There's Taking Up Space, and then there's being a band called Viagra Boys.
I can't gloss over a name like "Viagra Boys." It might seem like I should, like I should rush past it to explain, No, I swear, it's not what you think... But, that wouldn't be fair, because I, too, had my preconceived notions about what a band called "Viagra Boys" would sound like. For me, I pictured a trendy nth wave emo band full of guys who will go on to invent the criminal defense of "ironic sexual assault" sometime in the next five years. But that was never fair -- these guys spell it "boy," not "boi."
I listened to their Street Worms LP quite a bit over the winter. I went into it fully expecting to roll my eyes at something entirely unforgivable and stupid. Instead, I only felt annoyed. Between the pangs of annoyance, though, were glimpses of things I love: dogs, narrative songs, antisocial behavior, stimulants, Grinderman and the Dead Kennedys. So, I listened again. And then several more times. I couldn't get the songs out of my head. And on each listen I would think, "Jesus, I hate the saxophone so much." But I would also think: "That part where he yells about how a dog must feel winning the title Best In Show is very good." Yes, as he is going on about the dog there are a million grating background noises and whimpers from the sax, but, it's true that
He is not a product of what is expected of a dog, but he is above that. He has risen, he has ascended above the clouds. He is looking down upon planet Earth and urinating in the mouths of those who thought a canine would never walk upon the moon.
Now, it's fact that there are people who love the saxophone but would find this read on a Best in Show winner to be annoying. And I'm here to say: Yes, of course, and that's what rocks! This music, and the band's whole thing, boils down to deliberately annoying behavior. 2016's "I Don't Remember That," from their first EP, could be heard as their founding document, their mission statement: It's a song about being accused of a million different highly specific rude behaviors, each greeted with a brazen, "I don't remember that." The song gets into the specifics with: "I don't remember no sad faces. I recall a quiet night. I really felt like I nailed it. Like usual, I behaved just fine." And between this shouted gaslighting is obnoxious guitar work, irritating repetitive drums and fuzzy bass, and that goddamn saxophone. "Not for everyone," one might think, but only because we have this incorrect notion that "being annoying" isn't good to do in music.
As the band matures from 2016 on, their songs get cleverer, going more Nick Cave than speedfreak Dead Milkmen. But, they don't abandon core principles, and remain very annoying even on 2021's Welfare Jazz. Opener "Ain't Nice" details a loser boyfriend:
I need a place for all the shit in my closet. I need a place to put all my electronics. You ain't that nice but you got a nice face. Hope I can fit all my shit at your place. Got a collection of vintage calculators -- if you don't like it, well, babe, I'll see you later. I ain't nice... Trust me, honey, you don't want me. I'll start screaming if you look at me funny.
A Swedish-American guy is yelling that at you with the sax going and the random beeps in the background, but the more traditional rock instruments are much catchier than those on the 2016 EP. Danceable, even. A ton of bands are annoying unintentionally, but then there's a band like this, a musical Larry David, that shows us all what's possible when you really try.
Their greatest work remains 2018's Street Worms. You just can't top opening with the extremely Grinderman "Down in the Basement," which is about sneaking around on your wife to experiment with life as a depraved sex guy "down in the basement, all dressed up in latex, one red light bulb hanging from the ceiling and a live goat standing on a small chair in the middle of the room."
They haven't yet topped their song "Just Like You." It's groovy and musically straightforward -- that is, it has a slightly reduced number of annoying background noises and fewer digressive rants -- so you can focus on its hypnotically-delivered tale of Being Normal vs. Being Joker. Wouldn't it be nice to be normal, to have a nice house, to have a little dog that reminds you of a large dog? But what if some people just can't?1
Much of what I have read about the band tries to wheel in this conversation around masculinity that sometimes does not feel organic. This is not because of the band, which, comprised of several Swedish gentlemen, is probably incapable of insincere and conniving self-promotion. (Even if the music is often deliberately insincere and conniving.) Rather, the music press doesn't seem to know how to handle a guitar band that is comprised of dudes right now. Yes, as the GQ article that made me think most about this points out, their name does carry with it the baggage of masculinity, penises, etc., and many of their songs are written from the perspective of or about male characters and that will naturally involve connotations of Gender. But the way critics and reviewers have treated the band as largely separate from the poor behavior they sing about is interesting. Because if one reads between the lines in some of these write-ups, it's clear there is a degree of autobiography in at least some of the songs. And how could there not be? I'm not saying that everything that happened in every one of these songs is a literal thing that frontman Sebastian Murphy has done to another person, but it's almost like we, as the audience, have decided nothing is real anymore. It's all commentary, meta analysis, irony. And, look, listen to one song by these guys and you'll know there is a lot of irony going on.
