In a 2017 interview with NME, Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of The Killers, was asked about the origins of “The Man,” the lead single from their then-upcoming album Wonderful Wonderful. According to Flowers, he wrote the song to “hearken back” to his public persona during the band’s heyday in the early-to-mid-2000s, when songs like “Mr. Brightside” and “Somebody Told Me” made them one of the biggest musical acts in the country. Flowers admits to enjoying slipping back into that past version of himself, but he says he looks back on that period of his life with more than a little embarrassment:
I’ve been cleaning it up for a long time. I don’t think that was really a great representation, an honest representation of who I am. It came from a place of insecurity and I would just puff my chest out and say things and put a lot of negativity out there. I basically came to regret that and I’m sure a lot of people can identify with that.
Based on Flowers’s comments, it is tempting to read “The Man” as a partial critique or parody of masculinity. Critics generally seemed to have reached that conclusion when discussing the song. Writing for Pitchfork, Ryan Dombal argues that “The Man” is the product of the conflicting urges to celebrate and mock traditional masculinity; the song is “poking fun at dick-swinging supremacy while serving up something that could reasonably soundtrack a rough-and-dusted pickup truck commercial.” More directly, Chris DeVille wrote in a (very short) piece for Stereogum that he likes “The Man” because the song “knows it’s ridiculous and it relishes that ridiculousness.” And in Spin, Anna Gaca suggests that the song “gets a lot better when you start believing that it’s narrated by the villain, and that the Killers are subtly shimmying some kind of truth to power.”
I understand the impulse behind these readings, but I’m not sure the text of “The Man” supports them. For one thing, to read “The Man” as a critique of masculinity feels like an excuse for enjoying a song with frankly uninspiring lyrics (“I’ve got gas in the tank, I’ve got money in the bank,” “Don’t try to teach me, I’ve got nothing to learn,” etc.). Gaca, to her credit, considers that very point in her review, conceding that “the lyrics are pretty cliché” and “not exactly something you’ll find yourself searching for deep-seated meaning in.”
But even if the lyrics were technically stronger, I still don’t think they’d support such a reading, because the content of every element of the song celebrates the subject matter. Every line is a boast of the speaker’s manliness; even a bizarre line like “USDA-certified lean” only sticks out because it’s novel, not because it’s skeptical of the song’s core conceit. The groove is infectious, an immediate call to the dance floor, and the roboticized backing vocals during the chorus are pure cheesy fun. Whenever I hear this song, the first thought that comes to mind is, “Hell yeah, I’m the man! This is awesome!” The fact that I’m not wholly comfortable with that response is the only reason I have for looking for critique within the song itself; it’s the natural way to reconcile my conflicted feelings about it.
At this point, I’d have to conclude that if Brandon Flowers wanted “The Man” to be an expression of regret or skepticism about his past as a performative stud, then it simply didn’t make it through the process. But I can’t say that Flowers is being disingenuous in that interview, either, because while the song does not effectively critique that persona, the music video most certainly does.
The video for “The Man” (dir. Tim Mattia, 2017) sees Flowers take on the roles of various caricatures of American masculinity: a Vegas lounge singer, a playboy, a daredevil motorcyclist, a greaser at a karaoke bar, and a high-roller in a cowboy get-up. Like the song itself, the video depicts these paragons of manliness at their most pumped-up, as they strut down the Strip, entertain the ladies, and lay down the big wagers. Unlike the song, though, the video does not leave those depictions unchallenged, but instead shows the consequences that such approaches to masculinity have.
Admittedly, the video’s skeptical outlook is gradual and at first rather fleeting. It’s not until the first chorus that we see some push-back against the characters that Flowers portrays: some eye-rolls behind the playboy’s back, a yawn from someone watching the lounge singer. In a video that’s driven by montage and built around five different plotlines, it’s easy to miss those first little jabs; I’ve had to watch it several times over while writing this review to catch as many of them as possible. They’re important, though, because they lay the groundwork for the later (and grander) declines these men experience. Without the eye-rolls and yawns, their downfalls might seem like sudden calamities; with them, and those falls become more and more inevitable.
