clap clap blog: we have moved

Thursday, June 19, 2003
wiping a bit more horseflesh off my toe...
The PF mailbag is good today--one says a lot of what I said, but shorter. (Shorter than me? Never!) There's also a letter about Isaiah Violante's Bill Hicks review, which is nice, because I've wanted to bitch about it for a while. This is the same Isiah Violante who started off a review with a straight-faced Marshall McLuhan quote ("Oh was HE the one that said 'the medium is the message'? I had no idea!") and gives off the general air of being a little bit too proud of being in college and reading books about "politics." The Hicks review is a classic of repeating questionable, knee-jerk lefty rhetoric and sneering at anyone thinking otherwise, coming off like a less articulate Bill O'Reilly (a horrible thing to say about someone, I knew, but check the review and try and tell me otherwise), and generally taking Hicks way too seriously--he lionizes him in a way that I suspect Hicks would find embarrassing, and he takes his proclamations (or, as they're sometimes called, "jokes") as statements of unvarnished truth, which they're not. Hicks didn't even intend them that way, I think. Anyway, how does Violante respond to the letter? Did you say "snottily?" Here's hoping.

Anyway, I mainly wanted to talk here about the Fountains of Wayne review, mentioned a bit in comments below. The Pitchfork review likes it, mostly, although you can pretty clearly sense their repulsion at the popiness of it all. There's lots of backhand slams in there ("disposable," "its obviously short shelf-life," etc.) but the one outright complaint made is more or less here:

Still, Fountains of Wayne are guilty of taking themselves a bit too seriously here, or at least trying to prove their legitimacy, when they should be goofing around.

It seems strange to complain about Fountains of Wayne goofing around, and not a little insulting--"you guys look dumb when you try to be serious, so stick to the yuks, please." It's a problem a lot of "funny" bands face, it seems, when they try and write...well, not even "serious," but just "normal" songs, since jokes are supposed to be excluded from your typical music-product. But it's not like FoW are, I dunno, Atom And His Package or the Dead Milkmen or something (both of which, by the way, I dearly love)--there's so much care put into the music that it's tough to dismiss them as a novelty act (although, again, I love novelty acts, and I think the boys are a novelty act in many ways, but the "serious = good" crowd would have a hard time making that stick with their criteria).

For me, at least, the thing about Fountains of Wayne's humor is that it's not the point of the point of the song so much as one more hook among many--in "Hackensack," for instance, the line "I saw you talking to Christopher Walken" pulls you into the song and serves as the setup for the sadness in the second verse, or the poignancy of the chorus--or a pointer to the gorgeous melody and vocal harmonies. Does this fall into the serious = good formation? Maybe. But while this joke-as-hook scenario is the case in some songs, like all other hooks they eventually fade into the background and lose the "wow!" of their initial impact, but they rarely cease being pleasurable. And in some songs the humor is definitely the point, and it makes the songs far more interesting and complex than a "serious" approach would have--"Stacy's Mom," say, or "Bright Future in Sales" (the latter of which sounds to me like the closest a U.S. band has gotten to Blur's slice-of-life songs like "Stereotypes" or "Parklife" or "Yuko and Hiro"). And in some songs the humor is more in the approach, and again, this makes them far more interesting and rich, like in "Hey Julie" (the opening line of "Working all day for a mean little man / with a clip-on tie and a rub-on tan" isn't strictly laugh-out-loud funny, but it draws the perspective of the narrator very sharply).

The point is that to complain about the seriousness is meaningless, because the comedy exists side-by-side with the very serious approach they take to their music--this album defines "pop songcraft" to my ears--and, after a while, the "serious" and "funny" lyrics all fade together into one big pop-music melting pot. And, more importantly, I wish more songwriters and critics could realize this (the aversion of the overwhelmingly male rock-crit establishment to anything "cute" is a continual sore spot with me) because it would really open up music to a lot more kinds of expression, and would make it less mopey in general, and I hope we can all see the value in that after a decade of modern rock radio. Ideally it would even make music more constructively political--but that's a subject for another time.