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The Surprising Depth of Turtleneck And Chain

The song Turtleneck and Chain was released by the band The Lonely Island in 2011 on their album under the same name. The song features a guest appearance by Snoop Dogg. The group is made up of three friends who met in middle school: Akiva Schaffer, Andy Samberg, and Jorma Taccone. These three all attended college to acquire various degrees in creative fields, and their training pays off greatly in the track at hand. What follows is a lyrical analysis of the song, which is much deeper than most people realize.

Turtleneck And Chain album cover art

Lyrical Analysis

Turtleneck n' chain
Turtleneck n' chain
Turtleneck n' chain
(sippin' on a light beer)

From the very start, the Lonely Island lets us know the ostensible topic of the song which we have been given. The title of the album, the title of the song, and indeed the chorus are all in agreement. There is a turtleneck, and there is also a chain. The repetition of this line, in three, mirrors the repetition of the phrase up to this point. With the first repetition symbolizing the album name, the second the song title, and the third a call-out to the chorus itself. In this manner, The Lonely Island aludes to recursion. If the third line is meant to call back to the chorus itself, then the line of reference will simply continue on forever, like an ouroboros, the snake which consumes its own tail.

an ouroboros

The turtleneck is an intruiging choice of clothing for the band to choose for this song. Some may posit that it was chosen due to its overall absurdity, a sort of call to comedy. The turtleneck was 60 years old in 2011, and it had laregely fallen out of popularity for most reasons except for hiding hickeys. This unfashionable style mixed with the "cool" pose by the members of the band on the cover creates a juxtaposition that undermines expectations and creates humor. I am here to tell you that the genius of The Lonely Island does not stop here.

The turtleneck is a unique piece of clothing. Man was originally naked in the Garden of Eden, before the original sin brought him the knoweldge of good and evil, bringing with it shame for his naked body and a need for clothing. This is the purpose that most of our clothing today holds, to shield our bodies from the sight of others. The ubiquitous turtleneck, however, takes this one step farther and extends the neck, not to cover up some shameful piece of flesh (unless a hickey is present), but instead to provide an additional sense of safety. The turtleneck helps to "protect ya neck", acheiving a base human need. This safety is occasionally missing from our reality - the indifferent cruelty of the world reminds us from time to time that the false sensation of safety which we have built up for ourselves is entirely an illusion. The turtleneck represents an attempt to restore this sense of safety to one of our most sensitive body parts - the neck. This layer of protection, even though it is just a piece of fabric, is so influential to the wearer's state of mind that he may feel protected from all physical and social harm. He becomes disconnected from his phsyical body, transforming into a floating human head, in much the same manner that a Zoom call does in our modern era.

The chain in the "turtleneck and chain" combination then cannot be devoid of meaning. The lay explanation here is of course that only cool people wear chains and only uncool people wear turtlenecks. Additionally, the small size of the chain would make it seem unimportant, like a cheap immitation of a "true" cool chain-wearer. Even this surface understanding can be greatly illuminatory when viewed through the correct lens. In the cover artwork, The Lonely Island is pictured wearing white skinny jeans, blue turtlenecks, gold chains, black sunglasses, and hair that is styled in accordance with the mores of the time. Here the chain is diminutive, a visual footnote to the rest of the ensemble. In fact the only reason that it is visible at all is due to the contrast in color compared to the turtleneck, the golden yellow chain set against an almost turqoise turtleneck. However, if we take a step back and look at the outfit as a whole, we will find something truly interesting. The white skinny jeans, the black square sunglasses, and the hair styles were fashionable at the time. The turtleneck, being outdated and too thick to be fashionable, is decidedly uncool. The chain was cool but its thickness was not. Within the cool there is some uncool, and within that uncool there is cool, and within that cool there is uncool.

a venn-diagram style drawing of cool and uncool nested within each other

This marbled manner of being represents many aspects of life. Look around yourself, and you will surely find it. A thing nested within its opposite, nested within the original thing, nested within its opposite. The further down and the further up you look, the more this pattern will hold true. Even you, the reader, are an example of this. Your mind is a liquid (blood) in a solid (brain) in a liquid (cebrospinal fluid) in a solid (skull and head) in a gas (the air). The information on this page is being displayed to you in a human manner (text) in a digital manner (HTML) in a human manner (visual) in a machine manner (screen technology). You are something alive (a breathing human) sitting in something dead (a building) in something alive (society or the world) in something dead (the vastness of space). These, and indeed more, are all aluded to by the visual language present in the album cover. They are all hinted at by the turtleneck and the chain.

