CRAIG CONLEY (Prof. Oddfellow) is recognized by Encarta as “America’s most creative and diligent scholar of letters, words and punctuation.” He has been called a “language fanatic” by Page Six gossip columnist Cindy Adams, a “cult hero” by Publisher’s Weekly, and “a true Renaissance man of the modern era, diving headfirst into comprehensive, open-minded study of realms obscured or merely obscure” by Clint Marsh. An eccentric scholar, Conley’s ideas are often decades ahead of their time. He invented the concept of the “virtual pet” in 1980, fifteen years before the debut of the popular “Tamagotchi” in Japan. His virtual pet, actually a rare flower, still thrives and has reached an incomprehensible size. Conley’s website is OneLetterWords.com.
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A Turkish Delight of musings on languages, deflations of metaphysics, vauntings of arcana, and great visual humor.

October 4, 2008 (permalink)


Honorable mention in our PInKSLiP campaign (read about the concept here) goes to Russell Mael of the band Sparks, for his song "Cool Places," a duet with Go-Go's Jane Wiedlin.  Mael defies gender stereotypes when he sings, "I wanna go where nobody's a fool, and no one says uh, 'hey girl, need a light?'"  While a homophobic reading of that line is possible, we think it most likely that Mael originally wrote the lyric for Wiedlin to sing, and the two switched lines.

Additional kudos to a group of fifth grade boys in a music class who changed "I Kissed a Girl" by Katy Perry to "I Kissed a Squirrel," yet retained the line, "I hope my boyfriend doesn't mind it."

September 22, 2008 (permalink)


She's so unusual with her gender pronouns!  Photo via.
Cyndi Lauper covers Prince's "When You Were Mine" on her album She's So Unusual.  Lauper receives mixed marks. We applaud her effort to preserve the integrity of several key lyrics, thereby inviting fresh new subtexts to arise.  Yet we resoundly spurn instances of carelessly mangled pronouns that virtually erase any possible new subtexts.

Lauper starts off on a worrying note: she leaves out the word girl in the line, "Oh girl, when you were mine."

However, she makes amends by honoring this original lyric: "I know that you're going with another guy."  Because Lauper deliberately declines to identify the subject of her song as a "girl" in the earlier lyric, it's easy to assume she's singing about a guy.  The words "another guy" are therefore newly intriguing, as her former boyfriend appears to be either gay or bisexual.  Additionally, "another guy" refers back to the speaker, meaning that Lauper associates herself with a masculine identity ("one of the guys").

Lauper's retention of a later lyric, "I used to let you wear all my clothes" preserves the gender-bending of the original Prince recording.  Lauper's subject would appear to be a cross-dresser or drag queen.

Lauper falters, however, when she changes he to you in the following lyric: "I never was the kind to make a fuss when he was there sleeping in-between the two of us."  Her phrase "when you was sleeping in-between the two of us" is nonsensical at best.  Apparently, cross-dressing is okay, but two men in her bed is unthinkable.

Lauper recovers somewhat, retaining the original lyric, "Now I spend my time following him whenever he's with you."  But the hemming, hawing, and hedging has left the listener with a blurred picture.  Mystery and intrigue are one thing; unfocused muddles are quite another.

P.S. Cyndi, we adore you anyway.  ;-)

P.P.S. Thanks to Chris for inspiration.

---

Mike responds:

You have to whip these singers into shape.  Otherwise they'll walk all over you.

September 17, 2008 (permalink)

Today we honor Corey Haim, a voice of sanity in an insane world of song-lyric-pronoun abuse.  In the film The Lost Boys, Haim sings "Ain't Got No Home" by Clarence "Frogman" Henry.  Does Haim butcher the original lyrics?  Absolutely not!  Haim isn't afraid to "sing like a girl" or even "like a frog"!  (Go ahead and gasp!) 

