Writing the description for this meeting, I was thinking around some paradoxes about songs: songs are made for the present, but at best they are timeless. They’re narcotic corporate line items generating billionaires and yet they’re what we fuck to, fall in love to. They are soundtracks to the fires of the riot and the banality of the commute. They are fuel for the club and atmospheric nothingness for the natural wine bar. Songs are powerful, in that they can seem to materialize agency over us, and they’re powerful in how we use them to understand and communicate those things known as feelings. Like sometimes poems do, right? Songs risk transmitting the ineffable.
The walk from my house to the train station in the morning is approximately twelve minutes long. I always listen to music on this walk, and what I listen to tunes the day. Occasionally I use this time to study something—last summer I wanted to understand Ornette Coleman and Joni Mitchell. Tripping between the two keyed my mood and daydreams each morning. But more often, this time is given to whatever earworms have insisted that they be recognized and permitted prerogative to my consciousness. Some shiny new Selena Gomez track descends from the misty tops of Sweden’s magic mountains and states its demand to be recognized for a few weeks as the greatest—indeed, the only—song in the world.
The songs I love seem simple, but they brim with information. There’s a book I can recommend to you by Clyde Woods called Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta. Woods’s book recounts the political and economic history of the Delta. In his view, the blues constitutes not simply a cultural tradition or a mode of entertainment for the people who lived and struggled against white supremacist and disaster capitalist violence in the region. Woods takes the blues very seriously—he refers to the “blues university” that younger musicians would find and where they would train, with elder “scholars.” Wood’s vocabulary elevates songs from the gutter of cultural byproduct to their proper place among the world’s intellectual and spiritual feats, recalling the ancient Greek linguistic fact that sophos meant both “knowledge” and “melody.”
Songs can seem simple, but they brim with information. American songs are not simple. Because they come from the US, they are always about race and racism, for instance, even when (especially when) they demand otherwise. They are always about capitalism, for instance, and class, even when they pretend these categories are irrelevant to the utopias they aspire to and describe. Songs are good at offering glimpses of the present tense otherwise unavailable for us. They’re so good at this that they almost always fail to be about nothing, even when they want to be.
The disaster of appropriation and exploitation that drives the history of American pop music is well known, and while I will pivot away from remarking on it further now, it should and can certainly be something we discuss tonight. I will turn however, now, to one kind of song that I appreciate very much: the song which is about songs. Because songs are not only intelligent, they are cunning. Songs in this way are kind of like cats I guess. Like a cat understands very well the contours of its dominion and what, and who, it has power over. Songs usually realize their own power, fooling you into thinking you’re choosing them when in fact they have chosen you, like one of those acorn barnacles on whales.
Sometimes these songs are literally about the transfigurative power of songs. And usually, this is framed in a scene in which a pop song, or the DJ who plays them, saves someone’s life. In The Velvet Underground’s “Rock n’Roll,” the protagonist of the song, Jenny, declares her cycnicism about the world early. “Jenny said when she was just five years old / There was nothing happening at all.” The inevitability of a mundane or bad life for Jenny is challenged by a conversion moment later in life. One morning she puts on a New York station and couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Her body was overcome by gyrations, shaking and moving to the “fine fine music.” The result? “You know, her life was saved by rock n’roll.”
There’s not much more said about rock n’roll in “Rock n’Roll.” Rather, as soon as rock n’roll enters the scene, Jenny’s turning to the right station plots her fate. Whatever challenges Jenny faced and would continue to face have been and will be solved by rock n’roll. The song gestures towards the countervailing nourishment of rock: “Despite all the computations / You could just dance to that rock n’roll station / and it was all right.” The song opens with a classic verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure before abandoning the narrative and structure altogether. Rather, Lou Reed mostly repeats the word “All right!” in various tones, while guitars solo, the rhythm section pounds away at the hook, and Reed’s vocal devolves into guttural screams and grunts. By the time we realize how absorbed in it we are we might find our own life has been saved, just like Jenny. Maybe we were always Jenny. Maybe the people in The Velvet Underground were Jenny too.
Other songs about the power of songs are more cunning. And that leads me to “Fix A Drink.” Before we listen to “Fix A Drink” by Chris Janson. I will make a little space for spiritual balancing and intestinal fortitude. Feel free to do whatever you need to do before encountering a song which I doubt many of you will think is very good but which also might remain in your head for 36-48 months as it has mine.
