Start making sense

Oct 17, 2012 at 5:00 am

A few weeks back, in a prematurely old man-esque bid to stay in touch with “what the kids are listening to these days,” I followed the “Hot Video Pick of the Week” link on Yahoo! Sews (the abysmal effects of this website and its comments section are the subject of my forthcoming memoir “Ya-boo-hoo-hoo: How I learned to start worrying and feel even worse about humanity”) that led me to a music video I hope you’ll go and watch for yourself.

Gentle reader, I don’t make a habit of asking you to consult external sources to understand this column or of asking you to consider things I know to be hazardous to public psychic health. Let this be an important exception; I need you to watch the music video “Some Nights” by the alt-pop band Fun. It represents so much of what I’ve been trying to address in this little column over the years.

“Some Nights” is — conceptually, musically, lyrically and practically — an absolutely terrible song. No big deal; if I had a tooth for every tune I find to be really awful, I’d be a school of listless mako sharks. The cultural/informational package of the song coupled with the video, though, becomes something much more noteworthy and alarming and must be seen to be fully appreciated.

My innocent if somewhat voyeuristic impulse to keep abreast of what’s happening in pop music paid off in a newly minted panic regarding where pop culture is taking us and how it’s recording the journey. My heart raised a little white flag as the video clearly indicated that nothing actually has to make sense any more; signification is dead, meaning is on indefinite furlough, and history is relevant to the present only as a theatrical backdrop used to elicit an indistinct but “authentic” feeling of momentousness.

In the case of “Some Nights,” the willful detour around significance uses as its backdrop the American Civil War. (Remember that one before it was movie?)

The video features sequences of bloody battle fought by a repeating cast of 10 or 12 white dudes filmed from different angles, pained expressions on their young faces, honor in their hearts, tears in their eyes. The camera pulls back to show that the band, Fun, is actually performing on a stage in the middle of the melee. Fireworks illuminate their equally pained faces. The drummer is using a military drum, and he is drumming, by God for his life he is drumming. Jump shots juxtapose the gritty devastation of Indy-Pop American Civil War with horses in a field, two kids making out in a barn, and a Confederate soldier looking off into the middle distance. The chorus of the song intones the mantra, “What do I stand for? What do I stand for? Most nights I don’t know.”

This actually relevant declaration of existential uncertainty is the closest the video comes to mooring itself to anything like meaning, and the remainder spirals into cognitive dissonance as it becomes clear, to this listener at least, that the song wasn’t written about the Civil War or anything that should be associated with it. It’s just a pop song released in an era when every pop song is contractually bound to have a mini-blockbuster art film attached to it (this one includes the obligatory arty French word “FIN” at the end to let you know the abuse has finally concluded).

But, in the current cultural climate, in which the ability to make sense of our place in history has officially gone through the looking glass, when election-year pundits use phrases like “post-truth, asymmetric, polarization politics” to describe the frequency on which message producers are transmitting to consumers, “Some Nights” and its attendant video stand out as an unwittingly perfect rendering of the moment; it makes absolutely no sense, but it does so very earnestly. See, I’m not a pessimist.

History actually happened, friends — 153 years ago this week, for instance, John Brown and a small group of revolutionary abolitionists actually raided the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Va., in an effort to foment an armed slave revolt. They killed seven real people in the process. Brown and most of his retinue were captured, tried for treason and hanged to die for the insurrection that, in no uncertain terms, hastened the beginning of the war and the ultimate abolition of slavery in the United States.

History is already difficult. Its dilemmas are only compounded by bullshit like Fun’s song and its video.