Forget the footnotes

Annotating the world one comment at a time, we look to the footnotes with Genius and discover a whole world of new meaning.

By: Nicola Robey,   3 minutes

Annotations making the world a better place

Ever listened to a song’s lyrics and thought, ‘I wonder what was going on in their heads when they wrote that?’

Welcome to Its goal: to annotate the world one comment at a time.

Starting out as a rap lyric annotation website, people with an interest or simply something to say would head to Genius to give an extra layer of insight, context and meaning to their favourite songs.  But then it grew.  Taking off with millions of users annotating everything from The Canterbury Tales (where was this during A Levels?), to ‘Better call Saul’ scripts, new takes on tech trends like growth hacking, to historical documents like The Treaty of Versaille.

There’s something about the ability to interrupt form with new meanings and opinion that excites me.

While some comments remind me of a conversation with friends, such as ‘what does Mmmbop mean?’ and ‘who are the Joker and the Thief in All Along the Watch Tower’, others are insightful and educated additions, that add deeper folds of insight and meaning. New interpretations, unknown background, and facts you may have never heard of or understood before. And it’s fascinating.

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Take for example David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’, where one annotation reads:

 “After a coke-fried spell in Los Angeles, Bowie was detoxing in Berlin when he spied two lovers having a rendezvous by the Berlin Wall.

Said Bowie,

“I thought, of all the places to meet in Berlin, why pick a bench underneath a guard turret on the Wall?”

Imagining the story behind their affair, Bowie wrote his most compassionate song ever. The song builds for six minutes, with Bowie setting his ragged, impassioned croon over a throbbing groove consisting of Eno’s humming synths, Robert Fripp’s guitar and producer Visconti banging on a metal ashtray that was lying around the studio. Bowie wails with crazed soul about two doomed lovers finding a moment of redemption together — just for one day.”

While not all comments on may enlighten you, there’s something about the ability to interrupt form with new meanings and opinion that excites me.

Long-form content sites like Medium thrive on this inclusive way of consuming and engaging with media. By opening up a dialogue, encouraging positive interactions and productive, purposeful sharing, it’s a great example of how the internet can actually be used as a form of positive progression. In short, I’m hooked.

Here are six of my favourite learnings from a day’s digging in

1. Martin Luther King wasn’t supposed to say “I have a dream.” In fact, the day before his speech, his adviser Wyatt Walker said, “Don’t use the lines about ‘I have a dream’. It’s trite, it’s cliche. You’ve used it too many times already.”

King had used the phrase in an address just a week earlier at a fundraiser in Chicago, and a few months before in Detroit. Wyatt Walker’s response as King said this line of the speech? “Aw, shit, he’s using the dream.”

2. John Lennon didn’t quite give Yoko the credit she deserved. The song ‘Imagine’ was originally inspired by Yoko’s book Grapefruit. In it a lot of thoughts are posed beginning, ‘imagine this, imagine that’. John admitted, “Yoko actually helped a lot with the lyrics, but I wasn’t man enough to let her have credit for it. I was still selfish enough and unaware enough to sort of take her contribution without acknowledging it. I was still full of wanting my own space after being in a room with the guys all the time, having to share everything.”

3. Queen’s Scaramouche is an Italian clown. A character known within the commedia dell’arte, the Scaramouche wears a black mask and black trousers, shirt and hat. He is usually portrayed as a buffoon or boastful clown.

4. William Golding’s unended sentences have a literary name. When the stranded children in Lord of the Flies trail off at the end of their sentences, like “Telephone, telephone….”, it’s actually a  literary device known as ‘aposiopesis’, which is used to cut character’s thoughts off for rhetorical effect.

5. KFC’s Finger Lickin’ Good, doesn’t translate well in Chinese. There was a little confusion when KFC opened the doors of its first restaurant in China in 1987, as the slogan’s translation into Chinese is “eat your fingers off”.

6. Sisqo likes a “da na da na” beat. This (according to a Genius annotator) will encourage a girl to shake her bottom provocatively on the dance floor. They say, “Sisqo is vertically challenged (short) so his eye-line is at the perfect height for a spot of dance floor voyeurism.” Enlightening stuff. 

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