Stuck, Ch. 19. I’m a Horrible Person: The Talking Heads, “Burning Down the House”

by Akim Reinhardt

Stuck is a weekly serial appearing at 3QD every Monday through early April. The Prologue is here. The table of contents with links to previous chapters is here.

Image result for raccoon garbageBeing a horrible person is all the rage these days. This is, after all, the Age of Trump. But blaming him for it is kinda like blaming raccoons for getting into your garbage after you left the lid off your can. You had to spend a week accumulating all that waste, put it into one huge pile, and then leave it outside over night, unguarded and vulnerable. A lot of time and energy went into creating these delectable circumstances, and now raccoons just bein’ raccoons.

Likewise, we Americans have spent decades challenging the social norms that used to shame us into proper behavior, or at least discouraged us from publicly engaging in bad behavior. That, in turn, has led to our very own raccoon frenzy, so to speak. Our society now actually rewards certain types of nastiness. We live in a world that abounds with what can only be described as Professional Assholes such as Ann Coulter, Milo Yiannopoulos, Alex Jones, and Simon Cowell.

Yes, dispensing with some of those old social norms was actually the right thing to do. Some of them were restrictive and oppressive. Some of them were used to keep LGBT people in the closet, minorities “in line,” and women “in their place.” Reform was needed.

But we were sloppy. We needed to separate the good social norms, the helpful ones that promote stability, maintain reasonable standards, and discourage people from being assholes, from the old junk norms that repress women and minorities of all stripes. We needed to sort the garbage from the recyclables. But we tossed them all out at once.

And what’s worse, we also got careless, even though we knew the risks. Creating edible garbage could draw raccoons. We knew that we had to be diligent and stay on top of things. Proper precautions are necessary. Have a sturdy garbage can. Make sure the lid fits tightly. But as a nation, we fucked up. We got a little too tipsy with our mass media, our cable TV and satellite radio, our internet and social media. We started dragging the can haphazardly to the curb.  A little lazier each week, first the lid laid was laid loosely atop it, or sometimes left off altogether.

So now here we are, surrounded by Professional Assholes.

But when you wake up one morning to find garbage strewn across your driveway, you can’t blame the raccoons for being raccoons. Just like you can’t really blame Trump, whose mental makeup suggests he doesn’t have much more agency than a raccoon, for the breakdown of civility in American society.

Is he making it worse? Do raccoons like Thanksgiving leftovers? Of course. This isn’t about letting anyone off the hook. Rather, the point is that everything was already in motion long before these furry banditos capitalized on it. A lot of things had to happen to even make it possible. Those Russian bots and trolls didn’t create the divisions. They just exploited them. They didn’t lower our standards, they seized upon them. And they didn’t invent raccoons, or give them superpowers. They just turned some loose. America had already spent decades lazily dumping all sorts of gross, tasty garbage, along with precious aluminum and glass recyclables, into broken, uncovered cans and dollar store garbage bags left out in the rain. The national culture had already descended into a nasty little shouting match by the time Donald Trump’s comb over became president.

Remember Jerry Springer? That was something. Putting people on TV to behave atrociously so we could all laugh at them and feel superior. So much for standards. And Springer himself was just a more successful Morton Downey, Jr. who went on to spawn Sally Jesse Raphael, Maury Povich, and the rest. Or The People’s Court. Let’s turn our legal system into a sanctimonious chiding from grandpa, why don’t we. And now you can’t watch American daytime television without stumbling into some sassy “judge” in a pretend court where the rule of law is reduced to shouting matches, snappy comebacks, and angry finger wagging. Then there was Rush Limbaugh and his imitators, taking to the public airwaves and turning serious policy discussions into little more than angry jokes, insults, and lies. And dare I mention FoxNews?

The new normal is fucked.

No wonder once they got their shot at unfiltered public discourse on a national scale, regular ‘ole people quickly turned the internet into a flaming shit show. Deranged Alex Jones readers harassing, insulting, and even threatening the parents of massacred school children is pretty extreme, but really, it’s a continuum. It’s a straight line from that back to your uncle foaming at the mouth about libtards, or your cousin snidely insisting that everyone between the coasts is a buck-toothed, inbred moron, or that guy you haven’t seen since high school ranting on Facebook about how the real racism is what black people do.

Image result for daytime tv court shows
This is not an ad. This is America.

Shit starts at the top and rolls downhill. It snowballs. If you don’t tackle the big things, then a million little ones are gonna follow in their place. And we didn’t, so now we’re knee-deep in garbage and slush.

I pride myself on being a realist. I don’t expect us to be angels. Everyone’s got their dark side. But when pimping that out earns you reward points, and revealing your inner scumbag can actually be a fast track to fame instead of censure, the temptation becomes very real.

Maybe it’s time to update Andy Warhol’s old adage: In the future everyone will be an asshole for fifteen minutes.

These are my fifteen minutes.

It’s time to cash in and reveal what a horrible person I am. To revel in my own awfulness. They tell me it’ll draw fans like flies to shit. Well, if that’s the case, then I’m ready to be your irresistible pile of stinky poo. Whatever it takes. Behold, my attempt to become a Professional Asshole.

Turns out I routinely desecrate art and turn it into pornography.

