JJ93 - Rhapsody in Blue

This program is hosted by judge John Hodgman and plaintiff Jesse Thorn.

Eric and Elizabeth are a married couple who make their living doing performances together. Eric is a singer-songwriter and Elizabeth is a visual artist. They go under the name Pocket Vinyl and their performances are their full-time job right now. They disagree if it is necessary and appropriate to use curse words in art. Elizabeth objects to their use, but Eric thinks they can add necessary emphasis to his songwriting. Who is right and who is wrong?

At the beginning of the episode John Hodgman was singing a song and asked about the name. Elizabeth was the first to call Fuck You, meaning he has tricked her into swearing, but swearing as such is not the issue, but swearing in Eric's music.

Their performances consist of Eric playing the piano and Elizabeth painting life on stage. Her paintings are whimsical, bright-colored and safe and she has illustrated children’s books before. About 50% of their shows are in family-friendly venues and Elizabeth is worried that some of the lyrics could alienate potential fans. Eric's songs don’t have a lot of swearing, but some of them do and the worst word Eric uses is ”dick”. He feels that sometimes a well-placed curse-word is the best way to get the point across.

John Hodgman introduces an expert witness, John Roderick of The Long Winters.

John not using swearwords in his lyrics (JJ93)

John uses very few swearwords in his own music and unless a swearword is incredibly judiciously placed, it has the effect of jettisoning you from the world of the song. He does have a couple of usages of the word ”damn”, but it gets hardly any bluer than that. He would never personally say ”dick” in a song and hardly even in his life unless he is using the imperative, but there are great songs with swearwords in them.

John is not opposed to them and he is not coming from a Christian songwriting tradition, but he has avoided using them, not because of kids or for moral reason, but his songs are just not something you would shout at someone in traffic. There was a shouting-in-traffic-album by Tom Waits and some artists can swear up and down. John doesn’t object when Eminem swears, because those songs are describing a street world in which swearwords are the cultural currency.

The songs by Pocket Vinyl are not describing a street world, but they are describing the hard streets of coffee shops in Connecticut. They are describing a married Christian couple, one of whom is singing and the other one is painting children’s illustrations behind him in a coffee shop, which does not strike John to be in need of a vérité.

Discussing three of Eric’s songs (JJ93)

Quiet Epiphany

The song Quiet Epiphany contains the line ”You don’t think with your head, you think with your dick!” Jesse finds it a beautiful song and one can really hear the painting. John finds it inaptly named, because it is not a quiet epiphany at all, but it is a loud swelling epiphany. John likes the song very much, although the thinks that another pass might be taken in editing the drums, but that is not the issue that is on the table.

When John first saw that ”dick” was the word in question, he assumed that Eric would lyrically refer to someone as a dick which would be a lyrical choice he could accept, but Eric is instead putting a brain in a dick and John had no choice but to imagine a swollen penis. Eric's defense is that a lot of mainstream pop songs use the word ”love” as a euphemism when they mean ”sex” which bothers him. John argues that using ”love” instead of ”sex” is using figurative language and he recommends Eric to try that as well when referring to an actual dick.

Elizabeth is cringing every time when she knows that those part of the songs come up, especially when she knows that there are children in the audience. Sometimes Eric censors himself, which she appreciates, but sometimes he forgets. They sell their albums at their shows and so even if they play a show to a family friendly audience and kids love them, as soon as they convince their parents to buy the album, they are selling them songs with these words in them.

Pocket Vinyl has a Facebook Page with picture of children which John Hodgman thinks is more problematic than the swearwords because that makes the impression that they are playing kids shows, while their songs are adult songs about adults that are emotionally pretty heavy.

John says that the problem a child might have with this song is not that the word ”dick” is in it, but that it is adult music dealing with adult themes. If a child is paying close enough attention to the lyrics to notice the word ”dick”, they will also hear an adult talk about love or adult experiences in candid languages that maybe is too sophisticated for an 8-year old.

They don’t want to go to a show where someone is painting beautiful paintings of fish and then be told that love isn’t real and being an adult is a shit storm, which is what Eric’s music says. Eric denies that, but John Hodgman says that Eric cannot curate his audience’s response to his songs. Eric learned from a professor that he should write as if his parents were dead, meaning he should not care what others might think at all, not even his parents.

The Buttercup

The song The Buttercup is a very short song. It contains the word ”damn”, but John Hodgman thinks that it is exactly the word that needs to be there and he did neither flinch nor cringe when he heard it. According to John the word ”damn” was sung a bit too emphatically which might reveal something about their marriage because Eric might intentionally swear a little bit louder in his songs to annoy and titillate his wife. If that song were on the radio, John would not react to the word ”damn” in it. It perfectly fits with the song and does not read as a swearword, but you would not miss it if it were left out and you could replace it syllabically with something else.

I once kissed a woman simply for her lips

The song ”I once kissed a woman simply for her lips” is about a time when Eric had kissed a girl and it felt very empty because he had only recently been with somebody else. Especially now that Eric is in love and in a great marriage, he was contemplating the difference between when he kisses his wife and all the love that is behind that and when you just kiss someone because they are there and how empty that can feel. The song is about that difference and it contains a certain amount of mournful shame and apology, which is completely appropriate for an 8-year old listener.

Eric usually stays away from those songs at shows with kids, but he has played them. Elizabeth does not like this song, which was news to Eric. She doesn’t really like the sound of it. Normally she is more of a lyrical person, but for this one, she doesn’t like the sound of it. It is slow and mournful and it can bring the show down. The two words in question are ”bastardized” and ”pissed”, but even without them, the lyrics do bother her, although a voice in her head is telling her that this message from her husband is a good one and something she should be happy about.

