Chasing the Shitegeist: Frankie and the Heartstrings – ‘Ungrateful’.

"Amid concrete and clay and general decay" 'FATHS' (as I'll never call them) strike a natural looking pose

Now then. I have thought about this for three days straight since first hearing this song. I have rolled the italicised statement below around the soft palate of my mind like so much acrid, screw top red wine. I have, today, spat that wine out into the bucket, and can now say with some certainty the following: ‘Ungrateful’ by Frankie and the Heartstrings is the shittest thing I have ever heard.

I pre-empt the above supposition with an assertion of due diligence because I don’t want this to come across as a rash decision. I have thought long and hard about this. This is not a band-wagon-jumping jibe at Justin Beiber. This is not a derisory sneer at Jason Mraz’s knowledge of guitar chords. It is not even a snobbish analysis of ‘bad lyrics’ (though it the lyrics that particularly irk me about this song). This is something different. Bring me Beiber’s warbles. Mraz; let me lap up your cod-reggae scatting ad infinitum. I would have sex with the Kings of Leon…. on fire. Just turn off Frankie and the Heartstrings, I don’t want to hear it.

So what is it that makes this song so contemptible? There are two things – a lyrics and an ethos.

1. A Lyric.

In the unending ocean of shoe-horned, clumsy rhymes that is ‘Ungrateful’ (‘best’ rhymes with ‘less’ apparently), one particular line stands proud like a granite obelisk of utterly risible shite:

“I wrote this song with you in mind”

It is made to stand out all the further as it is sung a cappella, and followed by total silence, as if the band were affording their audience the opportunity to mull over this assertion before carrying on with the listening pleasure. I invite you now, dear reader, to mull it over in your head for a moment… I need to take some deep breaths and count to ten.

‘What’s wrong with it?’ you may ask. Well, I think the best way to highlight its odiousness is via comparison. Another song that was written with ‘you’ in mind is the stunning ‘You’re So Vain’ by Carly Simon:

“”You’re so vain, I bet you think this song is about you, don’t you?”

"Cold out, Carly?"

What makes Carly Simon’s lyric inexorably better than ‘wor Frankie’s’? Well, the rest of ‘You’re So Vain’ is actually about the eponymous ‘you’. The near obsessional detailing of dress, movement, attitude of this ‘you’ in the verses belies the contempt Simon feels. What we are left with is a complex portrait of love and hate for this vainglorious ‘you’. We are also given a clear and concise portrait of this ‘you’; for a song ostensibly not about him Simon paints a pretty good picture:

You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht.

Your hat strategically dipped below one eye, your scarf it was apricot.

You had one eye in the mirror as you watched yourself gavotte.

And all the girls dreamed that they’d be your partner.

Not only does Carly Simon know this ‘you’ well, we the audience imagine our own ‘you’; the dickhead at the party whose seemingly natural swagger we secretly envy.

Frankie and the Heartstrings echo this complex love/hate paradigm; though seem to forgo much of Carly Simon’s nuance and subtlety. Preceding the declaration of the song, ‘Frankie’ (I don’t know if this is the lead singer’s name. I really don’t want to check) tells us “every time I see you, I love you less”. More ‘Kaiser Chiefs’ that ‘Carly Simon’, I know, but perhaps there is a remnant of this duality of feeling present. Except we never really find out. Why? Because, in direct contrast to Carly Simon’s masterpiece, which claims not to be about ‘you’, but is; ‘Ungrateful’ claims to be about ‘you’ but isn’t. What ‘Ungrateful’ is about – the person in Frankie’s mind is ‘I’ – the self.

Aside from being far less interesting than a song that claims it’s not about someone, but is; a song that claims to be about someone but is in fact about yourself is deeply, execrably, narcissistic. ‘I wrote this song with you in mind’. No, you wrote this song with the image of you writing a song in mind. Frankie is Carly Simon’s narcissistic ‘you’; self-obsessed, always with one eye on his own reflection, watching his own mouth move even as he professes desire for an ‘other’.

Presumably Frankie wrote this lyrics as is – i.e. in the past tense – so he was conceiving of the sentiment as formed in a song already; the thought of ‘you’ always already relegated to some (never existent) past. The thought ‘in mind’ is not ‘you’, it is ‘me writing a song about how I feel’. To quote Morrissey – which seems apt as Frankie has borrowed so heavily from the erstwhile king of pining-for-the-self that really you’d think he should be hauled up for plagiarism – “it says nothing to me about my life” for how can the listener penetrate these clouds, Venusian in their density, of self-idolisation to infer some exterior message?

But this lyric is indicative of something much wider, and it is something Frankie and the Heartstrings alone cannot be blamed for. It is a pervading ethos in this strand of popular music and, at the risk of sounding nihilistic and bitter – stop me if I start talking about the ‘good old days’… of the late 90s(!) – within much of popular culture.

