Monday, July 8, 2013

Jonathan Coulton's "Shop Vac" and being American


This week I was traveling through some new states for me (South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida), and while there were some new and different things in each place, one thing that struck me is how the same some things are, especially consumer outlets: strip malls, Walmarts, Targets, McDonald's etc., basically the same stores everywhere. I'm caught up in wanting that homogeneity, too; If I like a store or brand, I want it to spread. I think this is one aspect of life that we as Americans struggle with. We are drawn by the consumer market (that's what the market is good at), but shopping at those stores or keeping up with the Joneses doesn't give us human connection or fulfillment, which is what we really need in our lives.

While we were driving, Jonathan Coulton's "Shop Vac" came up on shuffle, and as we sang along, I remembered this song does a great job of approaching this American problem of brand desire and its folly. While this song is uncharacteristically not about zombies or cyborgs, I think this is one of my favorite Coulton songs. The song's story features a couple who are "living the dream." They have enough money to move out to suburbia, buy a riding mower, a big TV, etc., and shop at all the trendy stores they want. Here it is, with some kinetic typography animation that helps brings out the main points:

While the line "But we haven't got real friends, and now even the fake ones have stopped calling" (which comes up late in the song) crosses the line a little from show to tell, it is the first line of this upbeat song that tells the truth about this couple: they are drowning in their own loneliness. This loneliness is only exacerbated by the white noise of the stereotypically male workshop shop vac downstairs and the woman's TV soap operas upstairs, which drown out their real feelings and don't let either connect personally with each other or anyone else. It seems when the couple does communicate, it's about inconsequential commercial things, like which Starbucks is better, because "the other one's not as good" (the online reviews in the animation is a nice touch). The underlying TV announcement during the last verse tells of the final result: a man going crazy. It turns out brand fulfillment is no fulfillment at all, and he dreams of fleeing from it all. But since he can't run, he continues to drown it out with more assigned stereotypes and consumerism.

Musical sarcasm

So what does the song's music accomplish? Well, it is an upbeat, catchy song with 50s-sounding handclaps. This facade leads the listener into believing that the couple are doing exactly what they want to. But gradually, the listener becomes aware of the tension between the happy music and the sad state of the couple and the music becomes a symbol of another empty brand.

On a more minute analytical level, there are three main sections of the verse, each with its own set of chords. Having three sections with different chords allows for Coulton to switch emotions quickly and effectively at the beginning of any of these sections. Also, the verse starts with longer phrases, with some space in between them, but as the verse progresses, the phrases get shorter and more frantic, which builds to the chorus both emotionally and musically. Whereas a bridge normally takes the song to a new emotional level, this bridge takes the song to a new level of inane, again underlying the musical sarcasm of the song. It is a nice change of texture, too, breaking up the music nicely. The chorus is catchy and memorable, which means that most people might actually memorize the chorus before they realize that the lyrics are actually tragic, the protagonists separate and alone. This only underlines the song's musical sarcasm.

What do you think of "Shop Vac"? Do you have a favorite song that portrays the American condition?

Vocab: phrase, bridge, chorus, lyrics

No comments:

Post a Comment