That is not the sole meaning of the chain, however. You would be hard-pressed to find a better example of an eternal golden braid than a gold chain. Golden in its makeup, braided in its construction, and eternal in the fact that it is a loop, a shape without end. The chain here has additional symbolism in the form of reference to this book by Douglas Hofstadter, a work with strong themes of self-reference and recursion, which we have already seen in just this opening chorus and the album artwork.

The chain, looping back on itself, is yet another piece of recursion. When you get to the end of the "turtleneck and chain" in triplicate, realizing that the three repetitions are in fact directions, instructions on how to get to the point that you are at now, you are trapped by this chain. If you do not return to the beginning, the name of the album, but instead stay where you are, the chain will continue to loop back on itself, keeping you at its tail. If you break out of this loop created by the chain, you will find yourself in the loop created by the words.

an ouroboros at the tail of another ouroboros

This is allegorical of the human condition. Many people feel as if they are constantly stuck in a rut, and if they could just release themselves from this loop that they are within, they would finally be free and have a good life. They proceed to work very hard to get out of the rut, and they experience the freedom that they so desired, but it does not last. Before long, the man is back in a rut, although a new rut. He has traded his problems for new problems, but they are problems all the same. No matter how he lives, he will never truly leave the land of the ruts until he leaves the land of the living.

The usage of "chain" here instead of "necklace" has additional meaning. It serves as an instruction to the audience. It is there to say "Hey, you should be chaining this together". It is a call to action, a plea from the artists to spend the time and the energy to understand what they are saying, not just on the surface but on a true level. It is a cry out in the darkness, a call of loneliness. Is there anybody out there with ears to hear? If so, let them listen, and let them chain.

What then, are we to make of the light beer? This is something unexpected, it was not mentioned in the album title, the track title, or earlier in the chorus. This is an element that has taken us by surprise and looks as if it may throw a wrench in the works of our analysis. The lay listener would say "This is just a comedic song, and a light beer is funny because light beer is not cool to drink". However, I believe that there is more to it than that. Yes, this is one of the intended meanings of the light beer, but it is not the only intended meaning.

Alcohol has numerous effects on the drinker, among which is a physical relaxation of the muscles. The Lonely Island is not bothered in the face of all of the above absurdity, they are relaxing. While aware of their current predicament (the light in light beer a clear reference to philosophical enlightenment), The Lonely Island is not troubled. They recognize the futility of resistence against the manner in which lives are lived, and they have resigned to take the path of Buddhist enlightenment. They just want to have a good time, not attempt to move an immovable object. This mentality is a clear forerunner to our society's recent rediscovery of optimistic nihilism. "My efforts are futile, so I may as well have a beer with my friends" says The Lonely Island.

My turtleneck fat and my chain so thin
N' I'm sippin' light beer, and my crew right here
Chain razor thin, light beer in my cup
And my sweater on turtle with the neck on puff

In these lines we see an obvious pattern, one which is reflected in Eastern thought as the Yin and the Yang. The fatness of the turtleneck and the thinness of the chain offset each other, they represent two opposites in direct contact, mixing together to become a coherent whole. Likewise, the (uncool) light beer juxtaposes being popular enough to have a crew that is at hand. Here we see three men who would drink light beer, but at the same time would also have a crew in attendance.

a yinyang depicting the mixture of cool and uncool aspects

The way that this is worded implies that "turtle" is a setting for a sweater and that "on puff" is a setting for the collar of the sweater. This reflects the zeitgeist of the time. The iPhone was a new invention, only a few years old at the time that this song was released, but the cultural impact of a computing device becoming commonplace was everpresent, and The Lonely Island chose to put it also mention it in this song. Just as you would change the settings in your iPhone, you would change the settings on your sweater. This claim of man over his experience, this personalization and customization of his tools, was new and is reflected in the absurdity of changing settings on a sweater.

Some may claim that you could configure and personalize phones before the iPhone as well. While this is true, it is not true to the same extent. A wallpaper on an old dumbphone was a holographic sticker that you put over the screen. I remember that my dad's phone had a pumpkin sticker. The settings that you could change in the software were a small number of pre-programmed ringtones and enabling or disabling T9. The expansion of options when people began moving to "smart" phones seemed limitless, not even limitable by a move to the physical world. This claim of man over the minute details of his experience was new at the time, and so it is easy to overlook in modern analysis.

a mock-up of a settings app for a turtleneck sweater

Huge turtle neck and my chain so skinny
Beer light all night, stand up get dizzy
Light cup, beer drink, thin so chain
Neck turtle fat, man, I won't say it again

Here we discover that this song is not just a thesis from The Lonely Island, it is an actively lived experience. Instead of being a display of ideas, they are exposing their lives in real time to us on the track. The claim of drinking beer all night and getting dizzy when you stand up is obviously something that they have lived through and experienced, and The Lonely Island goes on to show that they are experiencing it in real time as the song is being written, performed, and listened to. The listener can readily observe the effects of alcohol on the brain, the sentences become incoherent and jumbled.

