Sunday, December 2, 2012

I Couldn't Live Like That: The quiet outsider in pop culture

Talking Heads sing of buildings, food, and other topics

Boy, it's amazing the connections you can find in pop culture without even searching for them. You simply experience various works as they come into your life, either by choice or happenstance, and themes emerge and reveal themselves to you. Take a few steps back and -- whaddya know -- the individual tiles form a larger mosaic. Today, I had such a revelation while listening to some early Talking Heads songs from the late 1970s. The band's lead singer and chief songwriter, David Byrne, has gone through many phases and stages as a lyricist. One hallmark of his early work is a kind of stoic, matter-of-fact plainness. Another is his interest in unromantic, workaday topics and prosaic sentiments which rarely get expressed through music. While other groups were singing about love, politics, injustice, and grand passions, Talking Heads were (quite literally) performing songs about buildings and food. I can still remember the first time I heard "Don't Worry About the Government," a track from their debut album, Talking Heads: 77. It blew my mind as a teenager because it completely expanded my definition of what a song could be or what lyrics could be. Here, give it a listen:

Somehow, I'm not buying it.
You'll notice that, although the lyrics do have a meter, they rarely rhyme. More astonishing, though, is that the sentiments expressed in the song are so unpoetic. The singer's words consist of flat, factual descriptions of the obvious, mixed in with a few generic platitudes delivered with no enthusiasm or genuine human emotion whatsoever. The listener is immediately confronted with questions. Is Byrne expressing his own thoughts and beliefs here or is he singing through some sort of character? If it's a character, then who exactly is this guy? Something is deeply troubling about this narrator. No real human being buys into "the system" (a vague term meaning, roughly, "a way of life dominated by commerce and government") as completely as this man seems to. Is he mentally impaired? Does he suffer from what we'd identify today as autism or Asperger's? Has he been brainwashed in some way, either by doctors (through lobotomy or drugs) or by television commercials which have short-circuited his brain? We don't know. Furthermore, though this man refers to "friends" and "loved ones," he seems to be isolated and possibly a bit desperate for human contact. Notice how he gives us directions to his apartment, but there's no evidence that anyone is taking him up on his too-generous offer of hospitality. The song's chipper yet non-specific musical backing further muddies the situation at hand. Is it meant as an ironic counterpoint to the dark issues raised by the song or does the upbeat music somehow validate or endorse the views of the narrator? It's a puzzler, this one.

More Songs About Buildings and Food
The second Talking Heads album, 1978's More Songs About Buildings and Food, gives us an equally startling song, "The Big Country," with a narrator who exists seemingly at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum as the eerily compliant fellow from "Don't Worry About the Government." While that poor fellow wants desperately to fit in with "normal" society, the narrator of "The Big Country" dismisses it out of hand. Once again, unlike other bands, Talking Heads are devoting themselves to the mundane. Maybe because no one else was really doing so in the punk and art rock scenes at the time. If music is supposed to reflect our culture and society, shouldn't someone be writing about the boring little stuff which actually fills up our days? To that end, "The Big Country" offers a supremely mundane scenario: a man looks out the window of an airplane and remarks on what he sees. That's it. Before we go any further, let's listen to the song:

Musically, the song is very different from "Don't Worry." Instead of being buoyant and poppy, "The Big Country" is languid and laconic, with a country-ish twang to the guitars. But as with the earlier song, the lyrics here are very plainspoken and only barely rhyme. In the first verse, our narrator simply describes what he sees out the window of the plane:

I see the shapes,
I remember from maps.
I see the shoreline.
I see the whitecaps.
A baseball diamond, nice weather down there.
I see the school and the houses where the kids are.
Places to park by the fac'tries and buildings.
Restaurants and bars for later in the evening.
Then we come to the farmlands, and the undeveloped areas.
And I have learned how these things work together.

I see the parkway that passes through them all.

So far, so neutral. (Apart from the vague, almost mechanical "nice weather down there.") It seems that he is describing either a suburban or rural part of the American landscape, since there are "undeveloped areas" near the houses, factories, baseball diamond, etc. The community is tethered to society by means of the parkway. But then, there's a transitional line leading into the chorus:

And I have learned how to look at these things and I say,

This lets us know that our man on the plane has developed a worldview and is about to deliver it to us. We know what he's seeing, and soon we'll know what he thinks about it. That's when David Byrne drops the nuclear bomb on the listener:

I wouldn't live there if you paid me.
I couldn't live like that, no siree!
I couldn't do the things the way those people do.
I couldn't live there if you paid me to.

