In the spirit of Italian literary critic Franco Moretti and his practice of “distant reading,” Generation Bubble offers a series of essays devoted to our attempts to “unlisten” to pop past and present — to consider individual songs in light of how they helped structure everyday life in their moment.
It may seem strange to view Jonathan Richman’s innocuous, almost half-assed ditty about his deep appreciation for Wrangler jeans as an anti-consumerist manifesto. “My Jeans,” which appears on his 1985 Rockin’ and Romance album, seems on the surface a paean to brand loyalty, less a critique than a customer service complaint set to melody. But through its form (lo-fi simplified music) and its content (unnervingly denotative lyrics about his attachment to a shabby consumer good), the song undermines many of the assumptions on which consumer societies have come to rely. It celebrates the possibility of use value over novelty, simplicity over an elaborate division of labor, pragmatism over the fruits of ostentation.
First, the music: “My Jeans,” like the rest of Rockin’ and Romance, sounds as though it were committed to tape with hardly a second thought on Richman’s part as to whether his guitar was tuned or not. There is nothing especially “produced” about it: It’s just Richman in what sounds like an ordinary rec room, singing and playing into a mike, backed up by a chorus of doo-wop singers. (The nominal producer, power-pop legend Andy Paley, mainly stays out of the way.) This au naturel approach was not particularly fashionable in 1985, anymore than it is today. In fact, it flew in the face of mainstream record-industry assumptions about what music product should consist of. In the 1980s, it was a matter of mechanized drum beats, synthesized background music, processed vocals, massive reverberation, intensive overdubbing — all of which required expensive studio equipment and professional engineers.
The technical intricacy behind the “radio-friendly” sound of the era was no accident; it was an example of the time-honored management strategy of deskilling, taking the mastery of the tools away from the workers (musicians, in this case) to make them interchangeable parts. By making music seem necessarily high-tech (e.g., preference for simulating real drumming on an expensive machine over real drumming), the ability to make music recognized as legitimate, that is to say, commercial, is stripped from the average musician and placed firmly in control of the corporations that can afford the equipment. And these same corporations used payola to ensure that fans are adapted to their expensive sound by making sure that there were no alternatives, until consumers naturally “preferred” what was the only choice on radio.
The radio is still riddled with such disposable acts, as it always has been. Though now, post-lo-fi revolution and post-GarageBand, the music industry relies more on its star-making machinery, which only the larger media companies have the scale to implement. Particular talents of particular musicians is not that important to the business; there are competent, even talented musicians everywhere (just go on MySpace). The deskilling bias in mass-market music is why producers are more important than singers in today’s pop-music market, and why you can have a TV contest yield just about anyone to stand in the pre-formatted shoes of the pop-star.
Richman has generally rejected the music industry’s imperatives by making campfire music that requires next to no technology to record.
Richman has generally rejected the music industry’s imperatives by making campfire music that requires next to no technology to record — just harmonizing voices and an acoustic guitar. He removes the music he makes from the cycles of fashion and trends generated by technological developments (think of how engineering evolution of synths, sampling, sequencers, and so on have shaped the contours of pop music at each stage), keeping it basic, foregrounding his own musical quirks rather than the polish that comes from conforming to the commercial sound of the moment. His untrained voice and his straightforward guitar playing serves as an inviting example for anyone who wants to create their own songs. All you need to do, Richman’s songs suggest, is to start doing it.
The lyrics mirror this functional aesthetic. The song is about his fruitless quest to buy a new pair of Wranglers (why he didn’t just go to any truck stop on I-40 or any Western Wear outlet to get them is not addressed). He wants a new pair not out of whimsy or a sense of downmarket contrarian cool or even a belief, held by many a materialist rapper, that he needs more stuff. No, his old pair is “fraying, really bad.” Why does he want Wranglers? Not because they are cool or not cool, not because they are the Pabst Blue Ribbon of jeans or any of that. Instead he claims that he has learned through experience that they fit him best — another purely functional criterion.
(“My Jeans” begins at 3:27)
Richman sings about rejecting symbolism in favor of more basic, unambiguous utility. He chases the ideal of use value, one not yet impugned by exchange value, not yet merely advanced as exchange value’s post hoc alibi. He wants us to believe that we can make it back to a world where function isn’t lost in a miasma of symbols and postures. Consumerism typically generates unending demand for mass-produced stuff by encouraging consumers to need to consume what goods symbolize rather than what they actually do. In terms of function, you need exactly one pair of jeans to keep your ass from showing. But the act of buying jeans can be made to seem to satisfy wants — for status, for self-esteem, to assuage boredom — that are unending, ultimately unfulfillable. “My Jeans” tries to reject all that through frankness, through an unhedged admission of what real needs are and why they might preempt the assigning of other motives.
Richman sings about rejecting symbolism in favor of more basic, unambiguous utility.
In that spirit of openness, he sings with unabashed, earnest enthusiasm for Wranglers. Brand names are the quintessential mark of consumerism, creating a competitive advantage for logo owners out of the social investment of meaning in it. When Richman touts Wranglers by name in the song, he of course enhances the brand’s value. But the expression of unreserved enthusiasm in “My Jeans” also refutes the insidious ways brands are often built through inference and misdirection and proscription. Advertisements rarely encourage you to feel a genuine enthusiasm for a product. Instead they try to make you feel tenuously superior, even while insecurity remains implicit at every moment. They seek to make you more generally vulnerable and manipulable, as you associate brands with the sense of security that comes with conforming.
Richman co-opts the function of ads and turns it inside out. He’s offering an endorsement that does no one but himself any good (I like them because they fit me) , and he’s undermining the premises of ordinary ads’ endorsements, showing that a product need not make you feel superior to others to satisfy — that a product should make you gloat about it, not about yourself for buying it.
Rob would love to hear from you. Drop him a line at horninggenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.
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