This week’s question comes from reader Erik Helin:
“While listening to the new Waxahatchee album, I repeatedly thought, ‘Man, it would suck to have a song like this written about me.’ My question for you is: What song are you most glad you’re not the subject of?”
Mary J. Blige is well-known to wear her heart on her sleeve as a writer and performer, and there are probably a handful of her songs that fall into this category for me. But because I’ve been listening to her new record, Strength Of A Woman, it’s the album’s third track, “Set Me Free,” that most quickly comes to mind. Strength Of A Woman arrives this year amid Blige’s ugly, public divorce from her manager/husband Kendu Isaacs, and for the most part, it balances Blige’s deep pain with positivity. But “Set Me Free” is downright nasty—in a beautiful, cathartic way, mind you—mincing no words in calling out the cheater: “And how you fix your mouth to say I owe you / When you had another bitch and taking trips and shit / With my money for so long.” Even more chilling is the soulful, slightly sweet delivery of the song’s scathing chorus: “There’s a special place in hell for you / You gon’ pay for what you did to me / I’ma tell you, ’cause the truth will set me free.” I would never, ever want a hex like that put on me. (But really: Who in their right mind wrongs Mary J. Blige?)
Given that I’m now entering my mid-30s—with a good relationship, most of my health, and the best job I’ve ever had, but also the same old head full of fucked-up insecurities, anxieties, and howling fantods that’s been plaguing me all my adult life—I sincerely hope that Ben Folds’ “Fred Jones Pt. 2” doesn’t end up being about me. A sequel of sorts to the Ben Fold Fives’ even more tragic “Cigarette,” “Fred Jones” is the biggest bummer on Rocking The Suburbs, an album that doesn’t lack for musical downers. But none of them can beat the image of Mr. Jones—summarily booted from his job after 25 years by a bunch of people who don’t even know his first name—sitting in his basement and desperately trying to trace a picture of better days. “Turns on the light, and it doesn’t look right”—sung in duet with Folds and Cake’s John McCrea—hurts, but it’s one of the final lines, “He’s forgotten, but not yet gone” that sets my deepest fears to howling once again.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Allentown, Pennsylvania’s Pissed Jeans, who veer from sludgy punk to thrash to straight noise alongside Talking Heads-like lyrics that eviscerate American culture. This year’s excellent Why Love Now is pretty much a concept album about a masculine piece of shit, veering between faux-feminist negging, needy come-ons, and hyper-aggressive dirty talk that sounds like a porn video’s comments section come to life. But way back on its 2007 debut Hope For Men, the band’s scope was a little broader, and on “The Jogger,” singer Matt Korvette howls snapshots of conspicuous consumption over an eerie oscillating chasm of feedback. “Piece of cake, racquetball, hiking trip,” he intones, ending each list with the phrase, “The jogger!.” At the time, a friend of mine and I would text each other back and forth with items from our own lives: “Post-work beers with the team, Xbox 360, summer hours ... THE JOGGER,” ribbing ourselves for playing along with the sort of hyper-capitalist upward mobility the song disembowels. A decade later, it’s a little closer to home. Sometimes when I’m standing in West Elm pondering which media cabinet best reflects my personal aesthetic and lifestyle, I hear the track’s growl in the back of my mind. “Fantasy football, soy milk, mid-century large,” I hear, then Korvette’s dagger, “THE JOGGER.”
Imagine being the woman in Shellac’s “Prayer To God.” You dated Steve Albini, so you already know what he’s like, and might not even have been that surprised to hear a lyric about how he hopes that you die from blunt force trauma to the base of your neck, “where her necklaces close.” But, given that the premise of the song is that Steve saw you out in public with another guy and is asking God to murder you both—him especially—there’s another person involved in this situation, one with whom, at minimum, you will have to have an awkward conversation about how your ex is kind of fixated on violent imagery as a way to explore themes of toxic masculinity in his music, and no, he’s not going to actually kill anyone. “God damn it, Steve,” you mutter, as the guy Steve Albini wants God to “make him cry like a woman / no particular woman” comes barging through the front door of your apartment angrily waving his iPod (this is the early ’00s, remember). “What’s his fucking damage?!” your new kinda-boyfriend, who’s a really nice guy you met at your friend’s birthday party and isn’t part of the music scene, which is exactly what you like about him, says. Exhaling with a sigh, you begin: “Ever heard of Big Black?”
First Aid Kit is a Swedish folk-country duo that perfectly captures an Emmylou Harris style of ephemeral Americana. Their music is lovely: airy and bright. And while their sharpest work explores the harder, more cynical angles of love and relationships, they largely commit to melodic, gentle, and bittersweet subject matter. Not so with “You Are The Problem Here,” a brutally direct song the duo released just this year on International Women’s Day. Written specifically in response to news stories about convicted rapists receiving lenient sentences, it’s vicious and blunt, aimed directly at the unnamed assaulter with disgust. There is no room for subtext or misinterpretation when the pair’s furious indictment culminates in “You are the problem here / I hope you fucking suffer.” It’s an incredibly powerful song and bracing in its unequivocal message. And while I, like every other dope on this planet, has lived a life of petty sins and self-centered infractions, knowing that it’s possible to cause the kind of hurt to merit such an admonishment is a strong reminder to not suck as a human being.
I will preface this by saying that the song is written with such narrative specificity, there’s no way I—or anyone else—could possibly misconstrue that it was directed at me. But holy hell, am I ever glad that I am not the subject of Tupac Shakur’s “Hit Em Up.” A song that begins with “That’s why I fucked your bitch, you fat motherfucker” and somehow gets more vicious from there, “Hit Em Up” was written as a response to Biggie’s “Who Shot Ya,” a song that some—particularly Tupac—perceived as a semi-veiled boast that the East Coast rapper and his Bad Boy crew were behind Tupac’s ’94 shooting in New York. Lyrically, “Hit Em Up” is the equivalent of getting cut off in traffic, then tailing that guy and burning his house down (while fucking his wife): Tupac rages with terrifying, supernatural force at Biggie and every one of the “mark-ass bitches” in his orbit, dropping wickedly personalized insults against the likes of Lil Kim and Mobb Deep (“Don’t one of you n***** got sickle-cell or something?”), and vehemently, explicitly promising to kill them and their kids. Even more cutting, “Hit Em Up” is really fucking catchy; to receive this kind of threat in the form of such a bumping song must have hurt Biggie several different ways. And I, for one, am very glad Tupac didn’t think I had something to do with his shooting.
I loved The Monkees’ “Pleasant Valley Sunday” even before I knew what it meant, but as I got older, Carole King and Gerry Goffin’s lyrics seemed painfully, oddly familiar as I looked around my suburban hometown of Worth The Friendly Village, Illinois, land of strip malls and not much else. Rows of houses that are all the same? Check. With the tract housing on my street, you would go to play at your friend’s house and automatically know where the bathroom was; only the wallpaper was different. Charcoal burning everywhere? My dad welded his Weber grill onto a shopping cart to make it easier to move around. TV in every room? Well, not us, but some of my friends even had one in the kitchen. I hated growing up there, and fled to the tantalizingly close Chicago city border as soon as I was able. Even with a falling housing market and growing crime rate, I remain determined to keep our family in the city; my kids complain that their suburban cousins have much bigger lawns, while I patiently explain that we could never live out that far because Mommy would start drinking in the daytime from absolute boredom. “Pleasant Valley Sunday” reminds me of what I escaped from, and makes me glad every time I hear it.
I’ve written about this song before, but “Hotellounge (Be The Death Of Me)” by the Belgian art-rock band Deus is one of the most achingly despairing songs about failed artistic ambition I’ve ever heard. The unnamed protagonist of the fractured pop ballad is a singer with a dream of stardom, one who has spent their entire life striving for widespread acclaim, only to end up a never-was, whiling their remaining years away in some anonymous hotel lounge. “It’s so hard to keep the dream alive,” they sing, in a quaveringly earnest manner that suggests someone desperately trying to convince themselves that there’s still a chance of fame and fortune, that they don’t secretly know the truth somewhere deep inside. There’s a reason people say, “I don’t want your pity,” and the narrator of this song is exhibit A. It’s so depressing to not only imagine your entire life as a long failure to live up to some impossible vision, but to picture everyone around that person just looking upon them with embarrassed condolences.