[This column is about lyrics as text, not a history of music column. We are listening through close readings for the microcosm of the album and the macrocosm of Youth Culture.]
I grew up on ska-core, and still love it. Definitely check out Awesome Mix Tape No. 6 and Second Hand, they are definitive of the genre.
Bit of a tradition of self-apologizing with Ska-core— as though the genre needed defending. In that vein, here’s this. Call this column mainstream, if you must; Less than Jake is sorta the biggest hits of ska-core, and Eastern Standard Time is hardly hardcore ska. There is much more ska in the underground. But I believe the cream does rise, and this column is about the lyrics. Keep tuning-in to this address for some much deadlier ska-core lyrics.
Eastern Standard Time’s album has very few lyrics, but it speaks none the less. Except for three originals, the songs are covers of Jazz and Be-bop classics, so second hand refers to a second-hand use of the songs. With the clock-related name of the band, this becomes a clever pun, and a definitive moment for the album. Like many albums in the ‘90s– including intellectual hip-hop– there is a hidden track at the end of the album. This features an impersonation of Andre the Giant, which speaks to the giant song writers covered on the album.
Less than Jake is a bit of a one-note band, musically, but their staccato energy and punk-rock stage presence are undeniable. And their lyrics are quite potent, if slightly– and delightfully– muddled. My Own Flag is a notion of independence, and of pride in one’s self. It starts with a politicized rant, “there’s left inside of me, something that I cannot see, like, rules and regulations passed down for generations.” Like, totally. The desired my own flag represents a desire for one’s own form of government, control of one’s own individual destiny– free from oppressive ideology. The desire is to create a counter-culture ideology– even a punk-rock flag is still a system of ideology. Party on, Less than Jake.
Johnny Quest Thinks we’re Sellouts introduces an important element in post-Nirvana punk-rock, including ska-core. The notion of selling-out to a major record label, so bemoaned in 70‘s punk, so despised in 80‘s hardcore, becomes a realistic commercial incentive in 90’s punk-rock. “Johnny Quest” was a late-‘80s cartoon show that in the early 90’s changed to digital animation: a clear sell-out in the eyes of Less than Jake. If a sell-out such as that thinks the band is selling-out, the two indistinguishable singers self-deprecate, they certainly must be. But Less than Jake “tries to keep the prices low for our records and our shows.” That seems good, right? “But is that enough,” he imagined addressee (reader, listener, themselves) of the song questions, “or is it that we’re not punk enough, or is it that you think ska just sucks.” Nice parallel syntax.
Punk-enough status aside, what makes these punk-rockers sing? For Less than Jake on Shotgun, drive-by shootings. “Shotgun,” he yawps, “no on ever thinks about it.” Good idea, Less than Jake, let’s think about it. Throw the Brick wonders, “what he has to lose? What’s to lose, anyhow. If he throws this rock will it all be solved now?” This offers a solution to the problem of youthful frustration: meaningless destruction of property. It matters little if the solution is effective in the emotional space of Youth Culture, for what does one have to lose, when there is nothing to lose, anyhow.
Growing up on the Couch is sincere societal commentary and critique. “How many things that you believe are straight out of TV and magazines… when comfort comes before truth.” This is an ideological system under critique. The magazine syndicate forces constructions of beauty— powered by the white-male— as well as the success/failure binary, the Faustian dream of fame, and being better than one’s neighbors. Yet still susceptible to those very binaries is the notion of truth/falsity; advice to lyricists out there, concern yourself not with truth, but with honesty.
Less than Jake argues “you say that everything is fine when your ideology is only right half the time.” Independent of the authorial intent of this phrase, this is why I think binaries are only right half the time; neo-Liberalism only empowers one side of the binary— the normative white-male. All others— women, blacks, hispanics, Easterners, queers, disabled people, madpeople, nerds— are marginalized, oppressed, otherized and stigmatized in some way by neo-Liberal binaries. Is current racial acceptance simply a whore/angel reaction to the Woman of race? Maybe. But it’s progress.
Some traits of the 90’s poser are exposed in Robo. “So she does a ‘zine… he’s got… brand new punk rock clothes.” A rejection of pre-ripped jean shorts and would-be punk designer clothing stores, as well as a further rejection of the magazine syndicate, even the counter-culture would-be-punk ‘zines— an early abrev for magazine. However, it seems impossible to be a poser on the internet, so filled with fiction-is-more-awesome-than-truth avatars and horny males’ fake relationship profiles. The term seems to have dropped out of contemporary Youth Culture— now the concern is of being mainstream. But the idea of a punk magazine in the ‘90s, or a punk blog in the new millennium, is stupid. Punk becomes a dirty word with ‘90s rap, anything punk is weak, cowardly. So punkers evolve from punks to become punk-rockers.
But how are internet publications, from articles, to opinion pieces, to blog domains any different from these independently published in print zines? How?— we can learn from their mistakes. First and foremost, documentable, sourced and cited knowledge, filled with precisely quoted content of what you profess to discourse upon. These scenester ‘zines attempt to be punk, when that term is outdated. Punk-rock and rap are now the voices of rebellion— do your research and use accurate words.
However, Short of Ideas seems to abandon the intellectual punk-rock project, yet it approaches a hermeneutical truth— a word I will try to explain below. “Like, everything has been done before. Do I need to understand every word from every man, or everything from every band”— a doubt I’m afraid my project here is approaching. But then continues, “Religion, sciences, similes to metaphors, can it be that there’s nothing new, when there’s more ways of looking at the truth.” This is theoretical hermeneutics, or multiplicity of truths, in the tradition of Paul Ricoeur. An idea taken from biblical and Kabbalah studies, that passages can have many meanings. Ricoeur applies the multiple truths possible in interpretations and close readings of texts to Existentialist and Post-Structuralist philosophy. An idea of multiple truths that arrives at Foucault’s “reign of truths,” a truth that changes as “archeologies” of human knowledge and reinforcement of ideas shift historiographically— historiographically means a more meta version of historically, basically the same meaning as “so-called History.” The idea is that history does not have a capital H, because History is written by the institutional powers-that-be.
[You can read the other entries in Albums as Texts here.]