Arguing the Good in Bad Writing

Over the last four days I have become engrossed in Moonface’s record with Siinai: Heartbreaking Bravery, recorded with the band Siinai. Part of the thoroughly captivating nature of this record is that it is a brutal bitching about a breakup. That’s how it comes across, at least. After several months of living in mental checkout mode, the realization of just how shitty single life is has finally caught up with me. Normally I’d turn to an old stand-by, but I’d been coaxed into branching out in my musical tastes again after an exchange with a friend. I had purchased Heartbreaking Bravery some time ago but hadn’t really given it a fair shake.

It’s a great record. The title track is a masterwork of building to a moment while “Headed For The Door” is soul-crushingly deadpan and driving. I don’t actually recommend the record if you’re trying to use it to get over somebody, but I have a hard time believing anybody else would be able to appreciate it. Unlike my favorite work by Krug, the writing is poor. I really don’t know how else to explain it than that. The first words you hear, rendered in a voice that seems to almost choke out of disbelief, are “Heartbreaking bravery exists.” It’s hilariously bad. Normally when lyrics are bad they just go in that mental pile and that’s it for me. Being that this was Spencer Krug, writer of some of the most interesting songs to ever be written, it seemed impossible to just dismiss his writing so easily. I powered on.

After having listened to the record basically non-stop now for several days, I have to say that I still think the writing is bad as written, meaning that on the surface there are far too many references to an undefined “violence”, a reliance on clichés that’s unsettling and an elaborate hunting metaphor that always makes me feel dirty. It is so far removed from the seemingly haphazard run of thoughts of songs like “Stadiums and Shrines II” or the succinct tale of an ill-fated relationship like “Grounds for Divorce.” Even as a big fan, I thought these lyrical choices were just too big to look past.

Fortunately, I guess, Krug throws a little gem to keep you going, and then something very important and equally painful happens: you want to talk to your ex. All of the hate you want to feel but can’t, all of the questions you want to ask, every single uncertainty associated with giving yourself to another human being gets exposed and with it, your understanding of what makes a good song. Krug has a way of working himself into your thoughts, and is willing to express all of the hastily thought out love letters you would want to write to try to win your love back. He goes to the sappiest places in our hearts, pulls out the most ineffective of word tricks and just lays them all out there. All of the record’s lyrical inadequacy completely encapsulates being unable to rectify a broken relationship with words. He quite brilliantly reminds us just how poor language is at communicating anything of real importance. It’s a devastating moment when you reach it. We go through life doing our best to put our thoughts into coherent communication. We write poems or pick out greeting cards all so things that are incomprehensible can be defined just enough to let other people know that’s how we feel about them. Even worse is that, say we do find the words that express it, that doesn’t even matter, because the odds of those feelings being shared are small, and that we also all know that somehow, some way, the very language that brought us together is going to fuck it all up.

It doesn’t hurt that musically, this record kicks ass. Siinai are formidable musicians and Krug really does a wonderful job of selling his songs with his surprisingly versatile voice (“Lay Your Cheek On Down” in probably the best example of this). There’s a whole lot to enjoy in terms of droning non-melodies, lasery sounds and complex arrangements of sound and silence. It’s a lot easier to get your point across if you know how to do the things that don’t require words, and Krug certainly understands that. Still, this record confuses me. It’s on a fence that is unbelievably pliable so that we might never come off it on one side or the other. It isn’t in the so bad it’s good category because it is certainly good. It’s just also bad. It’s weird. Somehow, I just don’t really see that as being a problem for maybe the first time.


While doing laundry, I was impaled by the smell of McDonald’s fries. I’m not sure if all the talk of best selling erotica novels had planted an idea seed that just needed that bit of fast food heaven to bud, but a simple thought came to me: The smell of French fries haunts my dreams and inhabits my nightmares. That salty aroma IS lust and suffering. Not bad for tasteless (what a terrible pun) porn disguised as food cravings. I thought about my creation and cross-referenced it with the term “food porn”, used to describe shows on Food Network and such. Since my beautiful sentence was obviously above so vulgar a term as porn, I chose the next most elegant solution: foodrotica. I made my way upstairs and immediately typed foodrotica into the internet because I suspected I wasn’t the first to realize the majesty of this label. I was right. Apparently you can’t invent anything in the twenty-first century. The best you can hope for is that you start doing something and hope Apple doesn’t sue you for patent infringement (easily the weakest joke I’ve ever written).

