a jot about how I met your mother and too many cooks

I polished off How I Met Your Mother in the wee hours today, a time-slot the show seems designed for not necessarily because of a lack of skill in the product.

There’s an interesting effect in literature when you’re prepared for the outcome. In highschool, I found myself reading Jacqueline Carey’s Banewreaker with increasing dread after the promise on the cover:

This is their story… and they’re going to lose.

– Description of Banewreaker, Jacqueline Carey

The show proceeds as the story of how the narrator met his children’s mother, so like Carey’s promised doom, the plot has a definitive endgame that the audience knows, and we’re warned straightaway that the woman Ted meets and confesses his love to in the first episode is not the titular mother. The Office specialized in a kind of unflinching painfulness1, mixed with poignancy, but it isn’t the same sadism and hopefulness that makes you keep watching Ted. The comedy of How I Met Your Mother is a warming mixture of laughing-at and laughing-with — the usual mixture of good friendships. In fact, the modeling of friendship, and known stories, is what makes How I Met Your Mother so good, and so very good at two in the morning.

You hear all the time that part of the succor that television offers is through the repetition of familiar faces, so that one can watch a show and feel that one is coming home, even if it’s Gossip Girl. I wouldn’t know how to cite that, but it seems true, and seems like an excellent explanation of the repetitiveness of plot found in so many television programs. “Too Many Cooks,” an animated short on Adult Swim’s 4:00 AM slot, pressed on that repetitiveness of plot and genre with a nauseously long, unsettling title sequence to a fake family sitcom. Of course it goes from the perfect mirroring of a genre to increasingly unstable premises, the original family now blending (and sucking face with) another family, and then another, and the sexy neighbor is now continually topless, and Lars von Trier is cast as a pie, until now a scraggly-haired killer emerges again and again among the other formulaic characters, fading last from the screen.

But it’s not just the woman who is being slain here, even as the red emergency button is pushed and the terror of the slasher plot is jettisoned. “Too Many Cooks” wants to destroy our collective nostalgia for this form altogether. It holds up the 1980s sitcom as something worth celebrating but finds it as hollow as the products that those infomercials are peddling. They’re unnecessary and empty, they’re relics of a time that we long for but shouldn’t return to. In fact, we shouldn’t try. The collection of assembled cast members at the end, all smiling happily for the camera, isn’t the actual ending; it’s a fiction predicated on our own psychological need to see our best selves reflected on screen, to see the sitcom triumph over the harshness and horror of the killer. But he’s there at the very end, worming his way into the extended family portrait, his head remaining on screen even after everything else vanishes into the darkness. Fade to black.

The split-second show that follows uses the all-too-familiar refrain of a man entering the front door and bellowing, “Honey, I’m home,” an ur-sitcom staple, before the laugh track rings out and the end credits roll. It reduces the sitcom to its barest element, the setup, the gag, the most tired joke line of all joke lines. There are reasons why television moved past this format and these archetypes, why our comedies today — or at least the more intelligent ones — strive for more than just pratfalls and laugh tracks. And, consequently, there are reasons why the form idealized and then ultimately cast off by “Too Many Cooks” reminds us of something distant and dusty from our childhoods or adolescence. In exploiting those forms, Kelly and “Too Many Cooks” point toward the danger of nostalgia, which might have the power to tug on your heartstrings, but also to rip them right out of your chest.

– “What’s Behind Our Obsession with ‘Too Many Cooks’“, Jace Lacob

This particular kind of humor is Adult Swim’s specialty these days: the killer chases down a teenage girl, identifying her through the slats in a closet by the glow of the credit sequence following her around, and gutting her; the last scene is a photo of the very large cast, the father (as he has four times now) getting in the photo at the last moment, but the freeze-frame shows the killer in his stead, his face glowing as the remainder of the screen fades off. The joke is that there is no joke, or something equally brilliant and stupid. The joke is that you’re thinking about what it means, and it doesn’t mean anything. The joke is that what made you smile as the title sequence got longer and longer — that this was obviously a riff on a form, that you could laugh at this bloating sit-com without laughing at anybody — is the part of you now extremely uncomfortable with that lingering face, though as Lacob pointed out that killer is still just another flat feature of another flat repetitive genre, but now it’s here, cutting up something which it turned out you cared about, no matter how repetitive and obvious.

