One of the first classes I took in graduate school was a practicum for teaching college-level composition. Every semester, dozens of grad students take this class with the hope that, when it’s done, they’ll get the chance to teach the undergrads at our university how to write. Because, come on! How else are we supposed to share our superior knowledge about the English language with these neophytes? We, the recipients of ones of twos of bachelor’s degrees! We, the authors of ones of twos of papers examining the protofeminism of Flaubert! We, the vigilant guardians of grammar, determined to thwart such foolish rogues who dare end their sentences with prepositions! Surely the English-speaking undergraduate classes of the future will fail to perfect our language unless we intervene.
I wish I were joking, but that kind of discourse — a seemingly endless tirade of hyperbolic save-our-children screeds — was, much to the class instructor’s chagrin, increasingly typical of our classroom discussion. Whenever she said, rightly so, that the predominant faculty of good writing is good thinking, any number of students felt compelled to interject: But what about grammar and punctuation?
“It’s a problem when it interferes with meaning,” she replied simply.
When you’re coming from a purely theoretical position, this is a difficult idea to wrap your head around. But unlike many of my classmates, I’d already spent two years working with adolescents on their writing, and like most anyone with English classroom experience, the instructor’s point became quickly and painfully clear: Grammar follows meaning — not the other way around. In other words, it is entirely possible to write with perfectly constructed grammar and still be a shitty writer. It is also quite possible to be grammatically challenged and totally brilliant. The successful outcome of a composition class is, therefore, to see an increase in critical thinking, which hinges on a student’s ability to develop and organize ideas and arguments. Grammar is a tool we use in the articulation process, but it is not the singular goal — nor is it a foolproof indication of a person’s work ethic. Following the rules for the sake of being pedantic is not the mark of a good writer, but that of a good rule-follower. These are not the same thing.
Over the weekend, I came across this short essay in the Harvard Business Review blog in which Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, argues that “poor grammar” is so important to his opinion of you, that he stakes his entire hiring process on it. In fact, all of his potential new hires — regardless of position — are required to take a grammar test in order to seal the deal, and according to Wiens, there is a “zero tolerance approach” in his evaluation of your work. If you don’t know the difference between ”it’s” and ”its,” he says, you’re out.
This is a novel approach, but it also invites a heightened level of scrutiny on two distinct points. In the first place, Wiens seems utterly oblivious to the fact that socioeconomic conditions play a key role in the disparity of the American education system, in which those of us with more money have access to better schools and those of us without take what we can get. One of my more grammar-obsessed classmates from that semester, for one, revealed that his high school even taught Latin. (I can assure you that mine barely taught English.) But in the second place, Wiens is also placing a premium value on English as he knows it — and he is begging for us to take a closer look at his own writing.
As a college composition lecturer and former copyeditor, I felt compelled to take him to task.
My intention with this exercise isn’t to say that, Wiens be damned, I am the sole keeper to the secret of the English language. That’s bullshit, and I know fully well that anyone could similarly copyedit the hell out of this website. In fact, that’s why copyeditors exist: because writers can’t always police our own writing! But that’s also a point of important distinction between the two. Copyeditors worry about grammar and usage and form, but writers worry about ideas. Wiens doesn’t seem to know the difference, and that is primarily why I took a red pen to his work.
I also wanted to show that being “detail-oriented” — a characteristic that Wiens seems to cherish above all else — goes far beyond grammar. His use (and misuse) of superfluous commas, quotation marks, and hyphens, for example, is quite typical of prescriptive grammarians; they seem to think more is better when, really, it’s not. As such, Wiens is essentially creating a hierarchy of prescriptivism where certain details are more important than others, and that alone is proof that this whole thing is tenuously arbitrary. If you’re making an argument like this, you need to be consistent across the board.
So when I decided to evaluate this essay with a letter grade, I used an averaged score based on both of our two totally competing rubrics: Wiens’ own “zero tolerance approach,” in which he decidedly receives an F for numerous punctuation and usage errors, and my own “meaning-above-all approach,” in which I appreciate his form, but knock off a considerable amount of credit for his badly argued thesis — which falls short of actually providing any real evidence that his grammar test is anything but a ruse to perpetuate the dominant fiction of a “proper” English.
The devil is in the detail, indeed.
David Lowery’s paternalistic lecture to that NPR intern who admitted to buying, like, six albums in her lifetime bothered me for a million reasons, but I’ll spare you the shortlist. Lowery will no doubt be sifting through point-by-point takedowns of his essay until we’re all too senile to remember Cracker was ever a band, and besides, Jeff Price from Tunecore did a pretty even-handed job of correcting the facts and empirically adjusting the numbers — which, let’s face it, is kind of important to an argument about facts and numbers. So, honestly, I feel pretty good about leaving that one alone.
