DC Pierson makes a pep-rally mixtape for lonely pop-culture obsessives

DC Pierson makes a pep-rally mixtape for lonely pop-culture obsessives

In I Made You A Mixtape, we ask our favorite musicians, actors, writers, directors, or whatevers to strut their musical savvy: We pick a theme, they make us a mix.

The mixer: DC Pierson is a stand-up comedian, a member of Derrick Comedy, an actor, the writer and co-star of the comedy Mystery Team, and the Alex Award-winning author of The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep And Never Had To. He’s also a longtime A.V. Club fan. And to judge from his epic mixtape on the theme of “imagination vs. reality,” he’s also a struggling but determined optimist with a strong positive message for awkward, isolated pop-culture fans. To commemorate the release of his second novel, Crap Kingdom—the story of a teenager who becomes the Chosen One of another dimension, but rejects it when he finds out it sucks, only to have his best friend usurp his position and find all the magic he missed in that other world—Pierson made us a mixtape that doubles as a call to action for pop-culture obsessives trying to find the balance between their interests and their actual lives.

Good Luck, “Novel Figure” (2011)
DC Pierson: One of the best songs ever about reading. [Laughs.] Very uptempo and exciting. If there are a lot of songs about reading out there, they don’t sound like this one. As far as the imagination-vs.-reality thing goes, this song is basically about someone in an attic, reading the same fantasy paperback over and over and comparing the adventures within to their own life, which is stalled out, and wondering either, “Could I turn my life, either through perspective or through actually changing things about it, into the kind of life that would be worth writing about, or worth somebody reading?” I think a lot of the songs on this list are a debate between imagination and reality, because there are a lot of songs that are either, “Ah man, reality bites”—peace, Ben Stiller—or just complete fantasy. The entire genres of country or rap—or really, most genres—are mostly founded on portraying fantasies.

In this song, it feels like a debate between going, “Am I a hero in the world, could I be a hero in the world? Or am I always just going to be a side character?” I do feel like almost everything we do in our lives, especially the big stuff, is kind of striving for hero-hood, or protagonist-ism. [Laughs.] Then this person is sort of going, “Am I just a side character? Is that okay if I am?” My feeling on the whole debate is that there isn’t really a hero vs. side character vs. villain narrative to reality. There’s just the one we impose upon it, because narratives typically make a lot more sense than reality does. That’s why I like this song. It’s the contrast between the idea of a person sitting in an attic and wondering, “Could I be a dude in a cloak on top of a mountain with a falcon and a sword?” That’s a little of the debate we’re always having with ourselves, even if it’s just like, “Hey, should I say something to this person that I like?” or, “Should I stand up for this co-worker of mine that my boss is being mean to?” Anything like that is sort of the same debate. 

The A.V. Club: As you assembled these, how literally were you thinking of your book, or its themes?

DCP: I was thinking in some cases very literally. This one is pretty literally transcribed. But then some of these songs are more about the general idea of the messages we love that we receive from the culture, or the way our expectations for our lives get encoded by media we love, and sometimes even media we don’t love. I think some of them, on a very one-to-one basis, are pretty related to the themes in the book, and then some of them are a little more general. 

AVC: You mentioned that this is the world’s most uptempo song about reading; it’s really fast and drummy. There’s a lot of diversity on this list, but quite a few are fast songs with intense drums. Is that music you’re drawn to?

DCP: It’s sort of a cliché for anyone who went to [a] liberal-arts college to say, “But I like a lot of different music.” [Laughs.] But also, I thought it was interesting how the theme I went looking for, all of these songs are songs I really liked already. I didn’t have to go very far outside of my iTunes to find songs that addressed this theme. But then as far as this particular tempo and style of music, I would define Good Luck as almost like a modern pop-punk band. Their CD’s not going to be in Hot Topic or anything, but they have really high-pitched vocals and a spastic, jumpy kind of pop-punk sound. I do think more than any other genre, pop-punk is preoccupied with the distance between narratives we get from movies and experiences in our own life, because a lot of pop-punk—even though I don’t think the people in Good Luck are 16 years old, I think they’re my age, 28 or older—a lot of times, when you’re writing pop-punk songs, you’re 16 and the only experience you’ve had with relationships is seeing them in movies and TV shows, and hearing about them in other people’s music. Then when you have your first experience, even if it’s bad, it’s not bad in the grand romantic way that things are bad in movies. It’s just sort of like [blows raspberry], and you’re like, “Wait, that’s totally different than John Hughes’ movies.” So that’s maybe why there are a couple things that fall into the pop-punkosphere on this list. 

Gin Blossoms, “Pieces Of The Night” (1992)
DCP: This song is concerned with the dreams you have about what you’re going to achieve romantically or artistically or professionally, or even in just a going-out-and-having-fun kind of way, and then how different things actually seem to turn out, and how far from your expectations at the outset. If I had to pick a line to sum up the themes I’m obsessed with: “You wanted to be where you are, but it looked much better from afar,” The guy seems to be describing being in a crowd and wanting to be onstage, and then getting to be onstage, or even just being in the back of the crowd at a show, and pushing your way forward to be closer to the singer and the action. You go, “Oh man, that’s probably amazing. It’s hard to hear back here, the acoustics are bad, but if I was up there, I’d be right in the center of the action.” So you push your way forward, and then it’s a little too loud, and maybe the angle is weirder than you thought, and you’re getting sweated on by the lead singer, and maybe you had a crush on him, but you don’t anymore now, because it’s gross. [Laughs.] So just the difference between what you thought it was going to be like when you wanted to be there, and what it’s like once you are there. 