Like “Too Many Cooks,” How I Met Your Mother is self-consciously a story, and a very particular story, one you’ve heard before, one you know the ending to, one with a laughtrack. At different points the narrator corrects himself, admits a detail was incorrect, that the sequence of events didn’t happen like this, that secretly all of the characters had been smokers though it had never been shown on screen. This is part of what makes the show fascinating, but it’s not simply that the narrator is occasionally unreliable. Rather, one recognizes in some of the tropes and tools of this sit-com the very same tropes and tools you find when you tell stories about your life. Friends have gimmicks, which are always repeated when you discuss them or when you tell a story about them, or a trait that never comes up except once when it’s necessary to narrative and then never emphasized again. People somehow manage to be larger than can be conveyed clearly, and easily reduced into catch-phrases. That similarity is flattering, but not all the similarities of this show and this genre are. All of the characters compromise their dreams.2 All of the characters repeat their faults well into the salt-and-pepper age. There are changes, but for the most part, what we see on screen are cycles of attempting to be someone better and yet falling right back into form.

I can’t imagine seeing “Too Many Cooks” in its intended time slot. There is something large and empty inside of a person watching television past 2:00 AM, and the uncomfortable nudge of that ten minute joke could only widen it, and of course, that’s part of the point. It was meant to be a sucker punch. But I think, for those also awake and alone, How I Met Your Mother shares some of that same self-referential space, but kindly. The tenderness it shows for repetition isn’t aimed towards the repeated jokes, or the fact that they are repeated, but rather a tenderness towards people who never make the changes that they promise. Part of what you do with an inside joke is reference the fact of the friendship, the fact that you were together when the joke occurred and you’re still together now. In some sense we use those repetitive ribbings to remind one another of one another, and to remind ourselves of ourselves. The very great success of this show is how it manages to show that audiences have this feature due to genre and humanity both. It’s very beautiful and stupid.

a jot about chekhov & mitski

We used to think of you as almost superhuman, but now the scales have fallen from my eyes and I see you as you are! You write on art without knowing anything about it. Those books of yours which I used to admire are not worth one copper kopeck. You are a hoax!

– Ivan (Vanya) Voitski, in Uncle Vanya: Scenes from Country Life, by Anton Chekhov

In Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, the titular character spends his life working to support his intellectual brother. Eventually Vanya becomes disillusioned about his brother’s intellectual prowess, then anguished. He wasted his life on someone else. In contrast, consider Mitski’s Bury Me at Make-Out Creek, soft and raw and strung with lines like the following atop reverberating guitar:

In the city, you make it there
and you make it
anywhere, anywhere,1
but I’ve been anywhere
and it’s not what I want.
I wanna be still with you.

– “Texas Reznikoff,” Mitski

I found the album on a bad day and cried during my commute, twice, once looking up to a sign saying: ‘Family Foot Care.’

The tone of the album is obvious. ‘Raw’ is often used in description, and I just used that as a description, but so much in music gets that label, it ceases to be a helpful adjective. A different attempt, less ‘raw,’ more mythological: it sounds like a mermaid discovered Joni Mitchell and Nirvana in a shipwreck and decided to play electric guitar and sing, wavering, about the boy she hopes will drown with her. A mermaid, yes. Because her voice is watery, because those are the womanly figures associated with destructive relationships (all those blue-lipped sailors), because even if she doesn’t drag him under it’s difficult to imagine how successful2 that relationship will be, because of the different things they are.

It’s chock full of references, but not in the style of Ezra Koenig, where the point of the reference seems to be simply the fun of it, the endearing frivolousness of a song about grammar.3 The title of the album is either a reference to Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee4 or a reference to how the originating context of national travesty has dropped away, and either way, there is something about the choice of title that suggests much of its content. It is an album about knowing better than to love someone to the point of self-destruction, yet the narrator does. ‘Bury My Heart’ tells you this will be tragic; ‘Make-Out Creek’ tells you that she knows that the stakes are just one man, and kisses, and a tale as old as time. If it is frivolous, it isn’t because it is not deeply felt. And the references seem, to me, to be ways of qualifying this choice as not one made without ‘knowing better.’ Mitski’s narrator has read the big names, too. She’s heard all their advice. The emotional lows of the album occur despite advice about other ways to live. I found one reference particularly striking:

Wild women don’t get the blues,
but I find that
lately I’ve been crying like a
tall child.

– “First Love / Late Spring,” Mitski.

I got a sweet disposition, gonna wear my very own,
I ain’t never gonna spend not one lonely night
at home all alone.
I can go out, drink all the courvoisier I can find,
walk the streets all night alone,
and I can tell any man to go to Hell
if that man don’t know how to act right.
Wild women, we don’t never worry,
wild women never, never get the blues.

– “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues,” Ida Cox

Cox’s song is often taken as a feminist stand. You could read as a suggestion that doing everything you thought you ought to do gives women the blues, but acting exactly as you’d like, not how you ought, eliminates the source of sadness in a woman’s life. The source might be the endless list of oughts. The source might be the absence of choices about what to do — the oughts have it down. The source might be the expectation of perfect, angelic loyalty to one man, and the bind that puts a woman in when she stops caring for him.