What I can’t seem (or don’t want) to leave alone, however, is Mike Doughty’s recent missive on the future of music — an essay that, as of this writing, has rung up 1,918 notes on Tumblr and a substantial number of high-fives coming from people who don’t seem to grasp the gross implications of his central claim: Radiohead, who are the guinea pig for Doughty’s thesis, “wouldn’t exist without early major-label funding,” he contends. “The future won’t bring new Radioheads.”
Using a generic philosophical format to map out this belief — based on the Greek formulation that every logical argument is composed of two basic premises and a conclusion — Doughty’s argument essentially looks like this:
Premise: Major label financial tour support subsidized Important Band A.
Premise: Important Band A couldn’t have survived without major label financial tour support.
Conclusion: Therefore, major label financial support is required for Important Band B to emerge.
There’s a lot to respond to here, not the least of which begins with the first major flaw in Doughty’s thinking and the basis of what I’m calling his Second Premise — which he handily reduces into the “No tour support = no Radiohead” equation. The problem here is glaring, of course, and Doughty is even forced to admit it. “We’re talking Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life here,” he says, and it’s true: There is simply no way to prove this hypothesis. There is literally no way you can know this. There are, in fact, a million possible outcomes to this equation and you can’t just pick the one that best fits your argument for the hell of it. No tour support might equal no Radiohead, yes. But it also might equal a different Radiohead, a better Radiohead, a shorter-lived Radiohead, a Radiohead that stayed regional, or even a Radiohead that revolutionized the way bands toured in the ’90s because they were creative enough to come up with a working model that did not depend on financial tour support from EMI. We can’t ever know. So bringing this to the table of an argument is like bringing an imaginary friend to a band meeting: You can ask him for advice, but he doesn’t get a vote.
What’s more stunning to me, however, is how many people were so quick to sign on to his paradigm for being in a band — which includes, among other things, a pure and unadulterated access to “vital start-up money,” without which, it is implied, the band would go home to those godawful shitty day jobs that “real people” have and never become brilliant enough to write OK Computer. Doughty’s paradigm suggests that by virtue of the fact that I learned how to play guitar and write a song, that I am simply entitled to a comfortable life with tour buses, stage techs, and single-occupancy hotel rooms before I’ve even sold a record because I might be the next Radiohead! According to Doughty, despite being signed to the Warner Brothers Bank of America, even poor Soul Coughing still had to rough it on tour with some very “basic” start-up money. I mean, they shared hotel rooms! They toured with all their gear in only one van! It was uncomfortable! “We were resentful that we couldn’t get money for a second van,” he says, and clearly, this is the reason why Soul Coughing never made their masterpiece.
All these years and Doughty still hasn’t realized that tour support — among other financial incentives — is central to the systemic domination of the music industry power structure: We need them, he is saying. Without them, there is no us. It’s like a commercial for perpetual indentured servitude. But the thing is, it’s not true unless you’re prone to that sense of entitlement that makes you “resentful” for not having a second van when — assuming you’re not a 38-person group like Sigur Rós or Wu-Tang Clan — it’s perfectly viable to tour in a 15-passenger van with a trailer. Is it comfortable? No! But I did my first tour ever with nine other people and two bands worth of gear in a single cargo van. Compared to that, it’s totally luxe! Seriously, though, at some point in time, we’ve all got to realize that this is the job we have chosen to pursue, and it entitles us to nothing more than what we’ve actually earned. If Radiohead really would have buckled under the prospect of sharing a hotel room, then fuck them too.
Like Doughty, I was a working musician in a popular band in the 1990s. In America, we toured in one vehicle, shared hotel rooms (or slept on our friends’ floors when we felt like it), and changed our own guitar strings — not even really because we had to, but because it seemed like a waste of money to tour in the manner of a band like Soul Coughing. (There was, in fact, always great satisfaction in headlining over tour-supported-bands-in-buses and driving away from the venue in our trusty van, completely debt-free.) In Europe, where the shows are generally a little more lucrative, we took a bus and techs and still came home with good money. The key is that we did it all on our own dime — always coming home with a profit, and never getting into debt. We didn’t reach the mythical status of Radiohead, of course, so maybe Doughty has one point on his scoreboard there. But our own humble myth has persisted well into 2012, where we still sell thousands of records every year, and after 14 years apart, sold out a reunion show the other day in basically minutes — all in the face of Doughty’s strange assertion. The formula, then, is much simpler than money: This has everything to do with whether or not a band’s songs truly resonate with the people and absolutely nothing to do with whether or not a major label chipped in for that extra bed.
Especially now, when the ability to distribute your music to every corner of the world is as simple as Soundcloud, you’ve got to put more faith than ever in your actual music and not in the money you’ll borrow to pretend you’ve really made it. As a wise man once said: The songs are the thing. There are literally thousands of bands who have collectively borrowed millions of dollars in major-label financial aid without every really figuring that out, and that’s astonishing to me. So if the death of the major label means, as Doughty suggests, “there will be fewer bands,” then I, for one, can live with that. Sometimes, when something is fucked up beyond repair, you need to start over.
