Today we’ll be continuing our week-long look into the world of indie rock. I know yesterday I got a little political with The Shins’ “Sleeping Lessons”. I still won’t apologize for it, but I also recognize that not everyone wants to hear about politics in their music. So today, I wanted to lighten things up a bit with a more whimsical song.
“Oxford Comma” is probably one of the more well known indie rock songs of the past decade. It was one of the songs that helped to launch Vampire Weekend’s popularity, and cement their status in the indie rock canon.
I first heard “Oxford Comma” when I was in high school, around the time Vampire Weekend released their first album in 2008. Rather than making humanitarian political statements, this song takes a whimsical stance against pretension and grammar.
“Oxford Comma” is the second track on Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut album. It’s full of slick guitar riffs, poppy verses, and a catchy melody. On top of that, the lyrics are pretty funny. I especially enjoy the reference to Lil Jon as an argument against grammatical correctness.
From the first verse, we get a clear view of the overall argument. You’ll have to excuse the language here. “Who gives a fuck about an Oxford comma? / I’ve seen those English dramas too, they’re cruel / So if there’s any other way to spell the word / It’s fine with me, with me”.
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Vampire Weekend’s lead singer Ezra Koenig explains where his issue with the Oxford comma came from. “I have a complicated relationship with grammar,” he admits, adding that he “spent a year teaching eighth-grade English in Brooklyn and, when you spend so much time trying to get kids to write in Standard American English,’ you’re bound to start questioning the importance.”
It may be helpful to go into a bit about why the Oxford comma is used in English. As a proud owner of my own English degree, I’m more than happy to break this down.
The Oxford comma is used when making statements about lists, or multiple people. Its main use is to avoid confusion and miscommunication. For example, if you say: “I have 50 pounds of gold, silver and coal”, what you’re communicating is that you have 50 pounds of gold, and you have some silver and some coal. But there’s an implication that you might have 50 pounds of each. With the Oxford comma in place, the sentence becomes: “I have 50 pounds of gold, silver, and coal”. This communicates that you have 50 pounds of each, and is “grammatically correct”.
I use this example because it’s a common one. And it’s one that also pops up in the lyrics to “Oxford Comma”.
“Why would you lie about how much coal you have? / Why would you lie about something dumb like that? / Why would you lie about anything at all? / First the window, then it’s to the wall / Lil Jon, he always tells the truth”.
The point Ezra Koenig seems to be making in “Oxford Comma”, is that the arguments for why it’s so important are silly. From his point of view, anyone with half a brain can understand meaning and truth through context. And there’d be no reason to obscure the truth anyway.
Another stance Koenig takes in the song is against the whole group of people who would defend the Oxford comma. He seems to think them pretentious and full of themselves. To take a shot at them, he includes the reference to Lil Jon, claiming he tells truth in his songs, even though his grammar may be “questionable” to some.
This was a fun song to revisit. It brought to mind the one time I was fortunate enough to see Vampire Weekend at Pitchfork years ago. They’ve come a ways since then, but I enjoy remembering the excitement surrounding their early days.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at another indie band who I happened to see at the same concert. But you’ll have to wait till then to see who. No more hints.