I wrote a bit about what I consider good lyrics, and I described them as anthems for emotion — not mantras, because some of the best lyrics describe feelings I’d like to lose. Listening to Bury Me at Make Out Creek put a voice to a kind of martyrdom I’d been hiding lately, not thinking it was all the wise or relevant, which allowed me to feel that perhaps-unwise-perhaps-not-relevant lowpoint, and it makes me think about various conversations about the oughts in art. Videogames often feature combat, and the violence inherent in that combat is sometimes finger-wagged as sowing a seed of violence in the people that play videogames. Sometimes the response is that such games provide an outlet, either because we’ve all got a violent streak, or because some of us might have one, and a good game can let off that streak without really hurting anyone. But then there’s something to the suggestion that taking a piece of art seriously involves taking it as a suggestion about how the world is, or how you might behave in it. Defending the continuing existence of a piece of art on grounds of impotence is a failure to defend it as a piece of art.

So though this album scissored open a deep feeling in me, I wonder if the narrator and I would be better off without the sources of our deep feeling.5

Yet, the point that art can provide insight into life seems to be behind Mitski’s reference to Ida Cox. She heard the song, but even so, her life doesn’t quite look as described. Same goes for that “Texas Reznikoff” lyric, where the narrator denies Sinatra’s invigoration over success in a tough environment – she’s done that, and now she wants to curl into the afghan with you. In asking whether one ought to listen to this album, in a lovely double sense of the word, it’s important to consider that Mitski’s narrator is responding to a failure involved with learning something from those other songs. The tragedy of the album’s narrative is feeling something which ought to have been precluded by what you know. So if there is question about the value of this piece of art as imbued with, and allowing a listener to keenly feel, a kind of honest self-destruction, it seems key to consider how the narrator of the album became self-destructive after not being persuaded by powerful pieces of music. Someone who believes in the potency of art to persuade a person about how to live their life ought to be uneasy about Mitski’s work here.

I feel a similar sense of unease when I listen to Weezer’s ‘No One Else,’ off the Blue Album. The song is largely about the desire for a person who is defined by their adoration of you, so much so that they don’t even laugh at someone’s else joke. My dog loves anyone within ten feet, and sometimes I’ve looked longingly at the guard dog breeds that bond with one person, maybe. I get the sentiment. But it still seems like an unworthy desire, and you wonder at the kind of validation that desires get when they’re made the subjects of songs. Being artistically portrayed makes the feeling ‘real’ — I’m not alone6 –and because of that ‘reality,’ something no worth acting on.

…here comes this petulant, aggressive rocker acting like he ain’t some sensitive little guy. He starts telling you how whack his super hot girl is, but whatever, he’s on his way out, looking for someone better, more loyal.

These sensibilities were so contrary to the sweet, romantic existentialism on the rest of the record that, to my lovelorn teenage heart, it almost felt like a betrayal. That taken with the relentless instrumentation made it feel more like a bro song.

It wasn’t until I discovered that “The World Has Turned And Left Me Here” was a follow-up consequence to being that selfish prick that I started to realize the gravity on “No One Else.” In the music itself, we feel the faux bravado and scary saber rattling that accompanies the lyrics’ insecurities. The gradual escalation of Pat Wilson’s frantic snare fills. Matt Sharp’s goofy acrobatic bass scale in the pre-chorus (that at he would eventual hone into a historical signature on Pinkerton). Even the debut of Brian Bell’s bratty, nasal backing vocals on the climax. They all reveal a tribe of little boys trying to hide their fear of rejection behind big noises.

– from “20 Years of Weezer’s Blue Album,” John Watterberg (of Dead Stars)

In the case of ‘No One Else,’ the track’s suspect quality is undercut by the other presences that Watterberg indicates, and certainly the core idea is different than the running theme of Bury Me At Make Out Creek. ‘No One Else’ features the desire to be someone else‘s ideal, their primary moral motivation; Bury Me At Make Out Creek features the desire to make someone else your ideal, the raison d’être of the young woman singing about that someone else, a commitment to a love that destroys you. In ‘No One Else,’ because the young woman fails to put her make-up on the shelf, because she laughs at other people’s jokes and laughs at them too loudly, she is denied value, and ultimately left in the dust. Poor treatment in Bury Me At Make Out Creek does not decrease any one’s value — instead, it becomes a challenge, to more perfectly accommodate the desires that underlie that very treatment.