Take this shot of an audience member for the lounge singer’s act. There’s nothing especially dramatic happening in the frame, but his facial expression conveys quite a bit. He’s not sold on the performance; if anything, he looks confused, as though he’s wondering why Vegas is still staging shows ripped from the days of Busby Berkeley or Flo Ziegfeld. This fellow resembles nothing if not the critic listening to “The Man” and asking himself, “Are these guys for real? This has to be a joke, right?” A shot like this is not essential to the video when considered in isolation, but as such moments accumulate the effect gets stronger and stronger. The viewer is left with the gut feeling that something eventually must give.
And, boy, do some of these guys fall hard. The high-roller goes on tilt at the roulette table and loses everything he has, before the casino tosses him out into the parking garage. The motorcyclist, haunted by footage of debilitating crashes (possibly his own highlights?), rips up his tapes in a self-pitying fit. After his karaoke set, the greaser starts flirting with a woman in the crowd right in front of her boyfriend, who proceeds to beat the snot of him. Even when the fall is comparably mild, there’s still a noticeable sense of dejection: the playboy on his knees when the ladies leave him, the lounge singer packing his glittery costume in a storage locker. To me, at least, the message of the video is clear and distinct: the version of masculinity presented in “The Man” is at best unfulfilling and at worst self-destructive. Turns out, you can in fact “break me down.”
This leads us to the question: if the video for “The Man” is a clear critique of traditional masculinity, does that make the song itself a critique as well? I’m still not convinced the answer is yes, but I can’t definitively say no, either. The music video is paratext for the song; it brings the reader to the text and offers some information for interpreting it, but it does not constitute the text. And given how most songs are heard without the context of the video, it’s not even a piece of paratext that people are necessarily likely to encounter (unlike, say, the cover a book or the title of a film). But I do think the video demonstrates that “The Man” can be employed in the context of critique, especially in the way that it asserts the speaker’s manliness to the point of insecurity—the singer doth protest too much, methinks.
Granted, that “The Man” is amenable to critical usage is not necessarily a point in its favor. It’s not like Negativland’s album Dispepsi proved that soda commercials were secretly subversive, just that they’re banality was amusing. But then again, it’s not like PepsiCo and The Coca-Cola Company were involved in the making of Dispepsi, either. The video for “The Man” was made with the band’s participation, and that does lend some extra weight to its reading of the song. Ultimately, I’m unable to find a clean resolution to this tension.
I think Dombal is on the money when he calls the song “a particularly phallic ink blot”: it provides a lot of potential answers, but no definitive ones. Alternatively, we could give Gaca the last word: “”The Man” is a bop. It would sound fan-fucking-tastic in a roller rink.” Somewhere between those two, you’ll find me.
But that’s enough from me. What do you think of “The Man” (either the song or the video, or perhaps the union of the two)? Can you think of any works of art you feel similarly conflicted about? Sound off in the comments below!
Normally this is where I would plug some previous piece of mine which is tangentially related to the one you just read, but this time I’ll instead link to a video essay by YouTuber Sarah Z entitled “The Politics of Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog”. Her video also dives into the question of how to approach a work which appears to both endorse and critique the same idea. If you at all found this post interesting, I’d give her video a watch.
Last Christmas, my brother gave me a copy of Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2003), Andy Greenwald’s document of emo subculture right as it was reaching new heights of prominence in the mainstream. Nothing Feels Good has its share of problems (not least among them, it really could have used another round of copy editing), but on the whole I found it to be an engaging piece of popular music criticism. This comes despite the fact that I was familiar with almost none of the music that Greenwald discusses in the book.
It was fascinating, really: all this music is from the not-too-distant past, yet the only songs I recognized were Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” and the singles from Weezer’s first album. Why was so much of this book’s material foreign to me? Partly, it’s a simple matter of timing. In 2003, I was just entering middle school, which would have put me at the very youngest edge of the traditional emo fanbase. If hadn’t heard any songs by Dashboard Confessional or Thursday, it’s because I wasn’t in their target audience. It would still take a couple of years before I aged into that particular bracket, by which point a new crop of emo acts had come around and overtaken them.
