Sleater-Kinney’s “Good Things”: The Greatest Song of All Time

30Mar08

Most normal people past the age of 15 don’t have a greatest song of all time.  The kind of person who has 11,274 songs on their iPod generally is sensible enough to know obvious things like that songs relate to specific moods and no song is appropriate to all moods; that the reason you need so many is because you would get sick listening to the same things over and over; that there are no principled grounds (i.e. philosophical aesthetics, “rules” that apply universally, blah, blah, blah) from which one can say “this song fits; other songs don’t”; that the idea of having a favorite song is just kind of dumb.  Since I know these things, and I am still that kind of dumb, an essay on my favorite band and their greatest song needs certain preliminaries to make any kind of sense. 

Preliminary #1:  The category “greatest song of all time”

All communication requires reference points, and this is particularly obvious when discussing music.  David and I can discuss music at all only because we’ve listened to thousands of the same records — the primary shorthand of any discussion is “a sounds like b,” or alternatively “a has the (technical) characteristics b, c, and d, which are also used by artists e and f.”  Because music and language are basically incommensurate, this is the descriptive kernal of any kind of writing about music, and if you don’t use it, you don’t write about music.  Perhaps you write gossip about artists, perhaps you write social criticism (and I acknowledge that some of my music writing is, actually, social criticism), but you don’t get at the relationships between sounds that help to express why you are emotionally engaged with music.

Lists provide reference points.  Most lists are generic:  the list “Amerindie bands from 1979 – 1985” doesn’t need to have judgment in it; it can be an honest attempt at being exhaustive and you can keep adding names to it based on new information.  But the longer it gets, the less it is useful, which is why people who read and write about rock albums generally get to lists that rank very quickly:  “the 10 Amerindie records you should know from 1979 – 1985,” a list made by someone who claims to have listened to hundreds and found the ones that a newbie in the field should get their feet wet on.  It goes without saying that such a list is only useful to people who share enough in cultural norms and aesthetic interests with the list-maker that they will take the list seriously.  The audience for a list is never “everyone” — its particular weirdos, the ones kind of like the listmaker.  The people who share reference points.

Reference points aren’t only about communicating with others; they allow you to compare yourself to yourself over time.  Let me give a rarified, truly pretentious example:  to be a talented wine taster (which I am not), you need somehow to remember and create personal reference points for subtle taste differences from wines you taste over long periods of time.  How are you really going to remember what you tasted five years ago?  The reason, and the only reason, that I believe that there are people with sufficient expertise to make claims like “this is the best wine produced in this region in five years” is because I practice the same building of reference points in the field of aethetics where I have the greatest knowledge and talent:  listening to rock and roll.  And building lists which rank is central to that practice, to making it possible for me to have enough reference points with myself that I can, over time, say useful things to others.

Obviously this does not make me objective.  My lists are personal.  But if you like some of the same things I do, and you believe that I am able to remain consistent with myself over time, then you can be pretty certain that when you read a ranked statement by me — for example, “‘Good Things’ is my favorite song” — you will learn something from it.  And if you have nothing in common with me, you are certainly not reading this essay, you’ve given up long before getting to that fact.

Robert Christgau may or may not be right about any given album, but the reason he is so useful in deciding what to listen to — is because no other writer has ever developed his level of ability to provide readers with consistent reference points about rock music.  People who disagree quite a lot with him can still find his commentary helpful, because they know how they disagree.  And some of us, who have much in common with him, may change our minds after reading his opinions because they provide insight into records that may not have occurred to us from our listening.

Preliminary #2:  My Life with Sleater-Kinney

I am too old to have grown up with Sleater-Kinney.  By the time Call the Doctor was released in 1996– their second album, but the first one I heard — my musical tastes were well-established, and I was in some ways a poor candidate to developing a new “favorite” band.  If at the time you’d asked me who my favorite was, I’d have either said Husker Du or the Clash, both of whom I did “grow up” with, the Clash starting in High School and Husker Du my freshman year of college.  Although I liked Nirvana, I was significantly less interested in the new generation of punks then my own generation, and most of the music I was learning new things from was by black people — if you’d asked me my favorite band of the 1990s, I’d probably have said De La Soul, and in sheer number of minutes of concentration I was giving music, Otis Redding was the artist I was listening to over and over in 1995-96. 

Who was I then?  I was a newly minted Ph.D. teaching English at the University of Tennessee — Black lit, postmodenism, contemporary stuff (including music, which was all over my courses).  I was drinking way too much, going out to bars and clubs many nights a week, writing a book, in a troubled long-distance marriage that showed every likelihood of ending, sleeping poorly or not at all.  By summer 1996 I was embarking on an affair with an ex-student (yes, I had the decency to not do this while she was in my class).  You might say I was troubled.