Janson curbs his Merle Haggard baritone vibrato and almost just talks the beginning of the song, a reflection of a certain kind of Country & Western novelty tune and Janson’s clear and moneyed interest in hip hop. It begins with a quatrain ambiguously ordinary and apocalyptic:
Well it’s hotter than hell outside right now
It’s 100 in the shade with the sun beating down
Forecast calling for some more of the same
Well I can’t fix that but I can fix a drink
Of course, this verse could simply refer to the summer heat and humidity in southeastern Missouri, where Jason is from, a place where it really could be 100 degrees in the shade with no relief in sight. But on the other hand, given that we’ll soon learn Janson is a cable news viewer, he must have some sense that one of the dark predictive realities of our world has to do with increasing heat worldwide and near scientific certainty that this heat will bring about catastrophe for our planet. Regardless, this verse introduces us to the song’s central conceit. Manipulating the dual sense of the verb “to fix” in English, Janson laments that he can’t fix (i.e. “solve”) the painful vicissitudes of the present but he can, on the other hand, fix (i.e. “prepare”) an alcoholic drink.
The second verse widens the scope of the troubling atmosphere which Janson can’t fix,
I turn on Fox News and then CNN
But it’s the same dang thing all over again
The world’s in the toilet and the market’s in the tank
Well I can’t fix that, but I can fix a drink
Okay, well, leaving aside the question of whether Fox News and CNN present “the same dang thing,” Janson reiterates his powerlessness. Not only can he not fix the planet heating more rapidly than was predicted, he is similarly unable to solve the problems we witness when we watch cable news. I hesitate to conjecture what Janson means when he opines that the “world is in the toilet.” Perhaps his sense of a world not in the toilet would be even more of a toilet to most of us. I can’t say. Assuming he refers generally to the drastic violence of international warfare, racism, xenophobia, the rise of far right nationalism across the globe, mass shootings in the United States, police violence, and the nightmare of mass incarceration, his despair in feeling helpless to personally solve these problems is understandable. But, nevertheless, he emphasizes his power to do this one thing.
And that brings us to the chorus. Sigh. Janson can fix a drink, pour it on ice, mix it on up, getcha feeling right. He can getcha buzzed, getcha smiling, he can make you feel like you’re stiting on an island. He can make it fruity or he can make it strong, all you gotta do is tell him what you want. Put it to your lips, take a little sip, tell him what you think. Yeah, he can fix a drink. The request to tell him what you think of his drink is, by the way, not rhetorical—an overdubbed and seemingly quite refreshed voice chimes in to remark, “that’s good.” This overdub, “that’s good,” is kind of a Migos meets George Strait moment in “Fix A Drink.” On Janson’s new album, he records a duet with Offset, which I listened to so you do not have to.
Janson offers one final quatrain regarding the things that he can’t fix, and just as the worldly political and economic concerns mark a diminishment from the godly / natural problems iterated in the first verse, his last set of theses reside firmly in the world. More specifically, the world of country music,
Say you gotta broken phone and a broken heart
The boss is on your back and your truck won’t start
None of your friends want to listen to Hank
Well, I can’t fix that. But I can fix a drink
The broken phone aside, these are all familiar tropes, clichés really, of the themes radio country have used for decades. Unlike the rising global climate, worldwide markets, and border conflicts, they are all comparatively banal. What all these troubles have in common, however, in the universe of “Fix A Drink,” is that Janson can’t fix them but he can fix you a drink.
So what does it mean that he can’t fix any of these things but he can fix you a drink? It is tempting to read the song as a simple work of radical cynicism, bordering on nihilism. Everything is awful, from the weather to late capitalism, from a broken Samsung to friends with bad musical tastes. Instead of trying to struggle against any of these situations, the song seems to suggest, maybe we should just get fucking drunk. And that’s one thing that Janson can help us accomplish. If we’re not drunk, he can fix us a drink. It’s a tempting reading, and indeed the one I made for the first few months of listening to “Fix A Drink” several times a week.
But then I had a vision. It was set in any number of huge amphitheaters that take up vast rural space adjacent to America’s cities. The one I grew up going to was called the Sandstone Amphitheater, 20 miles west of Kansas City. Janson is on a big dumb summer tour, with two other huge country artists. Let’s say Kane Brown. And let’s say they put Miranda Lambert on the bill because it’s the 21st century and you know I guess maybe women. By the time Janson comes on, the crowd has become moist and tipsy. When he launches into “Fix A Drink,” they go insane. Bud Lights hoist en masse into dewy twilight.
