[Dave Heal's] Observations & Reports

Pop Music Will Learn You Good

After last month’s summer music review, a number of readers wrote in with some very personal stories of how pop music has changed their lives. Jennifer from Minneapolis wrote in with a touching attempt at a poem that described how Neil Diamond helped her get through puberty without having a breakdown and “Kelly” from Brooklyn credits her ringtone version of Mims’ “This Is Why I’m Hot,” which contains the lyrics “I’m hot ‘cuz I’m fly/You ain’t ‘cuz you not,” with subconsciously teaching her enough about logical reasoning to help boost her LSAT score 5 points and catapult her into our very own Law School.

Kelly’s transformative experience notwithstanding, the plentiful linguistic gifts of popular music, it seems, are mainly lexicographic.  That is, it gives us lots of new words. For instance, Steve Miller’s “Space Cowboy” provided the world with the endlessly useful ‘pompatus,’ and hip hop is responsible for the diffusion, if not the generation of, ‘crunk’ and ‘shorty.’  In the case of Snoop Dogg’s ‘-izzle’ language we have a vocabulary so rich that some linguists believe it will soon replace both the dreaded Pig Latin and Oppish, that hideous invention of middle school girls that involved, inter alia, putting ‘Op’ at the ends of words, as the preferred nonsense language of the nation’s young people.

Some of our finest musicians, however, are not content to merely introduce new words.  They aim to influence the architecture underlying interpersonal communication – our grammar.  Bob Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” known to Dylan scholars as one of his most widely popular hits, is actually an extended commentary on the disappearing colloquial distinction between “lie,” which means to recline or be situated, and “lay,” which is generally a transitive verb meaning to put down or arrange.  Moreover, it’s believed that Dylan set the lyrics to such an easy melody in order to sow the seeds of confusion among the hoi polloi while simultaneously increasing the antipathy that the traditionally upper middle class grammarians of the world feel for the untutored masses and thereby ignite the Revolution that so many were working for in the late 60s.

In the past ten years, this tradition of linguistically conscious pop music has been carried on by the warrior poet Ludacris and, most recently, by Stacy Ann Ferguson, better known as Fergie.  And but so whereas Dylan’s song seems deliberately calibrated to foment rebellion and tear our country apart, Fergie approaches her songs with a message of unity. If we all spelled the same way, her music implies, there would be no war.

Now, some of you may know Fergie as the leathery former frontlady of the Black Eyed Peas and the one responsible for one of the worst songs of the last few years, 2005’s “My Humps.” Others as the maxillofacially curious fiancé of Transformers‘ heartthrob Josh Duhamel. All of you waiting for a slightly more sophisticated reason to kneel in front of Fergie and kiss the hem of her daisy dukes can now refer to her subtle foray into the field of linguistics as evidence of her much-deserved celebrity status. I’m actually not talking about the fact that listening to a Fergie song often doubles as an advanced lesson in self-promotional orthography  – e.g., “Fergalicious,” which teaches you how to spell ‘Stacy’, ‘Fergie’, and ‘delicious’ in the same song – but instead about her slightly more controversial embrace of the ’singular they,’ one of the hobbyhorses of prescriptive linguists everywhere.

The ‘singular they’ is the use of the pronoun ‘they’ in a sentence such as “Any girl who dates a fellow law student is dumb; they must have an IQ below 100.”  The powdered wig set would insist you substitute ‘she’ for ‘they’ in the second sentence. There are complicated linguistic arguments about the different semantic work each of those choices does, but it’s safe to say that people have been using ‘they’ in this fashion since before the time of Shakespeare, and that when somebody tries to tell you it’s grammatically incorrect, they’re usually wrong.

By way of illustration, I present a verse from Fergie’s recent (and terrible) “Big Girls Don’t Cry”:

I hope you know, I hope you know

that this has nothing to do with you.

It’s personal, myself and I

we got some straightening out to do.

And I’m gonna miss you like a child misses their blanket.


Stephen Pinker talks extensively about the problem of nominally singular antecedents being associated with plural pronouns (them, they, etc.) in his book “The Language Instinct.” A related excerpt from page 391 of the Harper Perennial Modern Classics Edition:

“Everyone returned to his seat” [ed. What your elementary school teacher would have you substitute for the allegedly ungrammatical ‘Everyone returned to their seat.’] makes it sound like Bruce Springsteen was discovered during intermission to be in the audience, and everyone rushed back and converged on his seat to await an autograph […]

The next time you get corrected for this sin, ask Mr. Smartypants how you should fix the following:

Mary saw everyone before John noticed them.

Now watch him squirm as he mulls over the downright unintelligible “improvement,” Mary saw everyone before John noticed him.


Pinker goes on to explain that the dissonance we intuitively hear in the ‘improvement’ has to do with the linguistic relationship between everyone and they. That is, they are not functioning in this case as ‘pronoun’ and ‘antecedent’ but as the more obscure ‘quantifier’ and ‘bound variable,’ a distinction that while interesting is sufficiently wonky as to be beyond the ambit of this here humble column.

This is all a very long-winded way of encouraging you all to really listen to the music around you, even the stuff you think is garbage.  The music of Fergie and Bob Dylan has important lessons to teach us all about the world we live in, and for those of you who don’t read the Language Log blog on a regular basis, you’ll sleep soundly knowing that you can probably absorb a freshman course in generative grammar by listening to Top 40 radio.