Videos by American Songwriter
While the music world awaits new music from Vampire Weekend, with a new album promised for later this year, it’s worth noting that it’s now been a decade since their self-titled debut album. At the time, the hype was deafening, although at times that hype played up the band’s Ivy League origins more than the music. “Oxford Comma” tells a funny little story about romancing someone from another social world, all while seeming to slyly comment on the publicity surrounding the band.
In terms of grammar, an Oxford Comma is one placed after the last of a series of items, sometimes omitted these days. But Ezra Koenig, the group’s frontman, explained to Vanity Fair at the time of the song’s release that the punctuation mark was merely symbolic. “I think the song is more about not giving a f*** than about Oxford commas,” Koenig said. “I first came across the Oxford comma on Facebook. There was a group at Columbia called Students for the Preservation of the Oxford Comma. I didn’t think about it too much but, a few months later while sitting at a piano at my parents’ house, I started writing the song and the first thing that came out was ‘Who gives a f*** about an Oxford comma?'”
In many ways, “Oxford Comma,” which was written by Koenig and fellow VW members Rostam Batmanglij, Christopher Tomson, and Chris Baio (that’s an Oxford Comma right after Tomson’s name, by the way) falls into line with the tradition of pop songs concerning relationships between people from two different social sets, everything from “Rag Doll” to “Uptown Girl.” The difference here is that the narrator has had it with the affectations of wealth and class that the girl he’s addressing constantly conjures.
The music mixes an antiquated, Victorian-style melody with a herky-jerky rhythm to mimic the clashing of styles which the lyrics depict. After the striking opening line, Koenig mentions “English dramas,” likely referencing those where the wealthy live in luxury and the help are shuffled in the basement. His attitude is laid-back, not caring about grammar or how words should be spelled, and that puts him in her haughty crosshairs: “Why would you speak to me that way?” he asks. And it’s not just what she says, it’s how she says it: “All your diction dripping with disdain.”
As the song progresses, the narrator claims that enlightenment lies outside of stuffy drawing rooms, mentioning the highest Lama and claiming, “His accent sounded fine to me.” And though he tries to abide her efforts to change him (“Crack a smile/ Adjust my tie”), her untruths end up sealing the deal: (“Why would you lie ‘bout anything at all?”)
Koenig plays little word games throughout, as if to prove that he can slip a few by her strict guidelines. Note how the line “Know your boyfriend” is switched to “Know your butler” the second time through. The line “Why would you lie about how much coal you have?” could conceivably refer to the fact that she’s putting on airs to hide an actual lack of funds, or it could refer to a common grammatical example which shows the need for the Oxford Comma. Best of all is when he references the Lil Jon crunk hit “Get Low” in the lyrics, seeming to let her know exactly where his cultural tastes run.
Again, “Oxford Comma” works brilliantly as the lament of a put-upon boyfriend. But it can also be seen as Vampire Weekend anticipating what some critics would say about the band coming from such hallowed halls. The song beats them to the punch and displays the kind of humor, intelligence and heart that can be found in all great music, regardless of the source.