I’ve been listening to some of my favorite albums of all time this week. Trying to let music do what it has always done for me my entire life: get me through the shit times. Whether it be when I was a teenager and feeling hopelessly awkward, dealing with an unrequited crush (at any age), a painful breakup, the loss of a job, a death in the family, general malaise….basically, any and all of life’s events have had songs to help me, and continue to help me, get through any sadness and pain, and move on to the next struggle. Not that music is a balm for only the hard times; but it’s more essential, more necessary when life dishes up plates of crap. When we fall in love, when we get that dream job, when good fortune falls upon us, music can and does often heighten this joy, but it’s less a matter of (and I know this sounds overly dramatic) survival. Every sappy love song on the radio, songs we previously couldn’t stand, suddenly speak to exactly what we’re feeling when we are in the grip of new love. Even a Bryan Adams ballad can pull at our heartstrings. We lose all sense of taste and perspective, and this is perfectly wonderful, in those fleeting moments. We don’t have to actively seek out music — it’s all around us, like animated butterflies. But when we are despairing, we need to be alone in our rooms, stacks of records and CDs fanned out around us, determined to find the right song that speaks to our hurt. Not just any song will do.
And songs we know and love, they can take on new meanings at different ages, depending on what is happening in the world, in our world. What once felt like a song directed specifically to us as a young person–hearing it again ten, twenty, thirty years later can imbue the same song with a larger, more global connotation.
Oingo Boingo’s “Grey Matter,” the opening cut on their brilliant sophomore album, 1982’s Nothing to Fear, is one of those tracks for me. Back when I was 15, I took this song to imply that stodgy and bitter old folks thought that we young people were stupid, spineless and worthless! The song starts off with the words: They say you’re stupid / That you’re too young to vote / They say you’ll swallow anything / That they shove down your throat /They say you can’t think / That you haven’t got a brain / That you’re just there to listen / That you’re just being trained
And then the chorus, repeating: There’s something inside your head / Grey matter
Listening to these lyrics, I’d pictured the father figure in the Twisted Sister “We’re Not Gonna Take It” video, screaming at his son “You’re worthless and weak!!” But the difference here was that Danny Elfman was on our side, warning us that those cynical adults didn’t believe we kids could contribute anything vital and worthy to the political conversation of the day. He used the “they” voice to ingratiate himself, perhaps to light a spark. Are you just going to let them say these things about you? being the not-so-subtle subtext in his lyrics. He was acting as the outsider instigator — not yet an “adult” but also too old to be a kid. Elfman was more like our know-it-all older brother; sure, he was an asshole, but it still felt like a good idea to listen to him.
Hearing “Grey Matter” again today, 34 years later — no longer a kid, and, in fact, coming from the point of view of an adult more likely to spout in a judgmental tone, “kids these days!” — the song takes on a new perspective. I hear it now as a direct challenge, a call to action: Prove to me that you aren’t just obedient, device-addicted sheep, following your leader off a cliff! I want to believe in the young people of today. I want to believe that these kids, who’d grown up in a country with more diversity of religion, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and cultural expression than ever before, will rise up against the recent trend toward intolerance, exclusivity and fear. I want to believe in the youth of today, and at times I do, especially here in the Bay Area where activism is encouraged and often birthed. But I also see, on a daily basis working in the tech gulch of San Francisco, throngs of 20-somethings glued to their screens, keeping to their silos, seeing the dangers in the world as some sort of game or movie they watch on a tiny screen and can ignore or defeat with their fast moving thumbs. The worst that can happen to them is that they forget to charge their device and have make eye contact with another human being.
I can’t help but think that maybe Danny Elfman was never on the side of the kids in this song after all; that “Grey Matter” was never a direct call to action, but was more likely a simple challenge, a dare to the youth of the day to prove him wrong. He’d watched the middle-upper class suburban kids around him whine and complain, expecting change to occur without having to get their hands dirty. He knew the power music had to get individuals and crowds fired up. How do you trigger a reaction? Tell your enemy/audience/fans that they are worthless and weak.
That your tiny little brain / Slipped down the kitchen sink
That you’ll listen to everything / That they decide to play
Which is why this song seems so vital today. The technology may have changed, but the message is the same as it was more than 30 years ago, when Reagan took office and half the country was in an uproar. Those of us who were kids the first time “Grey Matter” played on the radio might have less hair, more perspective now, might claim we have seen it all before. We may be more tired, more set in our ways, have less energy, and have stiffer backs. We are still going to join in the fight, but we need to feed on the idealism and the fire that being young and determined provides. We greys do not matter as much as we once did. It’s just the truth. We may have more of the money, but, like Louie CK showed so eloquently in the below clip, sometimes you have to recognize when it’s time to pass the torch and let the kids have their turn.
Some more Oingo Boingo thoughts….
I’m pretty sure the first time I’d heard Oingo Boingo was in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Their song “Goodbye, Goodbye” played over the ending credits, and I remember really liking the fun, party vibe of the tune. I was just transitioning from my hard-rock/hesher phase into a more punk and new wave persona and the FTARH soundtrack was a great album to help me cross over. Just take a look at the bands and songs on it. It was a soundtrack to please everyone. It had classic rock, sensitive singer-songwriter ballads, hard rock, new wave, disco….It was the perfect teen-sex comedy of the day, and in my opinion, has never been topped, in terms of genius casting, wide-ranging music, mix of comedy and serious issues. And it holds up 35 years later.
And then there’s this – the early, early beginnings of Oingo Boingo, when they were called The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo. The group started as an avant garde performance troupe led by Danny Elfman’s brother, Richard. This clip does have Danny, but not sure any of the other members of Oingo Boingo are in this band.
Needless to say, I’m a huge Oingo Boingo fan, especially of their first four albums (Only a Lad, Nothing to Fear, Good for Your Soul, Dead Man’s Party) and even though they sold out stadiums across the country and knew how to market themselves better than most of all the other bands of their day (soundtracks, movie appearances), I still feel that they never received the critical acclaim they deserved. I know Danny Elfman is mostly embarrassed by his early catalog — maybe it was the muscle-revealing wife-beaters he rarely strayed from wearing in those younger days — but, for me, these albums hold up remarkably well and Boingo’s mix of ska, punk, rock, soul, dance, polka and circus music kept them from sounding like any other band during their day and ever since.