At least, that theoretically might have happened. Truth is, when I was a teenager, I didn’t have any emo acts to call my own.
Okay, I know that sounds like bragging, given how the word “emo” is loaded with negative connotations, but that’s not what mean. Before we go any further, it’s probably wise to define our terms. Greenwald, rather than defining emo in terms of any essential musical components or any historical connections to the D.C. hardcore punk scene of the 1980s, takes a more functionalist, more audience-centered approach to the genre. What’s important is not what emo music is, but what it does. To quote at length from the introduction:
Emo isn’t a genre—it’s far too messy and contentious for that. What the term does signify is a particular relationship between a fan and a band. It’s the desire to turn a monologue into a dialogue, to be part of the art that affects you and to connect to it on every possible level—sentiments particularly relevant in an increasingly corporate, suburban, and diffuse culture such as ours. Emo is a specific sort of teenage longing, a romantic and ultimately self-centered need to understand the bigness of the world in relation to you. It takes its cues from the world-changing slap of community-oriented punk, the heart-swollen pomp of power ballads, and the gee-whiz nostalgia of guitar pop. Emo is as specific as adolescence and lasts about as long.
from “Nothing Feels Good: Punk Rock, Teenagers, and Emo,” pp. 4-5 (emphasis original)
What emo is supposed to do, in Greenwald’s telling, is to elicit certain emotions in the listener and to foster a connection between audience and artist. It’s a form of music that, moreso than other genres, is intensely personal and interpersonal. It’s why Greenwald spends less time analyzing the music itself and more time interviewing the teenagers who listen to it: that’s where the true nature of emo is to be found.
That functional approach to the genre seems fairly intuitive to me. It explains how Dashboard Confessional, originally the solo project of acoustic guitar–playing singer-songwriter Chris Carrabba, can be placed into what is ostensibly an offshoot of punk rock. The musicological features of their music don’t matter nearly as much as the fan communities surrounding them. Further, Greenwald’s approach allowed me to at least intellectually appreciate emo for what it is. Had he focused more on the music, had he encouraged the reader concentrate on aesthetics, well, based on the lyrics he quotes I’d have concluded that nothing of value had been forgotten fifteen years on.
One might object, however, to this functionalist approach to the genre. If emo is defined by what it does to the listener, by the personal connection that the listener has with the artist, then two people could disagree on whether a certain song or artist was “emo,” and there would be no objective criteria to determine who was correct. Greenwald, though, seems willing to bite the bullet on that. “In short,” he says after laying out the definition above, “everyone has their own emo” (p. 5). Now, I would concede that the term “emo” is too laden with associations at this point for Greenwald to expand the definition that radically, though of course I’m writing with the benefit of a decade-and-a-half of hindsight. Going forward, I shall substitute the phrase “angst music” to describe the sort of thing that Greenwald investigates in Nothing Feels Good. It’s not a perfect equivalent, I admit; “angst” is really a subset of the emotions that emo is supposed to elicit. But it’s good enough for rock ‘n’ roll.
Which brings me back to my initial point. I feel like I missed out on something when I was a teenager, because I didn’t have any good angst music.
II: “I Built a Time Machine”
When I was in high school, I was very disconnected from contemporary popular culture. I distinctly remember hearing some of my classmates in 11th grade health class talking about the Taylor Swift–Kanye West incident at the 2009 VMAs, and I had no clue what they were talking about. I don’t just mean that I didn’t know about the incident—I didn’t know who either of those people were. Nowadays, I’m still not all that knowledgeable about current popular tastes, but it’s not like I’ll respond to the name “Ariana Grande” with a confused squint.
It should come as no surprise, then, that most of the music I listened to back then came from the past. I picked up my love of Neil Young from my father, and I eventually started devouring Bob Dylan records, too. I loved both of those artists dearly, and would spend hours listening to their music, with something like the intensity that Greenwald sees in the teenagers he interviews in Nothing Feels Good. But there’s a key difference between my experience and theirs. They could relate to the music that they were listening to, and if I’m being honest, I could not.