2. An Ethos

What’s the bigger concern with Frankie and his Heartstrings (I can’t even bear to start looking at the name of the band itself; in all its regressive, outright-theft-masquerading-as-ironic-post-modernist-parody, splendour)? Stewart Lee, at the end of his recent stand up show ‘If You’d Prefer a Milder Comedian, Please Ask For One’ says, as he picks up and plugs in an acoustic guitar:

There’s a lot of largely spurious articles these days about ‘what is the last taboo in stand up?’ Is it jokes about race, is it jokes about rape? In my experience doing this for the last five months, the last taboo in stand up is a man trying to do something sincerely and well. People hate it!

Sincerity, it seems, is in short supply in popular culture. Now, I’m not going to start off down the road of ‘the old bands… they used to be sincere’ – lest I be struck down with Stuart Maconie-itis or just start howling ‘play from your fucking heart’ into the (non-existent) microphone a la Bill Hicks.

Nor am I going to start criticising ‘style’ or ‘posing’ or ‘pretence’ – call it what you will – and its place within popular music. These facets are integral to popular music; it’s what makes it popular. So Elvis’s quiff and hips, the (early) Beatles’ mop-top haircuts and matching suits, the faded denim and long, greasy hair of heavy metal, even (especially) the ripped t-shirts and bondage trousers of punk, Morrisey’s gladioli and hearing aid, Noel Gallagher’s Union Jack Gibson; all style, all posture, all important, all brilliant.

But in each of these examples, there was a feeling of sincerity. That the style was dressing for the substance. Fashion was indicative of some feeling; a means to an end, not the end itself. Of course, there have always been those who have taken the style without its substance (more so in popular music than any other cultural field?), but in so called ‘serious’ music – ‘sincerity’ was of paramount importance.

With Frankie and the Heartstrings not only is there no discernable substance – it is, after all, a song about thinking about writing a song about how he feels about feeling about someone else – it’s that sincerity has become a style.

That’s right; throughout the videos to this song (I’m looking at the music video and a live video from Radio 1 Big Weekend in Bangor[1]) we see ‘Being Sincere’ played out as a style itself. You don’t need to be ‘sincere about’ something (a cause, a message, even in the faith you invest in your own music) because ‘Being Sincere’ is a look, a pose, a tortured grimace, a rolled up sleeve, a neatly (and, I suspect deliberately) gaffer taped Fender Strat., an oversized pair of thick-rimmed glasses, an angular haircut, a cardigan with a button-badge on it; this is ‘Being Sincere’ turned into a look; sincerity the gossamer thin veil over endless posturing.

3. It’s Just a Test

Having said that ‘Ungrateful’ contains easily the worst set of lyrics I have ever heard, I am tempted to say that there is one lyric which I find beautifully sentient; though I suspect I am reading a different interpretation to that which Frank and his Heartstrings intended:

We have to endure this, it could be a test

Maybe that’s what this is all about… it’s a test – an endurance – a sort of ‘if you can keep your head while all around you are losing theirs’ sort of thing, right? Unquestionably sincerity is still a virtue, undoubtedly there are musicians who ‘mean’ what they say (and what they have to say is not so self-indulgent, so self-idolising that it allows the listener to permeate the shell, interpret, take on meaning, and apply it to themselves). Maybe this celebration of ironic indifference, this ‘sincerity as style’, is an endurance (or a penance) for the fragile bluster and hubris of Brit Pop, or for the sheer laziness of the ‘noughties’. Maybe.

Anyway, in a shameless bout of nepotism, here’s a video my brother made that neatly bursts the style bubble; I particularly like the drummer’s two vocal contributions!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BhHaZn_g97M


[1] I hope I never fully find out who the ginger bellend who introduces the band in this video is. I know he must be a radio 1 DJ; he has that sort of blithe acceptance of any music placed in front of him, the overuse-to-the-point-of-meaninglessness of words such as ‘brilliant’ and ‘genius’, that marks him out as one of that ilk. ‘Whileyfication’ I think is the appropriate neologism (http://thefantastichope.blogspot.com/2007/10/whileyfication-wl-if-i-k-shun-n-process.html).

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9 Responses to Chasing the Shitegeist: Frankie and the Heartstrings – ‘Ungrateful’.

  1. Eileen says:

    Are you a full time idiot or is this just something you do at a weekend because you have no mates ! OR is it jealousy and lust ?

    • asto1 says:

      To answer your first question, I’m a full time idiot. I see no point in part-time idiocy; it’s a life style choice, not a hobby.

      In answer to your second question, it is neither jealousy nor lust (lust for what? for whom?), I really mean that. I think it is more disappointment. I don’t like writing things about shit music. I think, if you were to read any of the other things written here, you would see that. I say in the article that this is not a snobbish jibe at pop music. I have a massive vested interest in the importance and meaning of popular music, I will defend its worth to the hilt. My problem is that ‘FATHS’ are ostensibly a ‘serious’ band, however, I think they are using ‘seriousness’ as a pose, that they are relying on – no, celebrating – image and surface-skimming ephemerality, and that these things are retrogressive and damaging to a (supposedly) independent music form that should, however trite this sounds, have ‘something to say’.

