You will recall the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog. The Scorpion needs a ride across the river. The waters are rising on account of climate change, or perhaps he has been priced out of his burrow, who knows? The exact reason is lost in the fog of pre-modernity. The Frog is afraid that the Scorpion will sting him, but his would-be passenger reassures him that they would both die if that happened. That would be crazy. Sure enough, halfway across, the Scorpion stings the Frog. Just before they drown, the Scorpion says, “Aren’t you going ask why I did that?” And the Frog croaks, “You do you.”
We don’t all partake of the same slang menu — you say “pop,” I say “soda,” and we’ll all get properly sorted on Judgment Day. Wherever you hail from, you’ll recognize “You do you” and “Do you” as contemporary versions of that life-affirming chestnut “Just be yourself.” It’s the gift of encouragement from one person to another, what we tell children on the first day of kindergarten, how we reassure buddies as they primp for a blind date or rehearse asking for a raise. You do you, as if we could be anyone else. Depending on your essential qualities, this song of oneself is cause for joy or tragedy.
You’ve also come across that expression’s siblings, like the defensive, arms-crossed “Haters gonna hate” or the perpetually shrugging “It is what it is.” Like black holes, they are inviolable. All criticism is destroyed when it hits the horizon of their circular logic, and not even light can escape their immense gravity. In a world where the selfie has become our dominant art form, tautological phrases like “You do you” and its tribe provide a philosophical scaffolding for our ever-evolving, ever more complicated narcissism.
William Safire, writing in these pages in 2006, coined a word for these self-justifying constructions: “tautophrases.” This was in the midst of his investigation into the ubiquity of “It is what it is,” as evidenced in its use by cultural specimens as disparate as Britney Spears and Scott McClellan, a press secretary for President George W. Bush. (Pause to reminisce.) Whether the subject is an imperfect situation to be endured (“The new coffee in the break room is the pits”) or an existential conundrum (“My body is a bunch of atoms working in brief harmony before death returns them to the universe”), “It is what it is” effectively ends the discussion so that we can stop, nod in solemn agreement and move on.
According to Safire, “It is what it is” has many tautophrasal relatives and ancestors. “What’s done is done,” “What will be will be.” The striking thing about his examples is how many of them preserve and burnish the established order. When God informs Moses, “I am that I am,” he is telling the prophet, “Look, get off my back, I’m God.” I’ve never argued with a bush, burning or otherwise, but I imagine they’re quite persuasive. “Boys will be boys” and “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” excuse mischief and usually worse, reinforcing the dominant masculine code. It’s doubtful that “I just discovered penicillin!” or “Publishing Willa Cather’s ‘My Antonia’ was the most satisfying moment of my career” elicited a gruff “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” but perhaps I am cynical. Popeye’s “I yam what I yam,” however, remains what it has always been — the pathetic ravings of a man who claims superstrength, when it is obvious to everyone else in the room that spinach merely ameliorates the symptoms of an undiagnosed vitamin deficiency. A scurvy dog, indeed.
While the word “tautophrase” didn’t take off, the phenomenon it described blossomed, abetted by hip-hop. Sure, philosophical resignation has been a part of the music as far back as 1984, when Run-D.M.C. reeled off a litany of misfortune — “Unemployment at a record high/People coming, people going, people born to die” — and underscored it with a weary, “It’s like that/and that’s the way it is.” But grandiosity, narcissism and artful braggadocio have also been integral to hip-hop from the start, whether they were the fruit of a supercharged sense of self or a coping mechanism for a deleterious urban environment. As with everything interesting in black culture, hip-hop’s swaggering tautophrases have been digested and regurgitated by the mainstream. Last year, Taylor Swift somewhat boringly testified that not only are “Haters gonna hate,” they’re gonna “hate hate hate” exponentially, presumably in direct proportion to her lack of culpability. Instead of serving the establishment (monotheism, patriarchal energies), the modern tautophrase empowers the individual. Regardless of how shallow that individual is.