The NY Times Magazine has gotten even fluffier over the years, and I spend less time over it than I used to, but somehow I wound up reading Willy Staley’s piece (titled “What is the Real Meaning of ‘Fanute’?” in the physical paper and “Lady Mondegreen and the Miracle of Misheard Song Lyrics” online) and now I have to vent about it. This falls into two common genres at once, “How Can It Be that Other People Have Access to and Dare to Praise the Special Thing that Was Mine, All Mine?” (which is silly but eternal and understandable) and “Ignorance is Better than Knowledge,” which is the heresy I am here to smite. (Nobody expects the Hattic Inquisition!) After explaining the mondegreen phenomenon, Staley segues into his favorite example from rap music, a line from French Montana that sounds to many people like “fanute the coupe to that Ghost, dog.” Staley deigns to explain that the line is actually “from the hoopty coupe to that Ghost, dog” (though he doesn’t deign to explain what “hoopty” means, presumably so as to preserve at least a shred of your treasured ignorance; I, more cruel, will deprive you of it by quoting Urban Dictionary: “In reference to cars: a vehicle in poor condition, often large, boatlike, and aided by duct tape or bungee cords”). He then proceeds to mock a site called Rap Genius (“a hip-hop Wikipedia”) that does such explaining on a large scale, saying “The perhaps fallacious assumption at the Web site’s heart is that every rap lyric has a meaning and that the meaning of every rap lyric should be unearthed,” and another called RapMETRICS that has the gall to analyze rap lyrics. And listen to the way he talks about it:
Both approaches belie an attitude that ultimately creates distance between the listener and the music: rap lyrics are data; rap lyrics are graphs. Rap lyrics are poetry to be read in your smoking jacket with a glass of Cognac (E. & J., sir? I recommend you fanute to the Louis XIII?). […] It at least suggests a nascent anxiety: that to appreciate the music in a direct and visceral or even emotional way would be untoward for the effete, urbane listener. […] More to the point, however, is that this rigorous organization of rap lyrics into structured and unstructured data sets, into problems to be solved, exists in direct opposition to accidental mondegreens like “fanute,” which can arise only from actually listening to the music, rather than fussing over it as if it were your homework. The Internet is a powerful research tool, and apparently we’ve decided to use it to enable crowdsourced pedantry of the most obnoxious sort. Anyone with a laptop can be as authoritative as Springfield’s Comic Book Guy now, and apparently that’s something to be celebrated.
The contempt is palpable and reveals, I effetely suggest, a heaping helping of bad faith. In this piece for The Awl (with the equally dubious message that we shouldn’t treat rap as poetry), Staley calls himself “a white dude from California,” and I’m guessing he’s manifesting the trying-too-hard of the white guy who fears being seen as an outsider and therefore insists on the ineffable authenticity of it all, invisible to the urbane chap who wants to understand it without having done the time in the street and learned the secret handshake.
It’s a foolish crusade, of course. Knowledge will out; you can’t make sites like Rap Genius and RapMETRICS go away by mocking them, nor can you make people stop wanting to know what rappers are saying by comparing them to Comic Book Guy. And I’m here to tell you that knowledge is better than ignorance, no matter how you dress the latter up by calling it “mondegreens,” and the drive to suppress it is to be deprecated whether it manifests itself in a Times Magazine essay or a campaign against climate science or evolution. Magna est veritas: The truth is great, and shall prevail.