But what frustrates me about this kind of conversation around masculinity is this childlike interpretation of art, where because one aspect of it is a gag or ironic or commentary, the creators are absolved of any responsibility or personhood. I wonder if this isn't in part due to the newfound accessibility of artists. This ease of access might make us want to believe artists are nice and share our values and reflect who we are, so anything "bad" they talk about or do can't be real. (No one needs to be crucified here -- or worse, "canceled." I would just like someone to listen to a song about a person doing a bad thing and accept that the guy who wrote it might be both copping to his own misbehavior, even if he exaggerated it for Art, and inviting us to examine our own and asking us to see it in the rest of society.)
The GQ article tries to thread an impossible needle, even when Murphy gives the writer the answers:
That disdain for right-wing extremists and their boorish patriarchy in decline is fully manifest on Welfare Jazz, the alternately narcotic and blistering new Viagra Boys album... On brooding, pulsing tracks, Murphy proves himself an expert chronicler of the darker corners of the male brain, dissecting masculinity in all its ridiculousness while he sings in character as one of the hapless shitheads he's criticizing. “I don't need no woman telling me when to go to bed,” he wails on “Toad,” later explaining, “because I've been living on the outskirts of society my whole life.” It's a grim continuation of the themes he explored on “Just Like You,” a highlight from Street Worms...
Murphy's lyrics pull off the difficult trick of balancing his performing persona with his role as trenchant observer. “It's 50–50,” he says. “Half of it is an act, and half of it is like a diary in a way. I don't do it consciously, but subconsciously it becomes satire of myself and others.”
Murphy explains what he's doing, so the writer has no choice but to go with sentence one of paragraph two, but that sentence doesn't fit with the first paragraph, which tries to distance Murphy from the material. And it can only bring itself to offer the duality of "performing persona" and "trenchant observer." But one look at Murphy, a man so covered in tattoos he had to start using his forehead, would let you know that when he rasps "All I got is the shirt on my back, and my never ending hate for this completely fucked up society" on "Just Like You," he means it. I have zero tattoos and can sympathize! The song begins from the perspective of someone -- the narrator, in a dream of a life opposite the subject's -- who's had a swell life thanks to "the help from my peers," who got all he did from "the help of this wonderful society." But the song in its full context is bitterness expressed toward someone who can fit in, who can succeed from within the lines, who can accept the support of those around him. It's not frustration that someone else got a chance he didn't, it sounds more like the misery of knowing he could have had that life and was constitutionally unable. The subject is glad he didn't go to school to "end up just like you," but... bro, is he really? He's the one having the dream that he did! This is not a "dissection" of masculinity so much as a portrayal of it. A dissection breaks things down to their individual parts, looks inside, tries to understand something's core. But this song is a sum of its parts, a fully realized conception of predestined outsider status and the inability to ever feel at home or fit in.
I raise this because to listen to any music like this, whether it's Viagra Boys or Albini or Nick Cave or Pissed Jeans, should result (first) in self-examination rather than accusation. Which looks like this: I relate to "Just Like You" because I am similarly predisposed to reject help, to feel misunderstood, to be out of place, to have a chip on my shoulder. While I don't check all, or most, of the boxes of "masculine," I am certain that at least a portion of these problems comes from what I internalized as a child and young adult about masculine context around community vs. the individual, the idea of something "collective" as almost a cheat code, that "getting along" is for cowards and living conventionally is for chumps. Even guys who don't have these hangups must understand where these feelings come from, which makes the idea that this song is some kind of condescending character study of fascist twerps hard to accept.