Perhaps the master on the matters of no-holds-barred idealism is The Boss, and in particular Born to Run. It’s difficult to appreciate his hits on their own, because it seems unbelievable that someone could be so sincere about motorcycles and tramps, but he is. Born to Run begins with the following lines about music, and loneliness, and a plain woman:

“The screen door slams,
Mary’s dress waves.
Like a vision she dances across the porch
as the radio plays.
Roy Orbison singing for the lonely,
hey that’s me, and I want you only.
Don’t turn me home again.
I just can’t face myself alone again.
Don’t run back inside.
Darling, you know just what I’m here for,
so you’re scared and you’re thinking
that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night.
You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re alright.
Oh, and that’s alright with me.

– “Thunder Road,” Bruce Springsteen

“Thunder Road” is a subtle mixture of the angst of loneliness, of imperfect lovers, of art as solace but not solution. Ultimately, these are Mitski’s themes, too. She avows loving ‘you,’ yet there’s hardly an adjective to the subject — not even an obvious gender. One wonders, in the face of such powerfully avowed affections but such little apparent attention to object of those affections, if Mitski really valued that person, as anything beyond a placeholder for value. Though Sinatra and Cox had things to say about what she really ought to have valued, those claims came up empty.

That’s the trick, with art, and art appreciation as offering knowledge. If art really does offer insight, but not everyone gets it, well, what then? If someone fails to see the value in ‘making it anywhere,’ in being a ‘wild woman,’ is that failure on them, or is it somehow in the work, as either imperfect communication or as imperfect insight? There’s a way where Mitski’s self-immolation is a kind of self-assertion, because she acknowledges those works, but they failed to offer her the insights into value that would have prevented her from making her end-all be-all the neglectful ‘you’ of the album.

The choice to ‘go down with the ship’7 seems like one of many bad solutions as to what one ought to value as their end, or goal, in life. A wild woman could value her own pleasure, but that choice has to contend with the question of why one’s own pleasure ought to matter so much, particularly when other people rarely make your pleasure their exclusive goal. Same goes with our competitive Sinatra, who might wonder at the constant effort required for New York City success, whether it’s really success, and is he successful, and if so, why does he have to work so hard?8

Helplessness Blues – Fleet Foxes

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique,
Like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes,
unique in each way you can see.
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
a functioning cog in some great machinery
serving something beyond me.

– “Helplessness Blues,” Fleet Foxes

You might make yourself (perhaps your own pleasure, perhaps your own excellence) your goal in life, or perhaps you’d like to be a small part of something very large. “Helplessness Blues” came out right after I’d graduated college, and it elegantly presents a temptation that I think those with a little luck can feel. They have a choice about what to do; they’d like to do what is best; which thing is best to choose to do? No matter what sort of value one selects, there seems to be difficult questions that will remain, perhaps about why that choice when there are other options, or perhaps why that choice when no one else sees it.

Uncle Vanya is about that sort of question. As said, Vanya spends the majority of his life working hard so that his brother can achieve academic success — but now Vanya considers that a mistake, being more familiar with both his brother and his brother’s work. Note the ‘Uncle’ in Uncle Vanya. His brother’s daughter, Sonia, is sweet-tempered and ugly and hard-working. She has the final words of the play, where she responds to Vanya’s despair:

Yes, we shall live, Uncle Vanya. We shall live through the long procession of days before us, and through the long evenings; we shall patiently bear the trials that fate imposes on us; we shall work for others without rest, both now and when we are old; and when our last hour comes we shall meet it humbly, and there, beyond the grave, we shall say that we have suffered and wept, that our life was bitter, and God will have pity on us. Ah, then dear, dear Uncle, we shall see that bright and beautiful life; we shall rejoice and look back upon our sorrow here; a tender smile—and—we shall rest. I have faith, Uncle, fervent, passionate faith… We will rest.

– Sonia, in Uncle Vanya: Scenes from Country Life, by Anton Chekhov

Unlike Vanya, whose further acquaintance with his brother ruined his ability to believe in him, Sonia believes in something she cannot have evidence against. She believes in an afterlife that will reward her for perfect effort, where she may rest.

The search for rest, and the right way to value endless effort, are classic existentialist themes — and classic rock-n-roll. When I listen to this album, I think about those themes, and I think about why someone would choose to make an awful lover have ultimate importance in their life. Vanya picked his brother’s scholarship as the most important thing in his life, which he tried to support in any way he could; but in choosing a person, rather than Sonia’s intangible afterlife, as the goal for all of his efforts, and the justification of his suffering for those efforts, he choose poorly. The choice of a tangible item meant that Vanya could consider whether or not his brother in fact was up to snuff, and when Vanya looked closely, he wasn’t. A great deal of Chekhov’s work seems to consider the temptation to make someone, or something, of the utmost importance, and I think Sonia’s speech explains this temptation. As Nietszche said: “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” No matter what you choose to do, there’ll be pain involved. You want to believe that all that pain, all that trying, was for something, in the end. Yet the choice of what makes effort meaningful doesn’t stop the anxiety of whether or not that really was the thing you ought to have chosen; one desires a rest from those sorts of questions, to choose well and finally, as well as a rest from effort full-stop.

