Of Modest Mice and Men

By Andy Smith - Columbia, South Carolina, USA - Pentecost/Assumption 2011



The frontage road roller rink was hardly the place to contemplate such things, and admittedly, as a pre-teen, I was largely oblivious to the concept of intellectual property rights.  But I do seem to remember noting the familiarity of that little one-bar refrain constantly blaring over the loud speaker, punctuating the phrase “ice, ice, baby,” as I pigeon-toed my way around the carpet-walled oval.  Vanilla Ice, with the iconic lift of this rather inane riff -- which, given the parties’ relative irrelevance twenty years hence, seems quaintly amusing -- had proven themselves to be slick. 

Ultimately, though -- under pressure from Queen and the courts (not to mention the fickleness of teenage girls) -- they did experience a bit of a thaw.

Of course, the intervening years produced a number of similar rip-offs.  But, with the advent of file-sharing, social networking, and the like (i.e., the culture of public access to everything), blurred became the lines separating the overtly swiped from happy coincidence.  At the very least, efficient prosecution is now more cumbersome.  Even Britney Spears’s recent egregious swipe of If I said I want your body now, would you hold it against me? (changing, as she did, a word or two in the line, but retaining the most creative aspect of what is clearly a Bellamy Brothers’ original -- the double entendre) has proven to be untouchable.   And, of course, with the ubiquitous, if at times absurd, collaboration among artists these days (the Eminem/Rhianna duo is odd though manageable, but let’s be honest:  Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson?) the moderately interested listener has no reliable means to determine the legalities of, not to mention the logic behind, such, shall we say, "borrowings."

So, it was with only negligible surprise that, while listening to the local hip-hop station this spring, I recognized a jingle from indie-rock-turned-mainstream (i.e., sell-out) group, Modest Mouse, and their modestly successful 2004 testament to the possibility of taking a postmodern joyride on a wave of nothingness:  All right, already, we’ll all float on…  The hip-hop artist, dubbed (aptly or inaptly, I’ve yet to determine) Lupe Fiasco, had changed the words and accelerated the beat, but the dominant ditty was clearly the same.  I met my first few encounters with the remix, “The Show Goes On,” with only nominal interest -- preoccupied, as I was, with thoughts of roller rinks, Vanilla Ice, and the dawning awareness of my misspent youth.  But I began, in subsequent listening, to pay more attention, detecting a decidedly different (and, not altogether unhopeful) tone.

At this point, it’s probably wise to insert a disclaimer.  With respect to texts for which there’s no interpretive framework willed from Heaven, any reader/listener runs the risk of mapping on too much of his subjectivity.  The contextualizers -- those who would deem all texts the products of social constructs -- at times introduce legitimate considerations (at least with respect to such purely hypothetical scenarios as hip-hop song lyric exegesis by white boys from the rural South).  I acknowledge my biases -- and apologize in advance to Mr. Fiasco (and, for that matter, to the Mouse fellows) for any misunderstandings. 

I suspect that most of Modest Mouse’s listeners interpreted “Float On” as I originally did: as a rather emphatic, if quirky, testament to the importance of retaining an optimistic disposition.  The lyrics seem to counsel a certain critical detachment from variability; it’s the college crowd’s sophisticated version of the elementary school teacher’s "life’s not fair’"(with the ever so sweetly implied, "so, suck it up"), adding as it does the injunction to simply ride out the storms on a raft of aloof passivity.  The sentiment seems wise enough: a fake Jamaican took every last time with a scam…it was worth it just to learn some sleight-of-hand…. And, given that life is difficult -- that, indeed, very often it is dominated by suffering -- why not join in a sort of utopian scheme to rise above it all through acts of self-will?  Why not just float on in a state of disengagement from the prickly realities of the human condition? 

As is common in our age, though, no one bothered to ask to what end we were floating (the current’s destination) or, for that matter, what the unintended consequences of such oddly-collective disengagement-by-the-autonomous-self might be.  Of course, Modest Mouse seems to have had an idea -- and it’s even more unpleasant than it is subliminal.  A brief glance at the admittedly clever album title, “Good News for People Who Love Bad News,” lifts the veil a bit.  A run through of the music video reveals even more: the dominant motif of sheep (which, it should be mentioned, are depicted in a rudimentary paper-mâché-like animation that renders them more mechanical than animal) being ushered to slaughter as the lead singer -- with calm, expressionless collectedness -- drones such lines as: don’t you worry, even if things end up a bit too heavy, we’ll all float on.  I think the indies call that ironic.  The people who like bad news (i.e., those for whom man’s supposedly being-like-sheep-on-the-way-to-slaughter seems rather like good, or at least amusing, news) strike me as a bit elitist and, oh, I don’t know -- cynical.  The counseled detachment -- as distinct, of course, from the spiritually-significant, traditional, ascetic kind -- is, best I can tell, an attempt to ward off, through a veneer of mockery, otherwise inevitable despair. 

At any rate, one begins to detect a degree of disingenuousness behind the modesty. (I’m on to you, Mouse.)

Which is why the Lupe Fiasco rendition is so intriguing.  And, refreshing.

The aforementioned acceleration of tempo is just a small indicator of the shift in overall tone from the original tune to the modified.  For Fiasco, life is indeed suffering (as attested by the kids in the ghetto), and humanity is marked overall by a certain depravity (as attested by their being kept there).  As he notes, speaking of the nebulous they (“the man” who keeps us down, I suppose; but also, no doubt, we all who invariably keep others down at times): they treat you like a slave, put chains all on your soul and put whips up on your back…[they] hope you slip up off your path….  But, for Fiasco, despite all this, life’s pervaded by the possibility of overcoming obstacles and attaining a certain nobility.  Indeed his positing of the very possibility of a path (as opposed, most obviously in our context here, to an aimless floating) is no small thing.  Sure, Fiasco’s vision of success is largely constituted of one’s going on world tour -- fame, wealth, and the rest.  But, it might also entail being a teacher to the kids in the ghetto, the one who helps them transcend their circumstances.  It might entail being a father that’s there.  It most certainly acknowledges the often chaotic, disheveled state of the human condition -- and, this (with its corollary "Fear of the Lord"), is the first step in pursuing the truth of things (i.e., wisdom), the first step in sanctification. It’s also the first step in stemming the tide of what C.S. Lewis labeled the abolition of man.

Perhaps the name Fiasco is not only apt but honest.  And, ultimately, given the potential self-awareness, the potential self-knowledge, hopeful.

Hip hop, as a genre, certainly carries its own weight when it comes to complicity with the prevailing culture’s commoditization of the human (particularly the female) body, the glorification of violence, the advancement of greed and decadence -- the propensity of one to swipe someone else’s property (intellectual or otherwise).  But, it also seems occassionally to acknowledge the possibility that these things -- and others -- might constitute "sin," however conceived.

These days that, in itself, is no small miracle. 

As Fiasco enjoins (and I’m paraphrasing a bit): may we survive with the brown grass, struggle through the barbed wire, continue to lift our arms higher.  In a phrase, may we acknowledge sin -- and continue our pilgrimage.

Or, we could just float on.