Ten musicians fueled by existentialism
Music is filled with surprises. For every good-looking rebel working diligently to bring sexy back, there's a bookish nerd sitting in a dim corner furiously scribbling esoteric poetry in a lyrics journal. Referencing literature is a surefire way to show the world that you're a sensitive soul with important thoughts. Existentialism is clearly the most badass school of thought because it pits the individual (wearing black) against the absurdity of the uncaring cosmos (also wearing black). Keep reading for a look at ten existential musicians.
10. The Classic Crime
Nihilism and existentialism are certainly not the same, and the Classic Crime's "The Happy Nihilist" illustrates the difference impeccably with its description of a lost soul who "used to read everything," "used to need nothing" and now "can't sleep 'cause I'm not happy." Nihilism isn't doing it for him; he needs something more. Existentialist thinkers would argue that it's perfectly possible to be happy in a meaningless world, as long as you assign your own meaning to things (good news for the narrator of the song, and all of us). Speaking of nihilism, have you ever thought about just how brilliant the line "No, Donny. These men are nihilists. There's nothing to be afraid of." really is? Nothing to be afraid of. I see what you did there.
Cake's deliciously cryptic "Sheep Go to Heaven" is packed with obscure references. The chorus "Sheep go to Heaven, goats go to Hell" is an allusion to the Bible (often cited as the definitive record of who goes where). The line "And the gravedigger puts on the forceps" is a bit more perplexing. It's taken directly from Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, widely considered a staple of existentialist theater: "Down in the hole, lingeringly, the grave digger puts on the forceps. We have time to grow old. The air is full of our cries. But habit is a great deadener." Awwwwwwyeeeaaaahhhh.
8. Janina Gavankar
Speaking of Waiting for Godot, Janina Gavankar references the play in her 2012 single of the same name. Who is Janina Gavankar, you ask? She's the actress who plays the mighty Shiva on The League and shapeshifting Luna Garza on True Blood. The video for her song shows two versions of her waiting together in a featureless white expanse. The song asks, "Friends may come, and friends may go/But if I wait for love, am I waiting for Godot?" The imagery is so over-the-top, it's hard to tell if she's serious. And isn't that what existentialism is all about?
7. They Might Be Giants
The godfathers of geek rock are no strangers to literary allusions. Perhaps the most existential of their songs is Apollo 18's "I Palindrome I." It contains one of the best lines of all time: "Someday mother will die and I'll get the money/Mom leans down and says 'My sentiments exactly/You son of a bitch." It's a clear reference to the opening lines of Camus' The Stranger: "Mother died today, or maybe yesterday; I can't be sure." We're all snakes eating our own tails, but TMBG show us every day that the bleak wilderness of existence can be both fun and educational.
6. Tom "T-Bone" Stankus
T-Bone's "Existential Blues" -- often mis-attributed to They Might Be Giants -- was a big hit on the Dr. Demento show. A former public schoolteacher turned full-time entertainer, Stankus penned this rambling riff on philosophy and The Wizard of Oz while in the grip of a monumental opium/helium bender... at least that's how it sounds. He was probably stone sober and just really weird. "Is it Plato's heebie-jeebies or just existential blues?" he asks penetratingly. It's both, T-Bone. It's both.
5. As I Lay Dying
This San Diego Christian metalcore band took their name from William Faulkner's existential novel of Southern life gone horribly wrong. Considering that Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his work, it's somewhat distressing that As I Lay Dying's lyrics sound like they came straight out of an online Goth poetry generator: "Emptiness running through me/Taking all that I am/Leaving me this blinding mask/Grasping for the wind/Everything I've done/Everything I've gained/It all means nothing." On the other hand, frontman Tim Lambesis was recently arrested in an alleged murder-for-hire plot, and that's something the characters in Faulkner's novel could really get behind.
This experimental post-punk band from San Francisco prided themselves on their unique sound that Seattle Weekly described as radiating "a discomfort that hints of existential hives." The 1970s were chock-full of existential hives. Everyone knows that. The band's song "Stranger" makes another reference to Camus' landmark novel with the lines "Mother died today/Or maybe yesterday." It also ends with the lines "I'm strange/I'm the stranger." That's the subtlety of poetic discourse that your high school English teacher used to tell you about.
3. The Yawpers
Denver's own Yawpers are deep into some existentialist reading. In a recent interview, the Yawpers told us about their album Capon Crusade and its not-infrequent references to Sartre and Camus. "They're depressing as fuck," said frontman Nate Cook, cutting to the heart of the philosophy. He then added, "Sartre and Camus are really poignant in pointing out just how flawed existence is in general, and sometimes that can be comforting when you're trying to write some shitty song about getting fucked up because a girl left you." That's actually pretty astute. When misfortune befalls you, is it more or less reassuring to imagine that you deserve it? The great gift of the existentialist thinkers may be showing us that sometimes a lack of intrinsic meaning in the universe isn't such a bad thing.
2. The Cure
Robert Smith and company have made a career out of existential dread and despair -- so much so that the early effort "Killing an Arab" now seems a little on-the-nose in its description of the pivotal scene from The Stranger. In fact, the song's matter-of-fact lyrics have caused the band a good deal of grief over the years, as certain parties have tried to co-opt them as some kind of anti-Arab anthem. Re-releases have sported a sticker explaining that the song "decries the existence of all prejudice and consequent violence," and Smith has taken to changing the lyrics in live performances to "killing another." One shy English boy against a world of dull-witted savagery: what could be more existential than that?
1. The Eagles
Don Henley's vision of 1970s California as a fiendish hotel filled with earthly temptations takes its tone and setup from Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. "Hell is other people," says Sartre. Henley adds, "This could be Heaven, or this could be Hell," implying that maybe they're one and the same. "Hotel California" is one of those classic songs that deserves every bit of its fame. Listening to it, you feel a palpable desire to be somewhere warm and tropical where the livin' is easy. You also feel a chill of recognition that you'd soon become bored, listless and depressed playing games with the wealthy and beautiful. "And still those voices are calling from far away." Thanks, Henley. What an insightful, elegant bummer, man.
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