Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Years ago, when I went to Yale, a nice guy and friend-for-the-summer named Josh Rauh introduced me to a proud tradition. Josh was the musical director for The Spizzwinks(?), one of the university's oldest a cappella groups, which he insisted was a fun but tough job. The toughest part was keeping a bunch of guys interested in singing without accompaniment when they could otherwise get shitfaced or bone ugly coeds or get shitfaced and bone each other during the fifteen year wait before they became constitutionally eligible to have their parents' handlers turn them into presidential candidates. To enliven the practices, the singers replaced the words "heart" or "love" in every applicable song with "butt."

Now, keep in mind, only the noun form of "love" qualified, as the verb form generally produced only nonsense. ("Butt Me Tender"?) For the most part, this modification immeasurably improves almost any song. "Open Your Heart to Me" immediately has a depth of meaning greater than any other Madonna song and vivifies the lock/key metaphor. "I Can't Get You out of My Heart" becomes a far more serious lamentation about one's inability to let go. "Endless Love" probably describes some form of eating disorder. The only two downsides to the practice involve giggling like a moron when certain songs come on the radio or — as Josh's singers discovered — forgetting the original form of the song and accidentally singing the buttified version in public.

In theory, this practice can be combined with another tradition — whose origins are either "forgotten" or "my head" — which is replacing any two-syllable proper name with "Hitler." At heart, the replacement lacks the gleeful idiocy of the butt-love switcheroo, but this shortcoming is more than made up for by the fact that it nicely highlights the general vacancy of proper names in songs. For the most part, they're added because "girl" is one syllable too short, "woman" sounds like a blues song or outright misogyny, picking a name sets you up for some easy rhymes of your choice, and/or because a short-lined chorus needs to be filled out. It doesn't really work for songs based on real people or, like "Martha," animals, mainly because you can actually picture McCartney singing to his sheepdog. But a song like "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number," while still utterly vacuous, sounds a lot more interesting when it's about der F├╝hrer.*

* — This is a false distinction because Wikipedia says that "Rikki, Don't Lose That Number" was inspired by American postmodernist, writer, poet and artist Rikki Ducornet. However, while it seems like almost everyone has heard the sheepdog story about "Martha," the Ducornet connection seems especially obscure, making the Rikki in question some unimaginable vague cipher whose identity could be replaced by almost anything. Rickey Henderson. Nikki Six. Vickie Lawrence. Adolf Hitler. Seriously, who cares? The song, like virtually all Steely Dan songs, still fucking sucks.

The drawbacks to this practice are identical to the butt-replacement game, only with more potential for social mortification. Giggling about butts or accidentally singing about butts just makes you seem like a juvenile twit, but some people might become angry if you're cheerily singing about how "Hitler's mom has got it goin' on."

One such group of people who might get upset is the Jews, whose name my former roommate Danny liked to substitute for the word "you" in pop songs. This is by far the most socially risky of the substitution games, with the least reward. Generally speaking, the plural ending often doesn't fit in songs, often doesn't make sense and usually isn't all that funny. While it does point up singers' lazy pronunciation and the empty non-specificity of "you" in many songs, most people aren't going to see the humor in it and will probably find it disturbing. It often is. U2's "With or Without Jews" sounds like an ambivalent narrator questioning whether extermination is a valid option, and indeed it might well be a summary of 1,500 years of the history of European commerce, investment, debt and racist expulsions to relieve debtor rulers and nations from the latter. Meanwhile, "Can't Take My Eyes off of Jews" sounds like a propaganda slogan.

Of course, all of these problems could be easily avoided if people merely stopped singing in public. And frankly, most of them should.