SEPTEMBER 6, 2004
Johnny Mercer, one of the master artisans of pre-rock popular music, was driving with some friends to the Newport Jazz Festival one summer in the early 1960s when a Chuck Berry song came on the radio. Mercer listened closely and grinned, as one of his car mates, the film-maker Jean Bach, recalls. Soon he was singing along, beaming. Mercer leaned his face into the rushing air and slapped out the beat of the song on the side of the car that Bach's husband had rented for the weekend--a big red convertible, ideally suited to the moment. Bach isn't certain what record was playing, but she recalls it as something in the vein of "School Days" ("Hail, hail, rock and roll!") or "No Particular Place to Go," the latter of which was a top-ten hit in the summer of 1964. Nor does she know what Mercer was thinking as he rocked and rolled up Interstate 95, although she remembers the occasion as "a picture of freedom."
While the author of "Autumn Leaves" and "The Days of Wine and Roses" found momentary liberation in Berry's freewheeling odes to teendom, the rising generation of young people had taken up rock around the clock because the music seemed anathema to everything that Johnny Mercer and his milieu represented-- refinement, maturity, professionalism. Berry, like Mercer, made his reputation as a lyricist, the words of his breakthrough songs being the active ingredient that turned rhythm and blues into rock and roll. Berry gave kids a music about their world (or dominant elements of it as imagined by a man in his mid- thirties), a hostel from adult society and its serious goings-on, a quotidian limbo ordered by the routines of attending school and killing time. "Up in the mornin' and out to school," he sang (in "School Days"), or (in "Too Much Monkey Business") "Same thing every day, gettin' up, goin' to school/No need for me to complain, my objection's over-ruled," or (in "No Particular Place to Go") "Cruisin' and playin' the radio with no particular place to go."
Much of the musical genre that Berry wrought--that is, the sounds on car radios for five decades now--has retained that absorption with the common rituals of everyday life among those living (literally or otherwise) outside the grown-up sphere. It was there in the beach music of the 1960s, reaching an early peak with Brian Wilson's myopic "In My Room." It permeated the Beatles' youthful songs about writing letters and holding hands. It waned with the rise of inflated styles such as psychedelia, heavy metal, and art rock, but returned with the punk of the Ramones, who brought American pop back to high school, and with the New Wave of Talking Heads, with all those songs about buildings and food. There were strains of it in grunge and alt-rock, which are descendants of punk and New Wave and deal in large part with the internal minutiae of dysfunction. (Hip-hop has little interest in the ordinary or in smallness of any kind, and revels in grandiosity and ostentation.)
Now pop prosaism has reached full bloom with the work of a school of young (and youngish) singer-songwriters whose aesthetic is based upon having no particular place to go and nothing in particular to say. This is a phenomenon as yet unmeasured, as far as I know. Billboard has not yet introduced a tedium chart, despite the success of practitioners of the discipline such as John Mayer and Aimee Mann (and sometimes Dave Matthews). I have heard a few dozen albums of this sort--collections of simple, modest tunes centered on workaday events and small moments. Many come from singer-songwriters with cultish followings, such as Sam Beam (a multi-instrumentalist who records under the name Iron and Wine), Mark Oliver Everett (another multi-tracker, who records as Eels), F.M. Cornog (who uses the name East River Pipe), and Mark Linkous (who, along with other musicians, plays various instruments to record as Sparklehorse). I have also seen at least twice as many lesser-known performers of their ilk in the clubs of Manhattan's Lower East Side over the past couple of years. The numbers amassing on this tiny, bleak piece of musical terrain are overtaxing its limited resources.
One evening this summer, I went to the Living Room on Ludlow Street to hear Jill Sobule (who is quite another story, as I will explain shortly) and saw four acts before she came on. Three were essentially interchangeable singer- songwriters, two women and one man. The first murmured songs that seemed to be about students hanging out in student hangouts such as the Living Room and the cafs surrounding it--hearing the songs, one feels as if one were in them, an effect that is flattering and interestingly referential, but ultimately depressing. The second artist, who crooned with an ambiguous Eastern European accent but spoke like my cousins in New Jersey, did similar-sounding tunes (meaning numbers that sounded like their predecessors as well as one another) that were also about social inertia; one song described not wanting to talk to a stranger in a park who was reading a magazine and may or may not have wanted to talk to anyone anyway. (That is a paraphrase, but close to the actual lyrics. ) The third had more of a country-and-western approach, but still sang meandering story-songs with little in the way of stories to tell; her hallmark was to do so in a monotone that had a twang.
