David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 46: Jill Sobule (Heroes)

June 11, 2020

It seems a quirk of popular music that songwriters with a sense of humor don't have long careers on Top 40 charts.  When these musicians hit the charts, their songs are usually considered novelty songs, which may condemn them even more than the fact that their lyrics are just as likely to make us laugh as cry. I know a lot of bands have short shelf lives on pop charts, anyway, but I might argue that because they exist in a world of songs mostly tapping into the usual vein of serious (whatever that really means) songwriting, their disappearance from the charts is hardly surprising. A list of artists considered "novelty" to some degrees, all with long careers, may share the only crime that is a sense of humor.

The following, however, have generally dozens of albums, hundreds of songs, that should be better known. We all need their dry senses of humor:

Randy Newman "Short People" and "I Love L.A."

Warren Zevon "Werewolves of London"

Nick Lowe "Cruel To Be Kind"

Jimmy Buffett" Margaritaville" and "Cheeseburger In Paradise"

Arlo Guthrie "Alice's Restaurant"

I'd include Tom Waits, a focus of this series just a few days ago, but he has never hit the pop charts.

Add to this list, the funniest female singer-songwriter I have ever heard (Jill Sobule). She "kissed a girl" long before Katy Perry "kissed a girl," and used a lot more tongue-in-cheek (some lines just write themselves). Sobule's video for "I Kissed A Girl" accentuated the humor, by showing her and the song's narrative girlfriend, Jenny, living in a cartoonish-subdivision and preferring each other to Fabio (at the height of his cultural fame--yes that one day). She also has opened for (and covered) Warren Zevon, and based upon some of her choices for instrumentation on her songs, probably worships Tom Waits.

Take the quirky musical opening to "Heroes," her funniest song in my opinion. The first 15 seconds is some jumble of piano, bass guitar, whistles, hand claps, and funky percussion. Then the guitar comes firmly in, along with beeps, buzzers and tweets setting up the lyrics. Sobule, who is always one of the most honest chroniclers of musicians (and instruments) on her songs, having on other songs identified who is responsible for "knee slaps," "drunk singing" and "dogs," apparently does almost all of these non-traditional sounds via her own synth playing (although "clapping" and "yelping"--how many other songs reference the yelpers?--are attributed to a "cast of thousands").

But it is the lyrics that carry the song, funny and truthful in the most painful way about humans.  The basic refrain, since there is not particularly a chorus, is the meat-of-the-matter couplet "Why are all our heroes so imperfect/Why do they always bring me down?" And then we get a list of writers, philosophers, artists, athletes immortalized far beyond the "statues in the park [that have] lost [their] crown."

  • William Faulkner drunk and depressed;
  • Dorothy Parker mean, drunk and depressed;
  • That guy in Seven Years In Tibet turned out to be a Nazi;
  • The Old Testament God can be so petty;
  • Paul McCartney jealous of John/even more so now that he's gone;
  • Dylan was so mean to Donovan in that movie;
  • Orson Welles peaked at 25/ballooned before our eyes/and sold very bad wine;
  • Heard Babe Ruth was full of malice;
  • Lewis Carroll I'm sure did Alice;
  • Plato in the cave with those very young boys.
  • T.S. Eliot hated the Jews;

In the end, Sobule seems accepting that creativity is married to depression and alcoholism:

Raymond Chandler drunk and depressed/

Tennessee Williams drunk and depressed/

I think I'll just get drunk and depressed.

And then the song veers into (or maybe, more accurately, wanders off into) noise: piano, handclaps, percussion, and synthesizer melding with screaming and moaning. It's a song that seems full of hopelessness, unless you think about how she really could have skewered our heroes.  In one interview with the Seattle Weekly in 2006, she pointed out how T.S. Eliot also "gave us Cats."1 Nice to know she held back on the criticism.

1 "Jill Sobule." Seattle Weekly. Reighly, Kurt. 9 October 2006. Retrieved online at https://www.seattleweekly.com/music/jill-sobule/

"Heroes." Pink Pearl. Jill Sobule. Beyond Music. 2000. Link here.

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Day 47: XTC "This World Over." ->

See full unfinished list here.