Wednesday 9 November 2011

"Helplessness Blues" And The Burden of American Individualism

By Neekta Khorsand
"Helplessness Blues" by Fleet Foxes -- Soundcloud

The title track of Fleet Foxes’ sophomore album*, “Helplessness Blues,” is a series of contradictory statements and questions uncomfortably abandoned in the last line. However, its opening lines are ones to which many Americans, regardless of generation, can relate. Lead vocalist and songwriter for Fleet Foxes, Robin Pecknold sings, “I was raised up believing I was somehow unique/ Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see.” In less than 25 words, Pecknold has summarized an aspect of the American tradition of exceptionalism. Granted, the 25-year-old musician is a product of his generation, one raised under the careful and attentive mode of parenting in which adults applaud and praise even the slightest of achievements and encourage kids to wholly be “themselves.” Born exactly a year after Pecknold (we share the same birthday), I was raised within this same mindset and distinctly remember the plethora of uplifting stickers my teachers placed on horrendous drawings and scrawls. Pecknold’s words reflect not only a generational focus on the incredible value placed upon the self within American culture but that focus as a continuation of the longstanding American identity as one of deep individualism.

In the next lines, Pecknold rejects his upbringing. He sings, “But now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be/ A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me” but he never tells his listeners what that “something” is, promising to let us know “someday.” This rejection of his existence as a distinct and unique individual is troubling and a direct reaction against the American identity and way of life. His desire to be unexceptional, to disappear within something larger than himself is a recognition of himself as “small” and a part of a greater community rather than apart from it. His denial of the self goes further when he asks, “What’s my name? What’s my station? Oh, just tell me what I should do.” Pecknold wants to cast aside his agency, his ability to decide for himself. Should we chalk this up merely to a twenty-something immersed in his quarter-life crisis or does this represent a larger issue—that is, the burden of individualism? Questioning his own name and his “station” (which can also be read as his purpose) brings to mind the confident assertion Whitman made over a century ago when he declared himself within “Song of Myself” and stated that he is a “kosmos”—a universe, not a cog.

Pecknold may very well be floundering in a quarter-life crisis but he raises useful questions when analyzing the current state of American identity. Where has the Whitman-esque confidence gone in the American individual, if it’s gone at all? How helpless has the American individual become? Is it possible to have too much freedom in who Americans may be? Does the nurtured and engrained identity of individualism actually prevent Americans from fulfilling the self naturally and truthfully, without anxiety? Or, do Americans merely appropriate themselves from an external, constructed source? Will Americans, as Pecknold ends his song declaring, just end up “like the man on the screen”**?

* It’s been a while since this album came out, but while listening to it the other day, I was flooded with questions as to what Pecknold might be getting at.
** I recognize the potential flaws in an analysis of an entire culture through one hipster ballad.


Aidan said...

Thanks, Neekta, for an interesting post about a song well worth dissecting.
I wonder if "Helplessness Blues" could do with a more specifically class-based reading along with your focus on exceptionalism. When Pecknold expresses anxiety about being told he's unique and then contrasts that with a fantasy of playing a small, anonymous role in creating something great, I think he's lamenting the fact that today's middle class urge their children to accomplish the extraordinary from a young age whilst the middle and working classes in previous generations were more content in taking pride in simpler work that helped to build a society.
The song's last section ("If I had an orchard...") seems to reiterate this yearning for a reevaluation of work and society (and, I think, alludes to the similar folk classic "If I Had A Hammer".)
- Aidan O'Shea

TRS said...

Very interesting - I wonder if this article from the Atlantic offers some interesting perspective, on both post and comment? "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy: Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods."

neek said...

Aidan, I think you're right to bring class into this, especially considering the last lines. Tom's article re-enforces that notion of middle/upper-class parenting being neurotically positive as well but I think even that's muddied by Pecknold's lyrics. I was tempted to bring in Turner's thesis and the idea that true happiness will be felt by Americans once we return to a life governed by working the land. Pecknold, however, worries this suggestion as he does everything else he says when he sings "If I had an orchard, I'd work til I'm sore/ And you would wait tables and soon run the store." He desires a seemingly simple life, one tied to the land but desires the unknown "you" to not only work within capitalism but work it to their advantage. In my reading of it, that doesn't seem such a simple life, particularly since the implication is that he and "you" spend a life together. This, again, can bring class into the discussion.

I think, at the basis of this song, Pecknold has quite accurately presented the restlessness and sense of floating with which post-education American adults are inundated. Pecknold reaches an emotional crescendo when he sings the words "I don't know" and "I know" in the psuedo-choruses--a perfect representation of the in-between mental space of the anxious American. That consciousness and awareness is very much a result of class-influenced schooling and upbringing but may even transcend that and sit within a more universal anxiety of self felt by all.

I highly recommend you listen to the album in its entirety, for there are a handful of other songs in which Pecknold returns to these ideas and explores them beautifully, with a little more courage and directness. The band also performs a song all about various national parks in the U.S. Emerson would've approved.