On a surface level, Dylan and Young seem like good candidates for angst music—not for their whole discographies, perhaps, but for certain beloved and acclaimed albums. Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks (1975) is a contender for the greatest break-up album of all time, and doesn’t heartache describe a good chunk of teenage angst music? Similarly, Young’s Tonight’s the Night (1975) is a naked and ramshackle outpouring of grief, which fits with the blunt and bombastic emotions that Greenwald emphasizes. And could appreciate all those emotions, but only on an abstract level. Dylan and Young sang about adult problems with adult complexities. Meanwhile, I was a sheltered, shut-in kid from the rural suburbs; I never had a decade-long marriage fall apart or lost multiple friends to drug overdoses. If I had quoted any of their lyrics on hypothetical message board posts, it would have looked like, and would have been, a pose.
(Okay, one exception: “I’ll find somewhere where they don’t care who I am,” from Young’s “Albuquerque”. That’s pretty easy for anyone to apply to themselves.)
Beyond my forays into classic rock, the other context in which I heard a lot of angst music was in sports video game soundtracks. My brother and I spent a lot of time playing ice hockey video games, like EA Sports’s NHL series and Midway’s NHL Hitz. Both series had a penchant for genres like pop-punk and nu-metal, classic angst music styles. And their selections were…not very good. The first thing I used to do after booting up NHL 06 was change the song playing on the menu screens, because the soundtrack always started off with Fall Out Boy’s “Our Lawyer Made Us Change the Name of This Song So We Wouldn’t Get Sued”. I just could not stand how smug, snotty, and self-satisfied Patrick Stump’s vocal delivery was, especially given Pete Wentz’s kinda-cute-but-not-actually-clever lyrics.
Not every song on those soundtracks was unbearable, though. I quite enjoyed Brand New’s “The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows”, easily the best song on NHL 2004. The sweeps between quiet and loud on the track are pretty and even somewhat cathartic in a way I can’t quite figure out. Still, I could never manage to use it as angst music, largely because I couldn’t understand the lyrics. That’s both because they don’t enunciate clearly and because the situation is described with the exact wrong amount of concrete detail. It’s neither sketched-in enough to be a vivid scene nor vague enough to feel universal; it’s in the uncanny valley of description.
Best as I can figure, the closest thing I had to angst music as a teenager was, of all bands, Guster. I’ve talked about them before, when I analyzed the lyrics of their third album, Lost and Gone Forever (1999), but I didn’t get into the band until I heard the lead single to their fifth album, Ganging Up on the Sun (2006). That single, “One Man Wrecking Machine”, is a quintessential depiction of suburban teenage malaise. The speaker’s concerns are stereotypically high school: he wants to go to the Christmas dance with the homecoming queen (“Maybe now I’ll get in her pants”), “pass around a skinny joint” with his friends, and get out of his parents’ house already. These issues are small, but the title blows them up to an operatic scale: the speaker isn’t just angsty, he’s a one man wrecking machine. It’s a song that captures the visceral experience of being a teenager.
Except, not really. Angst music tends to be immediate: the problems it addresses are set in the here and now, and the emotions it elicits are felt in the here and now. To the extent that the genre allows for reflection on the past, it comes from the perspective of a teenager remembering childhood. The artist isn’t supposed to be reflecting back on being a teenager—that’s too distant a perspective for the assumed audience. But “One Man Wrecking Machine” is explicitly a retrospective song. The opening line, “I built a time machine,” places everything that happens in the speaker’s own distant past. He wants to “relive all [his] adolescent dreams,” which only makes sense if he’s moved well beyond them. I didn’t really notice that the first time I heard it, but after a while it became obvious: this is a song about having a midlife crisis.
It’s also not a song that is content to let the speaker indulge in his emotions. The last repetition of the chorus alters the lyrics slightly to highlight the futility of the song’s central gesture: “I tried to pull it apart and put it back together / No point in living in my adolescent dreams.” That’s a very earnest songwriting choice, but it’s earnest in a way that’s less reminiscent of punk rock than it is of country music. The guys in Guster are correct, of course, and perhaps those of us listening to angst music could use that little bit of perspective they throw in at the end. But if someone’s in the mood for angst music, I’m not sure that they want perspective; what they want is for their feelings to be validated. In that mindset, I couldn’t blame them if they took friendly advice as condescension.