The Gin Blossoms are from Tempe, Arizona, and I’m from Ahwatukee, Arizona, and both of them are satellites of Phoenix, so it’s essentially the same town. That might be considered blasphemy in some Arizona purist circles. [Laughs.] I would go with my dad to ASU games when I was 9 or 10 years old. That’s where you’re at your prime age of imagining what it’s going to be like when you’re older. So I would always be around there, seeing college kids and thinking about how great it was going to be when I went to college there in the ’90s. I didn’t end up going to school there. I went somewhere in New York, and in the late 2000s. So my college experience was very different than the one I sort of unwittingly programmed myself to expect. When I hear the Gin Blossoms, who are from the early- to mid-’90s in Tempe, I am brought back to this imagined alternate timeline for my life. It was great, but you have all of these alternate realities in mind for yourself that never actually happen. If you’re lucky, you get to write or do something to work them out of your system. Or maybe you just go to therapy, maybe that’s healthier. So that song also reminds me of this other imagined self that the reality turned out to be very different from. 

Girlfrendo, “First Kiss Feelings Vs. Everyday Sensations” (1998)
DCP: This song, going back to debates between imagination and reality, is like a literal debate between a squeaky-voiced girl being like, “I just want to have an endless succession of first kisses, and those first few milestones we go through in early relationships,” and this mature guy being like, “No! You should be in a relationship, with conversation. Isn’t it great?” I think a debate we all go through in our lives at some point—especially transitioning from your college years to mid-20s to your 30s—you go, “Wait, I don’t get to just go and have a bunch of random hookups anymore? That’s unhealthy and emotionally damaging and looked down upon? What? Are you kidding me?” And then transitioning into a more normal, monogamous relationship that your younger self would be like, “Ahhh, but that’s boring.” But then hopefully you figure out who the other person really is. Then instead of just being this endless succession of first kiss, first date, maybe first hookup, and then on to the next person, you get to craft this totally unique thing with this other person.

Every long-term relationship is its own animal. Whereas most successions of first kisses and first hookups and whatever, even though those can be very flush with really easy infatuatory emotions, are all the same. I think that’s scary to the girl in the song: “I just want a crush. I just want that over and over, because it’s really easy.” And it doesn’t really rely on the other person to be any great shakes; you just have to be cute, and maybe have a couple fun things to say, which most people do. [Laughs.] And then the other side of the coin is saying, “If you are actually with somebody worth talking to, and worth finding out who they are, you can find this whole unique, cool set of dinosaur bones underneath the dust that you only have time to brush away if you stick with it.” But the songwriters are siding more with the girl than the guy. I think he’s meant to sound pretty square and like, “We should all have very normal relationships.” 

AVC: He specifically calls it “an old style of affection.” When you have a pop song that’s a debate between fun and “old style,” you know whose side it’s on. 

DCP: Exactly. I love the song and what it’s trying to do. Also, I find myself siding more with the square dude, honestly. I’m like, “No, no, no, let’s give this guy, this young Republican, a fair hearing here.” 

AVC: Well, that’s a sign of our age. The girl comes across as in her early teens. The vocal inflections evoke a girl literally in pigtails, chewing on bubblegum. 

DCP: Totally, and those figures are more sympathized in pop music than some guy who sounds like he wants to sell you a vacuum. 

Karl Hendricks Trio, “Breathtaking First Novel” (1995)
DCP: A song I love from an album that I love. There are different interpretations, and this one may even be flat-out wrong, but as I see it, the singer is having a fantasy: “Man, when I write my breathtaking first novel, everyone’s going to love me, and everyone who’s ever rejected me is going to feel so bad, and it’s going to be awesome.” Then even before the first verse has ended, it’s curdled into him criticizing this still-theoretical novel. He hasn’t even sat down to write it yet, he probably doesn’t even know what it’s about, but after the first rush of, “And then everyone will be sorry that they ever rejected me,” he’s already, “But the final scene goes on too long.” He’s already finding flaws. I find that to be so sympathetic, because part of my experience of imagination vs. reality is that I have a really hard time daydreaming or fantasizing correctly. I end up fleshing things out too much, trying to make them too realistic, to the point where I sabotage the whole thing for myself. I have a hard time imagining, like, “Then I’m going to grow old with this person and it’s going to be great, and we’re going to be happy together forever.” It’s typically like, “Well, we’re going to be happy. Then when we’re both like 45, she’s going to leave me for a Long Island literature professor who wears a lot of sweaters.” I’m dispositionally negative, but also, you can’t help but think there’s going to be twists if you have a narrative outlook on things. I really like this guy, with his fantasy eroding underneath him. He’s like, “Yeah, but it’s not even going to be that good.” 

AVC: Which could just be an excuse to not actually sit down and write it, to put in the work. 

DCP: Exactly. 

AVC: That’s what happens in Crap Kingdom, with a boy embracing this colorful, bright fantasy that immediately goes sour from being too much like real life. Did your idea for the book come out of the way your own fantasies tend to collapse?

DCP: That’s definitely why I empathize with the main character of Crap Kingdom, Tom, even though I might not ultimately agree with some of the decisions he makes. I’ve gone through a number of those experiences in my life. If you are a very imaginative person, you can’t help but—when you’re looking forward to something—flesh out every single detail of it, like, “Oh, my ex-girlfriend’s going to come to town and we’re going to hang out, and it’s going to be perfect, and it’s going to resolve all the things we never talked about, and we’re going to have sex, and it’s going to be beautiful and great and perfect, and totally like a good Death Cab For Cutie song.” Then when it actually happens, it’s just again, like a [blows raspberry]. So I really try to reconcile that in my own life by going, “Well, maybe you’re free to imagine things and expect what you want, but maybe when they don’t reflect exactly what your imagination laid out for it, maybe you should just be happy with the thing that happened, instead of giving it a C- grade because it didn’t measure up to what your imagination established.” I think that’s a theme I am constantly struggling with, and that the main character is struggling with in the book. I have all of these expectations that I’ve been programmed with through loving books about dragons and stuff, and why isn’t my life like a book with dragons in it? Well, because dragons are fake. But just because dragons are fake and you still expect a dragon, doesn’t mean your life isn’t worthwhile, or an adventure in its own way. 

AVC: This has a ’90s new-wave sound, with muffled voices that sound like the singer stuffed the microphone into a sock, then walked away from it. I could barely make out any lyrics, and they aren’t online. Did you just puzzle them out yourself?

