Support for Voluntine’s Week continues here with a great guest post from C. T. Murphy! He runs a most excellent blog called Murf vs. Internet that’s chock-full of posts on everything from life experiences to video games and anything in between. His way with words is not to be ignored, people! He also contributes to a little site I’ve probably mentioned here before called Geek Force Network. Find him also on Twitter @ctmurfy and Google+.
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Ben Fold’s Rockin’ the Suburbs is one of my favorite albums of all time. When it was released in 2001 (coincidentally, the same day as the September 11th attacks) I was only thirteen years old. Though I had heard of Ben Folds then, it was years later when I came to enjoy and appreciate his music. Largely, that’s because I matured enough to understand it.
Rockin’ the Suburbs is everything I love about 90’s music, played out as one last hoorah on a piano. Foremost, there is a self-aware quality to the songs with a playful sense of irony to match. This is a pop album, but only its simplistic but catchy rhythms. In a typical 90’s style, the lyrics don’t often match the upbeat tone of the music.
The album kicks off with “Annie Waits.” As the piano holds a steady, hopeful melody, we meet Annie, a girl waiting for someone who likely has forgotten whatever responsibility they owed her.
“The clock never stops, never stops, never waits // She’s growing old // It’s getting late.”
Other lines like “Annie waits for the last time // Just the same as the last time” appeal directly to my inner English major. Ben Folds does such a perfect job through wordplay of capturing the line between being hopeful and being hopeless. It is such a simple and elegant way to express a feeling that often feels far more complex to us, at least in the moment.
“Zak and Sara” introduces two star-crossed teens. I smile every time I hear the opening of song with lines about the specific spelling of each of their names. For one, it is necessary to understand the title, but it seems like the sort of detail two teenagers might reason out as why they feel fated to belong together.
The song quickly turns dark, despite the beat, as it moves to Sarah’s home life: “The kind of voices she would soon learn to deny // Because at home they got her smacked.”
From the 90’s on, popular music began to be openly willing to discuss difficult circumstances. It became less about writing another love song for the radio, and more about sharing real feelings. Few do that as well as Ben Folds.
“Still Fighting It” furthers that trend. It is a touching song where a father tells his infant son “And you’re so much like me // I’m sorry” in a personal reflection of how difficult growing up can be. In hoping to tell his son about this moment when he has grown up, the song is a reflection that ‘growing up’ is an ongoing process that never ends. Literally, the father is ‘still fighting it.’
Perhaps the most stunning song on the entire album is “Fred Jones Part 2”. Largely a story about an American everyman forced into an early retirement after 25 years with the same company, Fred Jones is a powerful character. The song evokes that disconnected and hopeless feeling we when we are separated from the only thing that gave our day meaning, which for many is their job. Life becomes as the song describes it a “… runaway train // Where the passenger change // They don’t change anything // You get, someone else can get on.”
My thirteen year old self certainly wouldn’t of gotten the feels that this song produces. When Ben Folds punctuates each verse with “And I’m sorry, Mr Jones // It’s time”, my heart drops and tears start forming. Many of us can relate to displacement, but Mr Jones experiences it a profoundly life-changing way. “He’s forgotten but not yet gone.”
Other songs play on Ben Folds juxtaposition of loss, hopelessness, world weariness, and love to further round out the album. “The Ascent of Stan” follows a ‘textbook hippie man’ who has forsaken the convictions of his youth for the empty wealth and power of being a part of ‘the man’. “The Luckiest” is a reflection on how true love is a product of a moment, as much as anything else. (“What if I had been born fifty years before you?”)
Despite the raw emotional present throughout this album, its title comes from the one track on the album we are all guaranteed to have heard at least once in our lives. I used to think that it didn’t really belong with the rest of the album, but now I see it for what it truly is: a counterweight.
In case anyone were going to dismiss the rest of the album as a bunch of ‘first world problems’, “Rockin’ the Suburbs” is Ben Folds’ self-aware pop anthem answer. “Let me tell y’all what it’s like // Being male, middle-class, and white.”
It is funny, it is catchy, and it pairs incredibly well with his cover of Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit” from 2005. It has a self-effacing humor too, which makes sure you are aware that Ben Folds is in on the joke as well.
It is probably a great example of what not to do, as well. Since it is so catchy and, frankly, radio-friendly, it almost seemed like Ben Folds was intentionally hoping for a one-hit situation off this album. Though I do love every song on Rockin’ the Suburbs, I probably would’ve been disappointed if I expected more songs like the album’s title track. Even if it is the fun release that you need after the seriousness of everything that comes before, “Rockin’ the Suburbs” may be too fun.
Ben Folds has a lot of other songs that I love, but Rockin’ the Suburbs is my favorite complete work of his. If I have to pick, “Army” is by far one of my favorite songs of his (off of 2005’s Songs for Silverman), and is definitely one of the fifty songs in my top ten songs of all time list.
If you haven’t heard the entire album, go listen to Rockin’ the Suburbs today. If you have, then considering adding some Ben Folds back into your playlist. He has toe-tappers with real emotional feelings and that’s exactly the kind of music I love!