Let’s just say that if a dozen years later, as a far more stable and happy person, I tell you that Sleater-Kinney is the greatest band of all time, I know that the reasons are personal as much as social or aesthetic:  Call the Doctor allowed me to make sense of my own emotional state at a level no other album ever had done before, devastating me and completely wiping out Graham Parker’s Squeezing Out Sparks as the record that had the greatest personal impact on me.  This coming from someone who listens obsessively to rock music — i.e. someone for whom music always has impact. 

Sleater-Kinney was not the first band to ply this musical turf:  of course they sound a lot like the Ramones and Husker Du and the Clash and Chuck Berry and the Rolling Stones before them.  But precisely by reprocessing the old sounds and the old subject matter through a new historical circumstance, women-lesbian-riot grrrrl-whatever, they came to stand at the top of the heap.  The original is not the best, it is never the best.  The person who founded the mode of being Sleater-Kinney occupy, Chuck Berry, is (like everyone else in the world) limited by time and place; the twenty-eight thousandth band to ply the same mode of being, if sufficiently virtuostic as musicians, intellectually engaged as songwriters, and lucky in regard to how their social being intersects with the needs of the world, might just be the ones who put it all together perfectly, as perfectly as it’s going to get put together. 

David dislikes the post on this site where I begin “the formula goes like this,” because he does not like the idea that formulas might help us to move forward analysis.  What you are reading now is my really formulaic post.  I am not saying “if you follow this formula you will make great music”:  that never works.  What I am saying is that thoughtful retrospective reflection, considering years of practice and emotion, helps you to see real patterns in the world.  When you write about “patterns” you produce things like look like formulas.  I don’t know whether I will ever have another “favorite band” again in the sense I am writing about now.  What I know is that for 10 years, until that day in August 2006 when I spent $500 flying to Portland to watch their last concert (“Good Things” is the second to last song they played), I had a favorite band, and that nothing I have to say about rock music can be separated from this fact.

What follows is a technical and social description of the perfect song; it is an attempt to produce reference points for everything I write.  It’s usefulness to you is, precisely, the measure of whether you have any interest in what I have to say about music.  Most people in the world will have no such interest, and will have stopped reading a long time ago.  But if you didn’t, then this is it, and you have no right to complain “how can anyone claim that there is a single best song of all time”?

The Greatest Song of All Time, in three parts

(1)  Structure and Sound.  “Good Things” is the sixth song on Call the Doctor and is clearly the end of side one, although few people (including me) ever actually heard it on a vinyl disk with two sides.  Still, those of us old enough to remember vinyl disks with two sides know what “the end of side one” means.  It follows five songs which are, on the whole, faster and also angrier, a very important fact when you first hear the mid-tempo, repetitious twang of Carrie Brownstein’s opening solo:  this is pastoral in the Feelies mode, a change up after throwing heat for the first five pitches.  Good Things is resigned rather than angry, inevitable rather than urgent. 

The four distinct musical lines — lead guitar, second guitar (more bass then rhythm), drums, vocals — enter one at a time and distinct.  In most songs on Call the Doctor, in the punk mode, it is very hard (though not impossible) for the listener to distinguish clearly guitars lines, but this song invites you to concentrate hard on each instrument/voice separately:  as an instrument/voice enters, it plays it’s basic theme, and then repeats that precise theme with variations steadily and separately for the next three minutes. 

The song form is the most elemental in rock music:  introduction, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus, recapitulation.  No solo in the middle, no fade.  The song begs you to take it as archtypal.  Of course this is hardly the only Sleater-Kinney song that uses this form, but it is more exaggerated precisely because of the pastoral dynamics, the fact that the introduction and recapitulation are the quietest parts of the song.  Verse one/chorus/verse two/chorus build subtly, not other directed (I am angry at you) but self-directed (I am exasperated with myself), leading to a partial release in the bridge, so that the third chorus brings us back down a notch, permitting us a place to settle in the same guitar theme introduced in the first notes.  In other words, the shape is an arc, a perfectly shaped bell, though not a very tall one.  The precise meaning of the arc can only be understand, however, with a detailed account of the lyrics.  For the moment, let’s just say that the sonic arc and the lyrical arc perfectly match one another.

