glory daze

my name is ella and i live in philadelphia and write things and shoot 35mm film + digital sometimes

How Rap Genius Ruined My Life

Rap Genius tells us that Vampire Weekend’s “Boston/Ladies of Cambridge” can be a ballad to a city, an interpretation of and allusion to a century-old E.E. Cummings work, or a comparison of the romanticization of academia and its capital to the reality of each.

Or, it can just be a song.

It begins as follows:

“Chestnut park on a Saturday night
Mystical boys feeling all right
Raggedy wisdom falls from my hand
As the ladies of Cambridge know who I am

I’ve had dreams of Boston all of my life
Chinatown between the sound of the night…”

It’s always been my favorite Vampire Weekend song, but for equally as long, it has existed only as the thematic guide in my constant, willing glorification of New England, not as a work of literature. Not until I read the song’s page on Rap Genius, a site that “breaks down text with line-by-line annotations, added and edited by anyone in the world,” did I question my use of the song as a motivator to drive me to what I assumed were the ivory towers of Boston, Cambridge, Providence, and New Haven.  

Upon following links and reading analyses of its lyrics and E.E. Cumming’s “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls," a poem that shares the same protagonists as the Vampire Weekend song, it became abundantly clear to me that 1) the ladies of Cambridge were not necessarily who I thought they were 2) they were not necessarily those whom I should aspire to be and 3) that I should never have read the Rap Genius. 

I initially assumed, perhaps naively and perhaps accurately, that the ladies of Cambridge were women, not ladies—that they understood string theory and would debate Israel/Palestine in a heartbeat, all within ivy-clad walls. Cummings, however, writes of these “ladies” with distain:

“the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls/are unbeautiful and have comfortable minds… they believe in Christ and Longfellow, both dead, are invariably interested in so many things—at the present writing one still finds/delighted fingers knitting for the is it Poles?… permanent faces coyly bandy scandal of Mrs. N and Professor D”

Cummings, in 1923, is, of course, not writing of the studious women who, today, inhabit Cambridge eight months out of the year, but rather of the wives of professors who perennially lived there. He criticizes their closed, “comfortable” minds and “furnished” souls, haughtily inducing imagery of upholstery and needlepoints and condemning their persistent stichin-n-bitchin and allegiances to the dead, Christ and Longfellow.

In reading Cummings’ critique of a demographic I so idolized, I naturally became bitter: he had no place to draw any conclusions about the ladies of Cambridge, as he was not one, I scathed. But maybe Cummings was right to mock these women for hunkering down with the words and ideologies of the dead instead of focusing on the vibrant city outside of their ivy-clad walls.

My aversion, I ultimately realized, was not to the Cummings work, but rather to my favorite band’s allusion to it. The annotation about the phrase “ladies of Cambridge” on the song’s Rap Genius page simply linked to the poem without comment, drawing a straight line between the two works. The lack of comment, I presumed, meant that the band was lifting directly from the poet, that their opinions on the women/ladies of Cambridge were the same. And, if Vampire Weekend was as critical of these ladies as Cummings was, that meant that Vampire Weekend’s call to Boston, to academia, was sarcastic.

Vampire Weekend may have been mocking Cambridge’s ladies and siding with Cummings. They may have been writing an updated version of the Cummings poem, describing the women who live there now as praiseworthy. Or, they may have been referencing and reminiscing over a time when they thought, as I continue to, that Boston would solve all their problems.

Or, they may have just been singing about a city.

The notion that VW was sincerely drawing from Cummings less-than-flattering portrait of the women of Cambridge does not necessarily have any validity, and it probably doesn’t hold much truth either, but its presence, even among more satisfactory options, made me question the very nature and message of a song I thought to be the anthem to my quest for ivy and Christ and Longfellow. Rap Genius forced me to question the future I planned for myself.  Rap Genius momentarily ruined my life.