Sometimes when a song gets stuck in my head for days on end, I have to find ways to not lose my mind, to manage the obsession. Often I’ll learn how to play the song. From there I’ll start breaking it down, analyzing it, and thinking about how I can change it to suit my tastes. Maybe those sappy strings should become horns, or that synthesizer a Hammond organ. Perhaps the bridge should be extended, or the chorus shortened. I grapple with all of it. The chords, the rhythm, the melody, the tempo, the key, the arrangement, the lyrics.

Especially the lyrics.

It’s no great secret that most songwriters are not poets. Which is fine. Writing song lyrics is a very different, if overlapping, medium than poetry. Melody and rhythm, particularly in conventional song craft, create serious constraints on lyrics. Plus, it’s a lot to ask for an artist to excel at both, musical and lyrical composition. There’s a reason why early- and mid-century composers often worked with professional, dedicated lyricists. There’s also a reason why even the best song lyrics usually look pretty flat when sitting unadorned on a page, presented as poetry minus the music. Then again, most great poetry would probably make for pretty crappy song lyrics.

All the songs stuck in my head in this compilation are post-WWII songs, mostly pop songs of one stripe or another. And most of them, to put it politely, do not have the most sophisticated lyrics. Thus, a week or two or three of the same, tired pop lyrics bouncing around my head over and over? God have mercy.

With almost every song on this list, I’ve imagined different musical arrangements, and re-worked the lyrics. Maybe that’s horrific hubris, a sacrilege upon someone else’s art. Maybe it’s just something to do. Lord knows I need something to do when the same song plays in my head over and over and over.

When caught in an endless loop, I just want something different. Getting rid of the song altogether would be ideal. But if that’s not possible, when I can’t escape the object of torturous repetition because my brain’s stuck on autopilot, I get desperate. If I can’t chase the song out of my head, maybe I can play around with it. Make modest “improvements.” Alter it in some small, clenched-jaw effort at retaining my sanity.

But sometimes it’s not small changes. Sometimes I get more imaginative. Sometimes I start from scratch and just write brand new, entirely different lyrics for a song. I mean, really different. And whenever I do this, the lyrics I come up with are almost always a bit “colorful.” As in, incredibly foul. Dir-tee.

That’s what I did with Fleetwood Mac’s “Monday Morning” earlier in this project. Lindsay Buckingham’s lyrics weren’t so bad. A bit repetitive. Not good enough, I think it’s fair to say, that I could bear to hear them repeatedly in my head for three weeks. So to entertain myself, I came up with brand new lyrics, pornographic rhymes about early morning sex. Fresh morning wood, that kinda stuff. I didn’t bother writing them down. They weren’t very good.

I could try to rationalize it by saying something like, given Fleetwood Mac’s tortured sexcapades, the lyrics should be a lot filthier. But who’s kidding whom? This is on me. And it happens a lot. I take perfectly nice songs, many of them beloved by millions of people around the world, and turn them into nasty ass shit. Things you don’t say in polite company? I’m talking about the kinda stuff that can turn heads at a strip club.

And then I really outdid myself.

I took a run at the lyrics of “Burning Down the House” by the Talking Heads when it got stuck in my head. I re-wrote almost every word with near perfect fidelity to the rhythm and meter of the original. But the topic is completely changed. Now the song about how every person on the planet should give me oral sex. How billions of consenting adults should aspire to go down on me.

The playbook says I should post the lyrics right here.  Those filthy, embarrassing, irredeemable lyrics.  Just unfurl them in italicized stanzas for everyone to read.  And then when people get incensed over my shameless re-working of this mid-80s New Wave classic, I have a couple of standard comebacks:

*I’m just speaking the truth! But you’re too uptight to deal with reality, so instead of facing facts, you’re trying to censor me, which means you’re the real blight on society, not me.

*I’m just joking! But you’re too uptight to have a sense of humor, so instead enjoying a good laugh, you’re going to try to censor me, which means you’re the real blight on society, not me.

Sigh.

But I just can’t bring myself to do it, to lay open the worst of me on the public stage for all to ogle at and chatter about.

I don’t know. Maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a Professional Asshole. Maybe I’ll have to settle for being an amateur. The kind of asshole who does something nasty, then feels the need to explain myself and possibly apologize.  The kind who is occasionally racked by remorse and regret, who wishes he could take it back, who looks to make amends, and commits to not doing it again in the future.

Because I do feel shame.  And that shame moderates my actions.  It in no way filters my thoughts or emotions, but it keeps in check the ways I choose to express them.

I’m a barbarian. I’m the Visigoth who pillages Rome. I’m the Spanish conquistador burning Muslim and Mayan libraries to the ground in the name of Jesus. I’m that weird guy plastering dick emojis all over your Facebook page. Well, not literally, but I might as well be. I’m shit. I’m garbage. I’m worse than garbage. I’m the raccoon eating your garbage, gorging myself on your throwaways, crawling up in the can and masturbating, coming out to shit on your doormat, and then stumbling off into the night with an Oscar Mayer Olive Loaf wrapper stuck to my ass.  I am an amateur asshole.  I am a human being who tries.

Akim Reinhardt’s website is ThePublicProfessor.com.  Maybe one day he’ll post those awful lyrics there.  Maybe not.

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