Monday, January 10, 2005

Jonathan Richman's "My Jeans"

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, but that's precisely what I am about to do. The song, which appears on the shamefully out-of-print Rockin' and Romance album, takes on the dominant attitudes and assumptions of consumerism from many different angles, through its form (its lo-fi simplified music) and its content (its deceptively simple lyrics).

First, the music: The song sounds as though it were committed to tape with hardly a second thought to whether his guitar was tuned or not. There is nothing "produced" about it: it's just Jonathan in a room singing and playing into a mike, backed up by a quartet of doo-wop singers. There was nothing especiallly fashionable in 1985 about this au natural approach; it in fact flew in the face of all the mainstream record industry assumptions about what music product should consist of -- mechanized drum beats, synthesized background music, processed vocals, massive reverberation, et cetera. All that technical appartus is part and parcel with the time-honored management strategy of taking the mastery of the tools away from the worker (singer, in this case) to make him interchangable while lodging the know-how with the managers -- this is why producers are more important than singers in today's pop-music market, and why you can have a TV contest to yield just about anyone to stand in the pre-formatted shoes of the pop-star. And by making music seem necessarily high-tech (you need an expensive machine to simulate real drumming rather than a drummer), it takes the ability to make music recognized as legitimate by the masses away from the average musican and places it firmly in control of the big corporations that can afford the equipment. And these same corporations use payola to ensure that fans are adapted to their expensive sound by assuring that there are no alternatives, until they naturally "prefer" what has been the only choice offered them on radio. And the music industry assumes it can leverage the bias toward technology -- the bias that assume that which flaunts its technological "advances" is auytomatically better -- and ensure fans for its ever more "sophisticated," that is computerized and mechanized, productions. Richman rejects all of this by making campfire music which require next to no technology to record. Just harmonizing voices and an acoustic guitar. He removes it from the cycles of fashion and trends generated by technological developments (think of how engineering evolution of synths, sampling, sequencers, etc. have shaped the contours of pop music at each stage) and makes it basic and freely accessible to anyone who wants to sing. And his untrained voice and his simple, functional guitar work serves as an inviting example for anyone who wants to create their own songs. All you need to do, Richman's song suggests, 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 and get them is not addressed). Why does he want a new pair? Not because he has whim or thinks it'll be cool or because he feels like having more but because his old pair is "fraying, really bad." So already he's staked out an anti-consumerist position: he's shopping only because he has to and for purely functional reasons. Why does he want Wranglers? Not because they are cool or because they're not cool or because they are the Pabst Blue Ribbon of jeans or any of that: but because he's learned through experience that they fit him best, another purely functional criterion. Consumerism is able to generate 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 one pair of jeans, to cover 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, and so on -- that are unending, ultimately unfulfillable. Richman sings about rejecting the symolism in favor of more basic, unambiguous utility. Lastly, he sings with unabashed, earnest enthusiasm for Wranglers, which may seem like a kind of naive brand loyalty, a classic consumerist ploy to have you fetishize the brand name, which creates a competitive advantage out of thin air for its owners. And perhaps this song does that. But the expression of unreserved enthusiasm is a refutation of the insidious ways brands are often built up, through inference and misdirection and proscription. Advertisments never work to encourage you to feel a genuine straightforward enthusiasm for a product, instead it tries to make you feel insecure in general, and thus more generally vulnerable and manipulatable -- you associate the brand with the sense of security that comes with conforming. But 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 regular ads' endorsements, showing that a product should not make you feel superior to others, that a product should make you gloat about it, not about yourself for buying it.

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