The PInKSLiP Campaign hereby dares contemporary singers to follow Haim's example.  And what a controversial dare it is, apparently!  Consider, for example, these lyrics from the song:
  • "I ain't got a man."  According to the ridiculous standards that PInKSLiP actively fights, only a woman (of any orientation) could sing such a line.
  • "I ain't got a son."  This line could presumably be sung only by a singer with no male heir.
  • "I ain't got a daughter."  This line is presumably exclusive to daughterless singers.
  • "I ain't got no one."  Who but the impotent, the deliberately childless, the unmarried, the asexual, or the socially inept would dare to sing such a line?
  • "I'm a lonely girl."  Grown-up girls would likely need to change the word to "woman," and male singers would need to switch the gender, according to today's ridiculous standards.
  • "I ain't got a mother."  Only orphans need bother retaining this lyric, apparently.
  • "I ain't got a father."  This would be exclusive to genetically engineered ("test tube") people.
  • "I ain't got a sister."  This line is for singletons, apparently.
  • "Not even a brother."  Ditto.
  • "I'm a lonely frog."  Human singers need not bother.
  • "I ain't got a home."  A line for homeless singers, obviously.
Need we say more?  As the lyrics of "Ain't Got No Home" beautifully demonstrate, it's ridiculous for a singer to alter song lyrics to correspond to his or her lifestyle.  Anyone can sing like a girl, or a frog, or a sisterless singleton without a place to call home.  That's because (drumroll, please!) it's just a song!

September 15, 2008 (permalink)


Would the Annie Lennox of 1983 have given a hoot about pronoun genders?  Image via AllPosters.com.
We're appalled over Annie Lennox's gender switching in her cover of the Temptations' "I Can't Get Next to You" (on her album Medusa).  The original lyric is, "'Cause girl you're the key to my happiness."  Lennox changes the word girl to man.  Lennox was one of the seminal gender benders of the 1980's, so we're sincerely puzzled over her newfound need to assert stereotypical relationships.

As we explain in our PInKSLiP Campaign, it would be unheard of for a person doing a spoken-word reading of a literary classic to change the text's gender references according to whim.  It should be equally unheard of for a singer to alter the lyrics of a song.  This all-too-common practice violates the integrity of the original song and, in fact, often prevents fresh new subtexts from arising.

Counterpoint: Our poetic friend Chris Piuma stands up for singers' rights to have as much fun with lyrics as they want.  Certainly, artists can and do have quite a bit of fun altering lyrics, and our PInKSLiP Campaign can and will continue to issue the pinkslips!

April 1, 2006 (permalink)

P I n K S L i P: Preserve the Integrity of Key Song Lyric Pronouns

When artists perform cover versions of songs, they often alter the lyrics to match the gender of the new singer.  For example, a male singer doing a cover of the Diana Ross song "Upside Down" might change the words "Boy, you turn me inside out" to "Girl, you turn me inside out."  It would be unheard of for a person doing a spoken-word reading of a literary classic to change the text's gender references according to whim.  It should be equally unheard of for a singer to alter the lyrics of a song.  This all-too-common practice violates the integrity of the original song and, in fact, often prevents fresh new subtexts from arising.

What kind of fresh new subtexts, you ask?  Consider Information Society's cover of "Express Yourself" by Madonna.  Had singer Kurt Harland retained the original lyrics, he would have turned "Express Yourself" into a feminist manifesto from a male point of view, making the song vastly more interesting and important.  Instead, he alters the pronouns throughout and his remake falls flat.  For example, Harland changes the lyric "make him express how he feels and then you'll know your love is real" to "make her express how she feels and then you'll know your love is real."  Females don't generally have too much trouble communicating their feelings; expressiveness is typically more difficult for males.  So the changed lyrics lose their original meaning and indeed border on the ridiculous.  Had Harland left the original pronouns untouched, he would have transformed the song into a cautionary tale for women from a man's point of view.  The singer would be encouraging women to demand only the best from men, benefiting both genders in the process.  (The cover version is available on the Madonna tribute album "Virgin Voices." The original version is available on the Madonna album "Immaculate Collection.")