According to John the word ”bastardized” is not a swearword, but a valid word in the English language that means to degrade something. Although it has the word ”bastard” in it, it has passed into the lexicon and you can stand in front of the pope saying that he has bastardized the Christian church, "You heretic! You false prophet!" and ”bastardized” would not be the thing he would be mad at.

The word ”pissed” is not a lyrical word. For words to be lyrical, they have to have a kind of beauty to them. Eric is not a Punk Rock artist and he is not standing athwart the carcass of the man and talking about how pissed he is. It is another one of those words that takes you out of the song, particularly a long, mournful dirge like this one. It sounds like a word that belongs in a different song, one that was about feeling pissed.

The line is ”I apologize greatly for those I’ve made pissed”, which is awkward and terrible. The other line is ”The treasure which we have all bastardized”, which is also very awkward. John Hodgman says it sounds almost High School-y, like using a big word when it is not earned or necessary. Eric says that those words were all intentional to stress the point in each song.

John’s verdict (JJ93)

To John it seems like they are talking about the wrong issue. The two of them want to do their art together, which is noble, cute and adorable, but they are making very different art. Her art is age-appropriate for almost anybody, he illustrations are super cute and John would hang one of her paintings in his daughter’s room, while he is making adult music for adults.

Whether or not you like the use of the word ”pissed”, Eric is justified as a song writer to use whatever words he wants to use. He doesn’t make any claim that his music is for children. The question is rather why they are trying to collaborate, other than that they like each other and want to work together. Her art and his songs don’t resemble each other and they don’t belong with each other.

If she designed the cover art for his records, it would be creatively jarring, because you would buy an adorable thing with some fish and birds on it, but then it is a guy pouring his heart out on the album. What the fuck are these people trying to do to you? Eric should be able to swear in his songs, because he has strong feelings making big-boy music, and Elizabeth should make her beautiful art and sell it some other way. They would both be more successful and creatively gratified.

Judge John Hodgman’s verdict (JJ93)

John Hodgman agrees with John who has spoken true wisdom. Eric and Elizabeth should never be allowed to perform together again! John thinks they should channel all this energy into making sweet love to each other at night after she gets back from the art fair and he gets back from the shitty bleach-smelling club where he played his sad bastard music. "How are you?" - "I’m fine, how are you?" - "Take your clothes off!"

John Hodgman finds this an elegant solution to a problem that otherwise would only resolve in acrimony and self-censorship. The idea of those guys playing together is very charming indeed and both John and John Hodgman have performed in an environment where a painter was doing a live painting during their performance. There was something magical about it, but he was painting Cthulhu bringing a rain of blood to the end of the world and it was topically appropriate.

Whether or not Eric takes their advice regarding the awkwardness of his lyrics or his choice of words is part of his learning and part of growing a creative experience. He can use whatever words he wants! John Hodgman agrees with John’s wisdom and while he doesn’t want to split those two up as a duo, but he thinks that Eric should perform some solo gigs. When they perform together they need to evaluate the venue, they need to collaborate on the set list, and they need to make sure it is going to be enjoyable and not discordant for the audience. Unless they are committed to creating art for kids they should not allow kids into the room.

Clearing the docket (JJ93)

Movie theater

Tabather: ”My friend Darell and I enjoy going to the movies together and both agree that it is okay to bring in a small snack instead of purchasing the movie theater’s offerings. However, they recently hit an impasse when Darell wanted to bring in some Teriyaki chicken and rice. One should be sensitive to one’s movie-going peers and not bring in food that has a strong odor, but Darell feels it is his right to eat whatever food he wants and the people around them can just get over it.”

Darell’s attitude is worth a kick in the ass. Is he a Ron Paul supporter, a Libertarian to eat whatever chicken he wants and not pay any taxes? Why doesn’t he just urinate on the screen?

Cleaning up after the hurricane

Jerry: ”My mom’s house took on about 2 feet (60 cm) of water during Hurricane Sandy. She has been living with me since the day before the storm and will be for months to come. I have gone to the house a few times to box up the salvageable items that now comprise the totality of her possessions. This weekend, my friends and I will be tearing the walls down to the studs and pulling up the floors to keep mold from making matters worse. To prepare for the demolition work, I spent today pulling out the still soaked remains of 42 years spent in the house.

I grew up there and it was not easy to just heave its contents to the curb. Today was back-breaking and depressing, but I did have a few good laughs thanks to the live Judge John Hodgman podcast. I listened to them both as I poured fetid water from pots and pans, sifted through mounts of useless paperwork that at one time was deemed important enough to file away, dragged water-logged furniture across the kitchen floor and packed away dishes and glassware until they can be used again whenever the house is made habitable. Thank you Jesse and John! You made today not just bearable, but as pleasant as it could be.”

Outro (JJ93)

John’s own podcast Roderick on the Line is available on the iTunes. Anybody who is savvy enough to be listening to his podcast will be savvy enough to search the Internet for Roderick on the Line and follow the trails to a place where it can be listened to, unless there are Judge John Hodgman listeners for whom this podcast is piped into their old folk’s home and they have never been on the Internet.

They actually do have a deal with a chain of retirement communities where the podcast is played over the PA 24/7. Those people need to have their darling grand-children explain to them how the Internet works and buy themselves some headphones, because otherwise they won’t be able to hear it over the blaring Judge John Hodgman podcast that comes through the PA into their room all night long.

John Hodgman, Jesse Thorn and John Roderick will soon be at the SF Sketchfest. More info can be found at maximumfun.org.

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