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Shop Vac

So I went to the Jonathan Coulton concert last week. With my dearest (afeley), my sweetie (kitanzi), her husband (autographedcat), and a dozen or so of our closest friends.

It was a good show. Really, it ought to be billed as the "Paul and Storm and Coulton" concert, because they're so much more than just an opening act. Anna said she liked them better than Coulton, and I think that's fair; they certainly brought a lot more energy than he did. Still, they were all good. Anna and I had some tension that I'm not going to talk about right now; we resolved it later. The interesting thing about it in this context is that this is the second time I've been to the Coulton concert with some screwed-up circumstances just before the music, and it's the second time the show was good enough to make me forget all about it for a while.

Anyway. One of the songs he played was "Shop Vac."  If you haven't heard it yet, you should listen -- this post will make a lot more sense if you do.  

The next day, I Twittered this:
One concert annoyance: why do people laugh and shout out during "Shop Vac?" That song is TRAGIC. It's a tearjerker. Does nobody else get it?
I got some good responses to that. And yesterday Kit told me that autographedcat  had done a followup LJ post from my Twitter.  I just finished reading his insightful analysis and all of its comments.  I don't read LJ regularly enough; I should have known already that he'd done it.

It's fascinating to see so many perspectives on the same content.  Rob thinks the song is funny because it's true.  Others in his comments find the protagonist of the song utterly unsympathetic, or criticize Coulton for dissing the suburban lifestyle, or simply revel in the ironic dissonance between the song's melody and lyrics.  These are all thoughtful opinions worthy of respect.  I'm not sure everyone clapping and cheering at the concert thought about it as deeply.  If they did...  Well, then I still disagree with them.

I'm pretty strong in my own views of the song. I don't think it's funny at all. I don't think it's a 'fuck you' to suburban culture, even if Coulton himself said so. The artist's intention only has to inform my interpretation of the song if I choose.  I know what the song is about, at least to me, and it's not disrespectful and it's not funny.

I think it's tragic.  Suburbia itself is just a placeholder in the song.  It's the Walter Mitty tragedy.  It's about the pain of mundane living, Thoreau's 'quiet desperation,' and the subtle alienation and soul death that can sneak up on us all when we're too busy thinking about our immediate velocity to worry about our position.  I think putting oneself above the song's carelessly cruel narrator is a dangerous sort of arrogance.  We all risk shutting out our awareness of our own feelings and the feelings of the people around us.  Saying we'd never do that is asinine.  And laughing at it is...well, it's crueler to me than the guy with the shop vac.

I'm offended upset by the laughter.  Granted, no one else has to agree.  I don't think this is a matter of "I'm right, you're wrong."  I may have had the impulse to stand up and yell at people during the concert, but I didn't actually do it.  Objectively, I know that my interpretation and feelings on the song are no more valid than anyone else's.  

But they're no less valid either.  And I wanted to share them.  This song hurts.  Not because I think I really am that guy in the song.  But because I'm afraid of becoming that guy.  And I think it's something most of us, the peer group most likely to be reading this post, ought to be more afraid of.

Comments welcome.


( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 7th, 2009 01:50 pm (UTC)
I don't have to be afraid of becoming that guy. I already did. (I got better.)

I'm glad I wrote the essay. The variety of perspectives on the work has fascinated me, and like you said, I don't think it's a matter of any one of them being right...even Coulton's.

What's really interesting is the various levels of sympathy people have for the narrator. I find I like the song even more for having revealed just how complex it can be -- even more than I originally saw.
Jun. 7th, 2009 02:51 pm (UTC)
Hmm...and for a different take, after listening to the song, I don't see the narrator as unsympathetic or carelessly cruel, although that part about not being able to hear her cry with the shop-vac is kind of dissonant with the rest of the song.

I think the narrator knows what's happened and hates it just as much as anyone listening. And I think the scary part is that, with increasingly few exceptions, it's what happens to people. I'm in the middle of trying to come up with a future where that doesn't happen and, quite frankly it's hard to do.

I think the danger comes in mocking it, not realizing we're becoming that, and that may be if we're lucky. The other options are, well...more uncertain, more dangerous, and the way things are in the U.S. kind of fixed against the people who take the road less traveled.

