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Monday, May 03, 2004
How much do I love Eamon's "Fuck It"? Let me count the ways.

1) It is the perfect song for 11 year olds. Because you (and by "you" here I'm going to mean an 11-year-old boy for a while) hear the edited version on the radio, and you know those edits are hiding something, and so someone in your class gets the unedited single, and it gets passed around like a secret prize, not because anyone would forbid it so much as because it seems kind of naughty. The point is not that you haven't heard these words before, since you have, many times over. The point is that they're still sort of new, and thus funnier; there is that tinge of the theoretically-forbidden-but-socially-acceptable that someone in my age group might get from, say, cocaine. (And remember, kids, it's a straight line from "shit" to cocaine!) Just as the idea of sexiness was at least somewhat familiar to me when I heard Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sex" at the age of 13 (if not, perhaps, European beefcakes of ambiguous sexuality, so kudos to you there, Richard and Fred Fairbrass), the fact that it was being spoken outright rather than alluded to was both significant and deeply hilarious. I'd wager that this song will have a lifelong place in the memories of the generation that's currently just hitting adolescence, because it's so blatant. And, of course, so catchy. This will pop up in their heads for years to come.

Tangentially, it seems odd that we're so eager to discount novelty songs when they so clearly seem like the first bits of "adult" pop that will likely grab kids' attention. Do we really not think this will deeply affect their musical sensibilities? Maybe I'm overstating this, but why not pull a Timelords and release a one-off novelty hit that conveys your sensibility to the littler kiddos? Maybe because novelty songs are actually kind of hard to pull off.

2) There's no swearing until the chorus. I love this. It's the lyrical equivalent of the grunge clich? of turning on the distortion for the chorus, and it totally works. All of a sudden it's louder, more noticeable, more driving. Given the generally processed, mechanical nature of the track, it feels like there's a Robot Eamon set on "genteel" and then his controller stomps on a pedal marked "SWEARING" when it gets to the chorus. I don't mean this metaphorically as a sort of evocation of what it feels like to me--I mean that I can actually picture this happening while I listen to the song. And it's this incongruity--that it's the same song, plus swears--that lends it a lot of its humor and power. You could easily have another song with these exact lyrics in the chorus and it would seem normal and boring, but here it really sounds weird, and in that way, actually a lot like breaking up.

3) It sounds like a parody of a slow jam that nevertheless works as a slow jam. All the signs are there: the sixteenth hat hits at the end of the bar, the deep bass, the strings, the backup singers, the honeyed voice. It is a slow jam, but man, it's not, because that chorus totally breaks face. Slow jams just aren't that outwardly unrestrained. The lyrics or performance can evidence an inner turmoil, but they miss "Fuck It"'s feeling of near-schizophrenia, lyrically. But at the same time: definitely a slow jam, and it can work on those terms. This is hard to pull off, the working parody, but when it does, it's absolutely delicious, because it's usually done by someone with no qualms about going directly for all the instant gratification buttons of the chosen genre.

4) There's absolutely no connect between the music and the lyrics in the chorus. The closest comparison this song has, I guess, would by Macy Gray's "I Try," in which the singer ends up going kind of crazy in an effort to mirror the emotion of the lyrics.[1] But here, not only does the performance stay fairly restrained, but the music holds back completely. Here the mechanized thing comes in again, because it sounds like it's just playing on and Eamon's fitting something perfectly to it that it was never intended for. The chorus here wouldn't sound out of place at all in an emo song, and it makes total sense to replace the prom theme backing with screaming guitars and feedback and driving bass. But it plays it cool, and in doing so, it splits the difference between the two genres, coming out with something that's either a country or a hard rock anthem. It's highly fist-pumpable, and that's slightly weird to find. But it genuinely gets you worked up in a way these songs usually don't; it doesn't make you feel cool or sad or romantic, it makes you feel pissed-off and strong. It makes you feel punk, motherfuckers, and if you can't see that, something's missing.

I love this song. I love this song so much that while riding the train downtown to record vocals this Saturday for songs about totalitarianism and the bankruptcy of bohemia, and while also listening to and enjoying indie stalwarts like the Geraldine Fibbers and Fiery Furnaces, I was seized with a nigh-irresistible urge to hear this song, and so I did something I haven't done for a long time: I got off the train one stop early, walked over to the Virgin Megastore in Times Square, and tried to buy the single. But, alas, they didn't have it.