At any rate, even if I wanted Guster to be my angst music, I would have found myself disappointed right quick. Sure, they had songs like “Demons” and “Happier” in their back catalog, but their next album, Easy Wonderful (2010), was as sugary as a pop-rock album can get. As it happens, Easy Wonderful was the album that really made me a fan, so that didn’t bother me none, but there’s a possible world where the sunshiny one-two punch of “Architects & Engineers” and “Do You Love Me?” broke my already-broken heart.
That more or less takes us up through my high school graduation, right past the peak listening years for angst music. It wouldn’t be until college that I discovered the band that filled a void in my past-self’s soul, a void that past-me didn’t even know existed. And that band was Frightened Rabbit.
III: “Not Deep Enough to Never Be Found”
It took me some time to come around to Frightened Rabbit. I first heard of the band in the comments section of The A.V. Club, under an article that mentioned former folk-rock superstars Mumford & Sons. The commenters at The A.V. Club hated Mumford & Sons, and often brought up Frightened Rabbit as the superior version of that sound. (I’m not sure why, actually; I don’t think the two bands sound anything alike.) I began to associate Frightened Rabbit with the self-impressed hipster set, and when I gave a listen to their then–most recent album, The Winter of Mixed Drinks (2010), I wasn’t too taken with it. Sure, “Swim Until You Can’t See Land” was fun, but everything else just left me cold.
Maybe a year-and-a-half later, though, I was out on a late-afternoon walk around the campus of Carnegie Mellon, listening to WYEP, a local community radio station. The DJ introduced the next song as the latest single from Frightened Rabbit, entitled “State Hospital”. The track was hauntingly austere, with lonely guitar plucks overlapping with the percussion and Scott Hutchison’s vulnerable vocals taking center stage. He starts telling “the most threadbare tall story the country’s ever heard,” the story of a woman born into a life of poverty and abuse. Hearing the song for the first, I wanted to reject it as a piece of mawkish, manipulative sentimentality, as too many works on that subject are. But Hutchison’s lyrics proved too precise, too poetic to dismiss. By the time we got to the chorus, by the time the song went from sparse to anthemic, Hutchison sang that “[h]er heart beats like a breeze block thrown down the stairs,” and I was sold.
“State Hospital” is more empathetic than it is angsty—the third-person perspective doesn’t lend itself to the emotional release and connection that the first-person perspective does—but their next single, “The Woodpile,” is angst distilled and refined. The speaker of “The Woodpile” yearns for a human connection but his held back by crippling social anxiety. A man “bereft of all social charms” and “struck dumb by the hand of fear,” the speaker finds himself at a dance club and instinctively retreats from the action, “look[ing] for a fire door / An escape from the drums and barking,” and “fall[ing] into the corner’s arms.” Yet still he calls out for companionship, wishing that “you would brighten [his] corner / A lit torch to the woodpile.” That line, coupled with the blasting guitar in the instrumental bridge, elevates he speaker’s anxiety to heart-bursting levels. It’s perfect angst. And it was perfect angst for me: a song I could not only appreciate, but relate to.
“State Hospital” and “The Woodpile” set the stage for Frightened Rabbit’s fourth album, Pedestrian Verse (2013), which over the years has become one of my most listened-to albums. Each song is a jewel of self-doubt and self-loathing, sometimes backed with a spare, mournful arrangement, more often with electric rock energy. A great sense of worry pervades the album: the secrets in “Backyard Skulls” are “not deep enough to never be found,” the speaker in “Holy” is “too far gone for a telling,” and a title like “Dead Now” seems self-explanatory. Yet the tunes are always so alive and memorable. It’s like Jimmy Eat World’s “The Middle” played over 12 tracks, only I’m not embarrassed to sing along with the lyrics.
