“Not many people know this…but the Führer was a terrific dancer.”
So wrote no less an authority on European history than Dr. Melvin James Kaminsky, in his seminal work, “The Producers.” It goes to show you that typecasting is a widespread problem that extends far, far beyond the fields of entertainment. The public, and the media in particular, like to lock a notable person into a single, oversimplified container. Apparently, there just isn’t enough bandwidth in the zeitgeist for “He led a nation into madness, a world into a bloody, extended war, and 11,000,000 souls to extermination” and “He understudied the role of Billy Crocker in the original 1934 New Haven out-of-town tryout of ‘Anything Goes’.”
Jonathan Coulton is much like Hitler, in this (sole) (as far as we know) respect. The Amazon MP3 Store and iTunes have both chosen to categorize him in the overly-nondenominational but entirely reasonable category of “Pop.” But mainstream commentators often try to narrow that down. They usually fail. Is he…a musical comedian? A satirist? Is he a narrowcaster of “nerd folk music”?
Hmph. Honestly. Why not just call him a musician, and leave it at that? Pigeonholing him is pointedly unnecessary, as demonstrated by…well, pretty much every Jonathan Coulton track available.
He has a remarkable felicity with lyrics, clicking words together as though that’s the way they should have appeared to begin with. I have to believe that when I plucked “Anything Goes” out of the air for a cheap joke, it was a case of divine ordinance. Coulton seems to inject the same kind of playful, effortless flavor into his lyrics as Cole Porter.
(It was either Divine Ordinance or an expression of my offhand genius. But surely that’s for future generations to confirm.)
And to anyone who disagrees with my high opinion of Coulton as a composer: I challenge you to listen to “Mr. Fancy Pants” and not be humming the tune for the whole rest of the week. We speak of “earworms.” Well, a Coulton melody is more like a Babel Fish. Yup, it winds its way through the ear canal and won’t leave, and it might creep you out a little at first. But soon, and forever after, you’re glad it’s in there.
His tunes and lyrics play together so well. There’s an construction in “The Future Soon” that I adore. Viz:
Last week I left a note on Laura’s desk
It said I love you, signed, anonymous friend
Turns out she’s smarter than I thought she was
She knows I wrote it, now the whole class does too
In the last line, “does” completes the rhyme with “was.” But there’s still that next word after it. As sung, it’s like that moment of weightlessness when a ball thrown in the air has arrived at the apex of its trajectory and is about to start its fall.
I’m sure there’s some sort of musicological terminology for that kind of thing, but it doesn’t matter and I can’t be bothered to look it up. I just think it’s great.
Above the technical stuff about his songs, there’s the fact that Jonathan Coulton does what every great songwriter does: he figures out how to use a song to underscore a simple, shared truth of the human experience.
In his live show, Coulton introduces “The Future Soon” as the thoughts of a 12 year old boy during the Eighties, lying in his bedroom and reading “Omni” magazine and thinking of the future. It’s a time when you’ve yet to figure out how to wield any power over your own destiny. At the same time, you can’t stop thinking about the future. The kid in this song is eager for what his life will be, when technology will have magically eliminated all of the unsolveable problems that stand between himself and what he wants.
(And then it gets a little out of hand and he starts describing what would probably make for an awesome epic doodle on his homeroom desk.)
The next developmental step for this kid is a (hopefully brief) period of impatient teenage anger. After that, a sense of entitlement will be replaced by one of enlightenment. It’s a wonderful moment of discovery when a young adult realizes he can set his goals even higher and go out and get everything he wants, without the need for bionic implants and a robot army.
But I didn’t choose “The Future Soon” as today’s song.
Um…okay: there’s this electronic beeping that starts around the bridge and repeats until the fade-out. It’s like the flashing lights in that one “Pokemon” cartoon. It triggers some kind of epileptic seizure in the part of my brain that controls my irritation; by the end, I find myself loading the song into Garage Band and seeing if there isn’t some EQ or filter I can apply to this awesome song to make the beeping less noticeable.
Instead, I chose “Mr. Fancy Pants,” which has much to recommend it. It has a bouncy melody. It has the word “Pants” in the title. And there’s a subtle, important point lurking within its brief tale of a man who is driven to be publicly acknowledged as the owner of the fanciest pair of pants in town.
Say a little prayer for Mr. Fancy Pants
The whole world knows
They’re only clothes
And deep inside
The first time I heard this song, I couldn’t help but think about the many times I’ve been on some kind of fan message board or another and saw a photo of a collector’s room that made me a little sad. Most of them don’t. But there are some that fill me with some small measure of pity.
Usually it’s a spare bedroom, filled with IKEA bookcases. Each bookcase has a half a dozen shelves, and each shelf is stuffed with “Star Wars” toys. Multiple copies of them, each in their original boxes and covered with a certain amount of dust that serves as the collection’s sole cataloguing system.
Or, it’s a room dedicated to comic book action figures and statues. I can imagine that this room was once a cheery museum of a productive hobby, way back when it was filled to about 20% of its current capacity. A chair, a sofa, and the ability read and watch TV surrounded by nifty things. But by the time the photo was taken, the collection was at the advanced stage where the room looks like the excavation of the terra-cotta army of Emperor Qin. Rows upon rows upon rows of figues and statues, packed so densely that they can only be perceived as a single crowd. How can any one of these objects deliver any pleasure to its owner?