I hadn’t planned on saying anything about Frank Ocean (except for congratulations on a fantastic new album and for that other thing), but I’ve come here today to ask Ann Powers and other intrepid music journalists with English Literature degrees a huge favor: Can we please not do things like close-read Frank Ocean’s coming out letter? Because stop it and you’re wrong.
Excerpt #1: “In his note, instead of embracing an identity, Ocean shared a set of memories and explored complex feelings, just as he does in his songs. Unlike the standard coming out gesture — newsman Anderson Cooper’s public email to his friend Andrew Sullivan, ‘The fact is, I’m gay’ — Ocean’s presented sexuality as something that arises within particular circumstances, defined by shifting desire and individual encounters rather than solidifying as an identity. In the age-old debate about whether sexuality emerges as something we are or through something we want or do, Ocean carefully rested on the side of feeling and deed.”
I realize that terms like “shifting desire” and “emerging sexuality” sound awesome in queer theory textbooks, but in the reality of identity formation and coming out, it’s just not so much about the desire as it is about the acceptance. In other words, as a teenager, I was perfectly happy to enjoy the pleasure of watching Brian Benben take his shirt off on Dream On, but to call it that — to acknowledge my desire for Benben and fully embrace the fact that this was, in fact, gay desire — is something that often takes years to work through. Almost paradoxically, one can technically “come out of the closet” and still feel this conflict. So while Powers seems to think Frank Ocean is not “embracing an identity,” it’s more that Frank Ocean is not embracing an identity she is familiar with. Ask a gay person and they’ll tell you: The walk outside of the closet is, for most of us, a long and tenuous one. It’s not as clearcut as the cover of People magazine.
It should also be pointed out that this “debate about whether sexuality emerges as something we are or through something we want or do” is a false one. The relationship between who we are and what we want or do is a symbiotic one, and in the coming out process, there is no taking sides. I can honestly say I’ve known I was gay since I was a young child — since before I had a word for it — but I didn’t really come out until 1998, when I was 24 years old. How come? Because I needed to experience my desire before I could truly identify with it. The fact is, we don’t know where Frank Ocean lies in this continuum, nor is it any of our business. He is sharing himself with us in the way that he feels comfortable to do so, and seriously, we should just be happy and supportive of that.
Excerpt #2: “In the fantasy space of performance, artists have often been able to articulate what they otherwise feel they must hide. Ocean’s statement is a kind of performance; certainly it’s a creative work… By telling a tale that also reflects the more problematic side of ‘fluid’ sexuality, the side that’s about denial and taking refuge in more conventional heterosexual relationships, Ocean reflects on a much-discussed experience within African American communities and avoids the kind of grandstanding that might put off some fans. Like The New York Times critic Jon Caramanica, whose eloquent profile of Ocean appeared just as this news was breaking, I thought Ocean might just be playing with characters when I first heard his songs using male pronouns. In a sense, he is — but in the same way that anyone on the down low does. The character you create may be your own tragically false self.”
Sometimes, the Assumption Monster can come into a writer’s world and just take the fuck over. Let’s survey his devastation.
First of all, Ocean’s letter is certainly written in an artistic style — he’s a writer! go figure! — but to call it a “performance” is to reduce his coming-out process to a contrived strategy and to conflate his job with his sexuality. The truth is more banal: Ocean’s letter represents the most common way that LGBT people come out. Believe it or not, whenever I meet a new person, I do not pull them aside after ten minutes of conversation for “the talk.” It’s usually inside of a conversation that I say something like, “My boyfriend and I are going to Toronto this weekend to celebrate my birthday.” Which is true. Which in the process of telling you a fact, I also divulged another fact. Which is that I have a boyfriend. You can deduce the rest for yourselves without pinning me to a wall for “not really coming out.”
But can we also talk about how the Assumption Monster just created a singular monolithic experience for African American gay people throughout every region of this country? Or how Powers totally just slid Ocean into “the down low” — which is a very defined subculture that is not simply synonymous with the closet — without consent or evidence to do so purely based on the fact that he is a young black man? Because the real question we need to be asking is: Why are we so suspicious of Frank Ocean?
In the end, of course, Powers appreciates the ambiguity as a reminder that “while proudly declaring an identity can be a politically crucial gesture, often the human heart is not so sure-footed.” And that’s true. But what so many people seem to be failing to grasp in this conversation, is that Ocean’s letter is more important than “art” or “politics” in that it’s a story from his life. By pulling this letter out from the original liner notes for Channel Orange, it’s possible that Ocean didn’t want this personal story to go through the same artistic scrutiny as his music — which is, unfortunately, exactly what’s happened. Regardless, this much is not ambiguous: We don’t get to judge if he came out “right,” or if he came out “enough,” or if he even came out all. It’s not about us, nor will it ever be.
'Simon 1.5' by mikedidthis.