Why People Make Fun Of Emotional Music, Or, On Going “Full-Retard”

The author apologizes for the inevitable offense some readers are likely to feel upon reading the repeated mention of “the R-word” in this article; the expression from which this article takes its angle illustrates a certain difficulty our society has with irony that I feel is entirely relevant to the two artists here written about. I mean no offense to those who are developmentally disabled and their families.

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.” TC mark


More From Thought Catalog

  • Robertbenesh

    I finally have found a term to encapsulate all the music I enjoy (it is fully-retarded).

  • http://brianmcelmurry.blogspot.com/ Brian McElmurry

     I like the essay. But the quote abt Sean Penn and “I am Sam” going “full-retard” and not winning academy award, as the likes of Tom Hank (forrest gump, not retarded) Dustin Hoffman (rainman, not retarded) and winning academy award. Elliott Smith was nominated for an academy award, but I don’t think he won because he went “full-retard.” And he was up against Titanic music, I believe. This comment doesn’t make sense. Homeless people could be considered “full-retard” also, random.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh


      • Mr Shankly

        You’re welcome.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1363230138 Michael Koh


  • http://twitter.com/Chrys0poeia Nick Beith

    I wish you wouldn’t talk about Elliott Smith. His music means so much to me and I really hate seeing it being dissected in any way. But that’s just me I guess.

    • http://twitter.com/Chrys0poeia Nick Beith

      On the other hand I appreciate the message of the article.

      • Candacemat

        your a retard

      • ScottW

         Where is it?

    • ScottW

      Eh. I was ready to say that what’s the point of lyrics until I totally realized I am the same with Avril Lavigne!

  • justin

    I really liked this article.  I loved both artists (near-obssession with Elliott formany years), and both get on my nerves now, a little, for the same reason.

  • Mr Shankly

    I get what you’re trying to say, but I still fail to see the self pity and narcissism in Radiohead’s music. Their songs are somewhat bleak and melancholic but that doesn’t equate to moping. Sure you didn’t mean Morrissey?

  • Guest

    You might like this, Brandon (even though it’s incredibly bitter and inflammatory):


    “In all those indie ensemble films that hipsters love it’s usually
    characters with strong beliefs that get played for laughs, whether it’s
    the Nietzschean teenager in Little Miss Sunshine, or the existentialists in I Heart Huckabees
    (with the smug hero rejecting both pessimism and optimism for a bland
    middle option), or countless set-ups where you have a hipster Everyman
    playing the ‘straight’ role against a rabid Marxist or feminist.”

  • bruce dickinson

    I listen to Iron Maiden, Judas Priest and Metallica. Did I go full-retard? Moronical?

    • JLP

      No, you went awesome. Aggression is healthy and merits (occasional) celebration every bit as much as sadness, joy, or sexual passion. Full-retard is taking your negativity and turning it in on yourself, like Thom Yorke, or the depressive author of this article.

      Seriously, BSG. You’re sad. Like, ALL the time. We get it. Write about something else.

      • brandon gorrell

        feeling like you’re pretty off the mark here

    • http://twitter.com/adamhump adamhump

      i think this is a less than halfassed taste claim, not even half retard, like you’re terrified of experiencing anything that you can’t “feel above” SRRY :(

      • JLP

        Why would someone listen to Metallica if they feel above the experience of listening to Metallica?

  • Anonymous


  • ScottW

    I really liked this article; it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a while and you’ve really articulated my feelings about it. I love “full-retard” music, because it simply feels more honest to me; I like the lyrics of the Smiths as much as his voice because one without the other would feel fake.

    The only thing I disagree with is your description of Radiohead’s lyrics as “first-world problems”. That’s implying that in third-world countries, they don’t struggle with love or identity or anything. Africa is more than AIDS, you know?

    • Sally Jenkins

      by saying that I think it’s apparent you’ve unconsciously trivialized third-world (developing world?) problems … the point is not that they’re too insignificant to have OUR problems; the point is that our problems are totally insignificant in comparison to say … having enough food to go on living.