I loved Pedestrian Verse in the moment, of course, but even more I’m convinced that past-me would have worshiped it. The pain on Pedestrian Verse is almost entirely internal, the sort that comes from no apparent cause. Scott Hutchison doesn’t sound betrayed by an ex, and he certainly is not railing against overbearing parents. The speaker of a Frightened Rabbit song is miserable because he is miserable. That really was my sort of teenage angst, the feeling that I wanted validated. I would have especially loved “Holy”, though I probably would taken the religious metaphor more literally than I think it’s intended: “I can dip my head in the river, cleanse my soul / I’ll still have the stomach of sinner, face like an unholy ghost.”
Granted, there’s another reason I think Pedestrian Verse could have been my angst music had it come out earlier. There’s a certain amount of self-critique and irony to the album, an attitude that Greenwald would suggest is anathema to emo. That sort of music is supposed to be entirely, humiliatingly sincere. Pedestrian Verse, on the other hand, seems skeptical of itself. I mean, the album is called Pedestrian Verse, a self-deprecating assessment of the lyrical content. And the last two songs, “Nitrous Gas” and “The Oil Slick”, see Hutchison poke fun at his own histrionic tendencies. On the latter, he suggests that “only an idiot would swim through the shit [he] write[s]”: it’s so sad and self-serving, how can it appeal to anyone else? “Nitrous Gas” is even more extreme: he is “dying to be unhappy again,” “dying to bring you down with [him],” and more than willing to substitute happiness with the title chemical.
As an adult, I see those self-critical flashes as a necessary balance to some of the album’s more indulgent moments, like the phrase “knight in shitty armor” from the album opener “Acts of Man.” But as a teenager, those same flashes would have provided my ego with some plausible deniability. I wasn’t listening to angst music, I could have told myself, it’s a parody of angst music. That argument would not have held the slightest water, but whether it was true or not was irrelevant. Past-me would have needed that escape hatch to justify listening to something so straightforwardly emotional. I remember all those extended quotes from the teenagers Greenwald talks to in Nothing Feels Good, and while I may cringe at how what they say can get overblown and lose perspective, I still admire how open they are about it. I was incapable of such openness at their age.
So I’m totally down with angst music now, right? Well, not quite. There’s still one thing about it that troubles me.
IV: “A Particular Relationship”
If, like me, you watch a lot of video producers on “Left Tube” (or “Bread Tube” or whatever people are calling it now), you have probably come across the term “parasocial relationship,” which is the term for a one-sided relationship in which a person emotionally invests in someone who does not know that they exist. Think of how you might admire a particular television personality, or how you might root for a particular fictional character—those are classic examples of parasocial relationships.
I first heard the term “parasocial relationship” on an episode of the YouTube show NerdSync, which discussed the concept in the context of the comic book series Ms. Marvel. In the video, presenter Scott Niswander mentions how, although parasocial relationships “can be a relief from strained real-life relationships and act as a buffer against a loss of self esteem,” there’s always the risk that one will end up “project[ing] certain attributes onto the celebrity to fit their own wants and needs.” More recently, a YouTube series from Shannon Strucci, called Fake Friends, has been exploring the potential negative aspects of parasocial relationships, most notably in the second installment, “Parasocial Hell”.
Recall how Greenwald defines emo: “a particular relationship between a fan and a band,” “a desire to turn a monologue into a dialogue.” It’s a genre of music that invites parasocial relationships, to a greater extent than popular music naturally must. It invites devotion, however short-lived it tends to be in the genre. When we listen to angst music and conclude that the artist understands what we’re going through, it’s rather easy to make a leap as to what the word “understands” means in that sentence.
Frightened Rabbit means a lot to me, though I didn’t quite realize how much until Scott Hutchison’s death last May. I don’t wish to dwell on it for fear of exploiting it for personal use, so I’ll just say that I think I felt similar to how countless people felt after Chester Bennington’s death the year before that. I felt half-numb for few days afterwards, and wondered whether I needed to reevaluate my assumptions about Hutchison as a result.
