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.