Day One hundred and twenty-six: "Why Does This Always Happen to Me?" from Poodle Hat
I forget the context, but I remember many years ago reading some music reviews that some college students had written for a class, and for some reason to this day I remember a part where one teenage would-be Lester Bangs gave the musician he was writing about credit for featuring a piano, because in this student’s mind the piano was a classy instrument.
I chuckled but then realized that, like the uncultured Juggalo that I am, I also think of the piano as being inherently classy. Oh sure, the piano is seen and, more importantly, heard all manner of scandalous and improper places, like speakeasies, honky tonks and Charlie Sheen-hosted cocaine parties in the 1980s (I’m guessing, they’d certainly lend the proceedings an air of class). But I associate the piano with a world of respectability, a world of comfort, a world of culture and prestige and elegance. You’ll notice, for example, that you don’t see a lot of pianos at the Gathering of the Juggalos, Detroit horrorcore duo Insane Clown Posse’s annual festival of music and culture.
“Why Does This Always Happen To Me” is probably the most piano-driven song in Al’s oeuvre, and consequently one of the classiest-sounding. Al wanted for the piano to sound like Ben Folds so, in a sound decision, he recruited his friend and sometimes collaborator Ben Folds to tickle the ivories himself. I guess Al figured that we’ve all got a little of that Ben Folds feeling, but that since Ben Folds actually is Ben Folds, he must possess it in spades.
Among his myriad other gifts, Folds is a pretty sly satirist himself, regularly taking comic aim at the narcissism and toxic self-absorption of Americans, which also happens to be the theme of “Why Does This Always Happen to Me?”
The singer is watching The Simpsons, that ultimate triumph of Western culture, when the hilarity is interrupted by a news report of an earthquake in Peru so vast and destructive that it’s difficult to even grasp the full scope of the damage and bloodshed. We learn that more than thirty thousand people were either crushed to death or buried alive in an unspeakable real-life horror show.
The sociopath singing the song is disturbed alright, but not by the horrific destruction of human life he’s just learned about. No, he’s apoplectic that because of the stupid news broadcast about all those strangers half a globe his experience watching The Simpsons has been hopelessly interrupted, and, in a very real way, tarnished.
The most important word in the song’s title is “Me.” Heck, the most important idea in the song is “Me.” It’s a song about how our relentless focus on "me" blinds us to the suffering of others. The aggravation of the singer in the first verse is ugly, narcissistic and shameful but also all too human.
After all, the suffering of strangers in parts of the world we’ve never been to and will likely never visit is abstract and remote. But the annoyance that you experience when you’re inconvenienced, no matter how mildly, is immediate and urgent, something you have no choice but to confront.
In the second verse the pain, suffering and almost cartoonishly over-the-top bloodshed comes a lot closer to our cold-blooded but all too relatable protagonist’s life when he’s driving to work and encounters a twelve-car pile-up killing everyone involved. Al really lays on the gore and brutality here, singing sensitively, “I saw brains and guts and vital organs splattered everywhere/As well as my friend Robert's disembodied head.”
Oh sure, our anti-hero/villain spares a moment or two of consideration for poor, dear, headless Robert. Incidentally, it speaks to the morbidity of even mid-period Al that this is the second consecutive song to feature a disembodied head and, by extension, a headless body. Perhaps the reason Al remains a friend and hero to kids everywhere is because his work remains so consistently ghoulish.
But almost instantly, that flicker of empathy devolves into narcissism when he thinks about the five dollars his now headless former friend owes him and how he’ll never get that money back. If that isn’t bad enough, now he’s gonna be late for work, on top of everything else. In some ways, Robert is the one who got off easy, since he’ll never have to worry about not getting paid back or being late to work or traffic jams ever again. Nope, he can just lie there by the side of the road, his neck enjoying a pleasant breeze.
In the third verse, our increasingly monstrous protagonist moves from watching the aftermath of the violent death of a colleague with an iota of compassion followed by a tidal wave of self-interest to instigating the violence, bloodshed and loss of life himself.
Things start off sleepily enough, but by this point we should know what kind of a nasty character we’re dealing with. So it’s not entirely surprising that, after being asked to buy toner repeatedly by his annoying boss, the protagonist snaps and stabs his boss in the face.
This, of course, makes him feel terrible, not about the murder he’s just committed, but by the possible damage done to his blade by its violent conflict with the now dead boss’ skull, which must have been spurting blood everywhere in the aftermath of this vicious, murderous and not entirely merited assault.
Thanks in no small part to Folds’ piany, (that’s the old time way to spell/say piano!) “Why Does This Always Happen To Me?” sounds exact like its inspiration, which adds immeasurably to the comedy and the satire. It’s a very polished, very professional and very yuppie-sounding exploration of American everyday self-absorption taken to ghoulish and homicidal extremes.
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