While I thought the idea of foodrotica humorous, it did get me wondering what it is about food, and food that is bad for us in particular, that lends itself so easily to smut? Make no mistake about it, foodrotica is as much smut as any other type of pornographic material, no matter how high class the name. I can’t speak for anybody else, but fast food is akin to sexual fetishes in the sense that society, in large part, dismisses fast food because of its ultimate objectification of food. For some, food has sacred and/or religious implications, so while the Dollar Menu gets whored out with tantalizing images of melting cheese and burgers leaking grease, it makes sense that we would want to bury our desires for this kind of food from those around us . When I decide to eat at the McDonald’s that happens to oppress me from right beside my apartment, it’s only after weighing the benefits with the potential ridicule I might receive. Is the guy who takes my order every time I go in there judging me for getting a Bic Mac meal? What would his judgement mean if he’s working there? How do I reconcile knowing how horrible the food is for me with how awesome it feels to eat it?

That’s really what’s at the root of the issue, for me and for society as a whole. I love fast food because it feels good. Eating foods so heavy in fat is satisfying in a way that nothing else is. Scarfing down a Double Quarter Pounder, large fries and regular Coke is as self-gratifying as masturbating and we do it for the same basic reason. There are perfectly reasonable reasons to have intercourse, just as there are obvious reasons to eat food. We could do what is best for our bodies and physically work in order to get the food we need to survive, thus guaranteeing an expenditure of energy. We could consume less in general so that we wouldn’t even have to expend that much energy. Human beings crave, so we don’t do any of those things. We want a lot and we don’t want it to be difficult to get. Fast food was the perfect solution, except that it ended up being just a little too revealing. It exposed enough of our inherent gluttony that we’ve now become ashamed to even admit that we eat at fast food places. It’s hard to hide the fact that we do, though, considering they are everywhere and continue to do excellent business. Clearly more of us indulge than would ever be willing to admit.

And this is why foodrotica is the brave new world of porn and food. People can have the freedom to crank out pseudo literature about the orgasmic effect of animal style fries. We can assign some academic category for unhealthy eating behaviors toned up with a bit of sexy. We can still ridicule those who think the love of fast food should be talked about openly and criticize it for it’s perceived effects on youths. And still, all the while, we can pen a little diddy about how the creamy thick mayonnaise that gets lathered onto the burger bun has the sweet Latin tang of chipotle, then proceed to get hungry and aroused at the same time.

Vocal Controlling Greatness

I find it interesting that in an age when anybody with any vocal control whatsoever can make it sound like they are a good singer, anybody would do anything but that. Granted, there are a number of artists out there who make unusual singing a big part of their draw, in which case manipulating their voice in order to sound doesn’t apply. But for the majority of pop artists, the amount of talent necessary to become a singer has never really been lower. I’m not going to hate on the majority of popular musicians because the reality is, doctoring up a vocal track or retaking and splicing tracks does make people enjoy a song less. Hell, listening to a singer whose voice is being modulated in a live concert doesn’t even make someone enjoy a concert less. What would be worse would be paying fifty bucks to see your favorite artist, only to find out that in person, they actually suck at performing.

The tragedy is that this happens quite a bit. People do the rally cries about how much the music industry sucks and how manufactured it feels (as if commercial music had ever been anything but a manufacturing process). But you shouldn’t pay any attention to those people because they don’t know what they’re talking about. The truly awful singers get found out and the good singers (and I will define good singer as a person who can control what their voice does at the volume they want for the amount of time they want) also get found out. Those two things aren’t particularly interesting. What is interesting is the way that a third class of singer seems to spring up by being a combination of the two. Those are the great singers.

In my mind, Lykke Li is a great singer. There is an element of foreignness in her English lyrics and an even more perfect usage of delivery that evokes the desired effect in her listeners. In her first record Youth Novels, she plays the role of fragile girl getting her first taste of the real world. Pretty much any song on this record is a good example, but my favorite has got to be “Time Flies”:

The whisper delivery of each line is what gives the heartfelt response, but what’s more interesting is how many times she’s off key. I didn’t break it all down, but I’m going to say somewhere around the 20% or more mark does she miss the note she’s trying to hit initially, only to find it the longer it goes on. Missing pitches with regularity is often the first mark of a bad singer, but here’s where her particular type of songwriting style turns it to her advantage: sure, she misses notes, comes in flat or clips of a phrase too sharp. She doesn’t hide it either, because her songs are composed to give her plenty of opportunities to hit those notes, sandwiched between lots of vocal breaks. What makes the notes she sings magical is that when she hits them, she really hits them. By allowing her vocal mistakes, she gives the audience the feeling of surprise and incredible satisfaction when her delivery is right on. It’s akin to a song that goes along in a minor key for a long time finally being resolved into a major. I have to believe that this is an intentional practice.

In her second record, Lykke Li matures. It would only be appropriate that her voice mature with her. It’s deeper, more throaty than whispery. She’s supposed to have grown now, seen the world and been hurt by it. The title of the record Wounded Rhymes leaves little room for interpretation of this fact. Here’s a sample to compare:.

Her act is nothing if not direct. Listeners aren’t supposed to be confused about her personality, they aren’t supposed to get lost in complicated compositions or arrangements. From top to bottom, Lykke Li is simple. This extends even to her live shows. She dances on the stage a little, looks seductive and sings her songs with backup singers. Here is where her lack of true vocal mastery really comes out to shine. She makes as many or more mistakes as she does on her records in person because it’s the same approach. You aren’t being treated to a virtuoso giving the performance of a professional lifetime. You’re getting a girl who sings some catchy tunes she wrote: .

The simple elements of Lykke Li don’t make her a great singer: her inconsistent voice does. It is the lack of natural singing talent she possesses that allows for each song to become a treasure hunt for those moments when you sift through all the dirt and dust, smiling because there's a glimmer in there that you know is a hint of a great reward.

Understanding Sierra Words

By the time he was awake he had been tired. Unattended parties had put him in a sour mood and he hummed his favorite song to get over it. A song he never heard before and he struggled it. His previous attempts had given no yield. He drew a bath and brought a book in with him, dissolved in the steam and let the ink soak up in his pores. He preferred his words be absorbed to save time and to keep his eyesight twenty-twenty. There was a school of thought that reaction was not about sight at all, but about anticipation. He breathed aloud at the idea, closed his eyes sunk down so everything but his head was underwater in the tub.

The mirror fogged over almost immediately. Within ten minutes he could tell he was hallucinating. The volatile cocktail of heated bathwater, cheap paperback ink and inflated ego reacted so violently he knew immediately. He no longer need his eyes as all he saw were Sierra mountains and people who never existed looking majestic in their hardship. They had chapped hands gripped around shovels, wore overalls soaked in what might have been gold dust so easily disturbed. They had families they couldn’t escape from. It was again he started to hum his favorite song with a little more vigor than before. His voice was still unwarmed, the notes in a wider range than the regular part of the day would allow. It was his own personal voice that he used to talk to this Sierra wood world and the people he longed to be in it. They had a hard time listening with all their own problems.

It was a good thing he lived alone now. There were times before when his escape into dangerous dreams would have been impossible, his responsibility to the outside world too firm in its grip on him. He wanted to enjoy his baths like he had in his grandmother’s tub where he could pick any of the little plastic figurines he wanted to play with. He played right in front of her and she didn’t think a thing of it. Even more so, neither did he. Who was that child, he asked the Sierra mountaineers. Who was a child that could imagine in front of people, if only family? They continued about their work, speaking in a language so specific he could not recognize it except for the odd word. They looked up to their cabins with loved ones peering down, food cooking in a stew on top the firewood stove, those old pot-bellied kind.

There wasn’t a way to get the child out of his mind and  yet that child surely had thought. He couldn’t remember a time when there was no thinking, when there weren’t thousands of thoughts to account for behind a set of eyes he couldn’t help but avoid. There were those thoughts, and his own thoughts. Those thoughts would fight amongst themselves before the noise would spill out still to another set of rambling thinkings. It was the noise that was the worst and his hallucinations didn’t help much. All those words coming in through the various passageways into him. Maybe he should have chosen a shorter book, or one where not much happened. He wanted fewer opinions and less conviction. He craved a silence that those hard-working people of his private Sierra seemed upon. Their thoughts were unable to escape in that imperceptible language of theirs. The only thing that made it across the barrier were a few hand gestures and the look of disgust. Up above on the deck a woman whistled down. He wanted words for that so he didn’t have to listen to his own. All of this and his bathwater was starting to become tepid.