And then there's Pitchfork's review of Street Worms, which puts Viagra Boys in the imagined costume of self-aware '90s wrestler: showmen deconstructing someone else's project (masculinity). This review is misremembering history a bit -- every human being alive who is listening to Viagra Boys is in on the joke. Whereas, I'm not sure that '90s WWE could accurately be seen as having "perfectly captured the difficulty of designing characters who play into machismo stereotypes while mocking them, too, a surprisingly sophisticated feat of writing and acting." I don't think the 12-year-old boys watching and Vince McMahon are who I would turn to as experts in the field of mocking machismo. They may understand projecting or impersonating machismo better than anybody, if we're being generous, but they are by no means trying to subvert or expose it. Vince McMahon is as trapped in a prison of masculinity as you can get, except for maybe the prison of masculinity a boy into wrestling in 1995 might be in.
I know it seems like I'm being a jerk arguing about some mistaken recollection in this person's review, but it is the heart of what I am getting at here: "I like wrestling, so there must be something smart and next level going on in it." It can't just be, "Look at these oafs acting goofy and sitting on each other," it has to be commentary. It can't just be annoying and fun, it has to have an indictment of... somebody, or something. That allows for this invention, this rewrite. It wouldn't be right to treat the band Viagra Boys as shallowly as the WWE deserves; VB is obviously more aware of what they're doing and is more aware of who they are as people. They are more separate from the project of masculinity than '90s WWE. But they're still dudes. And that's not their fault! I'm one too! I only mean to suggest that one can't grant someone else freedom from masculinity, or grant oneself that freedom, just because they are Aware of masculinity. And so much writing around men in pop culture right now is trying to do this. It is, at best, childish thinking, and, at worst and intentionally or not, allows wolves in sheep's clothing to ply their trade under the guise of "aw jeez, ain't I a stinkah?" And it also doesn't allow men to write something sincerely confessional.
Oh well! In the scheme of things, not that big a deal.
Now it's time to discuss their closing cover of John Prine's "In Spite Of Ourselves" on Welfare Jazz with the wonderful Amy Taylor of Amyl and the Sniffers. (Amyl and the Sniffers, there's a similarly egregious band name.) I have listened to this cover so many times. It's off Prine's album of the same name, a collection of frank-to-scandalous relationship duets with various women in country music. There's something so soothing, almost escapist, about the song on a surface level. Not unlike one of Yo La Tengo's masterpiece love songs. I can't get it out of my head. "In spite of ourselves, we'll end up sitting on a rainbow. Against all odds, honey, we're the big door prize. We're gonna spite our noses right off of our faces. There won't be nothing but big old hearts dancing in our eyes."
In the original version, Prine's guitar is cheery even as both his and Iris DeMent's voices crack wi6th emotion throughout the song. The cover does away with the cheery instruments and adds an instrumental foreboding menace. And there really is something two-faced about the song, the duality of a relationship's happiness and the awareness that it will end one way or another. It's hard to put into words via analysis, but the first comment I saw on the John Prine and Iris DeMent version illustrates it with a story:
My wife of 30+ yrs. is struggling with late stage Alzheimer's and gets very sad at times. This song puts a big smile on her face every time we sing along with it. As impaired as she is she still gets most of the words right. I've got her in home care with me and the words "never gonna let her go" have a special meaning for us! Thanks
Brutal, but that's what love is, and somehow this song -- the original and the cover -- captures that. It never comes right out and says it exactly, but maybe it's the echo of Iris and Amy's voices or the false cheer of Prine's guitar putting a brave face on things that lets the listener connect with the secret: love can be really fuckin' sad even when it has you at your happiest. That reminder is so beyond annoying as to break your heart.
7/9/22: When I wrote this in May, 2021, I tried hard to avoid outright saying Sebastian Murphy has ADHD. I hinted at it with the Larry Davidson reference and, obviously, the entire concept of a band making annoying loud noises and frequently referencing amphetamines feels like real "show, don't tell" business. Plus, 2021, or maybe late 2020, is when the internet started its backlash against people talking about ADHD. I felt self-conscious mentioning it at the time. However, with the release of Cave World this week, which contains a song called "ADD" ("I cannot function without my amphetamine / I can see you talking but I cannot hear a thing / I'm staring out the window thinking about the future / I hope they replace my brain with a computer"), I think it's okay to bring up the topic. Murphy describes the song like so: ↩︎