In ceasing the search for value and choosing ‘you,’ Mitski has given into both senses of rest. There are few lines questioning her choice, and perhaps that’s part of why we learn so little about ‘you,’ about why it is that she is willing to die for it.

And die she does.

You wouldn’t leave till we loved in the morning.
You’d learned from movies how love ought to be,
and you’d say you love me and look in my eyes
but I know through mine you were
looking in yours…

I always wanted to die clean and pretty,
but I’d be too busy on working days.
so I am relieved that the turbulence wasn’t forecasted
I couldn’t have changed anyways.
I am relieved that I’d left my room tidy.

– “Last Words of a Shooting Star,” Mitski

The end to the open question of value seems to often be connected in art with the end of a life. Part of why the album is so touching is because its central fantasy is terribly familiar, both historically and personally. Star-crossed love ain’t nothing new, and that existentialist squirm to pick something to value haunts all of us. Mitski’s voice is breathy, soft, pitiful at points and then a snarl among a tangle of electric guitar; the emotional variety appropriate to the narrative is mirrored with the right musical variety. When listening to it, I wondered about what an appropriate record review would look like. Do I mention who she’s emulating? Do I make historical claims? When I read reviews, that’s what I see, but I don’t have those details, and I don’t know where to look for them in Mitski’s case. Yet, even lacking insight to the musical history which leads us to Mitski’s, lacking insight into whether or not this is sonically ‘fresh’ despite its familiar theme, I think this is an album worth listening to.

It is also dangerous.

Bury Me at Make Out Creek presents a woman who makes a disputable romantic choice while fully acknowledging that dispute. She makes a judgment about value, knowing that others will question it, but commits to it. If art really does present insight, and the insight here is that this choice is endorsed and endorse-able by you, then this album is dangerous because choosing self-immolation is dangerous. But if I’m right about the existentialist temptations underlying this choice of a doomed romance, then part of that temptation is ceasing investigation into value, and failing to listen to Mitski is a failure to investigate whether or not she’s right about what to value. The narrator’s temptation is the listener’s temptation when faced with powerful pieces of art. To turn it off, and stop seeing a real question in the avowal that she listened, but just didn’t see why she shouldn’t move forward. To stop seeing a real question about what to value, even if one does commmit.

Country music features several women objecting to a certain kind of story. Let me leave you with the most famous, and the most famously mis-interpreted:

Stand by your man,
and show the world you love him.
Keep giving all the love you can,
stand by your man,
after all, he’s just a a man.

– “Stand by Your Man,” Tammy Wynette

If only Vanya had known.

crude lyrics

Many of the earliest couple generations of rockers – and their disciples – were weaned on the American and English folk revival scenes, whether or not they heard “Wildwood Flower,” many of them intuitively grasped that meaning was only about half of what made a lyric good, that, paradoxically, some of the best lyrics have an awkward inarticulate clunk to them.
– “Francoise Hardy & When Lyrics Don’t Matter,” Will Sheff

Sheff wrote that in response to two versions of a song, English and French, as an attempt to explain why he preferred the French version he couldn’t understand to the English that he could. Caroling comes with the holidays, and a friend asked me which songs were my favorites; I got a round of scrunched noses when I listed McCartney’s ‘Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time‘ alongside ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman,’ and my defense of that choice was that I carried the lyrics of Christmas pop songs around with me in a way I had never done with an ‘Ave Maria.’ That’s a power that lyrics have, to go with you where you go. Usually, that’s what I count as lyrical success.

Crude lines strike me more as I get older. Sheff’s original article noted how certain lines come off clunky when merely spoken, yet are perfect when mated with the right melody, and certainly there’s some degree where the spoken simplicity of a line takes on great meaning with the right musical accompaniment.1 But I think the simplicity I’ve come to prefer is not even something crude, in the sense of inelegant syntax, but rather so baldly stated as to be stupid, obvious, naïve, cliché, flat-footed, crude as in not complex, crude as in somebody-must-have-thought-of-this.

I want to talk about two times when crude lyrics gave me a voice for a feeling I hadn’t yet termed.

