Day One hundred and sixty-three: "First World Problems" from Mandatory Fun
In the 1980s and 1990s Al sang about food but more importantly about television because television was the epicenter of American life throughout the first two decades of Al’s career. Then the internet became our most important cultural force, in no small part because it made watching television so much easier and more pleasurable via innovations like online streaming.
Al’s career followed suit. Many of Al’s best and most resonant late-period tracks are rooted in the absurdity of life in the digital age, most notably “White & Nerdy” and “Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me.”
“First World Problems” is another internet-based song but in a more indirect, abstract fashion. It’s not about computers or technology so much as it is about online culture, or rather online “culture” and memes, those wonderful, horrible online tropes that spread like wildfire, that catch on with the public because they capture and give a name to something widespread and low-key toxic within our culture.
The concept of “First World Problems” is not terribly dissimilar from Harris Wittels’ concept of the “humblebrag.” In both cases, the exemplar of unexamined cultural privilege “complains” about something in a way that only reinforces what a charmed life they lead.
“First World Problems” were originally called “White People Problems” before, ironically, people figured out that it’s racist to act as if only caucasians are rich and spoiled and pampered enough to complain about “problems” people around the world would literally kill in order to experience firsthand.
Of course white people do not have a monopoly on being terrible and entitled, over-privileged and monstrously self-involved. Everybody, but everybody, can be absolutely terrible, and many people are! Awfulness does not discriminate between gender or sexuality or race or nationality. Anyone, but anyone can be a deplorable monster of a human being. So the concept of “White People Problems” was re-branded as “First World Problems” to make it less #problematic while still taking aim at privileged people and their non-problems.
“First World Problems” is a Pixies pastiche that finds Al inhabiting the persona of a raging Black Francis to guest vocalist Amanda Palmer’s icy-cool Kelly Deal over buzzsaw guitars to whine indignantly about the minor inconveniences of the over-privileged and under-self-aware. The complaints begin with “My maid is cleaning my bathroom, so I can't take a shower/When I do, the water starts getting cold after an hour” and proceed along those lines until closing with the resolutely minor misery that accompanies having to purchase something inessential in order to qualify for Amazon’s free shipping.
Some of these not so fine whines are more relatable than others. You don’t have to be a Kardashian to have experienced the low-level existential angst of trying to fast forward through commercials like a civilized human being, only to realize, to your horror and mortification, that you’re watching what in olden times was known as “live TV” and consequently certain functions, such as fast-forward, are inoperable.
I know I personally experience a moment of pure rage during such moments, as I do when confronted the 21st world horror known as “buffering” before I realize that, in a world where child soldiers try to numb the pain of their bleak existences by getting addicted to heroin, perhaps my “problems” are so inconsequential that I should thank my lucky stars for them rather than curse a God that, in the singer’s anguished account, would allow a man like him to eat so much complimentary bread that he has no room left for dessert.
You don’t have to be rich to experience First World Problems, although it certainly helps. As “First World Problems” illustrates, the titular phenomenon is a state of mind. You don’t have to be wealthy to have it, just a terrible human being.
“First World Problems” is a little like “Why Does This Always Happen to Me” in being written and sung from the perspective of someone with so little self-awareness that they treat the mildest of inconveniences as unforgivable personal insults from a cruel deity with a personal grudge against them.
Al’s timely satire nails the underlying phenomenon of First World Problems, which is to curse a tiny element of your life that is somehow imperfect rather than appreciating the many elements of your privileged existence that are ideal and idyllic yet somehow are never enough to ensure genuine happiness for brats with a mindset of entitlement that ensures that contentment will remain forever outside their grasp.
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