      • ScottW

        That’s a fair point. The reason behind my logic is that third world problems such as access to clean drinking water are near non-existant in first world countries, which is why I think first world problems implies it doesn’t happen in third world countries.

  • yum.

    “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.”

    I thought it was a worthwhile conclusion.

    Thanks for the article Brandon, I love your stuff

  • see

    i don’t think elliott smith makes sense in this article…i believe his sadness more than i ever believe thom yorke. 

    • Sally Jenkins

      you will when Thom Yorke kills himself.

  • Anonymous

    Like the article, like the concept. We can all quibble over which artists did or didn’t. I’m just here to bitch about your diction. I’m not normally one of those people who goes around correcting people on the internet, but I really believe your article would be clearer had you used ” audibly” rather than “auditorily”: I’m not sure that’s even a word, and it sounds more like auditorium-a place of listening, than audible-something you can hear, which I believe is what you meant. If you decide to edit your post, feel free to delete this. Thanks for the good read. 

    • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

      It is a word http://mw4.m-w.com/dictionary/auditorily

      • Anonymous

        If you check the synonyms in your link, you’ll see that the usage doesn’t fit. You are correct in that it is a word; thanks for the clarification.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jeffreyjamesskatzka Je Sk

    i love you

  • Anonymous


  • Anonymous


  • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine

    “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.”

    Ha ha! I see what you did there.  But have you heard of the term “Narm”? Because the concept belongs in this discussion.

  • Guest

    Radiohead’s never really resonated with me and I really hate when I say I don’t like Radiohead and someone says YOU’RE JUST SAYING THAT BECAUSE EVERYONE LIKES THEM

    • http://staugustinian.wordpress.com/ STaugustine


      That’s a classic Fan-Type Retort. Fan’s don’t think, they feel. It’s always rapture over their idols, swooning self-pity over the fact that they aren’t their idols and/or their idols don’t know they exist… or blind rage at the “Haterz”. Think  “Chris Crocker”… a very good example of someone who went Full Retard. You can’t reason with a Fan.

      • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

        Theyre also the ones at the show who get panties twisted if you try to get in front of them. Never mind they’re there not dancing, not moving one bit but “connecting with the band.” Nothing worse than the super fan who waits hours for his “killer front row spot.”

      • Guest


  • Bobdoulle

    i always refer to going ‘full retard’ in terms of how fucked up and belligerent i’m getting on the evening in question. e.g. at a party… “she went full retard”

    the reference presented here works also, i suppose. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/gregpphoto Greg Petliski

    So full retard is when youre rich as balls but still find ways to be unhappy? I hope I go full retard one day.

  • Mike

    The last I checked you don’t get to use slur words that hurt others just because you put a disclaimer first.  I say offensive taken.  You can’t scream for help if someone calls you a faggot and then think it’s okay to use the word retard.  Channeling Ben Stiller doesn’t work.

    • Ruthlezz

      You said ‘faggot’. I didn’t know you were allowed to use that word in any context.

    • Guest

      BSG is retarded and this is a reclamation.

  • Mark Suckerturds

    this is where the logic of your argument goes wrong: being self-indulgent is not a philosophy. Even if it were, taking your personal philosophy to its logical extreme can only be admirable if you have a non-egocentric philosophy. THINK ABOUT IT.

  • http://www.facebook.com/iamahmad Ahmad Radheyyan

    did you seriously just list Tao Lin as an example of successful art

  • dip

    people hate on radiohead but they are totally emotional and that makes them genuine.
    also elliot smith. oh yeah- art.

  • dip

    people hate on radiohead but they are totally emotional and that makes them genuine.
    also elliot smith. oh yeah- art.

  • http://imlikecocaine.wordpress.com/ Ana

    oh, I’d marry Thom Yorke and go all full-im.a.whiny.little.bitch with him.
    jokes aside, judgemental people will remain judgemental (it’s fun to label people, isn’t it) and I will always love Radiohead.

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