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

coal-mining, a diary entry

… When they called you crybaby
or poor or fatty or crazy
and made you into an alien,
you drank their acid
and concealed it…
Your courage was a small coal
that you kept swallowing…

– from “Courage,” by Anne Sexton

I’ve been wanting to write something about those last two lines, ‘courage as a coal you kept swallowing,’ for so long that I forget precisely what the content was meant to be. Now I find myself thinking about middleschool, and being told by others that I was a lesbian, and how I took it and said, “Yep.” Not because I really thought it was true, but because I thought if you owned what other people tried to shove on you, they’d never own you. I had a similarly wrong-headed approach to good intentions, where I would lie about what I did and why I did it, saying I did bad things, so that my good intentions remained good, instead of self-promotion, let me tell you just how good I am, ma’am. But it was a relief to be a lesbian. The reason they called me it was because I was deficient in some womanly sense — meaning that no boys thought I was hot — but calling myself a lesbian was a right-back-‘atcha, I-don’t-like-you-either-move. I wore anything that made me look unisex for the majority of school.1 Funnily, frivolously, a big part of growing-up in college involved me realizing that if I thought something was beautiful, that was enough of a reason to wear it. It would not somehow ‘clash’ with me. This is how I came out as a straight woman. For a few years, though, every time I put on a scarf or a cardigan or a skirt, I was waiting to be ripped to shreds.2

I decided not to go forward with philosophy, and when I recount that decision in the most authentic-feeling way, I say that it’s because I could not write the damn papers without clawing them out at the last minute.3 You feel nude when you say “Moran’s account of self-knowledge lacks the right kind of error,” and I felt nude when I bought my first big red scarf and wore it over my same-old grubby clothes. Now I wear big honking boots and primary colors and give no fucks, but I still feel that former nudity, when making claims, and I wonder about whether or not this is a womanly thing, too.

Most of the women in my graduate program apologize before they speak, on any very public occasion. Most of the young men do not.4 Usually the apologies take the form of good scholarship: “Apologies if I misunderstood, but…” acknowledges that you are responsible for understanding the material, even if you failed to live up to it. Sometimes I wonder how much the apology is a way to consolidate even insults, particularly if the same point is phrased like, “I’m sorry if this is stupid, or a waste of time, but…” The point being that if others say that it is stupid or that it is a waste of time, you knew it, you said it first, at the very least they’re confirming some part of what you said as true. It might even be courageous, to admit that you’re fallible openly … yet it seems more courageous to speak without qualification. And though so many young men do, sometimes you wonder if speech involves any courage, or is it just normal, does it take more out of some people to go without a word on the matter. Sometimes I wonder if difficulty is any sort of a guide for normativity: if it’s hard to speak, speak more; if it’s hard to sit quietly, count your pencils. Which is the coal to keep swallowing?

My idea of a writer: someone interested in everything.
Susan Sontag

Sometimes I wonder if choosing not to go forward with philosophy is a choice not to commit, on more than one level. I fantasized immediately after the decision about all the things I’ll read and see – and felt weightless, for the first time in years. At some point, I became afraid to read things. Not because of any difficulty in comprehension, rather the dangers of comprehension: I’d realize that some of the deepest beliefs I have, about goodness and how to conduct oneself, would turn out silly, misguided, unfounded. I did my work on practical reasoning, agency, and general methodological concerns. I’m a pretty good reader. And I always loved that philosophy, unlike everything else, seemed so demanding of every reader. Neutrality in the face of an argument was impossible. Either it followed, or it didn’t, and you ought to say something about why. When I decided not to continue with philosophy, I felt that some philosophical responsibilities, like eventually owning up to certain terrifying arguments in my field, had been lifted. I was just a conceited woman in a scarf again. That’s a kind of fear of commitment. But I was also afraid of only doing this work for a long time. Now that I am just a conceited woman in a scarf again, I wonder if I gave up the good work of a lifetime to half-ass it all. I suspect what Sexton meant by the coal is the temptation to buck duty. I can’t tell if it’s harder to keep going or stop going; I can’t tell if difficulty tells you anything about what you ought to do.

