The drive into Phoenix is unexciting at best. I-10 is mostly flat, dusty, and for some absurd reason a two lane highway. All it takes is one accident and it becomes a parking lot. An innumerable amount of “God’s Watching You Masturbate” “He Died for You,” and “Are you going to Hell?” billboards dot the highway on the way into the city. I recently saw a billboard that was a little different. It had a familiar phrase that simply read: “You do you.”
“You do you.” This is a phrase that’s been thrown around a lot lately within the consciousness of popular culture. The New York Times even did a fancy write-up on it a few years ago. One of their staffers, William Safire, refers to phrases like “You do you” as a “tautophrase.”
A tautophrase is a self-justifying construction which is achieved by repeating an idea in the same words.
“Let bygones be bygones”
“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do”
The dreaded self defeating failure of a phrase: “It is what it is.”
And of course:
“You do you.”
I hate tautophrases. I hate them because they are lazy. They are over used colloquial expressions that show up so frequently in normal everyday conversation that they become automatic fixtures in the way we express ourselves to one another. “You do you” appears to be the lowest common denominator of all tautophrases as it can encompass many of them into one tiny three word package. It can also be used as a default answer to other tautophrases.
A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do?
You do you, buddy!!!
Tautophrases like “you do you” aren’t entirely without wisdom. The phrase “you do you” makes perfect sense. “You Do You means taking care of yourself–and generally just being yourself–in the face of ever-mounting obligations to and expectations of others.” (Oliver Bonas)
How do you achieve what you what in life? By “doing you.” So despite being a lazy tautophrase, it becomes rather difficult to write off anything that could be used as a tool for positively reinforce my endless initiation. In an effort to fully understand why it’s become such a fixture in popular culture I have to ask—where did “you do you” come from?
I’m going to briefly investigate the etymology of “your thing” or “doing your thing” in order to have a better understanding of how the tautophrase “you do you” came about. I believe that the phrase “do your own thing” or “do what you wanna do” to be the early prototypes to “you do you.”
The idea of “my thing” is thought to have first appeared in the English folk song “My Thing is my Own.” This song is featured in a 1719 book of songs by Henry Playford entitled “Wit and Mirth: Or, Pills to Purge Melancholy.”
The lyrics read:
“I a tender young Maid have been courted by many,/Of all sorts and Trades as ever was any:/A spruce Haberdasher first spake me fair,/But I would have nothing to do with Small ware./My Thing is my Own, and I’ll keep it so still,/Yet other young Lasses may do what they will.”
The evolution of “my thing” later appears in 1841 with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”:
“What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and intellectual life, may serve for he whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
The objection to conforming to usages that have become dead to you, is, that it scatters your force. It loses your time and blurs the impression of your character. If you maintain a dead church, contribute to a dead Bible-society, vote with a great party either for the Government or against or against it, spread your table like base housekeepers,—under all these screens, I have difficulty to detect the precise man you are. And of course, so much force is withdrawn from your proper life. But do your thing, and I shall know you. Do your work, and you shall reinforce yourself. A man must consider what a blind-man’s-buff is this game of conformity.”
“Doing your thing” has been around for a long time. It didn’t first emerge in the 1960s/1970s, contrary to what I previously thought. It just became more visible within the consciousness of popular culture through it’s lyrical use in songs like Isaac Hayes’s “Do Your Thing” (1971):
“If the music make you move,/’cause you can really groove/Then groove on, groove on/ If you feel like you wanna make love/Under the stars above/Love on, love on/If there’s something you wanna say,/And talkin’ is the only way/Rap on, oh, rap on/’Cause whatever you do,/Oh, you’ve got to do your thing”
It also has come to have different meanings ascribed to it ranging from an individual special interest to a romantic connection/fling between two people as seen in Billy Paul’s “Me and Mrs. Jones” (1972):
“Me and Mrs Jones, we got a thing going on/We both know that it’s wrong/But it’s much too strong to let it go now”
To some extent “doing your thing” even evolved further outside of itself with songs such as Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way.” I’ll leave this up to you to decide though…
“You do you” was likely first delivered into the arms of popular culture through music in the same way that “doing your thing” was. The first example of this can be found in the release of Funkmaster Flex’s song “Do You” featuring DMX in the year 2000.
To me, this song reads like a postmodern abridged translation of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.”
The hook goes:
“Do you – Cuz what it boils down to it’s true/Do you – Cuz you are held accountable for you/Do you – Is that really what you want me to see/Do you – Cuz I’mma do me, truly”
And the chilling third verse ends with what could possibly the first instance of “you do you”:
“Like fuck it, you wanna be me? Here’s what you do/Grow up neglected by both parents and still pull through/You gots to come up fucked up, get treated like shit/Then have your mother’s new boyfriend smack you like a bitch/Turn into a killer, don’t carry shottie/Cuz the way it’s goin’ down right now, you gon’ kill somebody
Get a dog, walk the streets, learn what you need to learn/Better have a cause but because you’ll get burned/You got 15 years without ever coming out/And beat your fist at the world and what they talkin’ about/Then get locked up every two years/For two years keep it real, hold back all tears, face your fears/Become a man before your time, rap but live out your rhymes/Let ’em know what’s on your mind, then you’ll get your shine/In time, everything you hear will come true
But you won’t be doin’ me, you’ll be doin’ you”
“My thing” likely originated even earlier than the 18th century as it would almost have to be a creative colloquialism to have been included into a song lyric. This is mostly conjuncture though. I’m not entirely sure that Playford penned the folk songs included in his book either. They read more like a compilation of works that only previously existed through English oral tradition. I tend to believe that “you do you” as we currently understand it was quite similar. It’s use likely predated Funkmaster Flex’s “Do You,” but only became rooted within popular culture after years of regular use in a colloquial setting. Regardless of how it came about exactly, “you do you” isn’t as stupid as I once thought. There’s a lot of history and substance behind the three simple words that compromise the tautophrase.