I’m feeling more alone than I ever have before.

September 29, 2009



Ben Folds Five – Brick
From: Whatever and Ever Amen

Major labels have a funny way of annihilating a band’s essence for the purpose of a hit single. I don’t think this was more prevalent in the 1990s than it ever was or has been in the annals of music history, I just think that I tended to hear a lot more about it during that particular decade. Think of how many bands you remember hearing on the radio or MTV, thinking, “I kind of like that,” and then talking one of the band’s “real” fans who curtly informed you, “They’re not really like that.” And it’s kind of a disappointing thing for a possible new fan to hear because, well, whatever the song in question was that the band may or may not really be prone to writing is the damn thing that got you interested in the first place.

Trust me, I’ve been on both sides of the fence, from wondering why the Cardigans couldn’t write more “Lovefool”-type songs to bemoaning people who only knew Oasis for “Wonderwall.”

But the case of Ben Folds and “Brick” has always kind of made me feel bad for the guy’s introduction into the strongest current of the mainstream. Pretty much before and since, Folds had/has made a name for himself as a smartass singer songwriter with miles of talent and an ear for a hook, but never to take himself so seriously as not to, I don’t know, do a Madman Across the Water-styled cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Sh*t.”

But “Brick” never had a light hearted air about it. The chorus is vague enough to suggest to the listener in passing that this is just a pretty little song to cry over after meaningless break-up, but for anyone who actually dove into lyrics booklets in the 1990s (and come on, who among us didn’t?), it didn’t take long to suss out that this was about an abortion.

And maybe 1997 was the perfect year to have a hit song based on a topic that even four years earlier might have been considered a bit taboo. Not because 1997 was a record year for abortions (I have no way of knowing that, and I have no real desire whatsoever to check into such stats), but because by the second half of the decade, the general young American mindset had gone into an alarmingly apathetic field.

Sure, there were kids like me that got in tune with the Britpop movement, but you must remember America never really latched onto the bubbly sarcasm of “Parklife.” America, frankly, didn’t care about Blur until Damon started singing lyrics like “It wasn’t easy, but nothing is — woo hoo.” Was it to say we were totally devoid of happiness? Of course not. The Spice Girls were popular, as were songs like “Steal My Sunshine,” but that was the kind of stuff you didn’t really fess up to liking in a public high school if you wanted to get through the day without a beat down or some godawful form of public ridicule.

So… midtempo piano dirge about an abortion? Bring it on! It always was a beautiful song, and it still is of course, but it’s the kind of track that poses a challenge to your loyal fanbase. Had Folds and Co. tucked this song away on a B-side or even as a deep cut on Whatever and Ever Amen (which, by the way, can non-fans remember any other songs from?), the band would’ve been revered as all-encompassing geniuses by their loyal minions. Instead, Epic’s decision to make it a monster single (to say nothing of the accompanying video where it looks like every band member might break down in tears simply by playing the song) pushed the song into every Lite FM listener’s consciousness, and gave the three in Ben Folds Five a spot on “Saturday Night Live” and more popularity than maybe they ever wanted.

Thankfully (for the fans), everyone lost interest by 1999’s The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner (which Old 97’s guitarist Ken Bethea once described to me as “a songwriter performing at his absolute zenith”), and things returned to normal. Folds then deconstructed things further by breaking the band up and going the DIY route with Rockin’ the Suburbs before essentially becoming a college tour mainstay and releasing a new song every other week on iTunes. In the time since, a lot of people have wondered aloud why Folds couldn’t just write more songs like “Brick,” and while I might point them in the direction of “Landed,” you gotta figure it must be taxing to do just one song about a personal abortion experience.

And besides, in this kind of economy, who would listen to it? I mean in 1997, when things were going great, and the economy was as fat as your unmarried uncle after Thanksgiving dinner, it was cool to be engaged by such depressing subject matter. Look at the Top 10 right now. It’s all optimistic, party music.

Maybe we all are drowning slowly. It’s just… you don’t need to remind us.

One comment

  1. Some excellent points here. Though I’d say that Folds has incorporated the confessional Brick thing to good effect on his two solo albums, apart from Landed. It’s a side of him I generally prefer to the Ben Folds Five-era smartassery. Hence my ambivalence towards the last album, on which he seems to go back to the BFF vibe, with only Cologne as the “confessional” track. The Bitch Went Nuts, also about his divorce from the woman he write The Luckiest for, is the yang to Cologne’s yin.

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