Sometimes lyric alterations totally obliterate the artist's original meaning.  Take, for example, Loleatta Holoway's cover of "I Wanna Be Your Lover" by Prince.  As part of her removal of masculine references, Holoway changes the lyrics "I wanna be your brother, I wanna be your mother and your sister, 2" to "I wanna be your lover, I wanna be your mother and your sister, 2."  As Prince wrote the lyrics, the singer is offering to transcend the limitations of gender roles.  He is offering the support of brotherhood, the nurturing of motherhood, and the sharing of sisterhood to the woman he desires.  He is suggesting that he will be a new family for her, ready and able to fulfill her every need.  Holoway carelessly erases this important aspect of the song's meaning, making her cover version pale by comparison. (The cover version is available on the Prince tribute album "Party O' the Times."  The original version is available on Prince's self-titled album.)

Let's contrast these bad examples with another Madonna cover, but this time one which works brilliantly:

KMFDM's cover of "Material Girl" by Madonna.  A scary, distorted masculine voice tells us that "we are living in a material world" and that he is a "material girl."  En Esch sings, "Some boys kiss me, some boys hug me, I think they're O.K.  If they don't give me proper credit, I just walk away." By retaining the original lyrics and switching the gender of the singer, the cover version takes an intriguing look at the connection between materialism and gender identity.  While Madonna suggests that people use their sex appeal to court others for personal gain, En Esch further suggests that people of one's same gender ultimately have the most to offer and that such courtships must be handled delicately.  (The cover version is available on the Madonna tribute album "Virgin Voices."  The original version is available on the Madonna album "Like a Virgin.")

Further insights into gender identity are gained in the following covers:

Erasure's cover of "River Deep, Mountain High" by Ike and Tina TurnerAndy Bell of Erasure preserves the song's original lyrics, singing such lines as "When I was a little girl I had a ragdoll."  The song takes on new meaning by exploring how gender identities and boundaries are defined during early childhood.  (The cover version is available on the Erasure album "Innocents."  The original version is available on the album "Best of Ike and Tina Turner.")

Biftek's cover of "Wired For Sound" by Cliff Richards.  Lead singer Julee Cruise stays true to the original song, singing "I was a small boy who did not like his toys" and "I met a girl and she told me she loved me."  As with the Erasure cover of "River Deep, Mountain High," this song is given added depth by examining early formations of gender identity.  (The cover version is available on the Biftek album "2020."  The original version is available on the Cliff Richards album "Whole Story: His Greatest Hits.")

Future Bible Heroes' cover of "Don't You Want Me" by the Human League.  This popular male-female duet gets switched around in the cover version, with the man singing that he was "working as a waitress in a cocktail bar."  By retaining the original lyrics and switching the genders of the singers, the song explores traditional gender roles in a refreshing new way.  (The cover version is available on the Human League tribute album "Reproductions."  The original version is available on the Human League album "Dare.")

Male-male relationship subtexts are created in the following covers:

The 6ths with Lloyd Cole's cover of "Human" by the Human League.  This popular male-female duet is here sung by two men, each apologizing for cheating on the other during a period of separation.  One man says to the other, "I wouldn't ever try to hurt you.  I just needed someone to hold me, to fill the void while you were gone, to fill this space of emptiness."  The cover version brings new meaning to the lyrics as it explores the challenge of maintaining stable same-sex relationships.  (The cover version is available on the Human League tribute album "Reproductions."  The original version is available on the Human League album "Greatest Hits.")

The Beatles' cover of "Boys" by the Shirelles.  Since the Beatles often covered Motown material in their early days, no one seemed to raise an eyebrow at this.  But when you hear Ringo singing about boys ("Well, I talk about boys, now; what a bundle of joy!") it's rather intriguing.  (The cover version is available on the Beatles album "Anthology."  The original version is available on the Shirelles' album "25 All-Time Greatest Hits.")

Erasure's cover of "Gimme Gimme Gimme (A Man After Midnight)" by ABBA.  By preserving the original lyrics, Erasure subverts the song into a gay anthem. Andy Bell sings, "Gimme gimme gimme a man after midnight.  Take me through the darkness to the break of the day."  (The cover version is available on the Erasure album "The Two Ring Circus."  The original version is available on the ABBA album "ABBA Gold.")