Parasocial relationships set us up for disappointment, as the probability that an artist will wholly match our perceptions of them is close to zero. And that’s not even addressing the chance that an angst music artist proves to be terrible person. I mentioned Brand New earlier, and in the course of researching this piece I discovered that their lead singer, Jesse Lacey, has faced multiple allegations of grooming underage fans. Were I a fan of Brand New, had I formed a parasocial relationship with Lacey, would I be tempted to ignore or deny the allegations for the sake of preserving a particular mental construct—especially had that construct helped me through some difficult times? I can’t prove or disprove a counterfactual, but it’s not a comforting prospect.
In “Parasocial Hell,” Strucci criticizes the tendency for fans of celebrities to assert, without actual intimate knowledge, that so-and-so public figure is a “good person,” particularly after allegations of sexual misconduct. And if I have one reason to still find angst music distasteful, that might be it—no matter how much I may, in fact, derive from it.
Thank you for reading through this overly long post! I’ve had something like this kicking around in my mind for about as long as I’ve been keeping this blog, and the more I thought about it the more it started sprawling on me. I eventually realized that if I didn’t just write the damned thing already it would never get out of the conceptual stage. The result is what you’ve just read.
Anyhow, if you’re new to the blog, I’ve recently undertaken the Classics Club reading challenge, and I think my first write-up for it, on W. H. Auden’s The Dyer’s Hand, is representative of how I like to approach culture. Hope you enjoy it!
Guster are among popular music’s most underappreciated tunesmiths. Their brand of jangly, acoustic guitar–driven pop has proven to be surprisingly versatile over the years, perfect for cheeky kiss-off songs like “Amsterdam,” heartfelt love songs like “Satellite,” and whatever the hell “Red Oyster Cult” is about. The fact that they’ve never had a real hit song à la Fountains of Wayne’s “Stacy’s Mom” never ceases to confuse me.
Still, while Ryan Miller et al. are phenomenal at crafting catchy hooks, I’ve never thought of them as particularly great lyricists. They have some sparkling lines here and there (e.g., “Stay right where you are / You’ll be half of who you were” from “Homecoming King”), but for the most part their lyrics are secondary to the tunes. That’s why it came as a surprise to me when, as I was re-listening to their 1999 album Lost and Gone Forever, my mind became fixated on a certain, and appropriate, lyrical motif: how difficult it is to say something meaningful.
On Lost and Gone Forever, communication can often seem nigh impossible. Sometimes the speakers have been holding back their thoughts and emotions far more than is healthy. The speaker of the break-up song “So Long,” for example, is “blue, but from holding [their] breath,” while the voice of “Center of Attention” brags that no one will catch on to their self-centered attitude if they can “keep [their] mouth shut tight.” Other times, they’re resentful to be hearing anything at all, as on the chorus to “Fa Fa”: “You were always saying something you swear you’d never say again.” (It’s not for nothing that the song’s title consists of non-lexical vocables.)
Now, an entire album where people refuse to have authentic conversations with each other could get frustrating pretty quickly; there are only so many ways to say you would rather not speak. But the album finds a way to get around that limitation, finds a way to say something without actually saying anything: quoting phrases associated with childhood. The album’s title comes from the folk song “Oh My Darling, Clementine,” which people are most likely to hear as children. Both “I Spy” and “What You Wish For” incorporate ritualistic lines from children’s games. And “Happier” (probably my favorite song on the album) includes a extended riff on fatherly advice.
Why resort to phrases from childhood? I can think of at least two reasons. First, these songs about failed communication are implicitly about a failure to act like adults; one of the hallmarks of maturity is the ability to solve conflict through language. Invoking childhood gives one the impression that the subjects of these songs are emotionally stunted, that they’re locked in a perpetual preadolescence. (This is, as it happens, a recurring theme in Guster’s discography, e.g., “Homecoming King” and “One Man Wrecking Machine.”) Second, because these phrases are the sort that come to mind automatically, without conscious thought, they function a sneaky ways of shutting down discussions. Rather than allowing the speakers to indirectly confront their problems, they allow the speakers to sidestep them.
