Disruptive Juxtaposition

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Post-postmodernism Sightings #46 & 47

The numbering system is arbitrary.

Today's entry comes in the form of a fifth-grade science fair project.

Thesis: the differences between Postmodernity and Post-postmodernity (the New Sincerity, if you wish) may be illustrated by a comparison between the bands Clem Snide and Fountains of Wayne. Clem Snide is Post-postmodern (is Newly Sincere, if you wish), whereas Fountains of Wayne is Postmodern (is not Sincere).

Analysis (a): Fountains of Wayne are well-known users if not progenitors of the smart-aleck three-minute pop single. Their sonic antics predate the frat house anthem "Stacy's Mom" by almost ten years: "Leave the Biker" from their eponymous 1996 debut, for instance, swats back in a muttering fashion at a mean Hell's Angel. "Then the one guy leans over and says 'Looks like we got us a fag' / Wonder if that guy's read one word that wasn't in a porno mag." Clever? Sure. Arch, wry, fey? Yes, it is all of those things. Does it mean what it purports to mean? Here the matter becomes dicier. It *could*, but that's begging the question: the issue in lyrics like these isn't what they seem to say about bikers, geeks, bikers mocking geeks, or geeks getting tuneful revenge on the bikers. The song exists to wink at the listener *about itself*, that is to say, the song compliments the listener as well as itself on recognizing that there isn't a biker, there isn't (or wasn't) a confrontation in a bar - indeed there isn't an emotional reality underpinning the song at all. "This isn't serious," the song implies, and the song is right. More than that, the song in unspoken reference to itself as unserious calls attention to itself as an invented joke. This attention to the means of production, to the song as song and as a relic of artistic artifice, is the sort of self-aware meta-art that rings Marxists, Lit Crits, and Italo Calvino into the jubilant village square. That it uses the pop-culture, nothing's-as-cool-as-disdaining-everything 'tude with which MTV and VH1 nourish us is appeal added.

Now, few would argue that FOW's "Leave the Biker"-type songs - and they are legion - constitute the band's emotional efforts. FOW writes more than novelty songs; they are a crack pop unit whether racing through the verses to beat the 3:00 mark or slower balladesque attempts. Those latter songs, however, seal the deal with regard to FOW's aesthetic stance. At their saddest - and here I think of "Prom Theme" and "A Fine Day For A Parade" - the band remains distant from the emotion one must suspect runs below the surface. I've tried to refrain from using the loaded and misunderstood term "irony" to describe this phenomenon, but what the hell: FOW are poster-children of hipster irony-gone-mainstream. With these latter songs, centered on moments of fragile lives or fleeting joy, opportunities abound to engage the humanism implicit in the content; more often than not, the songs trade on these chances for the Only a few FOW songs lie outside the boundaries of this postmodern, this too-cool-for-school, indeed this ironic tambor which marks the majority of their canon. See "Fire Island" and especially "Troubled Times", which completely transcends the rest of the FOW oeuvre and earns, by virtue of its craft and its *meaning it*, a spot on my Top 100 Songs List (currently being compiled).

Analysis (b): Clem Snide, on the other hand, is predominantly authentic in their songs. Many of their earlier albums completely lack the smart-assishness implied by their name. First album "You Were A Diamond" featured "Nick Drake Tape," and second album "Your Favorite Music" had the rollicking, still-funny-today singalong "Messiah Complex Blues" - which features the prominent chorus "I wouldn't die for your sins." There are two points to make here. One. Songs rife with, dependent upon, or containing pop cultural references are rare in Clem Snide's early work. Two. Even those songs that do wink at some contemporary personage, that probably would sound jokey if pitched at a brainstorming session, do so in a completely affecting, emotionally engaged way. "Let's write a song about Bob Crane, who, in the words of Family Guy's Peter Griffin, 'had his head bashed after having rough sex'." "Sounds good!" It sounds nuts is what it sounds; it sounds like a stage-only freak-out improvisation, a bootleg good for a smirk.

Clem Snide's great value to contemporary music, however, is that they are able to write songs about pop culture's abundant funds of crap and come up not with crap but with something far better. Better than crap? Yes. "Made-For-TV Movie" from album number five "End of Love" is my current example. The song takes the narrator's domestic TV-watching setting, segues nicely to Lucille Ball's daffy persona and real-life pharmaceutical trouble, places them atop a spare acoustic guitar and a ghostly "la-la-la" melody, and comes up aces with a song that isn't really about Lucille Ball at all but has become, somehow and surprisingly, about the general existential condition (Jesus, I really wrote that) which informs your, my, Clem Snide's, and Lucille Ball's life. The humor that saves, the fortunes that fall, and et cetera. When Eef Barzelay sings "But good times never last / And the chocolates move too fast [little pause] for us all", I feel convicted in a belief that yes, this song has said something to me. This song about Lucille Ball, which could have traded on the infamous Lucy & Ethel in the chocolate factory scene, Lucy's cheeks squirrel-huge with filched bon-bons, for a snarky laugh, didn't. Instead it used that scene to transfer its artistic attentions - *using the very same pop cultural grist the Postmodern factory uses, but coming up with a very different, finer, and exceptional brand of grain* - to a clear and plaintive emotional statement. Clem Snide's catalogue teems with such accomplishments. As such, I mint them the Band Laureate of Post-postmodernity, which is a new but noble post that comes with no actual laurels nor heaps of respect but does net unlimited coupons for hugs (cash value 1/1000th of a cent) redeemable at most minor venues and dive bars.

Thesis, restated: I want to prove, and probably won't be able to do so in the space of this modest post, that this "completely affecting, emotionally engaged" form of production is not a subjective, wishy-washy pseudo-phenomenon but is, instead, an objective quality that can be identified by (in music) certain approaches to lyrics and instrumentation and (in poetry and fiction) certain syntax, vocabulary, and associational links. Subject matter, naturally, is wonderfully wide open; it is not a determining factor.

Note on vocabulary: "Emotion" as a defining term in theorizing Post-post and the New Sincerity is a wobbly but necessary prospect. It is difficult to qualify, but less quantify. I use it because, when I listen to a FOW song like "Prom Theme" versus a Clem Snide song like "Made-For-TV Movie", I get a distinct feeling of, yes, emotional resonance in the latter but not at all in the former.

Analysis (a) prime (1): Fountains of Wayne covered Britney Spears's "Baby One More Time". I submit that they did not mean it.

Analysis (b) prime (1): Clem Snide covered Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful." I argue that they mean it.

Analysis (b) prime (2): They also covered the Velvet Underground's "I'll Be Your Mirror" on "A Beautiful EP", and they meant the hell out of that one.

Further reading:

Music Review, "Out of State Plates," All Music Guide, by Stephen Thomas Erlewine

Further listening:

Fountains of Wayne, "Fountains of Wayne"
Fountains of Wayne, "Utopia Parkway"
Fountains of Wayne, "Welcome Interstate Managers"
Fountains of Wayne, "Out of State Plates"
Clem Snide, "You Were A Diamond"
Clem Snide, "Your Favorite Music"
Clem Snide, "End of Love"