In Defense of… Barenaked Ladies

“I could hide out under there / I just made you say, ‘Underwear.’”

It’s kind of an embarrassing confession: Barenaked Ladies are my favorite band.

You see, my relationship to music has been a very simple and static one. I grew up listening to non-threatening, easy-on-the-ears ‘90s rock. I never really stopped. I never had an emo phase, a classic rock phase, or a synth phase. Hearing Dylan or Pearl Jam or Eminem didn’t change the way I thought about music, let alone in a profound way.

Because of all this, I’ve been told I don’t really “get” music.

But I don’t think a lot of people “get” Barenaked Ladies, either.

The best Canadian band this side of Bachman-Turner Overdrive is often dismissed because of their filler lyrics, like the one quoted above. BnL, as they’re colloquially known, are unabashed practitioners of the filler lyric to assist rhythm or rhyme; sometimes entire songs can appear as little more than a heroic coupling of non-sequiturs. This can sometimes be a valid criticism; it’s not easy to defend a band that asks you to “Think of all the lives, saved by plastic knives.” (Done.) Like all good English majors, though, you have to read between the lines to see what BnL is really all about, and it’s (often) so much more than catchy riffs and a simple rhyme scheme.

Barenaked Ladies thrive most when they’re delving into good old-fashioned wanderlust, when they give voice to Thoreau’s men of quiet desperation and the Icarean drive in all of us to fly a little closer to the sun. Because the overarching theme of their tableau, once you read between those lines, is the desire—driven by an overactive, daydreaming imagination—to be someplace else. Or as “Pinch Me” succinctly opens, “It’s the perfect time of year / Somewhere far away from here.”

“Pinch Me” is one of a quartet of BnL songs that have joined the cultural parlance, alongside “One Week,” “If I Had $1,000,000,” and, to a lesser extent, “It’s All Been Done.” While its three colleagues all rely to a large degree on silliness, “Pinch Me” digs a bit deeper. While it does contain its share of fillers—like the epigram above—it focuses more largely on the search for meaning in an otherwise mundane existence. The protagonist partakes in some of life’s simple pleasures—running through a sprinkler, sleeping away the afternoon—while at the same time hoping to wake up from this dreamlike stupor. He is desperate—in that Thoreauvian sense—to make an impact, one that doesn’t make it “hard to tell if I exist.”

The refrain of “Pinch Me” hammers home his quest for purpose, comparing life’s meaning to “a dream you try to remember but it’s gone / Then you try to scream, but it only comes out as a yawn.” What “all this is for” is right there on the tip of his tongue, but he can’t find the words to articulate it. The main character in “Pinch Me,” then, isn’t very different from Ivan Karamazov or his Inquisitor: “For the mystery of human existence lies not in just staying alive, but in finding something to live for.”

And then there’s “When I Fall”—the tale of a window-washer who, like his doppelganger in “Pinch Me,” is looking for something more out of life. In the opening verse, he talks of “pretend[ing] I’m not up here,” of trying to take his mind off the utter torpor of his profession. He dreams of flying off his small platform and actually living, of creating something rather than just erasing it:

Look straight in the mirror
Watch it come clearer.
I look like a painter
Behind all the grease.
Painters creating,
And I’m just erasing:
A crystal-clear canvas
Is my masterpiece.

This existential crisis of performing such a menial job—one that, at its essence, just erases the work of other humans and nature—on a daily basis leads to that impulse to leap: “I wish I could fly / From this building, from this wall / And if I should try / Would you catch me, if I fall?” At the same time, the protagonist recognizes the distinct possibility of failure, and it’s why he continues to wash windows. What happens if he falls? Who is there to catch him? The window-washer is particularly cognizant of these dilemmas: Remember, he is a man well-versed in the dangers posed by gravity and potential energy.

It’s these questions, then, that make the song’s simple transition of prepositions at its end so profound. When the “if I fall” becomes a “when I fall,” we realize that the window-washer now sees both his leap from the shackles of the scaffold and his concomitant failure as all but inevitable. He has made up his mind to change, but we, like him, are left hanging in the balance as the song ends.

“When I Fall” highlights another key part of BnL’s oeuvre: the overtly relatable protagonist. In short, Barenaked Ladies sing more about the lovable losers stuck in dead-end jobs and relationships, ones “afraid of change, afraid of staying the same.” Their characters are not only not cool, but distinctly uncool at times (as in “Grade Nine,” the song about high school life in Canada for everyone who didn’t go to Degrassi). Their more romantic songs focus not on beauty or sex, but rather the obstacles that hinder the pursuit of both. “What a Good Boy” is a totally different way of singing “Only the Good Die Young,” with the protagonist lacking the swagger and confidence of Billy Joel’s. Instead, he focuses on the “chains” and “hairshirt” and “cross” that prevent him from being with his girl—the reverse of Joel’s song. “This song is the cross that I bear / Bear it with me, bear it with me, bear with me, and be with me tonight. / I know that it isn’t right, but be with me tonight.”

Break Your Heart” is unique in its ability to portray pretension satiated with sensitivity and insecurity. It’s also a rallying cry for anyone stuck in a relationship just because a better one has yet to present itself, finishing with arguably the band’s best and most cathartic crescendo. At the same time, you can’t escape the sneaking suspicion that it’s the “I” in the song, and not the “you,” that’s affected most by the break-up he’s initiated.

In an era that has become dominated by rap and what the Star-Ledger’s Jerry Izenberg once called the “universal self-canonization of the cult of me,”* Barenaked Ladies remain a refreshingly humble band. Their songs concentrate on their flaws, their sins, and their desires for both repentance and release, for an escape from the rigors of everyday existence. They sing not of excess, but rather of the Dickensian qualities of ignorance and want.

*In a column about Terrell Owens that does not appear to be available online.

And they do so in styles that range from the musically farcical (“Fun and Games”) to the upbeat (“Brian Wilson”) to the simply acoustic (“When I Fall”) and flat-out beautiful (“Lovers in a Dangerous Time”*).

*The rare cover song that sounds completely different (and better) than a pretty solid original.

That’s why Barenaked Ladies are my favorite band. Abashedly.

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3 responses to this post.

  1. […] We here at NPI aren’t exactly breaking new ground or going out on a limb when we say that The Beatles are the greatest band of all-time, but we’re saying it anyway. Not only is each one of their twelve studio albums (we don’t really count Yellow Submarine) excellent, but they more or less invented the concept of an “album.” When The Beatles started, albums were little more than collections of singles, but The Beatles made at least five albums that are not only enjoyable to listen to but also riveting works in and of themselves. For a band to have one album like that is an accomplishment, but five is simply legendary. But which of their many classic albums are the best? Without further ado, here is the first half (the Top 5 are coming later today) of Josh and John’s rankings (Tim is abstaining due to the time needed to internally rank every Barenaked Ladies’ song): […]

    Reply

  2. […] we at NPI (who’ve been known to wax poetic about alternative rock of the 1990s) might consider this analysis of Semisonic’s “Closing Time” a little too […]

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  3. Posted by KT on May 12, 2015 at 3:43 PM

    I’ve often thought they were under appreciated as well. Hands down, my favorite band. I defy anyone to say they aren’t any good until AFTER they have enjoyed a live performance. Much of what they have to offer is in the chemistry of the band mates.

    Reply

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