Sorry about the lack of update last week. We had kind of a grad school perfect storm, along with some stuff for the book. In any case, here’s your week’s worth of misery and woe, PART 2. Trigger warning for eating disorders, self-injury, suicide, Sean Kingston:
“Jimmy Jimmy” by the Undertones
You may know the Undertones from the track “Teenage Kicks,” the most uncomplicatedly sweet and lovely piece of music ever produced under the banner of punk rock. My mom probably likes that song. But the group applies the delicacy and bittersweetness of “Teenage Kicks” to their early portrait-of-a-troubled-youth single “Jimmy Jimmy.” There’s a tonal give-and-take to the vocals, lead singer Fergal Sharkley offering sympathetic readings of lyrics like “He’d stay awake at night / lying in his bed / No one ever listened to / a single word he said” while the backing vocals chant “Silly boy / Such a silly boy.” The character’s suicide is alluded to but never explicitly described: “Now little Jimmy’s gone / He disappeared one day / No one saw the ambulence / that took little Jim away.” It’s a respectful and understated treatment of the subject matter, applying the group’s sunny style to dark emotional content without compromising either.
“4st 7lb” by the Manic Street Preachers
First of all, apologies for the video, which pairs one of the most graphic and horrifying songs I’ve ever heard with images of skull flowers and sad mannequin dolls. Needless to say the impact is sort of mitigated. Hit play and scroll down, so as not to be exposed to the silliness.
Anyway: shortly after the end of my first stay at McLean hospital, my confidence in my mental stability deeply shaken, I expressed concern to my father that my sudden loss of weight over the past few months might indicate the development of an eating disorder. He laughed it off, understandably: all of us still had a great deal to learn about mental illness, and to him the image of a man developing anorexia was absurd. But if I wanted to convince him of the validity of my concern I could have played this lacerating track from the Manic Street Preachers’ The Holy Bible. The tragedy of the Manics is well-known to afficianados of early 1990s Britpop and readers of Kieron Gillen and Jaime McKelvie’s Phonogram, which is to say perhaps two or three dozen people worldwide: the Manics formed in the late 80s with the intent to break up after their first album, the kickass and surprisingly literate Generation Terrorists. Insane sales figures for the record convinced them, hell, maybe they had a good thing going, so they kept it up. The primary lyricist for the band was promoted van driver Richie Edwards, a mediocre musician but a preternaturally gifted lyricist and rockstar. Edwards suffered from depression, anorexia, and self-injury; infamously, he carved “4 REAL” into his arm during an interview with NME to demonstrate the sincerity of his music. In 1995 he disappeared.
The Holy Bible is a lyrical purge of Edwards’ suffering and it is extraordinarily challenging to listen to. I could have picked any number of tracks from this record, including the opener, “Lie,” which remains transgressive in its jaw-dropping obscenity even in this age of Youtube commentors and prominent conservative pundits demanding pornography of nubile coeds; or the poisonously catchy “Die in the Summertime,” which contains the line “Scratch my leg with a rusty nail / Sadly it heals.” But I picked “4st 7lb” because Richards grapples explicitly with his eating disorder. The track opens with a discordant guitar riff and a haunting quote taken from the documentary “40 Minutes: Caroline’s Story”: “I eat too much to die, and not enough to stay alive. I’m sitting in the middle waiting.” Richards’ talent for pithy yet devastating quips is in evidence here, as he attacks the myth that eating disorders are a problem for supermodels and after-school specials:
“Karen says I’ve reached my target weight
Kate and Emma and Kristin know it’s fake
Problem is diet’s not a big enough word
I wanna be so skinny that I rot from view.”
That’s right: a snarky Kate Moss reference right before the line “I wanna be so skinny that I rot from view.” That’s Edwards’ voice: self-mocking, disposable, terrifying and poetic in the same moment. The Holy Bible is a powerful document of the author’s suffering and I absolutely recommend it, although you may find you don’t have the stomach to listen to it very often.
“Bad Habit” by the Dresden Dolls
A radically different take on similar content. The song opens with plinking piano work and vocalist/Neil Gaiman beau/Labyrinth reenactor Amanda Palmer’s sung-spoken lyrics: she begins in largely allegorical terms, as if talking about a bad relationship or something, carefully annunciating lines like “biting keeps your words at bay / tending to the sores that stay / happiness is just a gash away.” The piano and drums on the song are straightforward Dresden Dolls, lively cabaret on the brink of incoherence, but the production makes the most of Palmer’s vocals. She slips from sing-speak and soft confessional to autotuned belting, using the distortion to make her voice sound cold and inhuman as she describes her injuries, beating Kanye’s 808 and Heartbreak to the same trick by four years. The vocal distortion kicks in right on the line “when I jab a sharpened object in / choirs of angels seem to sing,” and it’s no longer possible to deny or misinterpret the song’s treatment of self-injury.
“Beautiful Girls” by Sean Kingston
Let’s talk about “Beautiful Girls.”
It’s just bad music to start with, a guitar line ripped from “Stand By Me” repeated to the point of inciting outrage, like the kid playing “Jingle Bells” in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” (Deer Tick do a throaty garage-country cover that segues into the original track at the end: it’s probably the best anyone could do with the material.) But this song is catchy. It is catchy as the black plague, and this was enough to propel it to top 20 status, its grim cautionary fable of emotional dependency and the subsequent despair accompanying nightclub booty grinding across the nation.
Many of the song’s I’ve discussed in this series either develop from the songwriter’s personal experience with a mental disorder or adopt the language of mental illness for social commentary. “Beautiful Girls” was born when the evil mastermind behind Vanessa Hoojens’ “Sneakernight” discovered a four-syllable hook he could exploit and decided that “suicidal” was an appropriate refrain. The video plays up the doo-wop, with parallel scenes set in a fifties diner sock-hop and a contemporary retro-styled diner sock-hop, which are so visually similar you wonder why they bothered. Kingston doesn’t dance as much as he does things with his hands, sometimes, curling his fingers into an “O” and moving his hand horizontally in front of his face every time he sings “Ohhh-vur.”
I could go on, but I’m not sure why I would. This is a silly, harmless piece of music made notable only by its out-of-left field reference to the death of the singer at his own hand. It’s offensive, I guess? It trivializes mental illness? A couple of stations (Radio Disney!) replaced the offending lyric with “in denial” which is probably more appropriate, but I really can’t imagine any response to hearing “Beautiful Girls” other than yet another moment of undergrad dance party awkwardness, to be remedied by returning to the bar and demanding consecutive bug juice cocktails until the moment passes.
In conclusion: the song inspired a reply by MA singer Jojo, titled “Beautiful Girls Reply.” If anything, the song is even more hilariously awful, as the singer callously taunts her ex-beau in the depths of his suicidal depression. She is literally gloating that she will drive this man to kill himself. I first heard this song while doing research for this post, and I am not convinced my life has been enriched by it. But perhaps yours will be.