Rock Music Is Too Serious, Or Why We Still Need the Vaselines
If the U.S. was an emoticon, it would be that frowning, teary-eyed yellow face. If it was a meme, it would be "Sad Keanu."
The Vaselines: Sex sucks, some of us are going to hell, and being dumb is fun.
According to the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which measures overall national contentment, Americans are becoming increasingly miserable. The index scores the well-being of each state on a scale from 0 to 100. The most recent national average was 66.2, down from 66.8 the previous year.
It's all a tad perplexing. Many of us have it pretty darn good here: The U.S. regularly tops worldwide quality-of-life indexes; meanwhile, our country offers rich cross-cultural experiences, unparalleled personal freedoms, longer life expectancies, and perhaps most important of all, unrestrained access to awesome stuff like car coffee makers, robotic butlers, sound therapy pillows, and bacon alarm clocks.
So why are we so hopelessly down in the dumps? I'll leave the more qualified to fully explore the reasons, which are generally related to politics, socio-economics, and celebrity Twitter feeds. What I do know is that many facets of contemporary popular culture are contributing to our rebranding as the United States of Malaise. Whether it's Bradford Cox displaying a hardened prejudice against gig guffaws, Bon Iver churning out more self-pitying, brow-furrowed folk, or Billy Corgan confirming once again that his brain was long ago drained of all its happy chemicals, today's rock artists aren't helping to improve the national mood. The other night I discovered a band that transforms Emily Dickinson poems into songs. After listening to just four bars of this, I prayed for death to kindly stop for me.
It left me contemplating a quote from LCD Soundsystem's James Murphy. "I don't get another life," he told The Wire in 2005. "I'm 34 years old and this is it. My entire youth is gone and dedicated to this, so I care enormously. I meet lots of people who don't realize that this is their only life." Yes, you only get this life and before it reaches its inexorable conclusion, you will spend moments regretting every second that you weren't smiling or laughing.
In a candy-coated, sugar-dusted nutshell, this is Glasgow's the Vaselines. Since forming in 1986, the sometimes twee/sometimes thunderous/always sweet indie pop duo of Eugene Kelly and Frances McKee (who perform Friday night at The Independent) have never let go of the belief that we're allotted a relatively tiny, ever-dwindling chunk of time on this here rock, and that being stiff and super-serious for any length of period and on whatever grounds is a total and unforgiving misuse of that time. Individuals who provide frequent bursts of levity -- or at the very least, recognize that levity can be found in any context and is thus, always within one's grasp -- are not to be viewed with suspicion. The straight man is the real threat. The straight man enforces the idea that rock music has a specific, finely-hewn archetype, and that archetype allows little wiggle room for the funny stuff, and that those who dismiss such rules and adopt humor as an integral component of their art will quickly exhaust this mode.
To that, the Vaselines say, "I'm a real dum-dum / But I don't mind / I got a dum-dum girl / We're two of a kind." "Dum Dum" is just one example of Kelly and McKee outright acknowledging their roles as pop music jesters, that life is just one big punch line and it's their duty to regularly remind us, critics be damned.
The duo's highlights are when it's poking fun at seemingly untouchable subjects, such as faith and organized religion, which the Vaselines skewered in "Jesus Wants Me for a Sunbeam." Over mournful cello and modest guitar and drum parts that evoke the Velvet Underground, Kelly turns a well-known Christian hymn of the same title on its head, declaring that for some, the road to piety and salvation is forever blocked -- and those individuals wouldn't prefer it any other way. Similarly playful and resentful is the self-explanatory "Sex Sux (Amen)." A bouncy rhythm section and bawdy guitar back Kelly's blasphemous couplets ("I was born of original sin / From a two-timing, hustlin' virgin"), as well as his declaration that intercourse is rather unsavory, a conviction that's either rooted in his belief system or the anger from having sexual advances repeatedly spurned.
The Vaselines also elicit laughs without communicating complex messages. "Rory Rides Me Raw," an ode to Kelly's ever-dependable bicycle, finds him delivering the most hilarious and direct of begs: "Rory ride me slowly / Ride me raw raw raw." "Monsterpussy" features the following vocal interplay: McKee, "Monsterpuss, monsterpuss / Meow, my monsterpuss"; Kelly, "I'm gonna skin it and wear it as a hat / On my head / Everyday / When it's dead." It's the Vaselines at their most clannish, the duo's insularity shaping their collective wit. They aren't the kids who crack one-liners and then nudge you in the ribs and ask, "Get it?" They're the kids who understand that most didn't appreciate their slightly unhinged, juvenile brand of humor, but then go ahead and crack one-liners anyway.