(2) Words.   

got this feeling when i heard your name the other day
couldn’t say it, couldn’t make it go away
it’s a hard place, can’t be friends, we can’t be enemies
it’s just too much, feel the weight crushing down on my face

The story is:  we were once friends or lovers, we didn’t treat each other well, now we have a hard time relating.  We don’t hate each other, but we’re trapped in patterns that get in the way of successful interaction.  This is a complicated thought for a pop song, though obviously not a unique one.  Still, the most precise metaphors I’ve ever heard about the difficulty-not-impossibility of relationships reside here.

the hardest part is things already said
getting better, worse, i can not tell
why do good things never wanna stay?
some things you lose, some things you give away

This is sad.  If the song was simply bout sadness, we’d have a different band altogether, perhaps Cat Power.  But the song isn’t about sadness.  It moves, becomes harder, and the singing voice itself is not spared.  

broken pieces, try to make it good again
is it worth it, will it make me sick today
it’s a dumb song, but i’ll write it anyway
it’s an old mistake, but we always make it, why do we

If you’ve never studied psychoanalysis, nor sat through years of therapy, but strive to be a reasonably self-aware person, the last two lines are pretty much what you need to know about yourself. 

This is the moment of exasperation, the highest pitch this rather modest punk song (if such is not oxymoronic) will get.  After a repetition of the chorus, maintaining the relatively high pitch, this bridge follows quickly: 

this time, it’ll be alright
this time, it’ll be okay
this time, it’ll be alright
this time, it’ll be okay

What “Good Things” is about, precisely, is trying anyway, regardless of the odds of success.

Can we trust the words of this bridge?  Probably not.  Most likely we’ll make the same mistakes, write the same old songs again.  But the question itself is misplaced:  we are writing songs, we are talking to each other and trying again, and what the hell else would, could, should we be doing?  Do you have a better project for your life?  So we tell ourselves “this time it’ll be OK,” and the statement is not factual, but rather willful.  If we are in good faith, we’ll try to make it so.  If we are in good faith, we’ll remember, one last time, “the hardest part,” as we try and fail at making things right:

the hardest part is things already said
getting better, worse, i can not tell
why do good things never wanna stay?
some things you lose, some things you give away
some things you lose, some things you give away

(3) Social and Personal Meaning.  As it happens, I’m still married to the same person I was married to in 1996, and in general I’m much happier then I was then.  I quit the academic job, spent half a decade as a full-time political organizer, ended up in a business that actually works (i.e. I do something reasonably useful for the world and also make enough money to, shall we say, supplement my wife’s income).  In 1996 with my life apparently falling apart the words to “Good Things” seemed profoundly, individually, true; I can’t honestly say that in the same sense these days.  Yet since a related truth of psychoanalysis is that one’s basic set of moods, one’s being in the world, is set in the first seven years of one’s life and doesn’t change thereafter (barring extraordinary circumstances, generally traumatic), it will surprise no one that the mood of this song remains the basic mood of my life:  struggle, regardless of futility; knowing one will get it wrong but trying in good faith to get it right.

In fact pretty much all honest politics — collective rather then individual relationship — follows this structure, and because politics is contingent on the activities of the many and not just one’s individual life circumstances, politics is that much less likely to get out of the loop expressed by the song (this time it will be all right/the hardest part is things already said/this time it will be alright/the hardest part . . .). 

Maybe you don’t prefer songs because they justify your life.  Certainly, that’s not why I prefer “Sex Bomb” or “You Dropped A Bomb On Me” or “Stuck Inside of Mobile With the Memphis Blues Again” or “Just Like Old Times,” which I’ve written about here and which in no way describes my life.  It is, perhaps, why I prefer “Use Me” and “Tubthumping” and “Once In A Lifetime” and “Bring the Noise”, and it certainly helps to explain why when I need to just emote, to undo the emotions welling up in me from weeks or months of build up, I put on “Good Things” over and over, not exclusively, but often, not daily, but several times every season, not often, but often enough to say, “this is the song that does everything a song can do for a person,” this is the song I like the best, the greatest song of all time.

Advertisements


3 Responses to “Sleater-Kinney’s “Good Things”: The Greatest Song of All Time”

  1. 1 schweitzito

    On first read (and this is print, not music — how many passes does it get?) your analysis of the words is unconvincing. Not your analysis itself, which is perfect. But you say it better, if of course less concisely, than the words. That’s what S-K’s words are conveying, all right, but aside from the couplet that contains the title, they don’t say it more pungently, more poetically. Part 3 says everything you want writing about music to say, about music that says everything you want it to say.