Upon getting dizzy, The Lonely Island makes an observation that the cup has become light. This is because the beer is all gone, becuase it has been drank (beer drink). The song goes on to re-iterate that the chain is thin and that the turtlneck is fat, but in a similarly jumbled manner. This reiteration of opposites is itself an opposite, with the manner in which it is presented (drunken speech) flying clear in the face of the idea itself (in and among all things are their opposites).

A further aspect of drunkenness presents itself as well. The Lonely Island here claims "I won't say it again", yet goes on later in the song to restate the fatness of the sweater's neck. This is dishonesty, a bold-faced lie. What could you expect from someone who has been drinking all night, can barely stand, and has trouble forming sentences? I would not expect promises made in such a state to hold true later on, and The Lonely Island knows this. Here they issue a warning, a bold "be careful as to the sources of your information". In a world where not everyone has acheived The Lonely Island's level of enlightenment with regards to the futility of things, you must be careful who you trust and who you rely on, as they may have ulterior motives, or they may not be of clear mind.

Turtleneck (check) with another on deck
In case I spill something on it
(like some light beer?)
We be braggin' 'bout whose chain be the thinnest
Turtleneck thicker than Delta Burke swimmin' in a Guinness
(now bear witness)

This verse starts with a conversation between some of the The Lonely Island members. One enumerates a checklist that he has: two turtlenecks. This may seem asburd, but the band goes on to clarify that the second turtleneck is a contingency, a Plan B in case some beer is spilled on the sweater. This portion of the lyrics does a wonderful job of embodying, instead of explaining, a philosophy. The Lonely Island is prepared for the possibility that the turtleneck may need to be replaced.

This doctrine of preparedness is not blind, however. They do not carry copies of all other items, just the most important one (turtleneck) that is most prone to damage (spilling beer). If light beer were spilled on a chain, the chain could quickly be rinsed off (especially beacuse of how thin it is). If it were spilled on anything else, the issue would not be as terrible as if it spilled on the turtleneck.

Furthermore, the band here is treating the turtlenecks as a disposable item. It serves a purpose, but does not have an honor of its own. If something were to happen to it (spilled beer or some other demise), it could be thrown off and replaced. This unattachment to objects is a clear opposite to a problem which plagues much of America, commonly called hoarding. That items, even if damaged or outmoded, may become useful at some point and so as a result should be saved is a common sentiment among the population which suffers from this affliction called hoarding. The Lonely Island, however, comes in with a cure: care not about the item, but instead about its purpose. This is a utilitarian view, even if it is in the same breath excessively consumerist.

Epictetus quote "don't explain your philosophy, embody it"

The song goes on to describe that The Lonely Island brags about whose chain is the thinnest. This obviously makes no sense when you consider that golden chains acheive their value by how much gold they contain, how heavy and thick and long they are. Bragging about a chain's thinness is akin to bragging about how little money is in your bank account. At first glance this seems alien, but upon further consideration, such statements are commonplace. How many times have you heard people seemingly try to one-up each other with who slept less last night, who worked longer without a break, who has had a more painful and difficult childhood? This form of performative suffering, where the the pains that someone has gone through or is still going through are displayed in a manner to garner pity or sympathy is in line with bragging about how thin your gold chain is. Here The Lonely Island shows a mirror to this customary practice, displaying the absurdity of it and in so doing explaining that they do not respect individuals who engage in such behavior.

The mention of Delta Burke swimmin in a Guinness can easily give the listener a bout of confusion on par with that of trying to understand Ruby syntax. Some context should help. Delta Burke is a woman who has been, at various times in her life, a beauty queen and an actress. She has, throughout most of her career had on-and-off lost control of her weight, which led to her being a laughing stock of some media, including tabloids and Saturday Night Live. Guinness here refers to a beer (not a light beer) from Ireland. Guinness is known widely for its texture, being thick and creamy, a trait unique compared to most other brews. The reason for this thickness is the nitrogen bubbles in the beer, but that is not quite relevant to the point at hand.

Before they created this album, The Lonely Island worked as writers for SNL. SNL has been around for a long time, and back in 1998, performed a skit specifically making fun of Delta's weight (for those confused, the joke is that black men stereotypically are attracted to overweight white women). The jab at Delta's weight (thickness) in the 2011 song is not just a reference to how thick their turtlenecks are, but also a nod to their tradition, their forerunners. The Lonely Island respects those who came before them, they respect tradition. They have learned and appreciate the good works of the past. This is the only interpretation that makes sense, given that Delta was long gone from the mainstream consciousness in 2011, when the song was released. There would have been no other reason to mention her, since the trio could just as easily have chosen another woman known for her obesity. This appreciation for history does not stop there. Guinness has been brewed in Ireland (part of the UK) for over 250 years. Andy Samberg, arguably the most well-known of the trio, has heritage from this area of the world, as seen by his mother's maiden name of Morrow (this is an old English surname). This ancestral linkage to Guinness cannot be overlooked, The Lonely Island is respectfully acknowledging their heritage from both professional and genetic standpoints.

But they can't see my chain
Metal so thin it dissolve when it rain
Got more chains than the snow patrol
Everyone razor thin like an insect stripper pole

The chain cannot be seen on account of how thin it is. This is the logical conclusion of performative suffering carried forward. If the chain is so extremely thin, it cannot be seen, and the wearer cannot receive pity for it. If so little sleeping is done, the sleeper cannot function, and so cannot even find a person to tell how little they slept last night. Here The Lonely Island hammers on the point of balance in all things - even in those things that are not deserving of respect. Moderation in all things means moderation in both the good and the bad.

What shall we make of the chain dissolving in the rain? Some things melt in the rain, but gold is not one of them. This of course means that we must have yet another metaphor stacked on top of a humorous line. There are actually multiple metaphors wrapped in here. On one hand, The Lonely Island is stating that their chains, in addition to being extremely thin, are also counterfeit, and are made of a metal such as iron or steel that does (over enough time) dissolve in the rain. They are claiming that the suffering they are poking at here is not a true suffering, highlighting that it is frequently brought about by the sufferer. They are also referring to the Wicked Witch of the West from the motion picture The Wizard of Oz. This character is pure evil, following around the protagonists and attempting to kill, kidnap, and maim them. However, when confronted with water, she melts into a pile of clothing. In a way, this symbolizes the greed displayed by wearing a gold chain around one's neck. The wearer's greed takes over their life, forcing them into an existence where they are slaves, chained to the gold and gilded in chains. When the greedy person is gone, all that is left is a pile of clothing.

The "snow patrol" here is likely a group which takes to the streets when it snows to rescue stranded travellers and block off closed roads. This is not a standard naming convention, but these men grew up in California and did not know what snow was like or the names used for various groups and pieces of equipment. In this hypothetical where there is a group named the "snow patrol" who engages in such activity, they would carry a great number of chains in their totality. Four per vehicle, plus any backups in case one broke from years of patrolling the snow. It boggles the mind to think of how many pairs of snow chains such a group would have, and yet The Lonely Island claims to have more. The reason for this is evident - when their chains break or melt from being so thin and fake, they replace them. This further alludes to a couple of messages from earlier. Firstly, the motto of preparedness in the face of the world's indifference is reinforced. By carrying a large number of thin chains, The Lonely Island is ready for whatever life may have coming. Secondly, the performative suffering of attention-seeking individuals is replaced with a new form of performative suffering as soon as the current one is solved. These people, even if they break out of their rut, will simply fall back into a new one. The self-reference in this work truly boggles the mind, as we are now again back at the beginning, the initial points being made.

The next line is a very sneaky one. At first it may seem to be claiming that every single chain is razor thin, much in the same manner that a stripper pole for insects would be. However, common sense will tell you that insects do not wear clothes, and so could not be strippers. Looking closer at the line, you can see the first word is everyone, not every one. These are the official lyrics of the song, not some distortion from myself. The use of the word everyone is our key hint here. "Everyone" is an indefinite pronoun. It does NOT mean the same thing as "every one". It refers explicitly to people, to human beings. In a song about the human condition and types of people, this can be no mistake. Just one verse ago The Lonely Island was talking about obesity, and now they are talking about thinness. Again we see the opposites mixed together. Everyone around the trio is thin, much like an insect stripper, someone who strips for insects (not an insect who strips, since as mentioned earlier insects do not wear clothes). What kind of person could strip for insects? Only the very thinnest, as fat people are too large to be seen all at once by an insect. In order for the insect to appreciate the dance, the dancer must be very skinny, possibly even anorexic. The Lonely Island was surrounded by actors and actresses, people whose appareance and reputation are their bread-winning forces. Resultingly, a vast majority of them must be thin, razor thin even, if they want to continue to live the lives that they are accustomed to. The word "pole" here is a red herring. It does not refer to a long cylinder, but instead refers to opposing extremes, such as the poles on a magnet or the poles on a battery (sometimes called terminals). This word is thrown in to further reinforce the motif of the attraction and mixture of opposites.