Before I was fat drunk and mean
Everything still lied ahead

I was lonely, I was having fun
I was lonely, but I was having fun

I don’t want to start over again
I don’t want to start over again

– “Goshen ’97,” Strand of Oaks

In the middle of a summer where I had failed to produce the paper I would use as my writing sample, where I would read Quine and Carnap and other serifed names in the philosophy of science repeatedly and rush from the gasp of library air-conditioning to espresso to soft-serve to bad books before bed — in the middle of a summer with marked-up PDF margins and marked failure, in came that pound of guitar. There’s few words to the song (the above represents about half), and the rest is a sprawl of victorious guitar which, when paired with insistently percussion, comes off like an anthem. One way or another, my life was going to change radically — again, the way it seems to change radically every fourth year or so, middleschool, highschool, undergraduate, graduate, new friends, new city, and with these the sense that I could be new, too, redeemed through organization and unwavering kindness and gym membership. I hadn’t really figured this out as a special feeling, over and above fretting about individual friends and career prospects, until I heard the song. But I was pleased about my problems, too, and I would think “I was lonely I was having fun” to myself, fucking around until five AM, pleased about that fucking-around, and pleased about reading the hand-me-down PDF’s, glad to be reading the masters, and thinking how much I had liked being the girl I turned out to be, often alone between drinking too much at parties, reading steampunk romance novels and listening to Bowie’s Low while leveling up on WOW, and not minding it as much as might be expected.

It’s odd to combine surging music with reflective, partially apprehensive lyrics. What works about it is that either the surge is that sense of forward motion which “I don’t want to start over again” is railing against, or it’s the motivation to make it work this time, paired the recognition of all of those lonely moments either during or between start-overs, of how good they were, that you will be fine because you make it so or because it’s simply so.

I don’t want to wait anymore I’m tired of looking for answers
Take me some place where there’s music and there’s laughter
I don’t know if I’m scared of dying
But I’m scared of living too fast, too slow
Regret, remorse, hold on, oh no I’ve got to go

Be it for reason, be it for love
I won’t take the easy road

– “My Silver Lining,” First Aid Kit

Given the previous dash of autobiography, I’m sure this selection seems obvious. I found it while peeking at someone else’s Spotify choices, not anticipating actually listening. It’s a funny vow, “I won’t take the easy road,” especially after a request to go where “there’s music and there’s laughter.” I love that lyric, and, looking at a stack of applications for various sorts of office work after deciding not to go forward with philosophy, it’s something I want to promise myself, too.

So in what ways are these both crude?

“I won’t take the easy road” is almost embarrassing to say out loud, possibly because the vow to endure difficulty, to seek out difficulty, isn’t reflected at all in language of the vow itself. Only someone in saddle-shoes would say it earnestly. “I don’t want to start over again” comes across petulant, fearful in a way that adults ought not be, fearful of something inevitable, fearful of something stupid to fear. “I was lonely, I was having fun,” while possible to admit, seems to have no social cash-value. And yet, while I cannot think of when I would say the words, it’s these words that I find myself endorsing. They make repeated appearances in inner monologue. Not quite mantras, because though they nicely particular feelings, I think a mantra2 is supposed to be something that assists in the maintenance or acquisition of a desired mental state, zen-like calm, happiness at an ex-girlfriend’s success, and some of these are particular feelings I’d like to lose.

So I suppose what I take a good lyric to do is strike me, and what strikes me is language that matches my own inner life, and yet language I have no way to use.

God, but life is loneliness, despite all the opiates, despite the shrill tinsel gaiety of “parties” with no purpose, despite the false grinning faces we all wear. And when at last you find someone to whom you feel you can pour out your soul, you stop in shock at the words you utter – they are so rusty, so ugly, so meaningless and feeble from being kept in the small cramped dark inside you so long. Yes, there is joy, fulfillment and companionship – but the loneliness of the soul in its appalling self-consciousness is horrible and overpowering.
The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath, Sylvia Plath

Plath is right. The moment I have an audience to say what has preoccupied me in loneliness, what I say seems to fall flat. How stupid. How small-minded.

A good lyric gives me my flat words back in a way I can palate.

Amazingly, I have been talking about the above robot for the better part of a year, but only in comparison to another piece of graffiti, a yellow stenciled “you are beautiful” in the middle of a sidewalk. A friend, Cotton,3 thought that this robot graffiti beats you are beautiful hands-down, because seeing a shitty stencil of you are beautiful makes nobody smile, and so it doesn’t really accomplish what it sets out to do, which is make someone feel good by validating a part of them. But a little robot — Cotton argues — next to a statement of roughly the same sentiment throws the whole thing off. The absurdity of the robot’s presence comments on the failure of this sort of graffiti, and that absurdity makes someone smile, and that makes it succeed, strangely. We had a similar argument about the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones. Cotton likes a kind of art which successfully points out a failure.