In reading the lyrics again, however, it became clear that there was no reason to assume their views of these women were identical, or even similar. In fact my second reading proved the opposite. My newfound interpretation was informed by the fact that the song, unlike the poem, is not about the women; they merely grace the title and first verse. Instead, the song paints an idyllic portrait of Boston and Cambridge, the cities the Cummings ladies failed to realize they were surrounded by. In the song, Ezra Koenig, Vampire Weekend’s songwriter and front man, writes of Chestnut Park, Mystic River Parkway, and the ladies of Cambridge. According to Koenig, they are part of the city, integral enough to be included in a list of its landmarks.  

The ladies who speckle the Vampire Weekend song may be ladies, or they may be women. Neither the commenters over at Rap Genius nor I understand fully the relationship between the two groups or why Koenig chose to use the same protagonists as a poet with whom he may not have agreed. I’d like to think that Koenig’s “Boston/Ladies of Cambridge” is calling back to Cummings’ “the Cambridge ladies who live in furnished souls” with respectful criticism, in the same way Langston Hughes’ “I too Sing America” did to Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing,” but I have no way of knowing.

I hope that Koenig is writing about a city and its women because he loves, or at least yearns for, each. I hope that his call of “I’ve had dreams of Boston all of my life” is sincere, not critical of a prep-culture that forces men and women to “fantasize about college life in Boston literally from the day they are born,” as a Rap Genius commenter asserted. I hope that Koenig had dreams of Boston all of his life because he yearned for academia, for Christ and Longfellow, and that his participation in yearning for ivy-clad buildings and ivory towers was purely because they came with his yearning to be “invariably interested in so many things.”

I hope that Koenig is genuine in his wishes because I am genuine in my own desire for academia and, in turn, Boston. I hope, fervently, that he is not mocking my aspirations. I cannot say, however, if this is the case.

Paul Simon, to who Vampire Weekend is constantly compared, wrote in his song “The Obvious Child” that “these songs are true, these days are ours, these tears are free.” Rap Genius frightened me because it made me think that the song I held to be most true was not. It made me believe that the women in Cambridge were merely ladies and that perhaps Koenig himself did not share my dreams. Ultimately, however, what Rap Genius made most clear to me was that “these songs,” and this song in particular, belong to others, not just me. I know now that people wrote their interpretations of the song I thought was mine because it is “mine” to them too.

By becoming aware of the fact that this song does not singularly belong to me, and by being exposed to other interpretations of a song I held so dear, I have aged.

I can no longer experience Ladies of Cambridge with the unadulterated joy and innocence that I could before I tried to understand its meaning. But, because Rap Genius has cursed me with age, I finally understand a lyric from “Step,” which appears two albums after “Ladies of Cambridge” and reads “wisdom’s a gift, but you’d trade it for youth.” And I thank them for this understanding. 

How to Take a Group Picture

Place your hand casually around her neck. Let it dangle in front of her collarbone. Grin, wide. Allow your laugh lines to crease, revealing your front teeth, the right slightly overlapping with the left.

Let her rest her hand on your back.

Make out her shape and color from the corner of your eye. Your 5-inch height difference will become evident when you look down, realizing you can see the peach lace of her bra framing her breasts. Once, when she sat on your bed as you dressed yourself at the its foot, you told her she was “classy but still cute.”

She hadn’t taken her shoes off that time.

Because it will be illuminated by the streetlight, her hair will temporarily become a harsher yellow than its natural red. It will not clash with her sunburn, though, you’ll think. You will clash with her, however. Your skin will be dark and olive.

It will be with swift impulse and smooth motion that she will place her index finger through the loop of fabric on the back of your shirt. You will feel the urgency of her touch through the rayon-blend.

“It is meant to be used for hanging,” she will assume, silently, of the loop. With the pad of the same finger, she will draw a circle around one of the checks printed on your shirt. She will use the small square as a guideline and will stay within its boundaries. “Don’t wander,” she’ll beg of  her finger.

But you must beckon it to.

there are 27 miles between east la and encino

I never liked Los Angeles,

Even though I’d never been.


Warmed by the frigidity of New England,

The grids of the eastern seaboard,

and cities bookended by rivers,

I had no desire to go westward.


