In 1938, poet Wallace Stevens wrote “On the Road Home,” a poem that featured the following verse: “Words are not forms of a single word. / In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts. / The world must be measured by eye.”
That last part — that the world must be measured by eye — speaks to a universal truth in language. Sometimes, things just aren’t grammatical, but dammit, they feel right. Of course, grammar is just a construct to facilitate our dialogue, and we can, and do, bend it to our will (albeit slowly). “They,” famously, is now acceptable in the singular (e.g., “Everyone got what they wanted”), eliminating the cumbersome “he or she” — which was binary-enforcing in the first place.
But that ambiguous, plural/singular “they,” hasn’t quite made it to my closest love: music.
The Killers is a great band, and, given my usage of “is” just now, can clearly be represented as singular object. It is a single entity, defined, definitionally, by the amalgam of band members of which it is comprised.
In that previous sentence, I not only used “is” (singular) to refer to the band, but “it” as well. It probably read just fine, and I bet it didn’t feel too weird. But consider the following:
“Omg! I went to see The Killers at Oracle Arena last night, and it played so well!”
Ouch. Clearly, this phrasing simply never happens in the real world — “it” didn’t play well, “they” did. They, of course, being the multiple band members onstage.
So what’s the deal? Is this just another disconnect between official grammar rules and common usage? The AP Stylebook seems to think so. Officially, a band is a singular object, and every review I’ve ever written — albums, concerts, singles, interviews — has featured the veritably jarring usage of the cold, hard “it.”
But the Stylebook and I disagree. I think a band’s name (and indeed, the phrase “the band”) contains within it more breadth, more versatility, than it is currently given credit for. And we, the music-loving public, have a natural and fluid understanding of those different meanings — we are able to shift intuitively between uses of “it” and uses of “they” as needed.
To put it shortly, sometimes The Killers is singular, and sometimes The Killers is plural.
More technically, sometimes we refer to The Killers as an entity, and sometimes we use the name metonymically, the way we use “The White House” to refer to the entire staff of an administration, or call a group of businessmen “suits.” It comes down to the subtlety in a sentence’s meaning — am I referring to the band members using their name for convenience, or am I referring to the band as a unit, an object?
Subtlety, of course, is the enemy of “rules,” those one-size-fits-all, dictatorial commandments that ensure that all over the country, newspapers are using the same style and process for sharing information. I understand the need for these rules, and most of the time, it saves a lot of confusion.
But with bands, I truly believe a more nuanced set of rules deserves adoption. Being forced to use “it,” in certain cases, goes beyond being jarring to read — it alters the meaning of the sentence. When I write, of British three-piece alt-J, for example, that “they are exploring a new terrain on a new set of instruments,” I’m not actually referring to the singular unit of the band, but rather, I am using its name in place of the phrase “the three band members” who comprise it.
Any music writer will recognize that phrase — “the band members” — as the awkwardly lengthy, go-to workaround to enable a later usage of “they” or “their.” That proclivity, that yearning to use the plural is rooted both in aesthetics — “they” is so much warmer, so much more inviting than the cold, lifeless “it” — and in the reality that bands are made of warm, life-filled bodies, humans who we feel awful reducing to a single inanimate object. It’s reductionist, both grammatically — assuming a band’s name can’t have multiple usages — and contextually, turning multiple people with their own lives, dreams and musical contributions to a group into a single monolithic object.
What I’m getting at is perhaps better summed up by Stevens in the second line of his poem: “In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts.” — and in the sum of a band’s members, there are only the members. No more, no less.