[18 August 2008]
Have you ever asked yourself, is all good music depressing or unflinchingly honest (that is, depressing)? Have you ever actively pursued music that you know will lower your mood? And if listening didn’t satisfy your masochism, ever wanted to read a book about depressing music?
Apparently there is an audience for such morbid contemplation, as Tom Reynolds’ first book, I Hate Myself and Want to Die: The 52 Most Depressing Songs You’ve Ever Heard, became something of a cult success. To be fair: why wouldn’t his glorified list in pocket-size format be a hit? He hates the Doors’ augmented 9th chords! Christmas songs by Christian Contemporary bands suck! The Smashing Pumpkins’ singer has an unusually nasal voice!
This is why those songs are depressing! Though I Hate Myself and Want to Die was at best of trivial interest (a Greil Marcus he is not), Reynolds’ prose was lightly-handled, humorous, and made a topic that could have been poorly-handled enough to compound the oppressive nature of the original material actually fun to associate yourself with.
And that’s the point: anyone can write a book full of depressing music. The love song is a more sensitive issue. Exactly what kind of sentiment, for example, crosses the fine line between romantic and slightly crazed; at what stage is it appropriate to start gushing lines from a smitten Shakespeare sonnet to a partner? Tom Reynolds addresses this more challenging question in Touch Me, I’m Sick: The 52 Creepiest Love Songs You’ve Ever Heard, the follow-up to I Hate Myself and Want to Die. His casual justification arrives in the former book’s introduction: “It seemed like the perfect follow-up, a volume about obsession to complement one about depression.”
A collection of songs in the height of ecstasy might have been a better counter to a countdown of suicidal intent, but who wants to read about shiny happy people holding hands, anyway? Continuing in his introduction to Touch Me I’m Sick, the author portrays himself as lone soldier in his devoted quest to find obsessive stalker anthems. People were only too happy to help him locate the downers for his first novel, he bemoans, yet they run for the hills as soon as he looks for a creepy love song outside of “Every Breath You Take”? Reynolds wants the unnerving, gregarious, and perverse; the ephemeral, conditional, narcissistic, and ‘whacked’ musical gestures of our iPod generation.
The stereotype of a cynical middle-aged listener, he muses that “love once inspired sonnets, plays, and novels. Now it comes with pre-nuptials agreements and publicists.” Yes, Reynolds appears to champion the popular but dull theory of a decline in society since the golden olden times, yet underlines it with sharp wit and examples, the following being my favorite:
Early popular songwriters ... employed a nuance in their lyrics not often found today. Let’s compare:
“Someday, when I’m awfully low, and the world is cold, I will feel a glow just thinking of you, And the way you look tonight.”
(Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields, ‘The Way You Look Tonight’)
“I want to fuck you like an animal.” (Nine Inch Nails, ‘Closer’)
Of course, it could be pointed out that Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields were unlikely to have had access to drugs, scary industrial music and a downward spiral when recording “The Way You Look Tonight” ... but when it comes down to it, the great thing about the broadness and freedom of popular music is that literally everybody can put together a mixtape on a genre, whether that’s acid house, an ode to a lust-driven stalker, or a lollipop as a metaphor for oral sex.
Which is why Reynolds is as qualified as anyone else to be writing on the creepy love song. His everyman analysis, dripping sarcastic sense of humour and readiness to throw personal experiences into his writing makes Touch Me I’m Sick an easy, enjoyable, immersing read. My copy alone has convinced four others to get one since I bought it at Christmas (and I’m still counting).
Reynolds treats his audience like we’re in on his joke ... that being, presumably, that he’s a poor but brilliant artist who must dissect some of our culture’s more embarrassing musical achievements for the sake of his own intelligence. He talks down on the bands and musicians he’s reviewing with hyperbole, ironic distance and condescension, and openly admits his arrogance. There’s probably a whole message on our consumer-driven society that you could take out of these pages.
His writing is also more assured throughout this literary mixtape than it was in I Hate Myself and Want to Die; he doesn’t bother to test the waters or speculate, and is more willing to experiment. As with his previous work, the book is split into ‘categories’, these including ‘Death Becomes Us’ (‘corpse-happy songs’), ‘I Want to Fly Like An Ego’ (‘anthems to self-love’), ‘Love’s Just Another Word for I Want to Eat Your Liver’ (‘devoted to women artists’) and a whole section set aside for songs named “Butterfly”.
Inside these pages, he writes as duplicit personalities, as a rock historian, as a spectator to a sexual act between a lesbian couple (to the music of Melissa Ferrick’s “Drive”), as an exasperated man on the receiving end of a CHAI (Chicks Holding Acoustic Instruments) rant, as a ‘Beatles expert’ investigating the murderously bitter “Run For Your Life” and, when the occasion calls for it, as the artist themselves. (Author’s note: Reynolds doing Fergie is hilarious)
He snidely condemns rap music in a take on Eminem’s “Stan” and pours poison on several much-maligned ‘80s hits and—ahem—Kevin Federline’s “Lose Control” (“Kevin Federline is the Messiah of celebri-dicks”). The book’s major shortcoming is that it takes scandals and incidents which have already been parodied to death and uses them as basis to criticize. Case in point: Ashlee Simpson’s lip-synching (to which Reynolds responds by ‘type-synching’, which has to be read to be believed) and George Michael’s arrest, re-imagined in relation to “Father Figure.”
These two chapters of Touch Me I’m Sick aren’t half as clever or funny as Reynolds thinks they are, and his holier-than-thou attitude to pop becomes tedious by the book’s end (read: his take on Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty”). His writing is strongly reminiscent of that of Dr. David Thorpe, another antagonistic yet undeniably amusing ‘critic’ who garners publicity by feigning to hate everything popular, acclaimed or a little left-of-center.
Should you stop to consider the subtext of Reynold’s humorous pieces on creepy love songs, there is not a lot in Touch Me I’m Sick containing depth or substance. That said, me attempting to take him to task for this, or his crude dismissal of several entire genres of music, or even his failure to look past Eddie Vedder’s blurry intonation or the language barrier when reviewing the music of Pearl Jam and Rammstein, respectively, would probably be a waste of time, while drastically missing the point of this collection.
Touch Me, I’m Sick: The 52 Creepiest Love Songs You’ve Ever Heard begs you not to take it seriously, and is just too exuberant and light-hearted not to be enjoyed. Besides, as is the glory of the mixtape, it’s a great way to discover new music.