“I don’t want to start all over again” and “I won’t take the easy road” are like you are beautiful. They lack the absurdity of a little robot. For the most part, I think of little-robot art as less successful, less captivating, then the baldness of you are beautiful, the crudity of “can’t get no satisfaction“. The more radical art is the one that actually tries to communicate something, and a radical thing to communicate is the ugly things inside of us that can’t seem to find valid voice.

I don’t need to find things absurd. I need to find things worthy.

Donovan is the real originator of disagreements about lyrics in my life. There’s that very sixties vacuous profundity in some of his work. There are other bands — the Pixies below — which also couple a phrase, “There goes my gun!”, without any context, emotional or otherwise, beyond the music. However, in the Pixies case, it works, the whole song sounds savage and desperate, like there’s a real question about whether it’s your firearm or your damn arm that’s out of control. “You’ve got to pick up every stich” doesn’t fit to a relief in the music, it doesn’t undermine it or match it, it’s simply sung over it. That’s bad lyrics.

Then, far away from a song consisting in “there goes my gun” over and over, are the Shins, and lyrics like: “But you’ve got too much to wear on your sleeves / It has too much to do with me / And secretly I want to bury in the yard / The grey remains of a friendship scarred.” Probably constructions like these were Sheff’s intended reference as ‘an awkward inarticulate clunk’, not because it isn’t a beautiful line, but because that sort of syntax is rarely spoken. If I was going to complain about the Shins and lyrics like these, I would complain that songs suffer when the words of songs are written for the love of the words over anything else. Now it’s not quite over-anything-else, because the lines work well with the remainder of the music, and you get a sense, a feeling you’ve had: a friendship became something more, which ended, and the former friend is now being open about that bad ending. That’s a feeling, but it’s something I find ready voice for; the Shins either describe something easily identifiable in abstruse terms, or describe something I cannot identify in abstruse terms. (Not always, but often.)

Fujiya & Miyagi go for lyrical pointilism. They string together loosely syntactical ideas along interesting rhythms, where the words, and their unfamiliarity as a conjunction of terms, is supposed to create a conceptual ‘pop.’ It’s charming, in a way I didn’t find Donovan to be. I suppose in Donovan’s case he was either winking or utterly serious, and in either case I found it dissapointing, whereas I think the fun of ‘I saw the ghost of Linda Zavaroni’ is the pleasure in simply saying it, no winks, no mysticism.

None of these songs have been rap songs. That’s notable. Most of what I’ve said has had to do with what the lyrics of songs tell me about me, in a way I could use, and could not find other context for; and if rap music is dominated by a particular narrative about the struggle for legitimacy and the eventual Versace victory, it’s not one that I can carry with me in the way I can carry crude guitars.

I talked to another friend about something similar, though in that context, we were talking about games. I’m as narcissistic about games as I am about lyrics. “Give me something to live on” is the rough feeling for both media. When I play Petula4 Shepherd in Mass Effect, I play myself; I lamented to my friend that though Tom Bissel and others think that games are about creating great experiences, rather than telling great stories, I seemed to have had few great experiences. And my friend rebuked me for this play-myself mentality, saying that games involved a kind of empathy: you play the game as you think that character would, and as the question becomes “What would she do?” instead of “What should I do?”, the loss of oneself while in a context where one makes decisions allows for rare experiences. Reading novels is a little like this. It’s a solo activity, yet it’s an activity of trying to figure out how someone, often several someones, think, feel, what they are motivated by.

This friend noted that listening to music should be something similar. When someone details experiences you can’t have, the puzzle isn’t “what does this have to do with me?” but the rather the literary puzzle of putting together how some other person would think.

I’m lucky to have friends that make me think. I lack a reply. The ready answer is that we may all be right, that different art offers different experiences and art might be good in more than one way, and part of what makes a piece of art good involves troubling ambiguity in its interpretation. Jay-Z advocates for something like this below.

Hip-hop tracks have traditionally been heavy on the beats, light on melody, but some MCs — Bone Thugs ‘N Harmony, for example — find ways to work melodies into the rapping. Other MCs — think about Run from Run-DMC — turn words into percussion: ‘cool chief rocka, I don’t drink vodka, but keep a bag of cheeba inside my locka.’ The words themselves don’t mean much, but he snaps those clipped syllables out like drumbeats, bap bap bapbap. it’s as exciting as watching a middleweight throw a perfect combination. If you listened to that joint and came away thinking it was a simple rhyme about holding weed in a gym locker, you’d be reading it wrong: the point of those bars is to bang out a rhythmic idea, not to impress you with the literal meaning of the words.