DCP: I have been listening to this album for a long time, although I’m sure if I went and did this song at karaoke—that would be a pretty weird karaoke night, but whatever. Like early-’90s Matador or Merge karaoke. Anyway, I would probably be shocked at how wrong I was, that there were lyrics in the song I had never heard. But I think most of it is from osmosis and from hearing it a lot, even though there’s definitely stuff in the song that I still don’t understand what he’s saying. Maybe if you actually do understand what he’s saying, it completely blows my interpretation, but that’s for me and Karl Hendricks to figure out. 

AVC: How important are lyrics to you in appreciating a song? 

DCP: I used to think it was a lot more important. [Laughs.] I used to be a total lyrics snob. But I still really do appreciate some things: If it’s a catchy tune, but also if it has some good lyrics, and some clever turns of phrase. I think there has been, for 10 or more years now in indie rock, this almost-manual that says, “If you’re going to have lyrics, they have to be almost either nonsensical, or completely inaudible, or super-duper simple to the point of being completely obtuse and indecipherable, even if there are only like five words in the whole thing.” I think the reason for that is because of fashion and because of “cool.” If people can’t read into the emotions in the song, they can just like it because it sounds cool. But if you put something out there of yourself, they might go, “Oh, that’s maudlin or sentimental, and that makes it harder for me to wear sunglasses in this nightclub while smoking Parliament Lights, and I don’t like that.” [Laughs.] So I am still holding a candle for emotional vulnerability in music. I think it’s cool. I’m also holding a candle for people having lyrics you can understand, even though I definitely like a lot of music where you can’t understand the lyrics at all, or the lyrics are completely obtuse or both. It’s all good. I would love if things would swing back a little more toward, “Oh, this being written by a person is pretty neat.” 

Weston, “Just Like Kurt” (1994)
DCP: Yes! More pop-punk. [Laughs.] I was listening to it today to refresh my memory, and I always thought the song was basically a guy telling a girl, “Hey, I’m exactly like Kurt Cobain. I’m totally cool and totally awkward, and that’s part of my charm. I’m all of these things he is, and isn’t that great?” and her rejecting him anyway. I was listening to it again today, and I was like, “Oh shit!” This girl is all about Kurt Cobain. This guy really likes her. This guy probably doesn’t even like Nirvana that much, but he’s like, “Okay, she likes Kurt Cobain a lot,” so he tries to emulate him, and gets really into him. Then maybe even because he’s being way too desperate or something, or mimicking her desires in a too-close, creepy kind of way, she’s like, “Oh, still not into it.” And he’s saying, “Well, fuck. I’m still not with this girl, and now I’m obsessed with Kurt Cobain. And that’s a terrible way to go through life, to be a grown-up emulating Kurt Cobain.” He even says in the chorus, “Why did you fill my head up with junkie?”

On the one hand, it’s a fucking awesome pop-punk song that I would love to hear, like, a really crappy 15-year-old’s three-piece play in some high-school gym. But also, I think it’s this wonderful inquisition of pop-culture and rock iconography. Because it’s saying, “Why did you make me like this guy?” When you try to live your life by the way Kurt Cobain is portrayed in just pop iconography, that’s a terrible way to go through life that’s really not fun, and potentially deadly. And that’s a really important question to ask of pop culture: “Why did you fill my head up with junkie?” It’s tempting when you’re 14 years old, but I think people would do a lot better—like with Jesus—to go with the full text of Kurt Cobain’s life, and all the things he did and said, instead of the stuff that made it onto the T-shirts and people’s notebooks. 

AVC: It seems like the turning point in the song is her rejecting him. He could have lived with Cobain obsession if it had got him what he wanted. 

DCP: And so it’s like, in the beginning, “Cool, I got a haircut, I got a flannel shirt tied around my waist, and I’m really interesting. More interesting than all the dumb jocks.” Then she still doesn’t like him, and he’s like, “Well, now I’m just like Kurt. I’m a fucking asshole.”

AVC: And bitter, and angry at the world.

DCP: I love it. I think it’s a really good song. 

Joni Mitchell, “Shades Of Scarlett Conquering” (1975)
DCP: This one is one of the more literal examples of imagination vs. reality. I’m a huge Joni Mitchell fan, and this is from probably my favorite album of hers. I think it’s almost, not a novelization, but a songization. Is that a thing? It’s a song version of that Woody Allen movie Purple Rose Of Cairo, about somebody who completely lives their life in movies. She’s talking about this young woman who is super-duper into Clark Gable and Errol Flynn, these symbols of old-style cinematic romance. And when she tries to act that out in real life, because of what’s underneath all that and what she’s hiding from, it doesn’t go so well. And everybody is like, “You need to chill out and work these things out in a healthier way.”

So to me, it’s about movies and music and TV, all the things we really love, especially if you’re an A.V. Club reader, that you’re super attracted to. A lot of times, we’re drawn into them because we’re emotionally damaged or repressed. We find amazing solace in them. And I think that’s what a lot of these songs are about—a protagonist literally finding a way to live out certain things through media. It’s a wonderful place to be, it’s a lot healthier than a lot of other outlets for that kind of stuff. But a lot of these songs are about where you have to draw the line and go, “These are just things I like, and real life is something different. I have to figure out how to do that on human terms.”

I think that’s what this song is about: You have this girl who is really into these romantic black-and-white symbols. But she talks about having these dreams bubbling underneath the whole thing that aren’t so nice, that she’s repressing, or trying to hide from, that make the situation untenable. And the whole song has this great, old-school smoky cinematic feel. You can imagine it playing in that first scene of Citizen Kane, where all the news guys are in that newsreel room, with the beams of light and smoke and stuff. There’s so much in music about our relationship with movies, which I think is interesting, because music is movies in a different medium. 

AVC: There’s a lot of Sunset Boulevard in this, too, with the sense of denial, and madness, and a woman whose entire imagination is caught up in film.