The name of the club notwithstanding, this is hardly living-room music. Deeply solitary in point of view and mode, it feels inappropriate to a setting even nominally social. Its home--its universe--is the dorm room. The thoughts in the lyrics often seem like just that: thoughts, rather than language filtered, selected, and organized for public consumption. They are things most of us would say aloud only if no one could hear us. As Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse sings in his tune "Pig":
I wanna try and fly
I wanna try and die
I wanna be a pig
I wanna fuck a car
I wanna new face right now
And I want it bad
I wanna new body that's strong
I'm a butchered cow
Like Sam Beam, Linkous often sounds all alone on his CDs, occasionally singing in a hush so soft that the microphone barely picks up his voice. (The credits to the Iron and Wine CDs note, "Recorded, produced and written by Sam Beam. Recorded at Sam's house in Miami, Florida." Much the same, F.M. Cornog has recorded the bulk of his output in his apartment in Astoria, Queens.) Of course, every modern (or modernist) songwriter is engaged in personal expression, and the sentiments of most popular songs have always been intimate. But Everett, Beam, and their peers are doing something that transcends selfexpression--or, rather, that precedes it. The sounds they make, just barely, are the closest thing to not expressing themselves at all and keeping everything inside.
The obvious corollary to this genre is Internet communication. In the work's formless, unmediated presentation of highly personal yet largely generic trivia, it is musical blogging. The lyrics tend to be heavily laden with detail: descriptions of lovers (usually lost), friends, parents, siblings, passersby, neighbors, pets. We follow the songwriters as they walk or drive around, absorbing the scenery with them. Just as often, we sit or lie with them as they imagine things never done. As Mark Oliver Everett sings in "Fucker":
Could go to a party
But I don't really want to
For now I'm sitting out here on my porch
Writing in the dark air
Listening to my little black cat meow
In a set at the C Note on Avenue C in Manhattan early this year, a singer- songwriter used nearly half of his allocated twenty minutes on stage to do one song about how the audience looked from the stage the last time he was there. I wrote some phrases from the lyrics in my notes: "spotlight glaring like the sun, " "clang of plates and glasses," "faces looking back at me." Below them I wrote, "What am I doing?" I had begun to feel that I was giving the song more thought than the composer had.
Owing to its randomness and its excess, the ostensible richness of specificity in such music, like the yammering in a blog, is impoverishing. The indiscriminate details in songs like John Mayer's, with their couplets about standing in line at CVS, ordering take-out food, or sitting around watching CNN, fail to illuminate; they obscure. By telling us everything he sees and does, no matter how banal, the songwriter reveals nothing of himself (or herself, in the case of Mann) and the world he mutters about. There is a real-time quality to this work: instead of compressing experience, it simply reiterates it. It denies the distinction between experience and art. No music could be more appropriate to the wired culture of e-mail and cell phones, wherein every moment appears to warrant recording, one way or another.
When Bob Dylan released his song "Positively 4th Street" as a single in the mid-1960s, the venomous assault on an unnamed friend or lover (likely a stand- in for the folk purists who had accused Dylan of apostasy for shifting to rock and roll) seemed as liberating in its way as "School Days" had been. "You've got a lot of nerve," Dylan snarled, "to say you are my friend." Joni Mitchell would recall hearing the record for the first time and thinking, "Oh--now we can write about anything!" Of course, composers working prior to and outside of rock (in art song, musical theater, the blues, and many of the world's folk musics) had long exercised that license. Dylan still stretched his listeners' ears. He seemed to break apart the frame of rock songwriting in music that is surely the model for most of today's singer-songwriters.
Unfortunately, Dylan's breadth exerts no more appreciable influence than his prolificity. Liam Clancy, the Irish folksinger, once told his young Greenwich Village compatriot, "Bobby, you have a great gift. Those wonderful words just flow out of you. But do there have to be so many of them? All those verses!" Dylan's young descendants--songwriters such as Mayer, Everett, and Linkous, as well as Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom, Adem (just Adem), and others, are writing not just about anything, but about everything. As such, they tend to communicate nothing except self-absorption.