But great MCing is not just about filling in the meter of the song with rhythm and melody. The other ways that poets make words work is by giving them layers of meaning, so you can use them to get at complicated truths in a way that straightforward storytelling fails to do. The words you use can be read a dozen different ways: they can be funny and serious. They can be symbolic and literal. They can be nakedly obvious and subliminally effective at the same time. The art of rap is deceptive. It seems so straightforward and personal and real that people read it completely literally, as raw testimony or autobiography. And sometimes the words we use, nigga, bitch, motherfucker, and the violence of the images overwhelms some listeners. It’s all white noise to them till they hear a bitch or a nigga and then they run off yelling ‘See!’ and feel vindicated in their narrow conception of what the music is about. But that would be like listening to Maya Angelou and ignoring everything until you heard her drop a line about drinking or sleeping with someone’s husband and then dismissing her as an alcoholic adulterer.

But I can’t say I’ve ever given much of a fuck about people who hear a curse word and start foaming at the mouth. The Fox News dummies. They wouldn’t know art if it fell on them.
Decoded, Jay-Z

a jot about the banner saga


Those old Hanna-Barbera cartoons used to have these funny tells. Velma Dinkley would be inspecting a book case for clues, and you could always tell, because of a marked difference between shelves, which one would have a trap door. I’m sure this was just an artifact of the animating process, such that there was a distinct difference between the background and moveable foreground items, but it also functioned brilliantly with the premise of shows like Scooby-Doo, the three-second anticipation of animation and the formula to every episode braiding together so that nothing really unexpected occurred. Dull, but delightfully so.

The Banner Saga shares some of these elements. Much of the game consists in the shift of a caravan proceeding horizontally across landscape and screen, and though there are animations, much of these are repetitive, glancing eyes and twisting hair. But though these are dull, in a sense, the effect isn’t unfascinating. The game is dull in an aesthetic way, in the way that wintry world would be, where it seemed at every point that my caravan was simply going from bad to worse circumstances, and when they would cut to those animations of the characters, glancing eyes and twisting hair, it seemed realistic, that people in a cold and godless world would address their inevitably sour options with little change in expression. Dull, like hit too much too often.


That safe feeling, in Hanna-Barbera and The Banner Saga, is tied to seeing nothing change except the foreground. Now, for the latter, this isn’t strictly true. Terrible things occur at various points in the game, directly affecting both the brave caravan and the landscape of the world around you. Yet so much of the game feels the same. You careen from danger to danger, watching food run out, watching the number of units following you ebb. Until a red pop-up tells you that two mothers are fighting over the marital prospects of their daughters, or that a varl, (a horned immortal) was found clawing himself in the woods — or, more dramatically, that someone important, to the characters and to your goals in the game, has died, or betrayed you. When things happen, they happen textually. Beyond that, the in-game visuals are limited to varieties of landscape, varieties of battlefield, and varieties of campsites. (And, as said, the occasional animated exchange, where this animation involves very little beyond glancing eyes and twisting hair and printed dialogue.) But these limitations don’t feel like laziness.


A Song of Ice and Fire has similar levels of dull-ness and bad-to-worse-ness and also occurs in a rich, historied world, where big things are happening. But, being a series of books, it happens entirely textually. And that seems important. When I played Final Fantasy 8, my actions scar the world, and I see it, in the world map or otherwise. Things change, and also you are constantly chased from bad-to-worse. Neither ASOIAF or FF8 offered me quite the same experience I’m having here, but for different reasons. Since I do not make choices in Westeros, I can empathize with the plights of the ASOIAF characters, but though I am certainly rooting for some, I am never anxious, usually simply in a state of proto-grief. Though I did make choices in FF8, there was never a sense (supported by in-game information) that this was all business as usual.

I think The Banner Saga provides a kind of ludo-delicacy: the sense of making decisions in dreadful world, where your decisions have weight, yet so routinely lead to bad consequences, where one feels very ordinary and not up to the task, in just the way the characters do.


To get that sense, I think you need elements like formulaic visuals, but choices, too, presented textually. There’s something either very powerful or sadly impotent about one’s imaginative capabilities when reading: I rarely notice inconsistencies. Part of that might be because I’m invested too much mentally, such that I pull out everything I can to make it all work, or I’ve invested too little, such that I haven’t even really imagined things enough to notice inconsistencies.1 That a significant part of the game is textual, and that what is significant within the game occurs textually, seems important. When you pair the formulaic visuals with a rich2 imagined space, I think you get tugged in two directions. You’re anxious because of textually presented decisions, and yet you keep scrolling through the same-old-same-old. Even though there are terrible things happening in the world, the formula for game-play presented in the visuals never seems to reflect the anxious sense you get from the textual decisions, and so their weight never seems to be fully evidenced in the game play. It gives me a rainy-day feeling that literature usually lacks. “All these things need to get done!”, even as the years slip forward.

PS. I don’t believe in spoilers.