Thursday, August 3, 2023


Our details may change, but our stories remain the same

All clichés are born unique. (Even that one!) Every shopworn phrase, gesture, or insight was muttered, made, or scrawled down somewhere for the first time, and whoever heard it, saw it, or read it felt as if the top of their head was coming off. And they told two friends, and they told two friends, etc..

I've had the platitude "the more things change, the more they remain the same" in my head for a little while now. Seneca wrote "On Noise," one of his late-life "moral letters," sometime in the early '60s A.D.. Gathered among more than a hundred such letters in the philosopher's Moral Epistles or Letters from a Stoic, "On Noise" is a brief complaint wrapped in a moral. Clamor, Seneca offers, shouldn't in itself prevent one from focusing or meditating or writing: the stoic inner self, calmed by reason, can flourish in even the noisiest of climates. (All well and good. But at the end of the letter the stoic acknowledges that he can't take the din and is splitting town.) 

Living above a bathhouse, Seneca's endured "every kind of sound that can make one weary of one’s years." In the opening paragraph he describes the commotion that drives him up a wall, such as,

When the strenuous types are doing their exercises, swinging weight-laden hands about, I hear the grunting as they toil away—or go through the motions of toiling away—at them, and the hissings and strident gasps every time they expel their pent-up breath. When my attention turns to a less active fellow who is contenting himself with an ordinary inexpensive massage, I hear the smack of a hand pummeling his shoulders, the sound varying according as it comes down flat or cupped.

Seneca piles on, he can't help himself: a ball player shouting out the score; someone starting a fight; someone caught stealing; "the man who likes the sound of his voice in the bath;" the hair remover hollering about his services; "the man selling drinks, and the one selling sausages and the other selling pastries, and all the ones hawking for the catering shops, each publicizing his wares with a distinctive cry of his own."

Robin Campbell's translation nicely updates Seneca's language, yet, I remind my essay-writing students, and myself, this litany is nearly two thousand years old. How contemporary it still feels! I ask my students what current sounds they'd add to Seneca's complaints, and they oblige: someone loudly talking on a phone in a public place; car alarms; ring tones; loud television commercials, construction sites, etc.. 


Roughly 1,960 years after Seneca wrote "On Noise," Harmony released her single "Shoplifting From Nike." (The tune and video dropped last week.) In a squeaky synth-pop bubble of fun and angst, Harmony complains that "everything is boring, somehow," and that "vanity, it's all love" so "give me the thing that I want." A needy, grabby tune, "Shoplifting From Nike" (the title's a winking reference to Winona Ryder's old criminal troubles), drops one pop reference after another: Ryder ("I love that '90s shit," Harmony confesses); trending lipstick; Cronenberg; Marlboro Reds; "Sanrio girls on ecstasy ("they totally get me"), Tumblr, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The best lines—"Life's lived best in debt," and "I get so insufferable / I think it makes me whole"—get at the heart of the problem, the lie we still fall for that consumerism will enrich us. "I'm rich in my mind." Harmony logically states, "'Cause everything is mine."

Harmony's family was briefly homeless during the 2008 housing crisis, and she gets at the complications in a recent interview. Asked by Nylon to describe the songwriting process for "Shoplifting From Nike," she remarked, "I feel like it's owed to my teenage self a little bit, but it's also that mischief that still exists in me for sure," adding, 

I don't steal, but I used to when I was a teenager, a little bit, and it was right after the housing crisis. God bless the 2008 housing situation. The real heads will remember.... Because I have this opinion that materialism and spirituality are the same thing, and whatever people find fully is equally valid to anything else.

The song's pre-chorus kills me—

Then you watch a sad movie
With the girl that you're using
On my Hulu in airplane mode
—the way it tells an old-as-dirt story with the stuff of today, the super power of any great pop song no matter what time in history it's written. Will Harmony's song need footnotes to be understood a half century from now? Will the Genius website annotate it within an inch of its life? Probably, yet the song might endure anyway. It doesn't matter what we're watching, when we're watching, or how, there will still be mean, self-absorbed boys and unhappy, confused girls, and the other way around, and at all points along the gender spectrum. The more things change....

Wyldlife, l-r, Dave Feldman, Samm Allen, Spencer Alexander, Russ Barnett
Six or so years ago the New York/New Jersey band Wyldlife released Out On Your Block, a really good rock and roll album, '70s Glam/street rock updated for the new century. "Keepsakes" also tells an eternal story: she split. But ends are always messy beginnings in disguise. The things she left behind, the stuff that the singer can't let go of—her shoe, some baggies ("who took the drugs?"), bobby pins, pills, stray hairs, her T.Rex tee shirt, lipstick stains on a still-warm coffee mug—are intimately theirs, but curiously ours too, morphed into silhouettes of loss. And though they're tangible, holdable, they're also ephemeral:
You’re just a lost cause gone beyond a reasonable doubt
You’re a mystery that I couldn’t figure out
With your keepsakes

Subtract Marc Bolan, and the lyrics to "Keepsakes" might've been written any time in the last half century. Call it unoriginal, if you must, I call it enduring. The song, written by Feldman and Allen, places itself securely in the tradition of the baffled, heart-broken lament, and so the details matter less than the story, yet, as anyone who's been deserted knows, the details are the embers that never die out. I guess the musicians themselves don't matter either, only the song they're singing, though I'm glad Wyldlife got together and banged out this, a fresh take on an ancient tale. The arrangement, with its herky-jerky changes and stops, drums on the prowl, and eighth note bass, strives to remain upbeat, but Feldman's howling, and the song's pretty angry, actually. Fun songs about sad stuff is itself a clichéd description of rock and roll and pop, and a damn good one; my head lifted when I first heard it. Wyldlife, like countless before them, turned to that bromidic paradox in "Keepsakes," a good a move as any when you're  heartsick. 

Yet when the sad outweighs the fun, when the liveliness can't transcend the blues, you're in a timeless bind, stretching back two thousand years and earlier. Seneca was bothered less by the details around him—the yells and shrieks, the splashes and grunts—than the unhappy fact of noise itself, just as Harmony and Wyldlife, making and singing music in a world someone in the first century A.D, couldn't have possibly imagined, make their way through the thorns of last night's and today's stuff to get at something abiding. The more details change, the more heartache stays the same.

Top image via Getty Images/E! Illustration, photo of Harmony by Morgan Maher, photo of Wyldlife by Jason Yamauchi


Anonymous said...

Beautifully blue, as usual.

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks, anon