Charles Peirce wrote in “The Fixation of Belief” that doubt was difficult, whereas dogmatism was not. For a few years, now, I’ve been in that in between place, and I’ve wondered about how difficult doubt really is. (I wrote about it once.) The easy reply is that when doubt is easy you’re not actually doubting anything. This seems to be the difficulty in speaking and writing. If it’s too easy not to write something in the name of full consideration, maybe you’re not really considering it; if it’s too easy to commit yourself to something, maybe you’re simply avoiding real consideration. There’s a part of me that thinks that difficulty ought to be the guide here, but I’m not sure why, or how one can tell.

I’m still reading those big bad articles, by the by. I’m still scared. But now, it feels less like I’m letting the team down if, in the end, I agree that many moral claims aren’t true, don’t make sense, have no basis, or if I say that some piece of philosophy is not important, I cave to the skeptics. There were things that I thought someone ought to believe, and ain’t I someone? Now I feel like I owe only a different kind of ought. That’s difficult, too. I find myself more worried about living well than I was when I expected to go forward. I find myself thinking about how committed I am at every moment, what I eat, what I do, how I interact with entertainment, how I help others, what I say to my parents on the phone. I want to try to write about them. That’s difficult … and good. Wish there was a bigger bang here. Just wanted to write that I am thinking about writing.

a jot about the banner saga

bannersaga4

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.

SPOILERS: THIS GAME CONTAINS A BANNER

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.

bannersaga2

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.

bannersaga3

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.

shame

I bit into a pancake with chocolate and bananas while debating a friend-of-friend’s opinion about the harmfulness of Kim Kardashian’s ass, blushing, because I feel like when I talk about Kanye, or eat too much in public, I am catching all kinds of side-eyes for being double-chinned and frivolous. But many hours too late, I suddenly feel that much more frivolous, for talking big about how little I like Jay-Z, how Beyoncé is cleverly, conservatively catering to the 51% — over breakfast on the day after the Darren Wilson’s trial, about issues of race and public eye, my life going on as usual, a lot of terrible things going on as usual.

manifesto + explanation + self-promise

I’ve recently decided to leave academic philosophy, and one of my first thoughts, after the decision had been cemented, regarded starting a blog.1 Rather: I wanted to write. Rather: I wanted to write about some things I cared about, in a way that would self-satisfy, even if it didn’t match the ordinary polish of academic work. Some of these things are articulations of old boozy arguments I had with good friends, and some of them are things that I wanted to say to facebook ranters, but I lacked the patience and courage for the inevitable tidal reply.

Mostly, I wanted to write about the things I listened to, the games I played, and the thoughts I had while scrolling tumblr. I wanted to put content to those thoughts, and see if they might be justified.

See, I’m an utter failure at Boston salon parties.2 Whenever someone tries to make a point thoroughly, I find myself losing all interest in the monologue and wishing instead that they’d just spit out their bibliography so I could read the book that they are quoting, because they are quoting, and too often I feel like interlocutors think they’ve secured some SmartPoints™, some originality, because they conceal their sources. Books must be taken seriously, but they can also be set aside, and disagreed with thoroughly.3 In conversation, the theatre of personality seems to always carry the day. But I like to chat, and I am a big personality, and I love when conversation consists in honest hunches. That’s all I ever seem to give, and that’s part of why I’m a failure among big-word talkers — I am suspicious of anything longer than a paragraph, and dislike answering questions when I don’t think the medium is suited to it, so I only cut in with a bit of boozy humor or sass.

But I might also be a coward.4

What I’ve mentioned, so far, has just sounded like academic after-hours. But that’s not really what I’d like to write about here. I’d like to write about a good thought, a good worry, with uncowardly thoroughness. I get these good worries more often from albums you’ve heard of and games you’ve already beaten.

Ergo ‘Hits.’ Hit songs are so cool that it’s uncool to care about them. Getting hit hurts. I’ve found most of my mental life involves being struck by pop culture in a way that leaves me uneasy, and here, I’d like to settle some of that.