DCP: Totally. And I think one of the healthiest things we can do, if we idolize a different time as being more innocent, or purer—a lot of artists, we fall into that trap of being like, “But when they were making these movies, it was different. You could have your own expression, and it was great, and it was easy.” I think the best thing you can do if you have a golden age in your mind is to really read a lot about it. Because if you look back on Clark Gable and Errol Flynn and that whole era, Hollywood was just as seedy, if not 90 times seedier, than it is now, or even 30 years ago. It was just a bunch of dudes trying to flee to this little burg as a tax shelter to get away from people trying to chase them for breaking the law. So one of the healthiest things you can do is shatter your notion that there was a golden age. Don’t get me wrong, they made some great movies. But it’s sometimes better to have a more balanced perspective on that stuff. And I’m saying that to myself as much as anybody else. 

New Found Glory, “Hit Or Miss” (2000)
DCP: I’m not sure what version of this song will end up in the article, if you go through Rdio or whatever, for a legal, above-the-board version. But the one I sent to you, and the one I listen to, and the reason I included this song, is that it opens with this snippet of The Outsiders, the Francis Ford Coppola movie. It typifies this ’90s and early-’00s pop-punk obsession with ’80s movies. Most bands me and my friends were super into in high school—before I decided I was better than it, though I wasn’t—were these pop-punk bands that were obsessed with John Hughes and other ’80s movies. The guys in those bands were just a little older than us, so those were the movies that maybe their cooler older brothers liked, or that they started to watch when they were 12 or 13. All of these bands seemed to hold up these ’80s teen-movie ideals of romance as this thing you should really aspire to: If you have romantic struggles, you can live them out through John Hughes movies, or if you can cast yourself mentally in roles, you can get through them, or they seem more epic. I love that. I grew up around that, informed by that sensibility. But I watched some of those movies recently, as has been oft-noted in other places, some of it is weird and racist and rapey. This is a lot more complicated than I was led to believe by pop-punk music. And I still feel like there are, somewhere, a couple of pop-punk bands still driving through southern California, searching for that John Hughes idyllic suburban existence. And we’re like, “Come on, guys. It was in Chicago. We all know where it’s geographically located. I don’t know why you’re looking in San Diego. That doesn’t make any sense.”

Ne-Yo, “Cracks In Mr. Perfect” (2012)
DCP: This is a song I heard last year. Ne-Yo is almost the Tracy Flick of R&B. Real by-the-letter-of-the-law, he dresses great, he looks great, he writes great songs and has had some solid hits that still hold up. I really try to separate the artist from his talent, but you have a dude like Chris Brown, who you can’t enjoy anymore because of the stuff he’s done. Then you have a guy like Ne-Yo, a straight-up straight-shooter, but he doesn’t have billions of people defending him on Twitter, like Chris Brown seems to for some reason. He’s just doing his thing. So this song is interesting because he’s referring to himself as Mr. Perfect—and he is Mr. Perfect. He does everything right, and is so eager to please, and probably doesn’t understand why he isn’t as focused-on as some of his much more flawed peers. 

There’s tons of artifice in hip-hop and R&B. Everyone knows this, this is not a new observation. Even people who love it, like I do, love it in spite of it, or partially because of it, because of the tension between the real and the imagined, and all these notions of authenticity. There’s this vogue in hip-hop and R&B, and where they overlap is basically Drake, who still wants to maintain this pose of invincibility—which is important in mainstream hip-hop, and a little bit in R&B—but with this counterpoint you’re making, “Yeah, I’m on top, and it’s great, but it’s also empty and messed-up, and money can’t buy you happiness. I’m on drugs and stuff, and the drugs don’t make me happy, but I’m still doing it! And I’m going to keep doing it.”

So what I like about this song is that it’s the first R&B song that says, “Hey, I know you see me as this perfect, rich, lots-of-sex-having figure, but here’s what my life is actually like. I’m very aware that I’m trying to front, and here’s the cost of putting this front out here.” But without all of the Drake-ness. With Ne-Yo, there’s a little more humanity, and true vulnerability, and it’s also not completely emo. I felt it was worth highlighting in an imagination-vs.-reality context. 

AVC: The vulnerability here isn’t, “I have all these things, but I’m sad inside.” It’s, “You probably admire me, but you shouldn’t, because I’m a total shithead. I have unprotected sex because I’m too lazy to get a condom. I’m a liar and a cheat.” It isn’t vulnerability so much as self-hatred, and an accusation: “Why do you respect people like me? You should hate me.”

DCP: I’m more pulling from the first verse, but you’re totally correct. “I’m a man of my word, but only when I ain’t lying.” I love that line, because there’s so much in masculine culture about being straight-up. And anyone who has watched a reality TV show, or dealt with another human being, knows people love to talk about what straight shooters they are, except when they’re not. And here’s, he’s saying he likes to project that image, but he’s a shithead when it suits his purposes. “I’m lazy, so we had unprotected sex, and I didn’t get an STD, but I don’t know why. Also, I’m saying I didn’t get an STD, but earlier in the song, I told you I’m a liar.”

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Bruce Springsteen, “Dancing In The Dark” (1984)
DCP: If you’re me, and you like making mixtapes, you think, “Well, I don’t want to make it too mainstream.” Like, you have that desire to show off your obscure, wide-reaching taste in music. But you can’t do imagination vs. reality in rock music and not have a Bruce Springsteen song on there. 

I really didn’t get into him until three or four years ago, and it coincided with moving out to Los Angeles and driving a lot. Before that, I lived in New York. He’s pretty good walking-around music, but great driving music. Also, moving to L.A. meant a bunch of moving-to-L.A.-ish feelings. I really like Los Angeles, but I feel like most people who live or have moved here will agree with me that you’re here for maybe three days, and then you want to run out in the street and scream, “Who am I?!” That’s when it’s Springsteen-listening time, friend.

