Oh boy. It’s no fun to be The Guy Who Takes Umbrage at a Novelty Song. So let me start by saying that, all things considered, I couldn’t be happier about “Weird Al” Yankovic’s recent viral resurgence. “Tacky,” his upgrade of Pharrell’s cloying “Happy,” is blue-chip parody pop: lively, goofy, subtly acerbic. (Subtext: you know what’s really tacky? Songs like “Happy.”)
But among my language-wonk friends–i.e., most of my friends–one song has risen to the top of this week’s Weird Al heap. “Word Crimes,” a spoof of “Blurred Lines” that decries common language abuses, has been shared on my Facebook feed, Tweeted at me, praised all over the Internet, and forwarded to me by elderly family members. “You’re an English teacher! You’ll love this!” And I almost did love it. Whoops.
I was midway through “Word Crimes,” bopping along to the Gaye–ripped rhythm track, nodding in agreement with Weird Al that “irony is not coincidence,” when my wife, a speech-language pathologist, sat next to me on the couch. She listened as Al berated his hypothetical word criminal:
“You dumb mouth-breather.”
“You write like a spastic.”
“Go back to preschool. / Get out of the gene pool.”
“Just now you said you ‘LITERALLY couldn’t get out of bed.’ / That really makes me want to LITERALLY smack a crowbar upside your stupid head.” (Nice split infinitive, Al.)
My wife frowned. “I bet my students would love being told to ‘get out of the gene pool.'”
Some background on Mrs. Seminar Table:
- To this day, she adores Weird Al with neither shame nor irony. Often she reminisces warmly about seeing him perform live at the Ventura County Fair. A Weird Al concert. At a county fair.
- She works in an urban public school district, providing speech services for children who contend with a variety of socioeconomic disadvantages and cognitive impairments. She knows as well as anyone that poor language skills do not correlate with laziness or a lack of intelligence. They correlate with poverty and disability.
Yes, “Word Crimes” might be intended to tweak those who misuse language carelessly. But it also ends up taunting those who misuse it involuntarily. It punches down, not up.
Imagine you have a language disorder. Reading has always been a trial; even opening a book fills your stomach with self-doubt. To assemble a paragraph of coherent prose gives you a headache, so to bother with cosmetics like “its” vs. “it’s” seems silly. Your whole life, people have seen your writing and thought, “Lazy.” And: “Uneducated.” And: “Stupid.” One day, “Word Crimes” pops up on your Twitter timeline. “Okay, now here’s the deal,” Weird Al tells you. “I’ll try to educate ya.” What’s your response?
This is where a few folks with language disorders or non-standard linguistic backgrounds might pipe up and say, “Hey, I wasn’t offended!” Fine. I admire your equanimity. But I’m not saying that “Word Crimes” will or should anger everyone who has difficulty reading and writing standard English. I’m saying that it adopts a view of language that has done, and continues to do, a great deal of harm.
In “Word Crimes,” Yankovic takes a classic prescriptivist stance. There is one way to speak and write English, he implies–the standard way. To deviate from that norm (a norm that remains normal only because white bourgeois dominance persists) is to advertise your ignorance, your idiocy, your incurability. “Oh, you’re a lost cause,” Weird Al sings, harmonizing with himself.
But he’s just joking around, some might say. Or more astutely: Isn’t the song actually satirizing the speaker himself and, more generally, mocking the excesses of grammar cops? This could almost be true. But “Word Crimes” never implicates its speaker as an object of satirical critique. Neither the lyrics nor the video alert us to the presence of an unreliable narrator. And so we can only assume that the song wants us to align ourselves with Weird Al, smirking and snickering and, with some mixture of amusement and anger, shaking our heads at how badly the unwashed masses butcher PROPER ENGLISH.
According to Rolling Stone, when Yankovic appeared earlier this week on The View, one of the hosts asked him if “Word Crimes” was inspired by his 11-year-old daughter’s verbal misadventures. “No,” he replied, “my daughter is fairly literate. We raised her that way.” What he doesn’t seem to get is that being raised “literate” is not the same as being taught to use standard English. That being raised “literate” doesn’t cure, say, dyslexia. And that sometimes the only victim of a “word crime” is the accidental criminal, who has done nothing wrong.