It’s not difficult for most people to find out what Kendrick Lamar means by the album title “To Pimp A Butterfly.” A common place for people to find interpretations of pop culture is the website Genius. But where do these interpretations come from? Should these interpretations be trusted? Is it dangerous to annotate art?
Genius, formerly known as Rap Genius, was established in Brooklyn six years ago by Yale undergraduates Mahbod Moghadam, Tom Lehman, and Ilan Zechory, who had the intention to elucidate the meanings of rap lyrics and to compile them as an online reference. The idea came from Mahbod Moghadam, who wrote a hefty chunk of the early annotations, and Tom Lehman, the programmer and site designer. The website quickly soared in popularity, receiving a 15-million-dollar infusion from Andreessen Horowitz and entering the top-500 most-visited websites in the U.S. As the site grew, so did the founders’ reputations.
I first discovered the lyric annotation app “Genius” when searching for an explanation of the many name-dropping references in Vampire Weekend’s “Step”. I praise the site for making understandable the sometimes-esoteric lyrics of artists, and satisfying the curiosity of fans. The site is especially helpful in pointing out straightforward, one-for-one innuendo, wordplay, and reference (yes, Drake, “bling” is a rap-coined word and also sounds like a telephone ring). The website’s subheading is: “Genius is the world’s biggest collection of song lyrics and crowdsourced musical knowledge.” Its official motto is “If you don’t know, now you know” (from the lyrics of “Juicy” by The Notorious B.I.G.). The idea is certainly romantic. In this motto, the mission of Genius explains its success—playing directly into the hands of a culture of knowingness.
Recently, Genius has expanded into other areas besides music, including cinema and literature. Genius differs from sites like sparknotes.com because it is crowdsourced annotation as opposed to summary. The situation surrounding Genius is also unique because it’s decoding lyrics; it’s certainly been done before, but Genius seems to present it as a more official source, listing on each line one seemingly definitive note. Unique to Genius is that all viewers of an annotation of a song have experienced the song itself; they’re simply looking for more. Merely looking for a supplement to a musical experience is harmless—isn’t it? Many songs are made better by clarification but there is something to be said for unpolluted experience of a song–experiencing the song without context. Aside from specific circumstances where certain things are true and where context defines a song or book, there’s no work that needs an ulterior commentary to be fully itself.
Crowdsourced databases like Genius do pose large-scale questions about knowledge in the age of the internet. Of course these questions do apply to other online compendiums such as Wikipedia, but it’s one thing to Google which year “Pulp Fiction” came out and quite another to search for a comprehensive annotation of Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From The Storm” (one of my high school teachers will defend to his grave that the “she” in that song is in reference to the Church—an interpretation Genius doesn’t have posted). Further doubts arise when I see Of Mice and Men annotated line by line. I don’t mean to sound like a geezer saying, “back in my day our dictionaries were stained with the blood of our paper cuts”, but it’s wrong to shy away from ambiguity; it’s often the very ambiguity of something that makes it worthwhile. I also don’t mean to sound like your high school teacher saying, “carnival clowns write Wikipedia pages—don’t trust them”. There is a certain danger to crowdsourced information, but it isn’t anonymity that bothers me—I trust people, for the most part. Even if something is crowdsourced, I hesitate to accept a single, limited interpretation of meaning, especially in complex works. I’m okay with supplementary context, or even a crude anonymous commentary, but not a casual explanation.
Like so many aspects of the internet at large, Genius has two sides—there is certainly room for websites like Genius to be beneficial in the interpretation of art. Ultimately, I have Genius to thank for my understanding of Vampire Weekend’s “Step”, and in that way Genius has succeeded; but I also have Genius to blame for presenting a veneer of objectivity. All I’m saying is that something might be lost in translation. I hope for Genius to supplement rather than explain—a dangerous distinction.