The thing I like about this song is based on biographical information I’ve gleaned from his 20-minute between-song monologues in concert, and watching documentaries. In the ’70s, he seemed to self-mythologize as this kind avatar for this imagined, partially real ’50s greaser. Car culture strained through a weird Stephen King post-apocalyptic thing. He’s portraying himself as the baddest dude in a post-apocalyptic American Graffiti. Which is great—one of the most brilliant idioms in music, and he just created it. It’s amazing, and all he was really trying to do was be Bob Dylan. So that was him in the ’70s.

In the ’80s, he was moving in this seemingly mainstream direction. People didn’t like Born In The U.S.A. because it used synthesizers and sounded dated. People started to fall off the Springsteen train because they were like, “Wait, when I was younger, he represented eternal youth, an eternal conflicted bad-boy dude outside your house yelling at you. And Mom, whose hair is in curlers, is yelling outside, telling him to shut up and go home, and your dad is calling the police.” None of this stuff actually happened, but you feel like it should, or did, in a way. Then in the ’80s, people were like, “He’s just a dude! He’s a rich guy! What the fuck, this is terrible!” But in the ’80s, rich guys really liked to let you know they were rich guys.

So an interesting thing happened, where he wasn’t dealing with the struggles of getting out of Freehold, New Jersey and grappling with his cigarette-throwing, alcoholic father’s expectations of him anymore. He was dealing with being a super-rich guy and a public figure, and nobody wanted to hear about it. At least, his manager was telling him that. “People don’t want to hear about you being a rich guy! They don’t care. You got to write a hit!” And he got pissed off and went to his hotel room, and out of spite, in 20 minutes, he wrote “Dancing In The Dark.” Probably my favorite Springsteen song. That’s blasphemy, but it sounds great and timeless to me. And what makes it great is ’80s Springsteen: the synthesis of the ’70s “avatar for an imagined America” Springsteen and the real Springsteen. That was ’70s Springsteen being like, “Don’t talk shit about me, man.”

He seems like he found a way to fuse what people liked about the imaginary Springsteen and the real person that he was. Most of it was mythmaking, but with his real frustrations, where he just wanted to shake the world off his shoulder, be a dude, and dance with Courteney Cox, which we all want. This felt like the best synthesis of him as an actual person and him as an imaginary figure, and then became his most successful song ever, or close to it. Definitely his most successful album commercially. I couldn’t love it more.

The Mountain Goats, “Thank You Mario But Our Princess Is In Another Castle” (2008)
DCP: I couldn’t love The Mountain Goats any more if I tried. I think John Darnielle should be president of the world. This song is on the “imagination vs. reality” list because it’s written from the point of Toad from the Mario games. In all the levels except the last one, Toad is at the end, and after you beat the boss, he says, “Our princess is in another castle.” Darnielle has empathy for Toad, this total side character, this functionary. Darnielle is wondering, “What does that guy do when he’s just waiting for Mario to show up?” He’s got two eyes and a heart. He’s a person, too. If Mario’s a person, then so is Toad. That typifies something great about Darnielle: the ability to have empathy for every living being on the planet, good or bad, real or imagined. And that extends through all of his songs. I think empathy is his biggest theme and his greatest tool. Part of the reason I think they should give his new album, Transcendental Youth, out to every high-schooler in the world is that sense of empathy.

It’s on this list for taking something ostensibly imaginary—this character you’re not meant to focus on, who’s just there to bounce up and down and be cute and have a mushroom hat—and going, “Well, what about him? What if he were real? What would his feelings be?” If you’ve ever played videogames, especially really simple old ones that didn’t have much story, I think you would find yourself in these weird hypnotic patterns where you would start thinking, “Well, what’s Toad’s life like?” And as it turns out in the song, Toad is terrified. He’s in a scary place. It’s dark. There are sorcerers. There’s fire and brimstone and screaming, and he’s just waiting for Mario. Mario is his whole world. And when Mario shows up, he says the one thing he knows how to say, and he feels better because Mario’s there. That’s the whole thing. And so it’s kind of also this great love song, a one-way bromance between Toad and Mario. Because I feel like Mario just probably pats him on the head and says, “Thanks, little buddy,” and moves on.

AVC: Or punches him for saying over and over, “Oh, you came this whole way for nothing yet again.”

DCP: “Don’t take it out on me!” He’s probably shooting the mushroom-headed messenger left and right.

AVC: It is oddly sweet and sentimental, the way it couches this rote videogame transaction, “Go do another quest,” in romantic terms: “When you came in, I could breathe again.”

DCP: Yeah. I have personally found it fruitful, as an artist or writer or whatever, to invest two-dimensional tropes with humanity and life, saying, “What if they were more like us?” It also is a great exercise as a human being to project empathy, not just on other people, but also just on everything, even if it is pixels on a screen, because it is good practice for trying to have empathy with other human beings. As a reader of The A.V. Club, as a pop-culture fan, I think the best thing pop culture can teach us is to have more empathy. It’s a cool thing, investing an imagined thing with some reality.

Jason Anderson, “July 4th, 2004” (2008)
DCP: I know I keep saying this about everyone on the list, but I love Jason Anderson so much. He’s more a folk dude, but he’s turned into a full-band rock guy. But something that’s gone through all of his music is this sense of adventurizing your real life. Not necessarily by making different choices, because you’re like, “Now I’m an adventurer, so I’m going to go into Kinko’s and punch my boss in the face and kiss my co-worker.” That’s a terrible idea, pretty rapey. More, “I am going to try to look at my life, and practice looking at my life.” So what this song is doing, what most of his songs do in one way or another, is take a mundane moment—even though it’s July 4, and he’s talking about fireworks—and make it into an epic, by looking at it in a different way and investing it with some shades of the things you like about imagination.