  2. 2 schweitzito

    As you half acknowledge at the start, you’ve set yourself up a half-impossible task. And maybe this is just the non-committal pluralist side of me talking, but let me critique the very notion of Greatest Song (i.e. recording) Of All Time. If you value reference points to help position yourself and to identify yourself to others, than the GSOAT serves only as an argument that everyone else will disagree with. You can make a list of your favorites, and certain people will agree with you a certain percentage of the time, and you and they gauge your relative usefulness to each other, as advisors and criticizers of music, as people to have particular dialogues with. But, right, lots of people don’t have one Greatest Song. And everyone else will damn sure have a different one from you — anyone with 11,000 songs in his ipod understands the probability there. So while you can convince someone that some album or song is great, it’s very unlikely that anyone can convince anyone that a particular song is the greatest, especially if your tastes — your priorities, your perspectives — are personal and textured enough to make them worth discussing in the first place.
    So as a means of convincing others, this has to fail as a matter of course.
    So what we’re left with is convincing the world why it makes sense to you that you’ve chosen this song.
    You break down the music only to say that it’s special on this very special album, but that its musical construction is hardly unique. But you ignore the music’s most unusual feature, what set apart Sleater-Kinney from their peers more than great guitar riffs, maybe even more than songwriting itself — the singing, the interplay between Carrie Brownstein’s harsh attack and that ever-startling quiver in Corin Tucker’s voice that the band used to call “The Tool.”
    You stand up to your own task by quoting every last lyric, which you ought to if you’re claiming what you’re claiming. But I don’t see that you actually establish that the song benefits from hang-on-every-word treatment.
    The couplet that includes the title — “Why do good things never wanna stay/Some things you lose some things you give away” — is unimpeachable. Tropes on how nothing perfect lasts, which is of a course a truism of life itself, is nothing new, but they do give it a good spin, and do break it down into the two reasons this happens — if it’s good enough to keep, it’s good enough to share, which may mean losing or giving away altogether. Never mind the trope about a fish not noticing the water — if it’s good and permanent, you can get complacent or simply not know how good you’ve got it, neither of which are, well, good.
    But “broken pieces, try to make it good again/ is it worth it, will it make me sick today” seems to me the kind of hand-wringing I wouldn’t bother calling attention to in a song that has enough reasons to love the shit out of it.
    Other lines work better: “The hardest part is things already said” takes a difficult-to-admit, or maybe even understand, concept into 10 syllables. But “getting better, worse, I cannot tell” just isn’t great songwriting — it fits the meter but comes off awkward — no one would say it that way except to fit the meter. It doesn’t need to be great, but once you quote it, you demand it to be seen that way. And so I’d rather hear an argument about how it’s not actually necessary that every last word be perfect in your favorite song of all time. But you didn’t make that argument.
    You make a different argument, which is basically that it’s your favorite song because you agree and identify strongly with every statement that it makes, and that it makes them very well. And which I say doesn’t mean you have to try to defend every word choice in it, as you implicitly do by quoting all of them.
    And then you make blunt, sweeping statements about autopsychoanalysis or “honest politics” without elucidating as much as I’d hope. Although the bit where you posit the loop between regretting/living with what you’ve already said (i.e. done) and promising yourself and the world that you won’t do that again is most astute, probably the most brilliant part of the whole piece (Things Already Said — a great title for a critic/S-K fan’s essay collection, or for the extraordinarily unnecessarily S-K compilation).

    Your last paragraph starts the argument about the categories of songs we hold dearest — the quality of identification we feel with them — and I wish it were longer.
    This is slipshod — if I try to fine-tune it more it would take a week. You deserve a week of thought. You also deserve it while it’s still fresh in my mind. That’s also the hardest part.

  3. 3 kmostern

    David,

    First, thanks so much for writing this. I know this piece is going to require lots of revision for me to make it do what I want it to do, and you’ve given me a bunch of places I need to go and keep working. Some responses:

    1. The point of anointing a greatest song of all time is NOT to get anyone to agree with me. If I’m right about reference points, what it does is make it possible for my reader to have a point of comparison, to say, the extent to which you are or are not sympathic with what I have to say here will determine how you should read anything else I have to say. This point can certainly be clarified in the essay.

    2. Although the interweaving of voices is part of S-K’s distinction, it so happens that this is not a particularly important issue in this song, which is a Corin feature.

    3. The “sweeping statements” about autopsychonalysis and honest politics are themselves them subject of books. I am not sure I can delve into them more here and maintain this as an essay about a song. Over time I will consider whether that’s just a copout on my part, whether your point is that I have no choice, I have to go deeper myself.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: