[Note: No, I’m not asking for sympathy.]
As I have already explained elsewhere , I do not consider myself a hip person when it comes to music, aware of the best underground or indie music and a trendsetter when it comes to knowing what is good before it is popular. When it comes to music, my tastes include a broad range of genres and styles, ranging from classical music to synthpop to singer-songwriters with their guitar or piano. I have a love of witty lyrics, clean production, good intonition, and catchy hooks. If a song sounds good to me, it matters not to me what label produced it, for my appreciation is in the performing and songcraft themselves.
As it would happen, all of the other teachers here at the school have fairly similar tastes in music. One teacher in particular has been very fond of making mix cds for us to play as we drive to and from the farm each morning, and as a result of her excellent and eclectic taste in music I have become aware of bands I did not know before. One of them is the subject of today’s entry, a band called Metric, part of the large Canadian indie rock scene, who went mainstream enough to record a song that is an appeal for support on the part of their longtime fans for their more mainstream direction, as well as attempting to provide a coherent and rational view of their ambitions. The song is called “Gimme Sympathy,” and I think its lyrics are worth examination not only as an excellent song, but also for its philosophical content as a reflection on popular music as a whole.
The first verse of “Gimme Sympathy” reads as follows: “Get hot, / Get too close to the flame, / Wild open space, / Talk like an open book. / Sign me up. / Got no time to take a picture, / I’ll remember someday / All the chances we took. We’re so close to something / Better left unknown. / We’re so close to something / Better left unknown, / I can feel it in my bones .”
This song would appear to be a song about fame. The band Metric (thanks in no small part to its charismatic lead singer) was attracting a great deal of attention from the mainstream, and they had been an indie band. Instead of shying away from the limelight and the uncertain and unknown fate of mainstream popularity and success, the band embraces the uncertainty even with the risks and chooses to take the chances it takes to make it as a mainstream rock & roll band. The band does this even knowing the dangers of getting too close to a parasitic and dangerous celebrity culture for their own health and well-being.
The second verse of “Gimme Sympathy” reads as follows: “Don’t go, /Stay with the all unknown, / Stay away from the hooks, / All the chances we took. / We’re so close to something / Better left unknown. / We’re so close to something / Better left unknown, / I can feel it in my bones.”
This second verse continues the theme of choosing fame rather than being content with obscurity, imagining their fans (and perhaps even a fearful voice in their own heads) telling them not to go on to mainstream success, and to be comfortable as a relatively obscure independent band, with deliberately obscure music that is not meant to appeal to the masses, rather than hooky popular music that can be played in stadiums and on radio stations. But still the band perseveres anyway, seeking fame, despite their own fears and misgivings.
The chorus brings the song into a larger critique of the music business, examining a question about fame and glory that has lasted at least as long as the Greek stories of Achilles: “Gimme sympathy. / After all of this is gone, Who would you rather be: / The Beatles or The Rolling Stones. / Oh seriously, you’re gonna make mistakes, You’re young. / Come on baby play me something like / Here comes the sun. / Come on baby play me something like / Here comes the sun.”
This chorus, in its whimsical way, is a plea for sympathy from others, especially fans, for sympathy for the band as they make mistakes and struggle under the harsh glare of celebrity, which tends to magnify every flaw. Knowing that fame is fleeting and temporary, they ponder their potential place within Rock & Roll, knowing as well that even if fame does not last the music one makes, like “Here Comes The Sun” endure long after the fame is gone. And the band asks, but does not answer, the question of whether one would rather be the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. The question itself is an updated version of the same dilemma that was faced by Achilles in Greek mythology. Does one prefer to have immense fame and achievements but a short lifespan or more modest achievements but a longer lifespan. Achilles chose Beatles rather than Rolling Stones, so to speak, gaining immortality through his deeds but dying young.
It is refreshing, in a way, to hear a band ask for sympathy from fans, instead of taking them for granted and assuming they will follow whatever path the band takes. It is also refreshing to hear a song, full of hooks and clever song references, that deals in an honest and upfront manner with the pressures of remaining part of the indie music scene or taking a chance at mainstream popular success. A desire to conquer new worlds and achieve success makes Metric seem like they are moving up and not selling out, simply becoming better at what they do and reaching a larger audience (including people like myself) rather than being content to linger on in obscurity. Even with its pitfalls, the joys of fame are attractive to many, for obvious reasons.