We became friends, and he’s one of those guys where you’re like, “Oh, man, I wish I could see the world in half as cinematic a way, for lack of a less cliché term, than he seems to be able to.” He is totally, seemingly open to the cool possibilities of the universe. He’s not experiencing a different world, he’s just looking at it differently, and he’s putting it in his songs and it’s pretty awesome. The guy has had lots of struggles, but he has made imagination work for him. And it’s what I didn’t want to do with this list, or even with the book—the book is a fun comedic riff on fantasy tropes, but just because I’m having fun with them doesn’t mean I’m making fun of them. Those things for me, like for a lot of people, held me up through tough times. Fuckin’ Star Wars and Game Of Thrones and stuff like that were really important to me. So I didn’t want to come across like, “Oh man, that stuff’s not real, therefore it’s stupid. You’ve got to focus on the real world and go get a job, hippie.” I’m really just trying to reconcile imagination and reality, and try to figure out a way to take the right lessons from that stuff, and not the wrong ones. Jason Anderson personifies that outlook. It doesn’t come easy for him, as it doesn’t come easy for any of us, but it’s a good thing to strive for.

AVC: Write-ups of his concerts always focus on how this song becomes a sing-along, or a call-and-response. It’s like he’s building a fantasy world, but he expects it to be participatory.

DCP: Yes. I guess the best way I can talk about it is through my own experience with Jason Anderson. And it involves The A.V. Club, of which I have been a reader for 10 years or more. I was fresh out of college and I didn’t have any money, which is great time to start looking into Jason Anderson. And I was on The A.V. Club reading record reviews, because another imagination-vs.-reality thing about me is, I just like reviews, even from music I’m never, ever going to hear. So I read this Jason Anderson review, and it was citing all of these influences for what this album, The Hopeful And The Unafraid, sounded like. And I was like, “Oh, that sounds awesome.” There was a streaming song called “Watch Your Step,” from the same album as “July 4th,” and it was awesome. It’s tough to describe it in less fanboyish ways. It’s basically a song about being on what might be a date with someone, and they’re in your house, and you guys are watching a movie, and it’s basically an entire song about, “Do I touch this person’s leg or not?” It really is, but it manages to build out into this huge, amazing, epic catchy sing-along thing. And it is just from this little moment that we’ve all experienced. It’s super-relatable, which is one of the best things that art can do.

So I was like, “Oh, that’s awesome, I want to buy his album,” but I didn’t have the money. And I am an ethical dork about not stealing music. I didn’t download his album. I just waited and waited, and I was like, “I’m going to get this album, it’ll be great.” So I did, and it was. It turned out he was playing a residency at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn, and I was living in Queens. The residency was free, so the price was right. And it’s one of those things—you listen to a song and you’re like, “These guys fuckin’ rule. I can’t wait to go see them. And I’m sure I’m going to be one of 60,000 people at the show.” So I go to Pete’s Candy Store on the first night of his residency, and there’s like 10 people there, and he’s just talking to people. He’s super-friendly. His eyes are totally alive, and he’s one of those people who makes you feel really at ease, even though you’re in awe of them because you love their music.

Then he starts playing, and instead of playing on the little stage, he walks down the aisle. And I know, as a performer, if I’m doing a stand-up show and there’s 10 people there, you kind of phone it in, or shit on the fact that there’s only 10 or 12 people there. Instead, he has us all get up—this is going to sound so corny in print, but the great thing about Jason Anderson is, he defies corniness, or our ideas of corniness, because corniness is a flawed idea that keeps you from having fun a lot of the time. So by the end of this show, more people have come in from the bar, because it seems awesome, and we’re all just singing along, we all feel included. And it’s one of those moments where you’re like, “Why isn’t life always this cool?” The truth is that life can be like that a lot more than we let it, because we always want to be cool. We always want to wear sunglasses in a nightclub while smoking Parliament Lights. But he doesn’t give a shit about that stuff. He doesn’t give a shit how cool you want to be. He wants you to have fun, and it totally was. So I went back every single week, and we became friends and started hanging out. And by the end, by the fourth week, it was packed. Apparently it always happens. He plays a residency there the first week, there are like 10 people, and then by the end, there’s a million. It’s great. 

If you haven’t seen him live, you have to. There’s videos online, and they’re pretty good, but they don’t capture this thing that can only can be experienced live. It is almost the definition of live music. Once you’ve seen him live, that changes the records for you, and adds a whole other layer to it.

Belle And Sebastian, “Get Me Away From Here, I’m Dying” (1996)
DCP: Couldn’t have this without a Belle And Sebastian song, because Belle and Sebastian are kind of the patron musical saints, along with Morrissey, of the bookish and dorkish and introverted. Because most of their songs have these protagonists in a social system that is completely daunting to them, and in which they do not feel they belong, and in which they in fact probably do not belong. And they seek refuge in books, and French New Wave movies, and all the iconography you can wrap yourself up in and get lost in if you’re trying not to feel like a dork, or trying to feel like, “Well, maybe if I had been alive in France in the ’60s, I would have actually been pretty cool.” I had a really hard time picking out which song I wanted to put on this list for that reason. Just about every Belle And Sebastian song has a different take on that kind of thing. This one is interesting, ’cause it’s more of the dark side of trying to transcend your crappy circumstances through art.

AVC: There’s a sense of desperation instead of aspiration.

DCP: Exactly. And a sense of, “Well, fuck you, check out these words!” Which pretty much defines why I got into writing in the first place, because it’s like, “Well, it didn’t go well in the actual world, but you can go home, and on this computer screen, you are in control of the magic of vocabulary words and stringing them all together,” and look, aren’t you smart in this little kingdom of verbiage? Where it’s just you and the Microsoft Word paperclip. 

AVC: That makes Crap Kingdom ironic, because it’s all about someone who wants to immerse himself in a fantasy world, but when he does, it’s a terrible experience.

DCP: Totally. Hopefully what he learns is, you’re not really in control of what actually happens, but you are in control of your attitude. And that’s not just to say, “Well, shit happens, and you just have got to look at it in a Successories-poster, needlework-pillow-platitude kind of way, and you’ve just got to take it.” It’s like, shit happens, but hopefully the way you look at it means it’ll turn out different next time, because maybe you’ll do something different. I do feel like a lot of the guidance-counsel-arian tropes we were fed, the problem with them is that they don’t include the part where you have to go out and do it all over again. They just contain the “have a good attitude” part. And if you go, “Man, what just happened sucks, life sucks,” then when you do it over again, you’re going to bring the life-sucksiness to it, and it might continue to suck and become this self-reinforcing thing. I mean, I’m maybe just talking to myself right now, in my own life. 

So to bring it around back around to Belle And Sebastian, this song was a mantra for me, for better or for worse, especially in the early days of college, feeling romantically neglected or passed over or whatever. As he says at the end of the song, the hero in the story is mightier than swords. “I could kill you, sure, but I could only make you cry with these words.” You’ve got to love that when you’re a bitter dude who knows a lot of vocabulary words. That’s still totally part of who I am, but now as I go forward in my life, I am trying to be the dude that’s good with words, but also makes better decisions. And I think all Belle And Sebastian characters are dealing with that thing, like, “Yeah, sometimes life really does suck, and you really do need to take refuge in the more romantic notions a book can give to you, and just straight-up anesthetize yourself with it. That’s totally acceptable and fine and wonderful and necessary in a lot of cases, because sometimes life truly is awful and horrible things happen.” Sometimes if you can find solace in a book and escapism then it’s amazing. And I’m sure any author would love to hear that that happened.

But then sometimes it can become this negative feedback loop, where the next time you go out into the world and it doesn’t measure up to the romantic notions you took refuge in, you go, “Well, fuck, of course. Back to no dragons.” But you need both. You have to live in the world and in your imagination. So I guess Belle And Sebastian songs are about people trying, and sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding, to strike that balance between art and the world. And this is a good one especially, because I’ve had such a different outlook on it as my life has progressed.

Kanye West, “Last Call” (2004)
DCP: Yes. Oh, man, the song is 12 minutes long, and I could probably talk for four hours about it. I will try not to, but God, where do I fuckin’ start?

AVC: Well, to fit into your theme, it’s self-mythologizing. This is him putting the start of his musical history into the form of a myth.

DCP: Exactly. So it’s perfect. It not only fits into this list, it almost meta-fits. Because the reason I love, love, love this song, is because part of it is him rapping, but then there’s like 12 minutes of him telling you beat-by-beat, this insidery, lower-rungs-of-the-record-industry-based tale of how he got on Roc-A-Fella, Jay-Z’s record label, as a rapper. A lot of College Dropout and a lot of this song is about his struggle to go from being a producer people really liked to a respected rapper. It’s Kanye seemingly giving you a look behind the curtain, like, “This is the actual nuts and bolts of how I got this record deal, and am where I am, and why I feel the way I feel.” It’s brutally honest in a lot of ways, and there’s so many wonderful human moments. The idea of Kanye being worried about a landlord being a jerk is just delightful. But then I was like, “The reason you love this song is ’cause it’s one of the most effective bits of self-mythologizing ever.” It’s so nitty-gritty, so seemingly quotidian. He’s taking this reality and coding it into his mythology.

Now every time I listen to Kanye West, I’m bringing this song to that stuff. No matter what he does, even if he comes out with new music I don’t like as much as I like the old stuff—which happens with just about everybody you like, usually—I bring this song to that, and I feel like this song is him telling me, “This is how it really was for me.” It’s so intensely relatable. Because of this song, I will always give him so many more passes than other people will. I’m sure there are people who pre-snorted when they saw this song on the track list, because they view him as a pop-culture cartoon, which he has kind of willfully made himself into in a lot of ways, instead of like a real artist. Maybe that’s what he’s trying to do. I think he totally knows what he’s doing, and I’m not even saying that’s a bad thing.

Another reason the song is on the list is because it’s a cliché to be like, “Man, hip-hop is so fake. Rappers are so fake. It’s all about artifice.” It’s true, but that makes it interesting. He is actually taking you through every little moment in his recollection. Anything any of us have ever achieved, it’s typically not the movie version of it, where it happens overnight, and then it’s like, “Can you come in for this meeting tomorrow morning?” You put on a tie and come in, and they’re like, “Here’s a million dollars.” It’s what he’s describing, where he’s like, “And then I thought it was going to happen. I was pretty sure it was going to. I didn’t want to get my hopes up.” He had all this iconography in his head, all these moments he envisioned that were very different once he actually got there. Like when he talks about meeting Jay-Z, and he’s like, “These are superstars in my eyes, and they still are.” And you go, “Oh yeah, that’s exactly how you would feel.” You wouldn’t just immediately be like, “And then I knew I’d made it.” You would still be like, “All these people are larger than life, and now here they are, and I’m rapping for them.” Jay-Z hears one line, and the rest of the song is trash, so he’s like, “All right, man, that was pretty good.” Then Kanye says, “I didn’t get no deal or nothing,” which is such a wonderful moment of self-reflection.

This song is such a great argument for more transparency in music. I love the straight-up rap song that’s just 100,000 percent bulletproof bravado, and cartoonishly so. It’s great. I couldn’t love it more, and I have found this kind of stuff to be so useful and wonderful and motivational and entertaining throughout the years. But this song gets me so much more juiced-up than any of those songs. If you’ve ever tried your hand at any artistic pursuit—really, any pursuit—you’ve got to have a shit-ton of arrogance to do this stuff. So to see somebody depict himself not as a cartoon character, but as having the arrogance of the common man, which Kanye does in this song, and to be so stymied at every turn… It’s the place I go when I need that fusion of imagination and reality that’s going to get me through another day in the world, going, like, “Hold on, Kanye. It’s going to be okay. Someday, hopefully, you’ll be on Roc-A-Fella, and you can make some really great music, and then some other music that DC Pierson is not as into.” 

AVC: Does the quotidian aspect you mentioned convince you that everything he says here is real, in spite of the mythologizing? Do you think this actually is the way it all happened? 

DCP: I do. Yeah. I’m sure there was other shit we’re not hearing about. [Laughs.] Other people mentioned in the song would probably have a different version, especially if things didn’t work out for them as well as Kanye. That is what makes it self-mythology, and that’s what makes it brilliant. 

Jimmy Eat World, “A Praise Chorus” (2001)
DCP: This is a really good catharsis for this entire list. It’s just a great, great song. 

AVC: What do you make of the inclusion of the “Crimson And Clover” chorus? 

DCP: There are so many songs on this list that are about songs, in a way, or about the feeling songs give you, and how sometimes that clashes with the feeling real life gives you. This song is a concise putting-forth of what I’ve been trying to get at the whole time—the dude in Jimmy Eat World talking to an imagined person standing in the back at one of their shows who’s going, “I would love to start a band. I would love to talk to that girl. I would love to leave this town. I would love to get a different job. I would love to go to art school”—or, not art school, fuck art school. Maybe art school is the cliché, lame fallback choice. “I want to go to engineering school.” Something. Art school often stands in for a true-life pursuit that’s real and honest. But that’s a fucking basket of neurosis and hang-ups for another day.

He’s talking to that person with their arms folded, who is, as he says in the song, 25. [Laughs.] Which is a really great age to be adrift at, because you are no longer facing a bunch of culturally prescribed frontiers, like graduating high school and going to college, where everything’s going to be different, or like graduating college and going to the real world, where everything is ostensibly possible. He’s saying to this person, “You’ve just got to do it. You’ve got to fucking do it.” Maybe the thing that keeps you from doing it is the idea that it’s not going to be as good as this imagined past you’ve written for yourself, and you’ve missed out on things. Therefore you’ll always continue to miss out on things, and the ship has sailed, or as he says in the song, “Things are never going to be just what you want.” It’s not necessarily going to be that perfect Belle And Sebastian song. It’s not necessarily going to be the happy Death Cab For Cutie song you want it to be. It’s going to be its own thing. Like what I was talking about earlier, maybe being in a relationship with somebody isn’t going to be (500) Days Of Summer, but it’s going to be your thing. It’s going to be different. It’s going to be new. It’s going to be original. It’s going to be unique. It might, in some cases, be more boring than the thing you want it to be, but in a lot of other cases, it’s probably going to be way more amazing. Your life is not necessarily going to be like an off-brand The Notebook. It’s the question, would you want your life be a third-rate version of a movie you idolize, or would you want it to be a first-rate version of your own story?

I read this really interesting book a few years ago. We were touring with the comedy group with our movie, Mystery Team, and we were in this college town in Iowa, and it was raining and there was nobody around, and the tour was not going very well. I was in my own mental Iowa, my own private Iowa, at a Barnes & Noble, in the rain, and of course what book would I pick up, but a book called Loneliness. I wish I had it, because I could tell you who it’s by. I think I loaned it out to someone who was having some loneliness. [Laughs.] It took me a couple months to read, because I was like, “This is going to be too much for me right now because I am lonely and this is going to be a lot.” The book actually has a little bit of a pop side, but an in-depth exploration of the mental and physiological effects of loneliness and isolation, which is super-duper important to read and to think about today when we are kind of—not to try to sound like the whole album Kid A or anything, but technologically alienated from one another, even as we’re ostensibly being brought closer together, blah blah blah. Boring, boring, boring stuff. One of the things the book talks about is this feeling you often get, where you’re really lonely and you don’t feel like you have a lot of strong connections in your life. You feel very isolated. The longer you’re in that state, the next time you go out to try to make a connection or make it better, because of this physiological and mental dissonance introduced into your life by the negative, unhealthy effects of loneliness, it might suck. There’s a greater possibility of it sucking the longer you’ve been isolated. And that’s a terrible, terrible thing to read if you’re isolated.

What I want to say to anyone who is reading this, who is thinking that in this moment, is that I’ve felt that way. I felt that way reading that book. I was like, “Fuck.” But it makes total sense. It’s the effect like when you’re placed with a college roommate your freshman year, and she never goes out, and you’re like, “Come on, we’ve got to go out. We’re going to have fun. We’re going to go get drunk. It’s going to be fun,” because you feel bad for her. She’s on her computer all the time. Then you go out, and you’re telling her how great it’s going to be, you’ve really got her psyched up, you guys are listening to Destiny’s Child, you get her hair all done up, and then she gets way too drunk. She talks to a boy for a second, and then she throws up on him, and she has a terrible time. It turns into the time she was worried it was going to be. You told her it wouldn’t be, but it actually becomes that. So what that person needs to do, is to do it again. Or do something. You have to keep doing it, because that’s the only way you can get out of the place you are in, that made the time you went out so bad, because the effects of loneliness are very, very real, and they are self-perpetuated. What’s so great about this Jimmy Eat World song is it’s kind of saying, “You can’t stay there.” You can’t stay strictly in your cocoon of books and movies and songs that you feel are superior to real life, which you have felt is mundane or worse. You have to fucking get out there. You have to do it. You have to, at a certain point, go from reading and consuming the stories to making the stories for yourself. That’s not to say you have to do art, but you have to do something. You have to live a life.

Otherwise, the cocoon is going to get bigger and bigger, and harder to break out of. You have to venture yourself. The more you keep doing it, the easier it will get. It might be hyper-incremental, but it will happen. That’s why I felt like this was the perfect song to wrap all of this stuff up. One of my pet themes is that there is adventure to be had in our own lives, and we’re probably having it right now, we’re just not looking at it in the right way. It’s not to say, “Instead of leaving this town you hate, around these people you hate, you’ve just got to stay there and make pretend that they’re all knights and dragons and shit.” What I’m saying is, you have to start looking for that adventure around yourself, because then you will know that adventures are possible, and that you can do them. Then that will hopefully give you the courage and the moxie to move on to the next thing. That is, for me, where the imagination thing meets the reality thing. Imagination has given you the armor and hopefully the smarts and hopefully the know-how, but when you go out there, it’s going to be a whole different thing. It’s going to get hairy, but you can do it. You can. You can do it.

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