Initial Studies on Sk8r Boi

In 2002 Avril Lavigne released the song “Sk8er Boi”, which includes the infamous lyrics:

“He was a boy, she was a girl, can I make it any more obvious?”

What did people think this meant when they first heard it? I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that the implication is that there’s romantic tension, though in this case it comes to nothing (“he was sk8er boi, she said see you later boi”). The strength of the romantic interpretation is a result of two things:

A) The sparsity of the narrative.
B) The fact that, traditionally, opposite gender single-person parties is both a necessary prerequisite for romance _and_ any other kind of relationship in this scenario is considered inherently unstable. (See “When Harry Met Sally” for the platonic description of this viewpoint.)

Sure, the boy could just be asking for the girl’s pencil, but if that was the case people would still think it was probably the beginning of romantic tension. A single male and female character alone in the narrative, even if not in the same location, is considered a reference to the implied relationship/story-arc.

But that’s what we usually talk about when we talk about references, is it? When we talk about references or indexicality, we tend to talk about one kind of metonymy or another. We like to discuss words as boxes we can put many things, and that we have to know what to put in to to make things. We tend to use examples like:

  1. “The doctor will see you now.” -> Who’s the doctor? It’s a reference.
  2. “But our Hero overestimated his strength. The classic fatal flaw.” -> What’s the fatal flaw? A protagonist’s hubris of course!
  3. “But what does it all come to? Nothing!” -> What’s it? It’s the plan, the endeavor, whatever has been “going on”.

But “He was a boy, she was a girl, can I make it any more obvious?” is totally different from this. We could call it an “implied storyline”, but the fact remains that implication comes from a reference to an archetypical narrative arc. If anything is being substituted, “can I make it any more obvious?” is being substituted for the plot development. But implying it has a totally different effect than just saying it, by drawing out the archetypical nature without details. It makes more sense to say that “can I make it any more obvious?” is a direct reference to a story arc, but the referent never appears as a linguistic object (e.g. there’s no noun compound that represent the story arc).

But what happens when we use this in 2002? Now when we say

“He was a boy, she was a girl, can I make it any more obvious?”

we’re referring to “Sk8r Boi” the song.

…except. Except, I didn’t know that this line was from “Sk8r Boi” until I started researching to write this. (“research”) Instead, I saw people using it in a mocking tone, and I was referring to this usage. I would see two rabbits on a walk, take a picture, and post it on Twitter with the caption “she was a girl, he was a boy, could I make it anymore obvious?” I didn’t think this was novel. I didn’t think it was just a compositional usage like “yellow car” is just a car that’s yellow, I was making a reference to the discourse.

An orthodox linguistic perspective would be that I’m piggy-backing on this usage without “knowing the underlying meaning”. I reject this—I am referring to the common discourse usage, which no longer requires the song. Many—possibly most—readers will think of “Sk8r Boi” when they see my usages of this trend. But the more it’s used without explanation, the more people don’t know or don’t care enough to look into “Sk8r Boi” and the usage will be common.

Usage is reference to usage. If people start using a certain construction in a certain context, it becomes entangled with it—but only to the extent that readers/listeners/viewers are exposed to it. And since everyone is doing this all the time the references all amalgamate and eventually core usage emerges from the intersection of some core interlocutors.

What can we do with that? Next time on Sk8r Boi Studies…

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