Thus speaks a man whose house contains a decidedly nonzero number of Cold-Cast Porcelain Limited-Edition Collectible Statues. I, um, might be standing on shaky ground.
But, look: it’s a manageable number. When I see my Jim Lee “Batman” statue on the shelf, it holds my attention and gives me some joy. Ditto for my Artoo Detoo Cookie Jar (shelf above), my Death of The Endless statue (opposite set of shelves) and my California Originals Chewbacca stein (mantle). They sit in places in the office and living room where I might look up from my book or my keyboard. I see something pretty, and it makes me happy. Or it reminds me of a great story or a favorite creator, and it inspires me.
So those things are fine, I reckon. I feel like I can defend them. They’re evidence of a person who has hobbies and interests, and pursues those interests as part of a healthy, balanced life.
Once, my collecting…probably wasn’t Fine. For a year or two, I was so excited that there were new Star Wars action figures available for the first time since my childhood that I went slightly nuts. From that moment, we now fast-forward several years to the scene where I remove a dozen huge Toys-R-Us bags from a storage locker. Each one was filled with unopened toys and a certain kind of numb, remote shame.
As I was acquiring these toys, they gave me a temporary jolt of Happy Brain Chemicals. Almost immediately after, however, the Happy part was over for good and they became just a source of clutter. I didn’t look at them again and I wasn’t even particularly aware that I owned them.
I took those bags to my friendly local comic book retailer and swapped them for a boatload of store credit…which I drew upon for a mighty long time. I bought a whole bunch of terrific comics and trade paperbacks. They give me new joy every time I pick one up off the shelf and read it again.
I hope I’m not judging these kinds of collectors. Manic acquisition seems sad, that’s all. The things you own should mean something to you. I see the fantastic Brian Bolland-inspired “Wonder Woman” statue in Terra Cotta Warrior formation as part of someone’s immense collection and it just seems like such a waste. All by itself, the statue is a lovely object and it’d be a highlight in the room of any Wonder Woman fan. As part of a huge crowd, it’s meaningless, except as a show of force. “Look at all these statues I own! Come back in a month…I’ll own even more!”
Material things (even things designed specifically for acquisition and collecting) aren’t the problem. The problem comes when there’s a glaring divot in your life and you fill it with those material things, or a new habit, or with an empty goal such as “Get More Stuff.”
It sneaks up on you. There might come a time when your collection is no longer a solution to a small problem (“I need a hobby that allows me to relax and decompresss”)…but a distraction from a very large one.
I suspect that I was buying action figures because there was something missing from my life at that time. When that time passed, the action figures went into storage and I was glad for the extra space. I didn’t miss them a bit. Even during the height of my collecting, I could have lost them all in a fire and not really felt anything.
By contrast, if my 1977 Chewbacca tankard were to fall off the mantle and smash into smithereens, I’d be bummed. Supposedly, this tankard was a product that George Lucas wanted for his own use. It’s a beautiful thing and it makes me think of a movie that gave me a hell of a lot of joy during my childhood, and of a creator whom I greatly admire.
When I see some of these out-of-control collections (or a super-crazy-intense love of a movie or TV series) I worry about what happens to these people when the distractions are gone. It’s only when the room is completely empty that you finally can see the cracks in the walls and the gaps between the floorboards.
The whole world knows, it’s only clothes…and deep inside, he’s sad.
Okay, well, reading back, I must acknowledge the possibility that none of this was on Mr. Coulton’s mind when he wrote “Mr. Fancy Pants.”
But that’s kind of the point. Art that speaks to something fundamental doesn’t usually need to spell it right out. Usually, it’s the product of an artist making an observation about nothing in particular. But because the thing is of this world, and the creator is both an artist and a human, significances seep in.
I’ll conclude by shifting the tone and acknowledging that if I moved to a new town and saw posters for their annual Fancy Pants Parade, I’d feel as though I’d made a shrewd choice. The first year, I’d chuckle about it and I probably wouldn’t go to see the parade, though I would have entered the date into my calendar. I’d go see it the second year and snap photos.
Sometime before the third one, maybe I’d be in Dallas on business and I’d be walking around the outskirts and I’d happen along a costume rental shop that was closing its doors after 90 years in business and selling all of its stock. I’d chance across a pair of trousers that began its life as a pair of riding breeches in 1930 but which had been repurposed once every twenty years until it had become a dazzling layer cake of velvet and satin and sequins.
“If these people are asking anything less than $100 for these,” I would think, “Then this year’s trophy will, no doubt, be mine…Mr. Fancy Pants be damned.”
Is the Fancy Pants Parade followed by a Fancy Pants Dance at the VFW hall later? I hope so. I’ve been working on my dance steps for it since the first time I played this song in the privacy of my home.
I told you: it’s a damned catchy song.
As I’m sure you’ll agree once you click this link and sample it on the Amazon MP3 Store. Everything you buy on Amazon after following that link will result in my receiving a small kickback in the form of Amazon store credits.
Which I promise to spend on foolish things.
Maybe fancy pants. Maybe a “Superman” statue.