“We’re The Ordinary” – The Fashion Focus

This song sounds like molasses. The pace crawls. It opens with the lead guitar and a synth mirroring each other on the melody line. The instruments in the background are sparse. You get an ’80s synth inflection here, a chord from a ’60s-esque, reverb-laden guitar bursts in there before retreating to the background. Just at the end, layers of guitars fill in the space and a blistering lead rides on top, but it is gone too soon. This song sounds like it is trying to find its place or at least making a half-hearted attempt at it. Maybe sometimes you don’t have a song.

I don’t mean to sound so harsh on this one. This was probably my favorite song when this album first came out. It got more repeats than any other song during my honeymoon phase with this LP. After awhile, it started to grate on me. I’m not sure why. Now the song just sounds like malaise in auditory form.

The lyrics tell of malaise too. We’re ordinary people. We struggle. We are alone. And, yeah, others have had it worse. But you still know what it is like – what it is like not to have a life. Just as the synth and the lead guitar mirror each other on the melody, we mirror each other in our discontent and our half-hearted attempts to find our place in the world.

It’s the “in” thing now to get on your preferred brand of social media poison and share memes about how much you struggle and fail at adulting and how much the world irks you. This is at least more authentic than previous generations who pretended to have it all together for the sake of public opinion. But it’s not exactly fulfilling, is it? To do this dance of making jokes about how the world holds you down or you hold yourself down. Even if you can make a good joke about it, you are still held down.

All of this talk of malaise made me think of Jimmy Carter’s famous “malaise” speech, which, ironically, he gave during this very week 40 years ago. In 1979 (also the year of my birth) the ordinary folks were not happy. There was an energy crisis which caused people to stand in long lines to buy expensive gas. The wounds that came from the Vietnam War, Nixon’s impeachment and the Civil Rights struggle had not healed. Unemployment was high and inflation was rising. The decade had seen the emergence of new cultural characters like cult leader Jim Jones and the serial killer referred to as the Son of Sam. Carter decided to address the existential core of the problems the people felt. It didn’t go so well.

Carter opened the speech by repeating some of the criticisms received at the White House. One in particular from a woman in Pennsylvania is relevant for us here: “I feel so far from government. I feel like ordinary people are excluded from political power.” The ordinary people are powerless. They are excluded from the mechanisms in place to affect change. My intention here is not to get political here, so don’t worry. I find this woman’s quote illuminating and as true today as it ever was. The political is always personal, ultimately, and that is what I am reaching for.

Carter attempted to diagnose what lies at the center of the malaise of the nation. He called it a “crisis of confidence”. In our doubts and fears about the future, we closed the door on our past and in so doing, we were losing our identity. Sometimes we don’t have a life.

“In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities, and our faith in God, too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what one does, but by what one owns. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.”

Carter’s suggested antidote to this malaise was personal responsibility. If each person learned to focus outward to the world instead of inward to themselves, a balance could be restored. Think about how you spend energy; don’t spend needlessly. Put on a sweater before you turn on the heat. Don’t take unnecessary trips. Don’t spend or consume when there is no need. Help your neighbors and have faith in them. Sacrifice a little for the common good. Make conscious decisions to improve your community instead of depending on the government or foreign oil imports to make your happiness for you.

Carter’s argument was sound and was initially well received. It was a potential pivot point for the country. Then after people had a couple of days to think about it, the mood changed. Why does Carter think there’ something wrong with us? We’re the greatest country on earth! What does he mean that we are self-indulgent? I work for everything I have and I’ll spend my money as I damn well please. He’s the president and he’s supposed to fix these problems.

Once the backlash began, Carter, ironically, did not take responsibility for the way his message was received. He fired a significant portion of his Cabinet and would make no further comments on the matter. When the next election cycle came around, the people went with the charismatic leader who promised to make America great again and told the people that there was nothing wrong with them or the way they lived. The country doubled down on hedonism, consumerism and self-indulgence in the ’80s which put us on the path that lead us to where we are today. I wonder where we would be now if we had taken the path Carter suggested 40 years ago.

This is who we are, us ordinary people. We want to spend without considering the real costs to other people in our world. When the unavoidable consequences of living that way finally reaches our doorsteps, we want to blame others and then latch onto whoever we think can fix all the problems for us. We certainly do not want anyone who might call us out or suggest that we might have to roll up our sleeves and play a part in the fixing of the mess. This is not a conservative vs. liberal thing; both groups do this in nearly equal measures.

Sometimes we don’t have a life because we refuse to make one. Can’t someone else just do it for us, please? We would rather wallow in memes about our own apathy than take any responsibility changing the way things are. In his book Love and Will, Rollo May prophetically wrote 50 years ago that “it is now upon us; and is indeed a tremendous event — that man stands at the point where he can be present at the birth of a new world or can preside at the destruction of humanity itself.”

I think what stands between the ordinary and greatness is a combination of taking responsibility and caring for others. It is not enough to have power and make decisions. May says that asserting one’s will without caring is just manipulation (and I can certainly see this truth personified by those who hold power or who seek power today). If you love but do not act from that love, your feelings are merely sentimentality (and I can see this personified in those who say they care about people who are marginalized and abused but do nothing about it).