Let’s take a look at two songs in a little more depth. The first one I’d like to talk about is “I Spy”:
The scenario of this song is a bit vague, as there are not that many lyrics to analyze. We know that the speaker and the addressee are at “the May Parade,” and that the speaker wants to tell the addressee something, but just what that something is and why the May Parade is significant remain unclear. One reason why it’s hard to say anything concrete about the song is that the verse changes slightly with each repetition. Did they go “down to the May Parade” or “down at” it, and was it “we” or “it” that went down? Were “mumbled words” or “bitter words” under the speaker’s breath (or was it just “alcohol”)? Is he “meaning” or “dying” to tell you something? It’s as though the speaker is subtly rewriting the events of the song as they’re singing it.
Into this guessing game of a narrative, the speaker throws in a literal guessing game. It would seem that the speaker has been meaning/dying to tell the addressee that they’ve “been so damn sad / ‘Cause [they] spy something red.” This could be a private symbol for the speaker, but from the audience’s perspective “something red” could be basically anything. It’s not a reason for the speaker’s sadness, but rather a substitute for a reason. In fact, the language of I Spy suggests that the addressee is supposed to find that response enigmatic, because when playing the came, one wants to pick a object that will be difficult for the other players to spot.
Alas—or should it be thankfully?—the speaker cannot keep up this obfuscation for long. While the verse leans into ambiguity, the chorus is far more direct. Direct, and bitter:
You don’t know how far you’ve gone Or recognize who you’ve come How’d you grow to be so hard? Sick of playing my part
(Granted, the speaker can’t entirely escape the urge to rewrite things: the second version of the chorus changes the question in line 3 to “When’d…?”)
Whereas “I Spy” uses the language of childhood to put-off answering an important question, the same technique in “Happier” sounds like a more sincere attempt to articulate an emotion (though, spoilers, it also ends in bile).
The emotional narrative of “Happier” is a scattershot series of accusations and insults, of passive-aggression and plain old aggression. The voice of verses (sung by Adam Gardner) wants out of the relationship, while the voice of the first half of the chorus (sung by Ryan Miller) tells their partner to “go on, if this’ll make [them] happier,” before the two voices sing over each other in the second half of the chorus. If Lost and Gone Forever has a centerpiece of poor communication, it’s this song.
The childhood language appears right at the midway point, at the end of the second verse. Instead of a phrase borrowed from a time-passing game, Gardner’s voice brings up a saying from Miller’s voice’s father:
Like your father said, “Just do what was done unto you, always” In your father’s steps You’ll do what was done unto you It won’t be hard to start again
This is arguably the most tender-sounding moment of the song, where the instruments quiet down and Miller drops his shouty, harmonized vocals. On a musical level, this sounds like a comforting passage. But the more I think on it, the more vicious it seems. First off, the father’s advice here is a perversion of the Golden Rule. For the father, tit-for-tat is the proper ethos for getting through life. That much is clear from the get-go, but the framing is really what sells it. Putting that destructive worldview in a friendly package conceals the true venom of those lines. It’s less an excuse to avoid speaking and more an excuse to speak horribly.
Second, what the speaker offers the addressee here is not consolation, as might be expected when mentioning someone’s father. Rather, the speaker is predicting that the addressee will continue this cycle of retribution. Indeed, by linking that future to the addressee’s father, they make it sound like it’s an inherent part of their character. And really, after all the bile spewed in this song, what should Miller’s voice do but further inflict that pain? They’re damned right it “won’t be hard to start again.”
I feel I could apply a similar lens to just about every song on the album, from the self-consciously immature “Center of Attention” to the celebrity-stalking “Barrel of a Gun.” And I feel that this exercise has shown me something about Guster as songwriters: they may not be wordsmiths, but they are more than capable of carrying a lyrical mood from track 1 to track 11. That’s not going to win them a Pulitzer any time soon, but maybe they deserve more credit than I’d been giving them.
Thanks for reading! If you have any thoughts on Guster’s Lost and Gone Forever, or another album which uses borrowed language to great effect, let me know in the comments. And if you’d like some more lyrical analysis, I recently talked about Lucinda Williams’s song “2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten,” which you can read here.