Female-female relationship subtexts alter the storylines in the following songs:

Missing Persons' cover of "Hello I Love You" by the Doors.  By changing the gender of the singer while retaining the original lyrics, Missing Persons brings new depth to the song.  When Dale Bozzio sings, "Do you think you'll be the guy to make the queen of the angels sigh?" she can be referring to herself as a guy as well as referring to a male listener.  (In the Doors' version, that lyric is a bit of internal dialog as the singer thinks aloud to himself.)  When Bozzio sings, "Her arms are wicked, and her legs are long; when she moves my brain screams out this song," she brings a lesbian sensibility to the lyrics.  Now, the listener realizes that the beautiful stranger on the street has many admirers fighting for her attention, both male and female.  (The cover version is available on the reissue of the Missing Persons album "Color in Your Life."  The original version is available on the Doors' album "Best of the Doors.")

Six Pence None The Richer's cover of "There She Goes" by The La's.  By retaining the original lyrics, the band gives the song a new female-infatuated-by-female slant.  Leigh Nash sings, "There she goes again, racing through my brain, and I just can't contain these feelings that remain."  This was a bit unusual for mainstream pop, especially for a band with a "Christian Rock" past.  (The cover version is available on Six Pence None The Richer's self-titled album.  The original version is available on the La's self-titled album.)

Sandra Bernhard's cover of "Me and Mrs. Jones" by Billy Paul.  By retaining the original lyrics, Bernhard transforms the song into a love affair between herself and a married woman, thereby adding a brand new dimension to a familiar story.  Bernhard sings, "Me and Mrs. Jones, we've got a thing going on."  (The cover version is available on Sandra Bernhard's video "Without You I'm Nothing."  The original version is available on the Billy Paul album "Me & Mrs. Jones-Best of Billy Paul.")  Similarly, Bernhard brings a lesbian flair to "Little Red Corvette" by Prince.  She sings, "Girl, you got an ass like I never seen; And the ride... I say the ride is so smooth you must be a limousine."  (The cover version is available on Sandra Bernhard's video "Without You I'm Nothing."  The original version is available on the Prince album "1999.")

Rebecca Romijn Stamos' cover of "Darling Nikki" by Prince.  Like the "There She Goes" cover by Six Pence None The Richer, Rebecca Romijn Stamos brings a female-infatuated-by-female slant to "Darling Nikki."  Stamos sings, "I can't tell u what she did 2 me, but my body will never be the same."  (The cover version is available on the Prince tribute album "Party O' the Times." The original version is available on the Prince album "Purple Rain.")

Honorable mention goes to Momus's covers of songs he wrote for Kahimi Karie. Momus disregards the gender references in his own lyrics, adding new subtexts to songs he composed for a female singer.  In "The Lady Of Shalott," he describes himself as a woman: "I am a kind of Lady of Shallot; My drawbridge, portcullis and moat; The chastity belt round my throat."  In "Mistaken Memories Of Medieval Manhattan," Momus addresses another man in his bed: "Never wake me, boy; If you wake me I'll die; If you wake me you'll destroy this perfect world I see when I dream."  In "The Seventh Wife Of Henry VIII," Momus is a suitor to the notorious British king: "Well I know he might seem to be a big brute, but he waits on me hand and foot.  And when I blow upon his flute, he plays 'Greensleeves' on a lute."  In "Pygmalism," Momus addresses a male professor: "You filled me with your breath and your jism.  You gave me life, I give you death, pig; Pygmalism."  (The cover versions are available on Momus' web site.  The original versions are available on the Kahimi Karie album "Journey To The Centre Of Me." )

It is insulting to the audience to adjust song lyrics, as if we can't take them as they were written.  Should the artist perhaps alter lyrics based upon the audience, as for example making it all male in a gay bar, all female at a NOW meeting, or all dog at the Kennel Club?  Though it may or may not be discrimination to make this usually heterosexual adjustment, it's certainly trite and silly, and really more about a lack of confidence in the song than anything else.  Music, poetry, and art in any form should speak to us on some universal level, which could not be limited by pronoun or place. The offense of lyrics alteration lies in the superficiality of the thing.

Please participate in the PInKSLiP campaign by submitting your good or bad song lyric examples to webmaster@oneletterwords.com

(Thanks to Ken Clinger and June Conley for sharing their expertise.)


Original Content Copyright © 2014 by Craig Conley. All rights reserved.