I have headcanon punctuation for the refrain in Billie Eilish’s song “Therefore I Am.”
It is this:
I’m not your friend, or anything—damn—you think that you’re the man; I think therefore I am
I produced this punctuation spontaneously the other day in a text and immediately regarded it as incontrovertible.
Let’s start with the first phrase:
I’m not your friend, or anything
How absolutely devastating is “or anything.” How dismissive. The casual comma gives it the air of an afterthought, exactly as it should.
The subtle emphasis of this placement demands em-dashes. And not en-dashes with bookended spaces, either, because, vocally, Eilish glides into her damn without pause for breath. She sets her expletive off, but not enough to warrant an explanation mark.
you think that you’re the man; I think therefore I am
If ever there were a phrase in which to use a semicolon, this is it. The repeated emphasis pattern (you think that you’re the man; I think therefore I am) accomplishes aurally what a semicolon would visually, which is to say, it establishes a link between phrases in order to join two thoughts that could otherwise stand on their own.
Of course, like all headcanons, I have no evidence to support these choices. In fact, the published lyric punctuation does not bear me out. That’s beside the point.
The point is the exercise itself. Punctuation is frequently art more than law. Your choices convey meaning—especially when it comes to written dialogue, where punctuation offers insight into delivery. Imagine this same refrain punctuated differently:
I’m not your friend. Or anything! Damn. You think that you’re the man? I think, therefore, I am.
I’m not your friend or anything. Damn! You think that you’re the man. I think, therefore: I am.
Not nearly so satisfying.
I’ve come to appreciate lately how rendering good dialogue depends on training your ear to hear punctuation. And if that means taking obscure pleasure in stringing together commas, em-dashes, and semicolons while listening to one of the most blistering takedowns of 2020? Well, I consider that an absolute win.