In the vision, when Janson elucidates the myriad forms of alcoholic beverage he can prepare for you, from fruity to strong, and all the states of mind this drink can encourage, from buzz to smiling, I can’t help but think that the “drink” in question is actually allegorical. In fact, Janson cannot fix you a drink. Janson is, after all, not in the room with you when you listen to “Fix A Drink.” What Janson can do for you, however, is sing the song “Fix A Drink.” The big dumb summer country show sways underneath their raised plastic and aluminum singing along. That’s the drink. That feeling. And look, it even appears prophetic. At the show, people are feeling right, buzzed, smiling, arguably feel like they’re on an island. “That’s good.”
Songs are doing this all the time, telling us that they are great because they are songs. Like “Fix A Drink,” sometimes this song of self-praise emphasizes the powerlessness of the singer (any singer) and the song (any song) against forces too great for them to contend with. Climate change, the disastrous dominion of finance, tyranny, broken trucks and shabby phones, a song can’t redeem any of these things. But there’s still fixing a drink, there’s still buzzing, smiling, feeling like you’re on an island. Pop songs can do something, obviously, but perhaps, as Spinoza famously quipped about the human body, we finally don’t know what they’re capable of.
Songs aren’t going to solve catastrophic structural racism and patriarchy, or the violence of finance capital. They never suggested they could. But that’s not to say they don’t have meaning in the moments of struggle against these oppressive forms. The last big political demonstration I attended was in Berkeley, when several hundred white supremacists, neo-nazis, fascists, incels from remote Kekistan, and unaffiliated alt-right fuckfaces gathered to pretend they were exercising their precious right to free speech. It was mostly a music-free protest, but when Y.G.’s “Fuck Donald Trump” emerged in full volume from a lurking car on a side street, it signaled a change in mood. Shit didn’t really go down until we all heard “Fuck Donald Trump,” on either side. And then it did.
Likewise, during Occupy Oakland, songs were a constant feature of the protests, in their mild forms and when they raged. Some of these songs seemed written for the moment, like Rihanna’s “We Found Love.” “We Found Love” was the explosive sonic representation of what felt like a whole world’s throbbing optimism—how cruel it was at times, how precarious, how enraged. And when the beat climbs to its crescendo it sounds like how a riot feels. It pivots towards haywire. The sentence “we found love in a hopeless place” describes the present as a triumph over nihilism. We found it in different ways. Some of us found it in the camp, some of us found it in the meeting, in the bar which was temporary refuge from crazy cops, some of us found it in our kitchens, in our bedrooms, on the Internet. But wherever we went it was a hopeless place and we all wanted to find love there, and often enough we did.
Alongside these songs which made the soundtrack to an extended moment of precarity, rage, despair, and hope, songs played a practical purpose as well. On the mobile soundsystem which flanked the camp, or came along for a march, N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police” was a signal not just that the police were near and fuck them, but that they had made a dangerous advance on the protestors or, indeed, kidnapped a comrade from the mob. In this way, songs demonstrate utility, perhaps precisely in moments when language fails, whether inadequately raging against violent pigs in the streets, rolling on sweetest MDMA poolside, or beholding the one you love more than anything from across the room. Songs won’t fix climate change or structural oppression, but they can be a balm—songs are a drink that can be fixed and, in turn, fix you.
So this evening I want to think together about our songs. What are they, what they can do, how they nourish us as poets, artists, activists. How they soundtrack our present, the present in which we live, work, write, and fight.
So I’ve been talking here about songs—what they are or can be, how they mean or can mean, what they can do or can’t—but one thing which probably became very obvious when I made you all listen to “Fix A Drink” is that songs signify differently to different people. In a classic Bay Area phrasing, my friend Alana once observed that listening to music on headphone is so monogamous, a temporary relishing of the couple form. Frank Ocean and I, for instance, have renewed our vows many times over. Countless times, it’s just been Frank and I, walking from my little house to BART, dancing cheek to cheek, or bud to ear I guess.
The consensus I mentioned that made a common interpretation of “We Found Love” is sort of exceptional, because of the drama and violence of the moment, but I’m sure we’ve all been at a party which became, to follow Alana’s metaphor, a wild orgy of shared pleasure, a surprise guest appearing on the speakers and arrogating the mood of the whole room. So another way I want to think about songs is how they become “ours.” “Ours,” “theirs,” “mine.”