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.


  1. See, Staley Willy gets to do it both ways: he mocks people who don’t know what rap lyrics mean, and he mocks those who want to help other people understand them.
    Let me mention how it gronks me off when you write one of these denunciations of something I haven’t read, because then I feel impelled to read it, and it invariably disgusts me. I know this is my own fault, but there it is.

  2. As an antidote, may I humbly recommend this column on hiphop lexicography, written for the Magazine’s previous regime.

  3. J.W. Brewer says

    Didn’t the assumption that every Beatles lyric has a meaning and that the meaning of every Beatles lyric should be unearthed lead directly to the murder of Sharon Tate and her companions? Surely a man of hat’s generation has spent time in the company of people engaged in obsessive/dubious exegesis of Beatles lyrics / Dylan lyrics / Grateful Dead lyrics and been able to observe that . . . it’s not always about knowledge expanding and ignorance contracting. Sometimes it’s the same impulse (refusal to accept the currently unknown/unknowable) that leads to bad folk etymology, or Nostraticism.

  4. For some time in my youth I esteemed the Dylan lyric the Pope don’t work cause the Vandals took the candles, as a clever metaphor for the social unrest of the 60’s.

  5. I honestly have no idea how that article was published. “RapGenius is part of a broader effort in recent years, both online and in print, to organize rap lyrics into something more useful to listeners, as if rap lyrics qua rap lyrics were utterly useless.” As if knowing and understanding what someone is talking about diminishes the impact! Part of hip hop’s appeal is that unlike Beatle’s songs (and a great deal of rock) there is very little affecting gibberish. You might be mesmerized by someone’s flow or energized by a beat, but the real punch comes from the meaning of the words.
    Of course rap can get very abstract. Songs like Nutmeg by Ghostface don’t have as close a relationship to reality as The Message. But they still mean a heck of a lot, and figuring that meaning out with other people is very rewarding. “Fanute” is mildly amusing and intriguing, but look at the actual verse, via RapGenius:
    “From the hoopty coupe to that Ghost, dog
    Pigeons on the roof like Ghost Dog
    Dwight Howard on the post, dog
    My niggas got the powder through the post, dog”
    How much enjoyment could you possibly get out of it if you haven’t seen Ghost Dog, don’t know what a ‘pigeon’ is, haven’t heard of Dwight Howard, and have never seen even a picture of a Rolls-Royce Ghost?

  6. Is anyone else bothered by the way “belie” is used there? And I’m still trying to figure out if he thinks graphs are usually produced by people in smoking jackets with cognac.

  7. As an antidote, may I humbly recommend this column on hiphop lexicography, written for the Magazine’s previous regime.
    I join you in the recommendation, and let me say how much I miss the Magazine’s previous regime and its still-lamented On Language column.
    Didn’t the assumption that every Beatles lyric has a meaning and that the meaning of every Beatles lyric should be unearthed lead directly to the murder of Sharon Tate and her companions?
    In a word: no.

  8. narrowmargin says

    grackle = I’d always heard the lyric as The pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handle.

  9. narrowmargin says

    Though what it means is a mystery to me.

  10. narowmargin – surely that’s what grackle means? Sharing a personal mondegreen?
    I laughed!

  11. narrowmargin says

    I wonder which of us actually is experiencing the mondegreen? (Assuming one of us heard it right.)

  12. I’m with Mrs Narrowmargin. Except I thought it was plural: The pump don’t work cause the vandals took the handles. Several times during the past 20 years my wife & I have sung it at the gas station.

  13. I think the meaning is clear: a mechanical pump (doubtless a gas pump) will not work if its nozzle and trigger mechanism have been deliberately disconnected by delinquents.

  14. narrowmargin says

    Yes, there is that. However, I can think of another: a water pump (which is what I’d always thought it referred to).

  15. I agree with the water-pump interpretation.

  16. Agree w/ Joe R- Rap lyrics are supposed to have meaning and be understood. At its roots and at its best, rap is a form of protest song, not a fuzzy aural experience like Band of Horses, so the words matter. So other people try to figure them out. But at the root of this all, the author is actually complaining that someone somewhere put something he finds misguided up on the internet–I think he’s missed the point of it entirely. I can’t figure out what he thinks “belie” means either.

  17. Does anyone have actual experience of hand-operated gasoline pumps? Water pumps, I have seen.

  18. In school I was always annoyed at having to analyse literature; I just wanted to read. Now I regret that.
    I’m sad that I don’t have the training and knowledge to understand Bach. I enjoy him, but I know I’m missing so much.

  19. Does anyone have actual experience of hand-operated gasoline pumps? Water pumps, I have seen.

    We had them at the farm to stick into barrels and pump for the tractors. (The petrol was coloured for tax reason.)

  20. I vaguely remember one on a sheep station in Australia.
    Wasn’t it diesel, Sili?

  21. >John Cowan
    “Does anyone have actual experience of hand-operated gasoline pumps?”
    Yes, I remember it when I was 7 or 8 years old (in the late sixties). The pump had two glass cylinders on the top and a handle. I went with my family lots of times but I admit it was then very odd.

  22. Wasn’t it diesel, Sili?

    Either. I don’t recall the diesel being coloured, though. I’d have to ask my sister. She’s still in the business.

  23. I’m sure Catan(n)nea is right. And I think first of a water pump: “handles” suggests to me the lever with which one draws water out of a well using a certain kind of old-fashioned pump.
    I have mentioned once before the passage in some book by Andrei Codrescu in which he recalls his discovery of the discrepancy between Bob Dylan’s lyrics and his understanding of the same. He insists that his mondegreens, patiently collected and written down in his youth in Romania, are superior to Dylan’s actual words.

  24. J.W. Brewer says

    I had a youthful Dylan mondegreen when I mistook “I look like Robert Ford but I feel just like Jesse James” as “look like Robert Frost” etc.
    As the man said three decades back: “I hate music. It’s got too many notes.” As another white dude said a few decades before that, “where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Maybe rap has too many words? Too many for me, or at least this intra-fan squabble doesn’t make me want to go back and start paying attention again. Or maybe they’re just overstating the importance of annotation and exegesis? I think, for example, that most people can enjoy Van Morrison perfectly well without understanding passing lyrical references to street names and other specific places in Belfast (although it was nice when someone put up a website I now cannot find with a map of Belfast cross-referenced to relevant VM songs because some people will benefit from the incremental illumination). Is it accurate that I shouldn’t bother with French Montana if I don’t know who Dwight Howard is without googling?

  25. The first time I heard “Born To Be Wild” with attention (a friend played a tape of himself singing it, and I assumed it was his), I mondegreened the whole song (not just particular phrases, but everything) and said “Well, it’s an interesting melody, but the lyrics are gibberish!” So he told me what he was actually singing, and ever since I have been completely unable to recall a single word of what I heard then. I wish I had written it down.

  26. J.W. Brewer says

    Separate point: apparently French Montana’s debut album is being released this month, titled “Excuse My French.” I always thought of the idiom as “pardon my French,” but wikipedia claims both variants are respectable. On the other hand COCA has 35 hits for the “pardon” variant as against a mere 13 for “excuse.”

  27. I don’t think there’s a significant francophone area in Montana, actually.

  28. I wouldn’t bother with French Montana.
    But if you want to give rap a shot, maybe listen to Raekwon’s “Verbal Intercourse” until you understand everything that’s being said. And if you still don’t care, the genre’s probably not for you.

  29. In real life Jesús is something like a professor of hydraulics, so he would know from pumps.
    In Norway it’s only the farmers’ diesel that’s coloured.
    I’m sure it was a water pump that Bob was talking about.

  30. Bathrobe says

    There are both petrol and diesel tractors. The little Ferguson (Fergie) TE 20 was a petrol tractor, so was the later 35. Nowadays I think most tractors are diesel.
    Water pump it could be, but stealing the handle of a petrol bowser sounds much more like the thing a vandal would do.