I have to wonder if that isn't the point, to some degree, for at least a few of them. These are not artists without talent or intelligence. To the contrary, Sam Beam and Mark Linkous in particular are skillful musicians, each with a knack for evoking mood, and their lyrics have moments of subtle potency. ("We found your name across the chapel door/ carved in cursive with a table fork/ muddy hymnals and some boot marks where you'd been," sings Beam in Iron and Wine's "Muddy Hymnal.") Why would they and so many of their contemporaries devote themselves so zealously to mundanity if not out of some kind of shared conviction? The incessant sameness and vacancy of their music certainly mirrors the environment in which today's young people grew up, a landscape of chain outlets and theme restaurants scrolling over and over like the background in a Hanna-Barbera cartoon. Perhaps they mean their prosaic, soundalike songs to reflect their world and at the same time to protest it, as if to say, "Look at all the nothingness everywhere, and listen to what it has made of us."
Jill Sobule, a thirty-eight-year-old singer and songwriter who has released five albums on nearly as many labels since 1990, seems to be working in the same genre of prolix vapidity, but she is not. She writes songs fixed on the domestic realm, and she sings them in a pretty, girlish voice. In her hands, however, neither the material nor its execution is as simple as it first seems. Sobule is a deft ironist. She is smart and original, a treasure undervalued by inevitable association with countless lessers who also happen to be singing about going to the laundromat in Brooklyn.
Once a teenage rocker who sang and played lead guitar in bands in her native Denver, Sobule was signed to MCA Records when she was twenty-three and tossed into the mitts of Todd Rundgren, who produced her first album as if it were his own (and not hers), applying thick coats of his pop gloss onto Sobule's earnest youthful tunes. The record (Things Here Are Different) failed to justify the cost of Rundgren's misplaced excesses, and Sobule was dropped from the label. Five years later, she made the first CD of her creative maturity, an eponymous album of sharp, wry songs about life on the fringes. One of the tracks, "Supermodel," a punkish trifle that toyed with the clich of impossible dreams, made it onto the Clueless soundtrack, and another, "I Kissed a Girl," a rocker about a fling with another woman, became a hit single. The latter was a breakthrough in pop history and a source of great pride to Sobule, although it ended up pigeonholing her as a lesbian artist. "I've been with women, and I've been with men," Sobule has said, "and they both suck, actually." (The biography on Sobule's website recounts her early life with her parents, the "Flying Sobules" circus troupe; her duty in a Marine Corps special forces unit in Vietnam; and other fanciful imaginings instead of factual data.)
Four years ago, Sobule released a wonderful little album, Pink Pearl, which, like all her music after the Rundgren project, has deserved more attention. A pearl indeed, it uses to its advantage everything that undermines the music of her peers. It is full of very small moments--watching a woman working out at the gym, downing grits at a roadhouse in the South, making weekly visits to an old-lady friend--but they are discerningly selected, vividly observed, and ripe with multiple meanings. Musically, it is quite simple--melodies of a narrow range set against a few chords played by a small band or Sobule alone on acoustic guitar--yet it is tuneful, clever, and pithy. And it expresses its share of impassivity--one song, "One of These Days," is a dance tune for people too lazy to get up--but never romanticizes it. The record also has a couple of attributes lacking in a great deal of contemporary music of every style: it is fun and it is dark, frequently at the same time. In "Guy Who Doesn't Get It," for instance, Sobule sings:
Say I'm in the tub with a razor blade
You'd walk in and ask me, "How was your day?"
Then you'd lather up and start to shave
As I bleed on the new tile floor
Sobule's new CD, Underdog Victorious, refers to a childhood friend who is the subject of the title song, to the TV cartoon hero voiced by Wally Cox, and, obliquely and most ironically, to Sobule herself. It is of a piece with Pink Pearl-- a lovely, charming, and often disturbing album. The mood is a bit grayer and bittersweet; one song, "Tel Aviv," tells of a woman hijacked to the Middle East for sex; another, "Last Line," stunningly interlaces the desperation of clinging lovers with their craving for cocaine. The highlight, "Strawberry Gloss," likewise recalls the summer of a young girl's coming-of-age as a time of entwined exhilaration, bafflement, and terror.
In the set she did at the Living Room this summer, Sobule mentioned that she had just returned from serving as the opening act for Don Henley. She had been booed by his audience in Atlanta, she said, because she had been wearing a T- shirt that read, "My bush would make a better president!" (Sobule now offers shirts like it for sale on her website.) She is not crude, as a rule; in fact, she generally comes across as sweetly demure, both on her recordings and on stage. She is impish, though, and no longer seems to give a hoot about public approval. She appears to have given up on mainstream success. This, no doubt, is a source of her work's power--it is devoid of affectation and careerism--and the reason she may well remain deserving of more attention for some time.