But E-li-za-bet taught me how to pronounce Án-gel-es,

Count back vowels,

And draw the line between East LA and the rest of the world

With carro on one side

And coche on all others.


And when Gabriel taught me tikkun olam and tzedakah,

he pointed to where the valley was indented.

“Just north of Santa Monica,” he’d said.

And when he sang, smiling, in his dining room on Friday night,

I knew that he had done so so many Fridays before me,

and that those Fridays with me were surrounded by those without.


I can recite Spanish colloquialisms,

But they are not mine.

And I can ask the four questions,

But I’ll probably never understand the depth of their answers.


But I’ve grasped for these cultures all my life,

In spite of my absence from them

And found solace in their people

Because they are peoples of flight.


I’ve never been to Mexico,

Nor have I been to Israel,

But I can’t imagine they’re too different

If their respective peoples have both faced exodus.


I’ve still never been to Los Angeles,

because I’ve never need to flee

(After all, I’m not Mexican or Jewish),

But I still can’t fathom the proximity of East LA

To Encino,

Nor can I fathom the distance.


Maybe that’s why I never liked Los Angeles 

16 years

why is a Palestinian life less valuable than that of an Israeli?

why is 2 months into love as painful as 16 years into marriage?

why do read receipts exist and what sick fuck invented them?

why is the SAT no longer scored on a 1600 scale?

why does my father sound like a 16 year old boy who’s breaking up with me on the phone when he tells me he’s trying to make it work with my mother?

why did their voices crack?

why, while their cracked voices made equally deep cuts in me, did the cut of my father’s admission scab over so much faster than the admission of an Israeli boy I loved?

why are English and math considered opposites when they both rely on synthesis and eventual wholeness?

why do we use a base 10 system?

why do we use the heart metaphor?

why are loving and liking inversely proportionate over time?

and why is 16 years in to marriage so similar to 16 years into life? 

I tacked the flower he plucked me to my bulletin board

(from that day when we walked to your house from the 26 on which you thanked the driver who drove an empty bus)

along with the “who you are makes a difference” star he gave me

(it was from that suicide prevention presentation our spanish teacher gave during which I openly wept when she said Josh was “her person” and how now “he’s gone,” because even a month before you officially became “my person,” I knew you were, and that star validated that I was yours in ways you could not say because you had not yet read the same books I had) 

not because I wanted to remember

(I’ve done plenty of that; I no longer want to remember the lights in roxborough that I watched as we drove over the schuylkill from the backseat of my parents’ rental car after I grown older than I wanted to) 

but because I hope that one day he will see it

(even if it’s platonically)

and perhaps reconsider 

Your mother knows about your boney hands and protruding knuckles because she has watched them grow.

I, too, know all too well the raised patterns on your fingertips (along with the ecstasy of physical wholeness when the less pronounced ridges on mine lock into those in yours) because I have sought out these ridges for longer than I care to remember.

Their image is imbedded into your mother’s soul with genetic codes and tenderness,

And the same is somehow etched into my heart with the sting of the acid of intaglio.

april 23rd, 2014 

If you’re going to fuck me,

fuck me to the rhythm of the hava nagila

and with the urgency of exodus.

If you’re going to fuck me,

do so iambically—

whisper “slicha,”

but only if you mean it.

If you’re going to fuck me,

do so with the passion of age

and the wisdom of youth.


If you’re going to fuck me,

do so with faith

and fuck morals and into my strident agnosticism.


But whatever you do,

please, please don’t fuck me 


I was 43 minutes early for my train. I waited on a wet bench and watched the kids from Germantown Friends’ athletic fields file onto the other side of the tracks. I thought about their college database and counselors, and although I liked to think I liked the gritty nature and incessant tradition of my 150-year-old Central High, I did still long for clean carpets and 2400s. 

my friends are more talented than me

Israel a Shining Name

 I don’t have to tell you that you met her in Israel

and I don’t have to tell you that faith is important

but I may have to tell you that I almost bought a gold star of david necklace

for purely emulatory reasons