Just my take on it, though.
(Deleted comment)
Jun. 7th, 2009 04:01 pm (UTC)
It is a very sad song, and the character comes across to me as desperately angry beneath a disaffected exterior. But it's also a very funny song, IMO. Two great tastes, and a combination that makes for some of my favorite art.

Jun. 7th, 2009 04:13 pm (UTC)
I know what it's like to be anti-entertained by something when everyone around me loves it. In my case, I have never enjoyed a zombie story. I cannot find zombies funny. There's something about the protagonists' loved ones being killed and converted to something they have to shoot, that is the opposite of entertainment for me. So, don't feel bad about having a different reaction to "Shop Vac".

As for "Shop Vac," it's a very powerful song. I'm re-reading and re-reading your post to see an incompatibility between (1) horrifyingly sad, (2) funny, and (3) a scathing disparagement of popular values. I find it to be all three, as dark humor so often is.

And Steve, I will make a suggestion that will probably sound pretty weird at first. I recommend you don't use the generic word "offended" if you don't want eyerolls. There are more detailed and informative words with which to express your reaction, that don't make you sound like you're in some kind of prissy, oversensitive moral panic. You can say you wonder if that means they think they're above you like they're above the narrator, or whatever it may be. The generic word "offended" is surprisingly counterproductive both to informational communication, and relationships. It diverts attention from what someone did and whether it was justified, and puts the focus on the offended person, as if their feelings need validation foremost.

I have started avoiding those who say "offended" the most often. Perhaps therefore I am an example of the kind of indifference toward emotions that is depicted in "Shop Vac"?
Jun. 7th, 2009 05:52 pm (UTC)
I recommend you don't use the generic word "offended"...

This. Even "upset" is better, if you're not actually trying to imply that the people who upset you are jerks.
Jun. 7th, 2009 08:35 pm (UTC)
Good points, Matt and Sam. Editing as suggested. Thanks.

I don't use the word lightly myself. I think "offense" feels basically right in expressing my immediate reaction, but you're right, it's a loaded word. What I was trying to convey wasn't confrontational. Once I got past it I did realize that reaction was more about me than what anybody else meant to express. My feelings are my feelings, but holding them against other people is a choice I don't often make. And I am not doing so now, despite expressing myself badly.
Jun. 7th, 2009 05:33 pm (UTC)
All of that, plus
Exposure to large amounts of Mad Men or any other mid-century period fiction or documentary will almost certainly influence one's reactions to that song ...

oh and to all mainstream culture and a bunch of other stuff.

In the song, in the theatre, when he sang "you can cry but I probably won't hear you" I could not decide what the tone is ("supper is ready!", "I'm leaving you!", "omh zombies!") that can't be heard. I think it's ambiguous on purpose and that is great.
Jun. 7th, 2009 05:35 pm (UTC)
If you think suburbia is just a coincidental background for our society's version of "quiet desperation", you haven't read enough Kunstler. There's a reason why suburbia is so depressing. And suburbia has to a great extent eaten the very idea of The American Dream™ (i.e. The American Dream now is suburbia), so it's tragic for urban and rural folks, too. (Not to mention the fact that the whole arrangement has left our society in a very doomed position, energy-consumption-wise, and urban and rural folks won't escape that unscathed, either.)

The song also mirrors the suburban dilemma, by dressing up a bleak and depressing situation in a cheery facade.

(Also, I'd say that there are reasons other than shadenfruede backed by some sort of anti-suburban elitism to find the song funny. Not everyone likes dark humor, but no one likes people raining on their parade, either. You say you "don't think this is a matter of 'I'm right, you're wrong'", but that statement is sort of contradicted by the rest of this post. The implication that anyone who has a different opinion probably hasn't thought it through ("Does nobody else get it?" "I'm not sure everyone... thought about it as deeply.") is also obnoxious.)

Edited at 2009-06-07 05:43 pm (UTC)
Jun. 7th, 2009 08:48 pm (UTC)
See reply to Matt above. I think you're pretty much right that I was being unfair, and I was certainly coming on stronger than I intended. I withdraw the word 'offended.'

