Smile Politely

Let’s Be Honest

Will Sheff, songwriter and frontman for Austin’s Okkervil River, can see two sides of the coin. Before he took on Okkervil duties as a full time endeavor, he was also a music critic. Still, he often writes songs from a journalistically objective view and the music is clearly examined and perfected before it’s put on a record. But how does that affect his view of his own music? Does that affect the songs he writes? Does he think he tried too hard fitting so many syllables into the group’s most recent album?

I’m not really interested in answering those questions. What I’ve been thinking about is the song off of The Stand Ins (Okkervil’s latest) called “Pop Lie.”

“Pop Lie” is the story of a pop star. He wears “bright green,” and knows exactly what to do to make people sing. Well calculated and specifically made to get people to sing along, the unnamed man succeeded; he kind of sounds like Timbaland or the guy from One Republic. The only problem is that he lied. “He’s the liar that lied in his pop song,” Sheff sings. “And you’re lying when you sing along.”

Is this a comment on the state of modern music? Or is it a clever twist on the fact that this is one of Okkervil’s catchiest songs – making the listener question the song itself once they start singing along? It brings up that great word that loves to get people arguing, “Authenticity.” I think the song comes off as preachy. That “pop” music is something that’s a sham made on Pro Tools.

But the twist is that I think Sheff is lying. He’s not being critical; he’s doing it himself and shows that music and art isn’t truthful. Is the levee really going to break, Robert Plant? What a song is about is never what it’s really saying. Obviously I’m familiar with symbolism and metaphor but words themselves undermine the message of the song.

It doesn’t matter that The Beatles read the news today oh boy, all that does is throw off the listener into their own interpretive dead ends. Is it really about the events on the page, is it about internal strife, is it about the go-to subject matter, drugs? Irrelevant. The meaning is the music. When we sing along to songs we’re singing our songs to the music that is trying to tell us something.

There’s that one American Hi-Fi song “cleverly” named “Flavor of the Weak.” Does he yell “too stoned, to know” or does he shout “too stoned, Nintendo?” People will swear on their life on their given interpretation. It changes the meaning of the song. It has a million meanings, so whichever one you choose you’re calling the singer a liar. It even applies to politically-minded songs. Why exactly are waiting for the world to change, Mr. Mayer?

The fidelity of the song is in the music. I’m not saying lyrics destroy a song, I think they’re there but can never be unlocked. A drumbeat doesn’t lie.

I think people’s desire to sing along matches up nicely with an image Sheff discusses in “Pop Lie.” He tells the listener to “get completely incorporated/ by some couple who consummated/ their first love by the dawn.” There’s a creepy level of voyeurism involved with diving into a song. That’s what makes it worthwhile though; we want to know what the words mean because we want to be the singer.

The listener is exactly like Cate Blanchett talking to the alien at the end of the new Indiana Jones movie. “I vant to know everything!” That’s a dangerous request and it might benefit everyone to be told these lies. It makes them easier to dance to.

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