Sufjan, Miley and AAVE

Everyone else was doing it! Folk singer Sufjan Stevens has become the latest celebrity to publicly share his grievances with Miley Cyrus. He penned an open letter to  Cyrus this week, this one focusing on the “grammar” in her song Get It Right.

He’s hung up on two “grammatical” points that he feels she doesn’t do justice to: the lay/lie distinction and her use (or lack thereof) of the “present perfect continuous tense”.

“One particular line causes concern: ‘I been laying in this bed all night long.’ Miley, technically speaking, you’ve been LYING, not LAYING, an irregular verb form that should only be used when there’s an object, i.e. ‘I been laying my tired booty on this bed all night long.'[…]”But also, Miley, did you know the tense here is also totally wrong. Surely you’ve heard of Present Perfect Continuous Tense (I HAVE BEEN LYING in this bed all night long [hopefully getting some beauty sleep?]). It’s a weird, equivocal, almost purgatorial tense, not quite present, not quite past, not quite here, not quite there. Somewhere in between.”

As expected, there is a post on the wonderful Language Log blog in response to Sufjan’s letter. But the vast majority of the commenters focus on the lay/lie issue, as well as a more abstract conversation around the use of the term ‘tense’  in public discourse. I personally think the most interesting linguistic issue here is not in prescriptively labelling “I been laying in this bed all night long” as mis-use of the present perfect continuous, but in deliberate use of AAVE, or African American Vernacular English. In other words, Sufjan’s got it wrong.

Two commenters on the Language Log piece do touch on the AAVE issue:

Christopher Hodge: Briefly to come away from the lie/lay thing […], that use of “been” is very much standard in AAVE, isn’t it?
Eric said: Christopher Hodge: Absolutely. And AAVE is a firmly established part of English-language pop music lyricism, as otherwise monodialectical white speakers, when writing words to their rock ‘n roll song, will reflexively employ canonical constructions like “my baby ain’t got no” inherited from blues generations ago.

AAVE is not Standard English with mistakes; it’s a rule-governed variety of English just like any other socio- or dialectologically-determined variety of English. Miley’s not “making a grammar mistake”, she’s using a non-standard variety of English, and she’s doing it correctly.

That being said, so much of the media discourse around Miley Cyrus accuses her of appropriation or exploitation of black culture or ratchet culture. (I just Googled “Miley Cyrus appropriation” and got 244,000 results, including this one and this one.) So, the real discussion should be, in my opinion, is Miley just using AAVE as it is a “firmly established part of the English-language pop music lyricism” as the commenter above suggested? Or does she use AAVE to an extent and in a way that is part and parcel of her supposed “appropriation” of black culture?

If one felt so inclined, they could go back and look at the lyrics of her pop hits from her “sweet country girl” era and compare them to the lyrics of her new, sexy, ratchet-influenced album in terms of AAVE use. Buuuuttttt…. I don’t actually care THAT MUCH. I simply wanted to point out that in his near-sighted prescriptivist focus on Miley’s lyrics, Sufjan got it all wrong, and missed a conversation about the sociolinguistic implications of Miley’s lyrics that is actually quite interesting.


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