It is not uncommon to lament the widespread use of “textspeak”or what is perceived as the general decline of grammatically correct English. Enter Weird Al Yankovic’s “Word Crimes,” a parody of Robin Thicke’s controversial “Blurred Lines.” In the former, the lyrics denigrate the imagined listener for taking liberties with Standard English—but I would argue that that, too, is just as controversial.
In the same way that Thicke’s song denies women their agency, Yankovic denies the value of dialects other than “academese.” Indeed, he sings that ”Literacy’s your mission,” which narrows the definition of literacy to a specific type—a type to which new literacy and community literacy scholars, for example, might object, since its emphasis is on reading and writing in a particular style. Moreover, he calls the listener a “moron,” a “mouth-breather,” and “stupid” for, among other things, not knowing the difference between less and fewer.
Insults are an easy way to generate laughs, and I do not presume that Yankovic meant for his song to be used in the classroom, at least not primarily. And even if Yankovic meant for his song to be instructive,shame is a powerful motivator (ethics aside, of course). Yankovic may have good intentions with “Word Crimes.” For all of the discussions among rhetoric and writing scholars about honoring home dialects, writing instructors are often tasked with preparing students for the university and beyond, which often means teaching them to communicate in Standard English. Yet if instructors want to use this video as a pedagogical tool, they must give space for critical interrogation of the implications of the insults Yankovic uses so carelessly and the threat of violence for not conforming to the “correct” mode of expression: according to one verse, the figurative use of the word literally(to describe not wanting to get out of bed in the morning) “really makes [him] want to literally/ smack a crowbar upside your stupid head”—the viewer is expected to take that statement at face value; that Yankovic would in fact hit someone, because he is using the formal definition of “literally”. It does not appear, though, that Yankovic has recently consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, which has recently decreed that both uses of the word (i.e., “exactly”, or to emphasize) are acceptable.
“Word Crimes,” then, at first glance, may look like a fun way to introduce grammar into class discussion; however, it is far better suited for conversations about literacy and privilege.