15 January, 2008

Sardonic Sweetness

I'm not someone to shy away from sarcasm. In fact, I find it decidedly refreshing and often exhilarating when I hear it in music that has long gone stale with its own self-importance. When coupled with a voice or tune that would otherwise be sickeningly sweet, sarcasm can give a song dimensions.

Think of Liz Phair. Many music fans know her as a woman who released a fairly mainstream album back in 2003. She received quite a lot of airtime with "Why Can't I", a song that I think is just too wrapped up in itself to be taken seriously. Travel back with me to the early '90s when Ms. Phair was first recording. She released a soon to be cult album entitled Exile In Guyville. Based on the sounds of her more recent album, you might expect Exile in Guyville to be female singer-songwriter fluff without a bite, but the music on this album is vicious and acerbic, witty and sardonic. "Fuck and Run" and "Flower" are both crude, warped, and emotionally raw. The latter is an obscenity-filled ode to a boy, that's basically crooned over some soft folk. "Fuck and Run" on the other hand questions the very idea of a boyfriend, almost eulogizing those imperfect expectations that come packaged alongside girls' dreams of being princesses. Phair wonders:

"Whatever happened to a boyfriend, the kinda guy who tries to win you over? And whatever happened to a boyfriend, the kinda guy who makes love 'cause he's in it?

And I want a boyfriend
I want a boyfriend
I want all that stupid old shit like letters and sodas...

It's simply raw and real, no fluff. Most importantly there are no lyrical cliches that help to build that assumption that relationships are like fairy-tales. Phair was tearing down those assumptions and replacing them with something closer to reality, but somewhere along the way she must have decided that reality doesn't sell on the radio.

Phair laments the loss of "real" boyfriends, but every line in the song describes her relationship with a boy who doesn't even care. Phair is just hurting herself now, and she realizes this and questions her own decisions. This is a good step forward, but there's never any real catharsis on Exile in Guyville.

At this point we can travel back to 2007-2008, a time filled with female singer-songwriters both sweet and sardonic. This is the time when the best-selling movie fairy-tale, Enchanted, is full of sarcasm and self-referential humor. I'm all for this push towards reality. Expectations have been awfully high for a long time. I mean how many guys own a castle? What I think is important though is that girls realize they can still be in a good relationship. Here comes Jenny Owen Youngs with Batten the Hatches. She flirts with disaster and the pain of a bad relationship on "Fuck Was I", and with crooning vocals delivers her own thoughtlessness to any girls willing to listen. The point? Sometimes you fall and it takes a hell of a lot of strength to get back up. "P.S." is a declaration of personal independence from the negativity that surrounds a failing relationship. These songs are raw.

I love fairy-tales and "happily ever afters" as much as anyone, but I also see that sometimes these stories can skew reality. When you need an injection of raw emotion, listen to old Liz Phair and Jenny Owen Youngs. Personally, I'm going to continue to dream of "happily ever afters", while remembering that nothing is perfect.

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