end happily. Second, he is articulating the fear that he is doing nothing — that as an actor in his life, he’s unable to reach any of his goals or change his behavior, and that as an artist he’s unable to teach his audience anything. When he says, “Those who couldn’t do anything, I think, were assigned to our school,” he is student and teacher at once. All he can do is think: he is terrifyingly conscious of what’s going to happen, which is why in Mighty Aphrodite Allen felt compelled add an actual Greek chorus and explicit references to Cassandra.

There are probably a lot of different reasons, historical and discursive, why we now speak and write with such overblown urgency. Is there any better proof the lostness and malaise of academia than the tendency to write “precisely,” and furthermore to use constant italics, in our essay and treatises? We have precisely no idea what we are talking about. In any case, the funniest proponent of this sort of hysteria, and the one whose linguistic genius brings him naturally closest to the urgency of modern slang and music, is Woody Allen.

4. Notes Towards A Dictionary Of The Future

“I mean” — An indicator of exasperation. Having acknowledged that there’s almost no hope of being understood, and extremely dubious about what is meant by “herself,” the subject nonetheless forges ahead and tells you what’s what.

“You know” — We all experience the same things, over and over.

“Fucking” — As in this paragraph from VICE Magazine:

Doesn’t this guy make you think of the Buzzcocks? He’s like the personification of that song, “What Do I Get?” I also imagine him zipping around in fast motion like the chases on Benny Hill. Look at him fucking scoot.

In situations like this, the bad word means that so much uncompromising energy has been poured into a basically meaningless activity, such as (in this case) riding on a Vespa, that it has become transcendant. Note also the predictable use of “like” to create the all-important distancing pause.

5. But what about the letter? What does any of this have to do with “I Blame The Patriarchy”?

You mean, is any of this a justification of the word “cuz”? Right. Sorry. “Cuz” is the more decisive form of “because.” It doesn’t explain, it just cuts to the chase, which is why it shows up in the eminently declarative song “Nuthin’ But A G Thang.”

The following is courtesy of Twisty Faster: “Resist the compulsion, in your haste to convey sarcasm, to begin with the word ‘um’ or ‘er.’ You are not an edgy young character in a sitcom.”

Well, that’s just the trouble. We are. It wasn’t necessarily our choice.

* * *

A good night 2 U.