  31. >A.J.P. Crown
    I’m teaching subjects about Chemical Engineering.
    In Spain farmer’s diesel is also coloured because of taxes. I know people that fill their cars with it.

  32. stealing the handle of a petrol bowser sounds much more like the thing a vandal would do.
    Vandals vandalize, man. They’re not picky. They see a handle, they take it.

  33. des von bladet says

    If the pump don’t work — on account of the vandals having taken the handles — how can you be sure that it is specifically water it isn’t pumping, rather than gasoline (or vice versa) or mercury or whiskey or chocolate milkshake?
    And more interestingly, is duty-free farm diesel always coloured pink?

  34. It’s easier to vandalize a water pump because it’s normally a public object without surveillance. I don’t know but I imagine the filling station manager always kept the handle, at least.
    The color is thrown or not from a small jar to tanker depending of destination. A friend told me sometimes the lorry driver spills the jar “accidentally” outside the tank.

  35. ‘Pardon me while I kiss this guy.’

  36. >Iakon
    Yes, “Purple Haze”. Speaking of purple, Deep Purple’s Jon Lord has died.
    By the way, my woman is Okay-O ( my woman from Tokyo; I’ve just read three mondegreens of this rock group).

  37. @Keith Ivey:
    > Is anyone else bothered by the way “belie” is used there?
    Not me. He’s using it the same way I grew up using it. I was very surprised, as a teenager, to learn that that’s not how dictionaries define it. (So I didn’t notice anything strange till I saw your comment, and once I saw your comment, my emotion was gratification to discover that the misuse was not unique to me!)

  38. It’s not knowledge that he’s arguing against, or at least that’s not the important part of the argument. As a lot of these comments have pointed out, meaning in rap music, as in anything faintly literary (or arguably anything at all), is fluid.
    Rolling on to Rock ‘n’ Roll Genius and getting points for straightforwardly explaining Bob Dylan or David Bowie lyrics would rightly meet with disdain, but the idea that rap is just ‘real talk’ that white middle class can’t understand because of the references is belittling.
    RapMetrics is as useful as word-crunching Yeats – it’s a way of getting some data, which can render some type of meaning, but it’s not the meaning itself.

  39. I think this use of belie ‘reveal’ is a weakening of the OED3’s sense 3b, first found in the 16th century, and defined as “To give a false representation or account of, to misrepresent; to be misleading with regard to.” The most recent quotation is from 2009, and is “No, they are mammals — African hyraxes — whose low metabolic rate and varying body temperature belie their mammalian heritage.” It’s easy to see how that could become understood as ‘represent, reveal’ rather than ‘misrepresent’.

  40. Dylan is, of course, referring to the siege of Hippo Regius in AD 430. The Vandals destroyed the acqueduct, making the municipal water pumps inoperable, in a sense, “removing the handles”. See also “I dreamed I saw St. Augustine”.

  41. bruessel says

    I’ve always liked “me ears are alight” from the Maxell advert.

  42. Vanya, that is an absolutely brilliant exegesis of that line from Bob Dylan! Makes me wish I had made the time to come back and read Languagehat long before now. The various thoughts about different sorts of pumps and information about dyed deisel give me the same regrets that I haven’t been a regular reader in a long time.

  43. By the way, I find myself absolutely delighted to find that there is a name for this phenomenon that everyone experiences.
    Someone I know heard a mondegreen coming from the back seat of her car last month as her preschooler sang, “Out of the mouths of babes and elephants [infants] God has fashioned perfect praise.”

  44. My apologies for the double post. There was a long latency period while my browser was posting my comment, and at first I thought that I hadn’t actually pressed the “post” button.
    Hat, would you mind cleaning up after me?

  45. Done!

  46. Bathrobe says

    That is a very illustrious mondegreen. Everyone knows that ‘Elephant and Castle’ is derived from ‘Elanora la Infanta de Castilla’ (except that Wikipedia says that is a folk etymology!).

  47. For the finest example of interpreting lyrics freely, see this Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketch from the 1960s – still unbeatable

  48. Yes, I’ve had the Pete & Dud in the back of my mind for this whole thread.

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