These bitter lines should jolt the listener. The scenery he'd been describing up to that point was quite ordinary, probably like the places where most of us live, but his reaction to it is utter contempt. It should be noted that Byrne sings these lines the way he sings the rest of the song, i.e. sounding bored and mildly peeved rather than truly angry. It seems probable that this man is traveling alone and only thinking these things rather than saying them aloud. With the second verse, Byrne further damns this place and the people in it with faint praise:

I guess it's healthy, I guess the air is clean.
I guess those people have fun with their neighbors and friends.
Look at that kitchen and all of that food.
Look at them eat it. I guess it tastes real good.

That repeated phrase "I guess" negates any real positivity one might construe from these words. It's what you say when you are reluctantly agreeing to something but are not truly convinced by it. He begrudgingly notes the area's lack of air pollution -- another clue that our narrator is likely a city dweller -- and admits that the residents (whom he pointedly refers to as "those people," separating them from himself) might be having "fun," but he wants no part of it. The two lines about the kitchen and the food demonstrate that some of what the man is "seeing" is merely in his mind. He would not be able to actually see these things from the vantage point of the plane. He goes back to making flat, factual observations about food distribution and how the undeveloped areas, the businesses, and the private homes form one big food chain:

They grow it in the farmlands
And they take it to the stores
They put it in the car trunk
And they bring it back home
And I say...

Then he repeats the brutal chorus. The final verse is perhaps the most cryptically revealing and, therefore, the most interesting. So far, all we know of this strange man is that he is observing a world which is literally (and in his mind, figuratively) beneath him. But now Byrne gives us some insight into the narrator's opinion of his own station in life:

I'm tired of looking out the windows of the airplane
I'm tired of traveling, I want to be somewhere.
It's not even worth talking
About those people down there.

David Byrne, social critic?
He is apparently unsatisfied with his own transient, insubstantial life, perhaps as a businessman who travels frequently as part of his job, and he seemingly yearns for permanence and meaning. But he's just trashed the very place where he might have found these things. Is he having second thoughts about his cynical rejection of society? We'll never know because, in those last two lines of the verse, he simply gives up this line of thought with a slightly annoyed shrug. He's been pondering these people and their lives for a while, but he suddenly decides that this line of thought is worthless and simply surrenders to the thoughtless boredom of his plane ride. There are no further lyrics to the song, apart from David Byrne repeating the phrase "goo goo ga ga ga." These are the syllables we frequently use, of course, to mimic the babbling of babies. I'm not 100% sure why Byrne sings this at the end. Is our narrator making a comment on the fact that the (in his opinion) worthless people down there keep reproducing and making more of themselves, i.e. more people for the narrator to hate? Is he dismissing the very idea of talking, implying that it all boils down to us making nonsense syllables that we pretend have meaning? Or is he just making a sarcastic comment on the low IQs of those he holds in contempt? We'll never know, but the ending feels right for the song. The song's intensity has been building slightly by this point, and this is where Byrne sounds his angriest. Like "Don't Worry About the Government," "The Big Country" is a song I'll never get tired of largely because I can't figure it out.

Hudson & Landry
By an amazing coincidence, I just heard a track by a once semi-popular, now very obscure 1970s comedy team which ties in very well to this theme of self-imposed exile from society. Hudson and Landry scored four gold records, a Grammy nomination, and several national television appearances in the same decade which produced those Talking Heads albums. H&L have all but vanished from our collective memories now, but there's a particular Hudson and Landry bit I want to share with you today because it ties in so well to "The Big Country." Just like that song, it makes repeated use of the phrase "I couldn't live like that." It's called "The Prospectors" and it concerns two would-be gold prospectors who have been out in the desert for decades with only each other -- and a pet snake named Floyd -- for company. The isolation from others has driven them quite crazy by this point, and their lives seem utterly miserable, but still they mock the ways of city slickers. I'd like to leave this slightly heady article on a fun note, so give it a listen:

I guess I'm writing about all this stuff because I've never been quite comfortable in "normal" society and do tend to isolate myself at times, as much as I attempt to avoid doing so. But sometimes I do look at regular, average people and can't help thinking, "I couldn't live like that."

But I'm trying to "live like that" anyway. Wish me luck.


  1. Curiously enough, "Don't Worry About the Government" is a Talking Heads song that I think about fairly often. At my job the cleaning guy generally comes around in the middle of the afternoon. And no matter what I'm in the middle of, I have to stop and banter with him for the minute or so it takes him to empty my trash can, usually about the book I have on my desk or whatever website may be on my computer at the time. And every time this happens, I think of the lyrics:

    I'll be working, working, but if you come visit
    I'll put down what I'm doing, my friends are important

    Not that I consider the cleaning guy my friend, mind you, but I don't want him to think of me as a jerk, either.

  2. Understandable. Forced banter is part of my job, too. I think the guy in the song probably traps a lot of his coworkers into conversations they wish they could avoid. I'd imagine him talking like a grown-up Ralph Wiggum.