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Why Bother?

Like Hamlet is a young man’s play, Pinkerton is a young man’s album. Surely anyone can appreciate either (and at any age), but there’s a very hormonal, angsty, testosterone-motivated facet to both (at their respective cores, even), and at least in Pinkerton‘s case, that the vast majority of its acolytes are male and discovered it during their teens is probably no coincidence.

While there’s an obvious ability to relate to the record’s juvenile themes at that age, I think Pinkerton also serves as an inspiration for that crowd. Musically speaking, it is by far Rivers Cuomo’s greatest work, and the emotional intellect behind the arrangements of songs like “Across the Sea” and “Falling For You” represent some of the very best pop songwriting and performance since the 1960s. And when you’re young, your body’s not the only thing in its prime — so are your hopes and dreams. Whether you’re a musician or not, Pinkerton, for all its candid ugliness as a text, can serve as a model for the kind of technical achievement to which one might aspire (especially for a demographic self-selectively likely to aspire toward achievement in rock terms).

Conversely, “Why Bother?” is probably the album’s worst case for musical accomplishment. There’s not much to it, a fast blast of 120-second rock, during which time there’s indeed a stellar solo and some nifty vocal counterpoint – but it’s a pretty standard power-pop, power-chord arrangement that offers little in the way of, say, “Falling For You’s” hall-of-fame key change. Instead, it’s probably the best example of why Pinkerton is, so to speak, a young man’s play:

I know I should get next to you
You got a look that made me think you’re cool
But it’s just sexual attraction
Not something real, so I’d rather keep whacking

In the span of this first verse alone, we get not only a very phallocentric reference to masturbation, but also some schoolyard language that indicates a temporal and spatial setting (“get next to you,” like the seating arrangement in a classroom; the jejune compliment-threat of the past tense “made me think you’re cool”), and, on an even more psychologically telling level, the impulse to reject someone before they inevitably reject you.

In some ways, though, this is a young love anti-anthem for all. “This happened to me twice before” flaunts its inexperience, and the reference to getting one’s heart broken “next summer” evokes a characteristically high school-college frame of mind. Should a young girl elect to suffer its paranoid misogyny, she can make “Why Bother?” her own.

The band surprisingly pulled out an acoustic version for their 2008 AOL Sessions, albeit with guitarist Brian Bell on lead vocals, drummer Pat Wilson on guitar, bassist Scott Shriner on bass, and Cuomo on drums — a lineup that contains exactly zero constants from the way the band recorded it in 1996. It feels a bit like a cover band, especially when Bell changes the infamous “whacking” line to “You’d better start packing.” Bell claims he did so to better relate to the song, as he would rather tell a girl to leave and find a new one than simply masturbate (cool, Brian), but it’s a complete misread of a song about wanting someone you can’t have, not leaving someone you can.

One Comment

  1. SOMETHINGSABUBBLIN' wrote:

    I remember this as being one of the tracks that immediately grabbed me upon first listening to Pinkerton, and while it certainly isn’t as sophisticated as other songs, it certainly elicits a visceral response with its raw lyrics juxtaposed with its comparatively upbeat (and rocking) pop-punk accompaniment. Because if this my band plays a slightly faster version during live sets that need something catchy with substance. And though it seems like the whole debate about Brian’s lyrical alterations has pretty much stopped for what its worth I think its ludicrous how he changed the meaning of the song. Case in point, my band played this at a cancer benefit show, and before going on we noticed the crowd leaned toward the older set, along with a lot of younger children. So moments before playing I decided to instead sing the effective (albeit clunky) alternative “It’s nothing real, there’s no satisfaction.” Same general idea, and nobody was offended. Just saying that if he was really just against singing about masturbating, there were other more logical alternatives that wouldn’t alter the meaning of a song so many people identify strongly with.

    Sunday, January 16, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

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