18 July 2006

The Mystery of Ben Folds and Dave Matthews

I don't know much gospel, but I would like officially to sing hallelujah. Thanks to the advice of people on this very blog, I was able to get my iPod working.

Watson's back!

And it was all because of the "slam your iPod on the desk" technique (please see comments on this post for more info). Screw Apple tech support and the policy that says, "You only get one free call to us and then we charge you for advice that won't help anyway." Seriously, guys. Apple may like our money, but it hates us all the same. I get better customer service at the DMV. (Thank, Mr. Pritchard! I got my new license in the mail, just like you said.)

Anyway, when I got Watson back to life, the first thing I did was celebrate with a dance party in my room. As I was working up a sweat, I was aware that not everyone in the world agrees with me that Cher and Christina Aguilera are the perfect soundtrack to shaking one's booty. But that's their prerogative. I mean, I feel bad for them, but not everyone can understand the genius of the "Believe"/"Genie in a Bottle" two-pack.

And this got me thinking... what popular music do I not understand?

There are two answers to that question: Dave Matthews Band and Ben Folds (with or without the Five).

I know that people flip for both, but each act has always struck me as belabored and boring. Their music sounds like all thinking and no feeling. Even in the live performances I've heard and/or seen, I cannot detect a trace of spontaneity, yet neither act is willing to embrace their calculation. Madonna doesn't seem spontaneous either, but her work highlights her theatricality. BFF and DMB have the stilted creak of artists who try too hard to seem like they're just tossing off some chords.

Not that each has the same turgidity. Dave Matthews groans under the weight of jam-band boasting, whereas Ben Folds sounds bloated because he's trying to prove how exceptionally clever he can be.

Case in point: a few years a go, I saw a concert that featured Rufus Wainwright, Guster, and Folds. (It could have been called the Self-Seriousness Revue, but that's another post...) I was mostly there for Rufus, but I figured Folds would do me right, too. (I knew Guster was going to be adolescent whining and generic guitar riffs. I was right).

But I noticed that I could not keep my mind on a single Folds song. I'd get into his energetic piano playing or maybe a catchy chorus, but I'd always drift off. Finally I realized I couldn't stay engaged because he never gets to the point. His lyrics are a maze of complicated metahpors, and the melodies are so free-form that there's rarely anything to latch onto. His songs are smart, I guess, but their intelligence is cold. There's no easy pleasure to be gained from listening to his dense production. His convoluted lyrics deny the mindless sing-along.

Not that songs need to be stupid. Sometimes, however, they need to be fun. That's what pop music is. Even when a pop song is upsetting, there's something pleasing about hearing real emotions captured in a four minute vessel. Life feels more manageable because for at least one track, someone else can feel your feelings for you. But for a song to produce that pleasure, it needs to be accessible on a level that doesn't require intellectual investment.

And there are plenty of artists who are just as smart as Folds who also manage to write an easy hook now again. Death Cab For Cutie has "Sound of Settling." Tori Amos has "God." Still intelligent. Still interesting. But also simple enough to reach the gut.

I'd say this problem also applies to Dave Matthews, though his over-work is geared less toward proving he's smart than that he's cool. All those show-offy, playing-seven-
chords-with-one-hand tricks. The sly little references to vaginas in radio singles like "Crash." Dave Matthews is like your older brother's best friend who can't walk out of your driveway without jumping up to grab the rim of your basketball hoop. He doesn't stop the conversation he's having, of course, because he wants it to seem effortless, but he always wants you to notice his jump shot.

And Dave's been jumping for the same basket for years. Really, what difference is there between "Ants Marching" and "So Much to Say" and whatever that last single was? Same horns and stuttering rhythm. Same sweat of effort. Same desire to seem hip. Not what I want on Watson, especially since he's just getting over an illness.

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At 3:00 PM, Anonymous Holtzwoman said...

I am aghast. I am shocked. I am spluttering. I am a huge Ben Folds fan (both with and without the Five).

I simply want to scream, "No! You're WRONG!" but that's not very productive commenting, now is it? All I can says that I fundamentally disagree with what you said about Ben's songs being all thinking and no feeling. What is "Song for the Dumped" other than raw anger shrouded in humor? On the whole, it seems to me that his lyrics are pretty confessional--even in songs about "characters" such as Fred Jones, it's clear that Ben is the one trying to deal with getting older and the despair it can engender (aging is a biiiiiig issue for Ben, it seems). I could go on for hours and hours citing other examples, but suffice it to say that I just don't get that you don't get it.

Your statement "life feels more manageable because for at least one track, someone else can feel you feelings for you" unsettles me as well. What I connect to so intensely in Ben's music is his provocation of intense feeling in me, not for me. (Does that make sense? Am I speaking English?) I find some of his songs to be extremely cathartic--I have put on "Annie Waits" before when I need to get a good cry out, and it's done the trick.

Also, please believe that Andrew Kearns and I can prove you wrong on the inability to sing mindlessly along with Ben Folds. Ryan can attest to this, I'm sure.

At any rate, as I said before, I could continue inarticulately blabbering about why I disagree, but I'm going to stop myself now. Whew. I'm tired now.

At 7:07 AM, Anonymous katy said...

I'm no rabid BFF or DMB fan, although I'll admit to a soft spot for particular tracks of both.

I have also come to terms with the fact that there are certain iconic bands of the 1990s that never seem to light your fire: Dave Matthews, U2, REM, Phish, etc, etc. I am always going to love U2 and REM more than you. You don't like the frat boys. I get it.

But I do want to suggest that your criticism of BFF is much of how I feel about so many of the Forlorn Girl Folkies you love so much. All head, no emotional accessibility (despite, of course, perfunctory emotional exhibitionism), taking themselves deathly seriously. The difference is (in my view) that their lyrics are often more earnest and pretentious than intelligent.

Pretty-girl folkies, you're awfully easy on them. Frat-boy rockers, I'm indulgent. Go ahead and make of that what you will, therapists of the world ...

At 8:24 AM, Blogger Mark Blankenship said...

In my own defense, I would like to mention that I love R.E.M. through "Up" and U2 through "Achtung Baby." Also, I have a total soft spot for Fall Out Boy, and I like Green Day all the time.

And there are quite a few folkie women I don't care for.

So while I do tend to give the ladies a bit of a pass, they don't get off scot free. And I do make room for the gents every now and then.

That said, I would definitely see a Lilith Fair revival before going to... oh... the Warped Tour?

At 9:37 AM, Anonymous Bob B said...

(I know this article is almost ten years old, but I think it's worthwhile to comment anyway.) Dave Matthews has incredibly complex music, but I do agree with the jam-band aspect. I saw Dave live once and never will again, but I still love his music. As for Ben, I couldn't disagree more. His music and lyrics have a ton of heart, and if you think his live shows show no spontaneity, then I think you might've let your attention wander a bit too much. I've never seen a live show that was a much fun or off-the-cuff as Ben's are. I feel bad because I think you're missing out on some amazing music, but I felt I should comment to provide a counter argument in case anyone reading this is predisposed to dislike either of these acts; do yourself a favor and give them a fair shot. You won't regret it!


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