Chain so light when a breeze roll by, man, it float (man, it float)
And my beer so light you could see right through it, like a ghost
And I also wear turtle necks

The chain, occasionally a metaphor for a false and vocal form of suffering, does not truly weigh heavily on the neck of the wearer. Instead, a slight breeze can cause it to float away like a leaf in the wind. The problems displayed in the lives of the people who this metaphor is about are quick to go away if they actually need to. Of course, we know that the missing chain will quickly be replaced by another from the collection which is the envy of the snow patrol. The beer, on the other hand, is so light that it can be seen through. It is practically invisible, barely noticable. This beer, from earlier, symbolizes both enlightenment and acceptance. These traits do not boast, they cannot be seen easily. Even if described, many will be incredulous of their veracity. In this way, they are much "like a ghost".

Sweaters swallowing my chain like it's stuck in the couch
Looking like cookie monster flossin' his mouth
Find me coolin' on the corner sippin' light beer foam
You can tell by my turtle neck and chain that I bone

This portion begins with a vivid description of how a thin gold chain looks on a thick blue turtleneck. However, thinking about the words for a moment brings more clarity to the true meaning. A normal person does not floss their mouth, but the cookie monster does, because he does not have teeth, not anymore at least. Where have his teeth gone? According to Mr. Monster himself, C is also for Cavities. He lost his teeth due to his overindulgence and self-neglect. Enough suffering, even if self-inflicted, changes people. Maybe it makes them better, maybe it makes them worse. The modern cookie monster is a far cry from the original cookie monster. He has been reformed over time, yet he still wears the scars of his youth. Now he has different needs than he did in the past. Everyone carries their burdens today and has needs that arise from decisions, good or bad, that they made in the past. Here The Lonely Island is telling us that the problems you have today may seem overwhelming, but in the future they will be problems of the past. Your choice is whether the problems of today become the burdens or the memories of tomorrow. It is up to you to change your ways.

the cookie monster in the past and the present-day cookie monster

Turtleneck, light beer, and a thin ass chain, and that's it
Turtleneck, light beer, and a thin ass chain, and that's it

Simple minimalism is all that this trio needs. For three men, three items are enough. When you have your physical needs met and you have a crew, even if the crew is small, you have all that you could ever hope for. The power of friendship resounds at the end of The Lonely Island's portion of this song, and it is pure poetry.

[Snoop Dogg:]
The rabbit kicked the bucket
Dog said, "Fuck it."
Get my 2 step on
With my turtle neck on
Thin ass chain, light beer in my glass
Macking at the bitches, the ones with the ass
Girl, you know it's true
Tell me what it do
Oh, you like my style, say you like my crew
Say you wanna' be under my chest
This turtle neck is like one of my best
Say you wanna' be under my chest
This turtle neck is like one of my best
So I guess your dress, no stress, stayin' fresh is my vendetta
I'm a crook, so my look, I'm a game go-getter
The fatter, the puffier, the fluffier, the bigger the turtleneck
The more gangster it is

The above verse was performed by Snoop Dogg, and it notably lacks the metaphorical depth of those verses written by The Lonely Island. Snoop is and was a talented and popular mainstream rapper, and for him to lend (or sell) his voice to this track could say any number of things about either The Lonely Island or Snoop, or both. Was it charity on the part of Mr. Dogg? Was it a piece of performance absurdism on the part of The Lonely Island? Did they neglect to read Snoop into the true meaning behind the lyrics, leaving him floundering to string together something that sounds catchy, but in fact lacks the substance that makes the song so great? Or is there additional meaning here that I have not read in to? I leave these questions as an exercise to the reader.


And at the end we are back where we started, back in a mirror of the beginning. What better way to end a song such as this, with topics such as these? Can broken people become repaired, or will they simply wind back up where they started, always running in a circle, always pushing the same rock up the same hill?

Thank you for coming to my Ted talk.

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