It’s not as if I have this all figured out or anything. I can talk a good game when I am writing. But, in full disclosure, I am typing this on my brand new iPad Air that I really didn’t need but purchased anyway because of the convenience. Maybe I’m writing what I need to hear which is often the case with me.

I think what it comes down to is this: If we don’t find a new way of living in this world, then this “we don’t have a life” thing won’t just be a “sometimes” kinda thing. I’m writing to you because I think you know too.

“I Drive A Lot” – The Fashion Focus

Today’s review is going in an unexpected direction. We are going to talk about cocaine, folks. You didn’t anticipate that, did you? The Fashion Focus is the continental divide of the sf59 catalog. People tend to see it as the point when sf59 finally became something or the point when it all started going off the rails. I do not intend to argue the merits of the album. I want to pull the lid off this thing to figure out what changed and why the change happened. Cocaine will be my metaphorical crowbar for this task (at least on the first song).

The drum intro of “I Drive A Lot” tells us right away that the pace is different than anything we’ve heard before from sf59. Then those synths burst in like sunlight hitting a dusty room when you’ve opened the curtains. We’ve got that four on the floor beat. The vocals are slightly off tune. There’s no way around it, y’all. This is a New Wave song.

I had always suspected that JM was influenced by New Wave, even when distorted guitars were the order of the day. JM revealed his cards a bit with “You’re Mean”. There were other signs too. All those songs that sounded like a reinterpretation of ’50s music? That is a standard New Wave trope. The utilitarian drums? Check. The preoccupation with sadness and aloneness? Check. New Wave was always there hiding behind all those guitar tracks in the first three albums.

I grew up on New Wave. It is as natural to me as breathing. One of my earliest memories is going on a road trip and hearing the Eurythmics “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” constantly on the radio on the whole trip because it was the #1 song at the time (Side note: is it any wonder that I became a person who constantly questions the motivations of people? “Sweet Dreams” taught me this). I cannot imagine music without New Wave. It was not even something that I realized consciously until it was called into question once.

Once my ex and I went to my best friend’s house. As often happens with my best friend, we started watching music videos on YouTube which led to us to a captivating performance by Berlin at some outdoor festival in 1983 where Terri Nunn was just blown out of her head. I looked over at my ex and she’s bored out of her mind. I asked her later what she thought of Berlin and she said she didn’t like them. I started listing off other New Wave bands and she responded each time saying that she doesn’t like them (she didn’t like sf59 either). The best description I could get from her for why she didn’t like New Wave was “It’s too frantic.” I started connecting the dots in my brain. All the bands she didn’t like were known cocaine users. Her brain couldn’t work at the speed of cocaine and mine could. Where she just heard noise and frenzy, I heard home and long road trips with my family.

I started thinking about why cocaine was such a major feature of New Wave music and how it impacted the sound of the songs and the lyrical content. My favorite New Wave bands are from the UK, NYC or the American South. I started thinking about what happened in those locations that would lead a generation of musicians to write the way that they did and snort cocaine like there was no tomorrow. The New Wave generation grew up in extraordinary times. In the UK, there was the vast destruction brought by World War II and the Troubles in Ireland. In the US, we had the civil rights movement and the threat of the Cold War. This generation was the first that grew up with the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. No wonder they snorted cocaine. This generation knew what horrors humanity was capable of. They needed something to make their brains move faster than the ever-present existential dread of living life.

You can hear the existential dread in the music if you pay attention. But these kids weren’t going to be all morose about it like the baby boomers of the ’60s. No, they are going to write songs about isolation and fear and you are going to dance to it, dammit. They will sing about the difficulty of life but do it in such a way that it sounds like they are one step ahead of it. I suppose cocaine helps you run just out of reach of those cultural boogeymen. If you listen to the pace of the music, you can hear how they are driven to outrun the past or run toward some unattainable future.

And if you need it a lot
I’m talking just to waste my day
I drive a lot
I drive a lot

There has to be something for those of us who abstain from drugs for personal/religious reasons or who don’t have enough money to feed a cocaine habit. For me, it has always been driving and listening to music. I suspect it is the same for JM too. My propensity to find solace in driving was formed on those road trips with my family. I would sit in the back seat with my headphones and relax into a steady beat as trees, road signs and gas stations zoomed by. At the time The Fashion Focus was released, I was commuting to college and delivering pizza. Except for the hours when I was in class or sleeping, I was always on the move, always pushing the gas pedal down so my anxieties could not catch up.

Think of things I’d be
With time to kill and just had lots of money
Time to kill and just had lots of money

Yeah, I thought about these things too back in those days. There is this sense in these lines that the lack of time and money is preventing the singer from being who he wants to be. It’s that unattainable future that he’s driving towards.

When I’m all worked up I think of
Friends of mine now 35

35 seemed like such a long way off when The Fashion Focus came out. Now I wonder where all time time went. The singer says he’s “talking just to waste [his] day” but at the same time, he is conscious that time will run out. He will get old.

This song sounds happier than anything on the first three albums but it is filled with just as much existential dread. I can’t be who I would want to be now because I don’t have the money or the time, but time will eventually run out. What can I do about this? I keep driving. And I drive a lot.