To call the song Tourettic is both too easy and inaccurate; a literally Tourettic song would sound like The Locust with really loud swearing on top, and a figuratively Tourettic song would be, of course, Prince's "Kiss," all jerks and grooves and stop-starts. "Fuck It," on the other hand, is like a balm, Tourette's caged and tamed, the tics taken into account and sequenced and set to a beat. I love how this song treats swearing, putting it out front and not shying away from that, but pulling everything else in around it in a way that exists almost wholly to emphasize "fuck" and "shit."

Which brings us, of course, to Liz Phair.

It can be argued that, for a while, Liz was as defined by swearing, or at least obscenity, as Eamon is right now. People might want to argue otherwise, talking about her deft songwriting and her innovative production, but the fact is that in the early 90s I doubt you could think about Liz Phair without at least unconsciously thinking "blowjob queen" or "I want to fuck you til your dick turns blue." She introduced a new female archetype[2] to indie rock: as Kim Gordon was the Unapproachable Art Chick and Kim Deal was the Too Cool For School Stoner Girl, Liz's musical persona was undeniably the Slut With Issues, or SWI. This was hardly an original type; you can find SWIs, off the top of my head, in rock with Stevie Nicks, in folk with Marianne Faithful, and in country with lots of ladies, or at least lots of ladies' songs. Liz was the crazy girl who liked fuckin', and that was nice.

She created this by having a real grasp on obscenity as a musical tool, on the way swearing or dirty talk functions like a distortion pedal, as something to heighten and focus. In a droney song called "Flower," she could hide lines like "You're probably shy and introspective / That's not part of my objective / I just want your fresh, young jimmy / Turning, slamming, ramming in me" and make it revelatory, make the hidenness of it literal and thus reverse it. In its explicit (in both senses) explanation of the album's purpose, it reflected its sensibility onto everything else, and that same blatant obscenity, plain-spoken but exhibitionistic, made its way into even more under-stated songs.[3]

Which is why "Why Can't I" is such an interesting inversion of what we're used to from the Liz Phair Sex Formula. Theoretically, it should be a "Fuck It"-like use of obscenity when it hits before the second chorus, because there's no other swear word in the song except this one:

Here we are, we're at the beginning
We haven't fucked yet, but my head's spinning

It conforms to half of the above description of obscenity on "Guyville": it's certainly plain-spoken. The whole point of the song is that after you get out of a serious relationship, it's really wonderful to have this new opportunity to hook up with someone without any baggage, without any expectations or previous fights, and the tension is really pleasurable. What they're going to do is fuck; it's really the best word for it, and so she uses it.

But it's not exhibitionistic; it's just honest. The song itself portrays the same kind of adolescent emotion that "Flower" does, but in a very different way. She's not speaking hidden thoughts, she's talking about something that almost all of us have not only felt, but expressed openly, because there's no reason at this point not to. And for that reason, the "fuck" passes by as mere correct grammar, rather than provocation or titillation. It's there, but it's true, expressing a wider truth than perhaps "Flower" does. I wouldn't make an argument that one kind is better than the other, but they're both, like "Fuck It," primarily adolescent, and better for their blatant juvenilia than they would be otherwise.

People sometimes don't want to admit it, but pop music (and I'm talking Pop-III here, very broadly) is an teenage medium, made best by people who are stuck in or able to reasonably recreate an eternal adolescence. Even stuff trying to be "mature" only works when it's still from that sensibility or successfully appeals to it. (Political pop music falls into the latter category a lot these days, as does Christian pop.) It's all deeply immature. But that's OK. If adolescence is an invention of post-industrial society, and most signs point to this being the case, that doesn't necessarily imply that it's a bad invention, any more than it would about the computer.

I'm not saying that consumers of pop shouldn't also read Harper's and watch Kurosawa films. Far from it. And I'm also not saying that you can't make a remarkably mature song, like "Divorce Song," say, in that medium. But I am saying that you do have to either foreground or background it with immaturity for it to really work. If Eamon is emo, then emo is novelty, and if Liz Phair is mature, then Avril is mature, and I think all or none of these things may be true. But, as usual, the connections are closer than we might want to admit.

[1] Also arguably comparable would be "Cry Me a River," but there the music reflects about as much pissed off-ness as the lyrics and singing.
[2] Preemptory disclaimer: what I'm about to say is going to be kinda sexist and definitely wholly from a male perspective, but I also think it's pretty fair to represent the early 90s indie sensibility this way, especially as regards Liz Phair. I don't think this is a good thing necessarily.
[3] Which is not to discount the sublimeness of the other songs, whose awesome songcraft is what has sustained Liz beyond Right Said Fred or, most likely, Eamon. But I think it's undeniable that the obscenity served as a total hook. "Flower" isn't really good enough of a song for it to be otherwise.