There’s a scene in the oft-overlooked Ben Stiller film Tropic Thunder in which an actor (playing an actor) tells another actor (playing an actor) that when portraying a developmentally disabled character in a blockbuster-sized movie, one should never “go full-retard.” (Amusingly, this line’s become a meme.) Rather, one is advised to “go half-retard” (think: Forrest Gump, Rainman); going “full-retard” puts one at the extreme risk of looking, basically, like a dumbass.
Just as this maxim exists for actors who wish to portray delopmentally disabled individuals, I feel a variant on the maxim is likewise applicable to bands and where they take their music. For example, let’s apply the idea to one of my favorite bands, Radiohead, but in this case we’ll substitute the word “retard” with the phrase “auditorily wallowing in self-pity.” Now – does Radiohead go half-“auditorily wallowing in self-pity” or full-“auditorily wallowing in self-pity?” All signs probably point to the latter.
To me, Radiohead’s music is beautiful. It amazes me that they’re on like their millionth album at this point and they’re still consistently producing LPs whose sonic landscapes are incredibly vast, complexly rich, and engineered with spot-on production. They have one of the greatest grasps of a certain wonderful archetypal feeling that I’ve ever encountered; who knows if they created it themselves. None of their moves are mistakes, none of their successes are by accident, and none of their fans are delusional about the group’s talent.
But of course, as does every artist/ type of art, Radiohead – Thom Yorke, who are we kidding – does indeed have his detractors, perhaps because the dude makes absolutely no effort to hide his excruciatingly dreary, overly narcissistic first world suffering. And for this Yorke’s painted a picture of himself as somewhat of a sad clown; “Oh, poor, poor me. I have so many problems, my life is so miserable, oh God, everything sucks, don’t talk to me, read some Sartre and Camus and Pessoa before you talk to me, then you’ll understand. God…”
Regarding this, there are some people who think Thom Yorke is a dumbass. Of course, if Thom Yorke was being ironic about his pain – which would in essence signify him going “half-retard” – our perception of him would be a little different. But that’s not how it is – by being Genuine As Fuck Yorke’s opened the floodgates for attackers who want only to kick him when he’s down, and he’s down, more or less, all of the time (in his music). In essence, Thom Yorke is one of the easiest musicians to make fun of, and this is in part because he hasn’t taken the care to develop any defenses.
Thom Yorke has “gone full-retard.”
Now let’s apply this maxim to the deceased late ‘90s early ‘00s rock musician Elliott Smith. Has Elliott Smith, as it were, “gone full-retard”? If we replace “retard” with “lyrically hating yourself so fucking bad,” then one may indeed be able to argue that Eliott Smith is in the same boat as our friends on the other side of the Atlantic.
Some might say that Elliott Smith’s music at first listen is crude, unattractive, plain and altogether unimpressive. This is what I said upon my first listen of Elliott Smith. But then I listened more, for some reason, perhaps simply indulging myself ever so slightly in the absolute bitterness of his lyrics – something I can relate to; something many can relate to – and discovered after some indeterminate period of time that I was actually completely obsessed with both Smith and his music. I became his fanboy for a short period of time.
Elliott Smith was, basically, a lyrical and musical genius. In the early part of his career, he recorded much of his music himself – playing the guitar, bass, drum and vocal tracks for each song during studio recording, all of which he weaved together masterfully. But I think his music takes a backseat to how he expressed himself with language; I feel he wouldn’t have reached near his amount of popularity had his music been in the hands of a lesser lyricist. This is because Smith, as a lyricist, never held back; if he was ashamed of being so unabashedly, genuinely bitter, depressed, and self-loathing, he didn’t show it in his music. And I think that’s why so many people relate.
But just as with Thom Yorke, Elliott Smith is not without his haters. And again, all the hate comes from the idea that Elliott Smith never pretends to be okay by hiding his pain through the application of irony – he never pretended anything. He seemed as close to authentic as one could get. His music seemed completely genuine (admittedly, it’s heavily sarcastic, but his sarcasm only serves to expand the notion that he hates/ is sad about everything), and so Smith painted a picture of himself as the portrait of juvenile, teenage angst: “Fuck everyone, I don’t need anyone, I was like, really in love, she doesn’t love me, everyone sucks, everyone sucks so bad, fuck this, I don’t even care, I just want to fucking do drugs and die, I don’t even care.”
Elliott Smith went “full-retard.”
The take-away idea behind that scene in Tropic Thunder so often referenced here is that when you go big – when you choose a philosophy or lifestyle and make a genuine, uncompromising attempt to take the philosophy to its logical end – you open yourself up to a quick decline of equal proportions. In other words: haters gonna hate if they see you’re serious about your beliefs; a lot of people are gonna agree with the haters, too. By being genuine, serious, and direct about a set of untempered “ideals,” one simultaneously brings into focus all the ways those ideals are wrong, without padding himself with the qualification of irony or explicit self-doubt. One becomes a sitting duck for ridicule.
A lot of successful art, in essence, “goes full-retard.” Think about it: Andy Warhol, Nick Drake, Morrissey, Bon Iver, Miranda July, Sufjan Stevens, Tao Lin, The Cure, R.E.M., countless others – all these people Went For It with their aesthetics. They all went “full-retard,” and a lot of people think they’re bullshit. A lot of people like them, too.
But I’m not trying to say anything definitive about art, society, or human beings – there’s not really that much to conclude from the arguments here presented. No, instead I can only point out that there’s something inherently worrisome/ malicious/ creepy about the widespread trend of rejecting people based on the fact that they’re living their philosophies to a greater extent than you and I will ever live ours. And by making this weak suggestion to conclude my article, I concede that I’ve done nothing but propagate the behavior I’m passively attacking.
I have only gone “half-retard.”