TRIGGER WARNING: Whilst this post starts innocuously enough, with internet memes and Mmmbop, it ends with a discussion of brutal sexual violence against women.
It all started with talking to my wife about auditory pareidolia, which was sparked after I saw the Obama’s Elf video in a talk given by fellow Skeptic Marit Simonsen at a talk for the Human-Etisk Forbund.
It wasn’t until started doing some reading for this post that I discovered that Obama’s Elf is actually an example of mondegreen, which is the mishearing or misinterpretation of a phrase because it sounds very similar to something else, in a way that gives it a new meaning. (The term mondegreen comes from the mishearing of the line ‘And laid him on the green’, from 17th-century ballad called ‘The Bonny Earl O'Moray’.)
Auditory pareidolia is hearing something that isn’t actually there (like voices in white noise or hidden messages in songs played backwards), whereas mondegreen is something that happens frequently with real song lyrics. My wife, for example, spent her childhood singing ‘she’s got sugar on her nose’ instead of ‘it’s a secret no one knows’ to Hansen’s 1997 pop classic Mmmbop.
Much in the same was as pareidolia, mondegreen is powerful because it’s really hard to ‘undo’; once you’ve heard it, you can’t un-hear it.
I recently introduced my wife to the British Indie band Alt-J, and their 2012 Mercury Music Prize-winning album, An Awesome Wave. She said she really liked track 10, Fitzpleasure, but admitted that she didn’t have a clue what the lyrics were or what the song was about. We thought it would be interesting to write down the words to Fitzpleasure as she heard them and see how she fared. This is what we do for fun; don’t judge us.
I recommend listening to the song first (and enjoying the mental video) and then read what my wife heard, followed by the actual lyrics.
Here’s what she came up with:
Tra la la…
In your start meets pleasure, boom she pleasure
In greegally googally in every corner
Being in the middle, of a pseudo gaga hemahem
Little did I know that, and the man and the boy succumb dela men
Toy woman, or the pylon thong
And the rabbit momma has a flex
Of all the famous men that queue to be the next
Sleep on finger
la la la leaders
Small things be my sister
La la la la lick your frothers
In your hoof lies a heartland
Wear your temple
Lies treasure, pleasure, leisure, leisure
It’s all in your eyes
In your start meets pleasure, a boom she pleasure
Be greedy and googley every corner
Here are the actual lyrics:
Tralala, in your snatch fits pleasure, broom-shaped pleasure,
Deep greedy and Googling every corner.
Dead in the middle of the C-O-double-M-O-N,
Little did I know then that the Mandela Boys soon became Mandela Men.
Tall woman, pull the pylons down
And wrap them around the necks of all the feckless
men that queue to be next.
Steepled fingers, ring leaders, queue jumpers,
rock fist paper scissors, lingered fluffers.
In your hoof lies the heartland
Where we tent for our treasure, pleasure, leisure,
les yeux, it's all in your eyes.
In your snatch fits pleasure, broom-shaped pleasure,
Deep greedy and Googling every corner,
Blended by the lights.
I’m not sure my wife’s attempt at the lyrics are that much more nonsensical than the real ones to be honest.
This is where it gets really interesting and also where the trigger warning kicks into effect.
Turns out the opening line, ‘in your snatch fits pleasure, broom-shaped pleasure’, isn’t as obtuse or metaphorical as either of us thought. Fitzpleasure is inspired by a scene in Hubert Selby Junior’s controversial novel, Last Exit to Brooklyn, in which a prostitute is brutally gang-raped; an act which also involved the use of a broom.
In an interview with the Secret Sound Shop, in May last year, Alt-J’s lead singer, Joe Newman, explained the band’s thinking behind the lyrics and the controversial subject matter.
What is Fitzpleasure?
It’s not rude is it?
It is rude, well it’s not rude, it’s graphic and it’s violent. It’s based on a book by Hubert Selby Jr [Last Exit to Brooklyn]. Each chapter is about a different character and they all intertwine throughout the book. There’s a woman called Tralala so that’s why we sing [sings] Tra-la-la-la there’s a character called Tralala and it’s just about her. So basically the phrase is ‘in your snatch fits pleasure, broom shaped pleasure’ so fits and pleasure and Fitz like a second name, like Fitzpatrick so we thought Fitzpleasure, so more subtle. But it’s about the end of the chapter where she gets, er, gang-raped, so it’s really horrible.
Who read the book?
I did. I always believe that you write about what moves you and although that gang-rape scene is horrible… it really moved me, it’s really well written, you don’t really know which way is up after that chapter. I thought it was a really powerful thing to write about.
I’ve read in a couple of places (e.g. here) that the song might be ‘glorifying’ rape, but I’m not sure I agree. I admire Newman’s reasoning, about writing about what moves you, and not shying away from subject matter because of how horrible it is. At the same time, however, I can’t help but think about the horrific gang-rape and murder of the young woman in Delhi at the end of last year, which involved the use of an iron rod. Whilst the inspiration for the song was based on fiction and pre-dated the gang-rape in India, there’s no doubt that that the real-life events have changed how I listen to and appreciate the song. It was pretty brutal thinking about what the Fitzpleasure is actually about and the striking disconnect between the subject matter and humming along to the tra la las and the catchy melodies.
My wife was even more affected by this than me and now chooses not to listen to the song any more. As if the leap from Obama’s Elf to gang-rape wasn’t enough, this then got me drawing comparisons to the way I think some people approach religion; a kind of 'ignorance is bliss'. My wife was happy in her innocent naivety going along with the bits that she got, and making up the bits that weren’t so clear to fit. Whilst she didn’t know too much it was fine. Once she looked into it, though, she found it really wasn’t what she thought it was; she was much happier before just singing along to the bits that made sense.
Bit of a meandering post this one, and I’m worried that my analogy at the end is patronising of the religious, but it but it was interesting, if only for myself, to follow the trail from an innocuous car game to musings about art and religion.