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“What’s Your ‘You Can’t Do That’?”

*“But what, then, do I choose? This or that? No, I choose absolutely, and I choose precisely through having chosen not to choose this thing or that. I choose the absolute, and what is the absolute? It is myself in my eternal validity. Anything other than myself I cannot choose as the absolute, for if I choose something else I choose it as something finite, and therefore do not choose it absolutely. Even the Jew who chose God did not choose absolutely, for although he chose the absolute he did not choose it absolutely, and so it ceased to be the absolute and became something finite.”

– Either/Or, Soren Kierkegaard

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When I first encountered this primary discourse in Kierkegaard’s most famous work, I must admit, I was a little baffled. As time goes on, though, it starts to make more and more sense, and I realize that most, if not all, of the music I like, and which stands as really vital in popularity and in time, is based not on concepts of the extant, or the already existent, but on something I’d like to call “You can’t do that.” It’s kind of like that Iron & Wine lyric of “It was always the broken hand we learned to lean on after all.” In this article, or essay, I suppose, I’ll argue that an element of mischief, or entropy, even, is necessary for the composition of quality music, and conversely, the quest to simply “do rock and roll” or “do rap” and such a quest’s accompaniment by no apparent rudimentary mishaps is actually a hazard and a straight ticket to mediocrity.

Just to tie in a little anecdote about my personal life, anyway, I’ve got this strange habit of, when I get in a certain mood or it’s a certain overcast element or barometric pressure outside, or whatever the case may be, putting on The Smiths – Best…I, which is like their greatest hits, and Rush – Exit… Stage Left, which is a live album and my favorite album by Rush. In a way, then, these are my two favorite rock albums of all time, since it’s so distinct in my mind my experience of sophomore year in college and for whatever reason marrying these two records for driving back from trombone practice and putting a steak on to cook. I just always think of them conjunctively and to me that’s got to be meaningful some way, with an unrelated side note being of course the incredible coincidence that each title contains an elipsis (I promise I didn’t plan it out like that). But I mean… it’s a greatest hits album and a live album. It’s not, like, Led Zeppelin – IV, The Dark Side of the Moon, Rumours, Nevermind, The Downward Spiral, ya know? I can’t name these two albums as my favorite rock albums of all time, can I? Well, I just did, and after that initial, immature spell of insecurity wears off, and you start to mature and realize that your own voice in this life is worth more than you’d originally thought, you’ll realize that these individual spurts of strange uniqueness are not only auspicious, but they’re the ONLY thing of any merit, and all the precomposed standards and rules the world has set for you are null and void, because their distance to those things and yours mark two different distances, moments and cosmological angles, hence rendering them completely arbitrary. 

The examples have the potential to go on and on. There’s N.W.A.’s blatantly homicidal rants against policemen. There’s Nirvana’s steely-eyed, maniacal vituperation over four-minute Beatles pop structures. There’s Eminem “rapping about homosexuals and Vicodin.” There’s Clipse quoting Maya Angelou in the first song on He** Hath No Fury and being way more sensitive and concerned than any gun-toting gangster rappers have any business being. 

The primary example I want to illustrate, anyway, and which might throw you off a bit, is Talk Show’s “Peeling an Orange,” a song from their self-titled debut (and as far as I know their only album to date). Talk Show was of course the late-’90s side project of the Stone Temple Pilots dudes that they took to while their singer, Scott Weiland, was jailed on heroin possession, enlisting for said proceedings vocalist Dave Coutts, formerly of punk band Ten Inch Men (who interestingly started in the early ’80s and once performed with X). Actually, the ironies continue to abound as although I’m a huge STP fan, I don’t really care for any Talk Show song besides this one. In this way, “Peeling an Orange” is kind of like “In the Meantime” by Spacehog, in its penchant for existing as an ostensibly perfect song by a band that doesn’t really have any other rockin’ tunes in their holsters, so to speak. 

Now, you might say, these are all “You can’t do that”’s — you can’t just throw one of the catchiest, most translucent and lyrically droll tunes of the ’90s, sung in what’s really one beautiful croon of Coutts as well, on an album no one’s ever heard of an no one will ever listen to. Plain and simple, this song has character to spare, and, I think, even getting back to Coutts’ lyricism, this amusing way of toggling between concrete and metaphorical. The song opens bizarrely with the lines “Kids in the grocery store / Are there oceans anymore?” and, in taking in Coutts’ otherworldly vocals that seem hearty yet serene at the same time, I can only muster the theory that these “kids in the grocery store” that the lyricist has to walk by are exhibiting such emotional destitution, or “bit**iness,” if you prefer, that they seem to be indicating that there’s no more natural beauty in the world, such as “oceans” might provide. Anyway, my favorite lyrical quirk in this tune, as I think I’ve mentioned before on this blog, has to do with the A-B-A lyrical structure of the verses, where Coutts introduces the romantic theme for the second frame and then for the third reverts back to the initial proclamation of “You’ve got what you want / Give us back the trees / If I gotta live here I gotta breathe”. To me, it’s a great use of a humorous tactic for subverting the typical “love over all else” ethos that of course is just hopelessly corny, endorsed by bands like Three Doors Down and that “I’ll Be” song, and whatnot, not to mention not being how life actually is for real, everyday people. So that’s another “You can’t do that,” you might say. 

And what about that chord change? NOBODY does stuff like that anymore… if a band came out with a key change as brilliant as the one that in this tune marks the mid-section harmonica solo, they’d be lauded as visionaries, but this type of musical substance was in such abundance in the mid-’90s that this band and song seem to have gone pretty much completely unheralded, at least in a way that would make them prominently discussed today. Anyway, I’m somewhat of a music theory expert and even I don’t even really feel like trying to discern the anatomy of that key change (tonic to tonic interval, per se), and really, it’s beside the point: this is music that you feel deep down in your bones, packed with layers and layers of feeling as if to declare, Oh, you didn’t think we could do that in a corny little four-minute alt-rock song? Watch and learn. 

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