As for 'obnoxious' or "raining on parades," though... This is my personal LiveJournal. And the original comment was on my personal Twitter feed. These are not neutral forums. Not every emotional reaction I have is going to be balanced and rational; I usually don't share them, but when I do, this is the place for it. If I started crusading about this on Coulton's blog, or yours, or anywhere else that wasn't about me, it'd be easier to persuade me that I was being obnoxious. I'm not getting in the face of anyone who didn't make a deliberate choice to listen to me.
Jun. 7th, 2009 09:02 pm (UTC)
Well, while I agree that those alternative options would be more obnoxious, I think my point stands. Yes, you're only saying this to people who choose to listen, but that doesn't mean people won't/shouldn't react to what you say.
Jun. 7th, 2009 10:08 pm (UTC)
Oh, definitely. If I didn't want reactions I wouldn't have asked for comments. (Or, more likely, wouldn't have said anything in public.) I do appreciate your point here -- you've already persuaded me on part of it, and I will continue to consider the rest of it.

Say, which anime is that kid from?
Jun. 7th, 2009 10:55 pm (UTC)
The kid in question is Nagi from My-HiME.
Jun. 7th, 2009 09:39 pm (UTC)
I agree that the song is tragic. I personally find the perky tune makes it more horrifying, but I can see how some people would resolve the tension by laughing. It's not the sort of thing I find funny, but I generally don't like humor that rests on discomfort.
Jun. 8th, 2009 11:56 am (UTC)
Tragicomedy is a beautiful thing. I aim for it all the time when I do songs, and when I play them live I know there are plenty of people laughing and cheering while thoughtful people sit in the back and think, "Jesus this is depressing. This whole thing is really screwed up." But that's exactly what I want to achieve, and I'd be pretty surprised if Coulton didn't have the same idea. And although it's easy, especially at a live show, to miss lyrics or just not pay enough attention, I don't think it's fair to the laughing people to assume they don't get it -- gallows humor being what it is.

I saw this great movie, maybe you've seen it -- "The Fall". It is at once one of the saddest and funniest movies I've ever seen. It has a lot of stuff in it that's absolutely tear-jerking but it's slapped right next to these comedic moments that are so effective that I found at any point I could pretty much moderate the experience for myself and have as much bathos or comedy as I want, since no matter how tragic the scene I could think of a joke half a minute old and laugh myself silly all over again -- in fact, you could criticize it and say that the comedy undercuts the effectiveness of the tragedy, but I think that shortchanges the accomplishment of the movie. It is exactly whatever experience the viewer needs for it to be. I'd put "Full Metal Jacket" in this category too -- lots of my friends would recommend it as a great dark comedy, but that's really only the half of it. It's also a heart-wrenchingly dark war movie on par with any other, and the one-liners are there to a) complete the picture of how soldiers deal with what they're up against, and b) offer the viewer the same outlet.
Jun. 17th, 2009 12:21 am (UTC)
Oh wow, "The Fall". Yes, I'm a fan of that movie. But I watched it the first time with someone who had a terrible reaction to the saddest and most despairing scene. Afterward she said, "You didn't need to stop the movie and comfort me like it was an emergency. My reaction was just part of the intended experience." I was acclimated to fictitious sadness, but uncomfortable with the reality, and for her it was the reverse.

Each person's mileage with "The Fall" may vary.
Jun. 9th, 2009 03:24 pm (UTC)
"Shop Vac" is terribly sad, indeed. It's right up there with "The Town Crotch," a song I also find very moving... but hell, I get emotionally engaged in "Kenesaw Mountain Landis," too.

I like stories, and "Shop Vac" is absolutely a tragedy, and a cautionary tale.
Jun. 9th, 2009 03:26 pm (UTC)
oops.. didn't expect anonymous posting to be allowed and neglected to log in. The last post, comparing "Shop Vac" to "The Town Crotch" and all that, was from me.
Jun. 18th, 2009 06:53 am (UTC)
I often find myself so focuses on my position that I fail to take into account my immediate velocity.
Dec. 18th, 2010 12:48 am (UTC)
I love this. I love this song. I love wrock. I? just love everything. Bah, I just love this song.
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Dec. 5th, 2011 02:24 am (UTC)
Please kill the spam.
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )