I've been listening to Plushgun's (up there with the all-time terrible band names) "Just Impolite" pretty much on repeat since I heard it in my boss's office last week, and I think it's helped me figure out something about what I like in some pop music:
It's a big, narratively expansive song, but one that's chock-full of, for lack of a better word, stuff. The chorus alone, "I walk the line like Johnny Cash / I made the bus in seconds flat / I called your line too many times / I'm not obsessed, just impolite," has three separate ideas and three arresting images in it. And I think I kind of like that lack of focus. There's something true in it.
One of my favorite songs right now is Bishop Allen's "The Chinatown Bus," which is if anything, much more geographically and temporally broad than "Just Impolite" (though a little less musically shimmery, despite the tambourine):
I think the thing that these messy songs get at is the way an emotionally engaged mind works. The song begins with an invocation of a Chinatown bus driver's luck on a crowded road, and ends, after meandering through Shanghai and cotillions, with this verse: "I clutched at the Saint Christopher / I picked up at some country abbey / Long ago when I believed / He'd keep me safe and make me happy / But it seems / The luck he brings / Is not the common currency of penny in Japan." These are the kind of connections we make when we're open to the universe or tense with distress and scrambling for explanations. They're songs that get at the whole universe of experience and association behind a particular reaction.
And then there's the "Spaceship," (or hell, any album on that EP) by a guy I knew a little in college, Daoud Tyler-Ameen, who I really wish would start blogging again. It's got a frame idea, the struggle for success in that odd space of post-college uncertainty, and the same sparkly sound of the previous two songs. He sings: "Can't return a call / Skipping every breakfast / He tried to be a writer but instead he only fact-checks / Out of shape / Uninspired / Forced down solid / And you just feel tired / Wake up every day / Spend it from the get-go / Chewing on your thumb / Staring out the window / You could really go / No one's going to stop you / You could really go / No one's going to stop you / You could really go / You could spend your money / But you're burning through your twenties / For a misdirected, energetic asshole." That's a lot of explication to get through in 31 seconds, and it's only one verse and chorus.
And I think that's what it's like to be a particular kind of person in your twenties, overloaded by possible explanations for what your'e feeling and new experiences. Is the problem the job? The significant? The lack of courage to match ambition? A combination of all three? A profound spiritual lassitude? "I'll bide my time and pay my rent / 'Til something knocks me to my senses," but what will it be? Life's big and confusing, and sometimes only the three-minute framework of the pop song can force you to make sense of it, to the extent you can.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.
Born in 1975, the product of two beautiful parents. Raised in West Baltimore -- not quite The Wire, but sometimes ill all the same. Studied at the Mecca for some years in the mid-'90s. Emerged with a purpose, if not a degree. Slowly migrated up the East Coast with a baby and my beloved, until I reached the shores of Harlem. Wrote some stuff along the way.