      The worst thing is that no space is given for the listener to become part of the dialogue, to construct the meaning themselves. It is so self-indulgent as to be exclusionary. The ‘you’ of the song is really the ‘I’ of the singer, there is no conversation which we the listener can grab hold of and claim.

      Anyway, is that enough idiocy for you? May I ask you a couple of questions? Great.

      What are your motives in your comment? Are you ‘defending’ a band (a song, a genre of music, an epoch of musical creation) that ‘means’ something to you? Does this song ‘mean’ something to you? If so, I’d really like to know how you permeated ‘Frankie’s’ membrane of hair gel and ego to find even a fragment of self-reflection within. Tell me, please, what is good about this song, this band. I am dying to know.

      What do you assume I may be jealous of? Being ‘famous’? Having a ‘recognition’ of my music? Having a ‘record deal’? Of being ‘cool’? Believe me, I covet non of these oxen. What is there to aspire for here? I see nothing but contemptible showing off.

      Thanks for your comment. I hope very much to hear from you again.

  2. Danny says:

    It’s amusing how much somebody with an ego as inflated as yours can drag one line out of context. Before you start examining songs line by line and knocking others as egotistical, you might want to give your first paragraph a quick skim. You couldn’t sound more pot/kettle/black. While I’m sure you have multiple (well..at least one) friend/s spiteful enough to personally attack Frankie, I thought I’d tell you a bit about the man you seem to know so well. Despite your cunning detective work, it turns out that he isn’t an egotistical self-appreciating wanker, unfortunately. Bad luck, Columbo. Having known him through my parents multiple years, I can tell you he’s actually an ex-charity worker, and an incredibly shy/humble one at that. Given, there are a few definite forced rhymes in there, but considering this is their first album, I’d say that all the reviews The Guardian and NME, etc, have generously heaped on them are well deserved. So, one that note, I hope you have a fantastic time sitting at home on your own scouring youtube for other up-and-coming bands to attack personally for kicks. Because it’s either that,. or you’ve personally got something against Frankie, the way you went for him personally.

    • asto1 says:

      Dear Danny,

      A charity worker, you say? Well…. we all know how unobtrusive and altruistic charity workers can be(!)

      In all seriousness, thanks for your comment. It is certainly more insightful than ‘Eileen’s’ comment above. Please allow me right of reply. I hope you may be kind enough to re-reply.

      Firstly, I concede that my opening paragraph is hyperbolic and a bit silly, I recant the over-the-top delivery, but not, I’m afraid, the sentiment. I do think this song is just about the worst thing I have ever heard.

      Secondly, I must disagree with you; this is not a personal attack on Frankie (is that really his real name?) it is a critique of his – and his adopted ‘genre’s’ – celebration of ephemerality and the conversion of ‘sincerity’ into a pose. He is, by no means the only culprit, as I said in piece. This is not an attack on his personality – nor even on personality in general – it is a look at the over-reliance on presenting the personality at the expense of any meaningful dialogue between singer and listener that has pervaded much of popular music.

      As for taking a single lyric out of context, I would tend to suggest that this is the central tenet of the song – it is sung a cappella and with quite some emphasis. I don’t think, for purposes of comparison with a single lyric (and the surrounding context) of another song (Carly Simon’s You’re so Vain), that addressing this lyrics alone was unwarranted. In fact, I think it probably sums up my point that the lyric is decontextualised given that the rest of the song is not actually about the eponymous ‘you’.

      The generous reviews of the Guardian and NME you mention only serve to emphasise the hyperbole of the radio 1 dj who introduces them in the doctored video below. I think FATHS have bought, wholesale, into this too-rapid over-indulgence of the immediate; the now. How can they be the ‘greatest band’ when they only have one album’s worth of material? Armed with only a scant body of work, they have been forced to over-expose their image, their ‘personality’ (for want of a better word; I have nothing ‘personal’ against them) in lieu of content. The aim here is cashing in immediately, a state of affairs that further exacerbates the dizzyingly rapid turnover of ‘greatest new bands’, who are disposed of by their labels when they fail to capture some ever-moving zeitgeist in their second, inevitably rushed, offering.

      This, again, is not Frankie’s ‘fault’, nor even are they the sole culprits, but they are to blame, for it provides yet more fuel to the fire for those who claim popular music is, a priori, a worthless and ephemeral waste of time. I vehemently reject such a sentiment; pop music can (and does) provide profundity and life-affirming emotionality akin to any other art form. But it becomes harder to fight this corner when you hear something like FATHS.

      Finally, Danny, In the words of Columbo (see…) I have “just one last question for you, if I may”. It seems you have fallen into the same trap as ‘Eileen’. Instead of defending this song/this band/ this genre/this epoch, you have chosen to attack me. I don’t mind this, and much of what you say is probably true. Am I prone to egotism? I have a blog don’t I! But you give me no reasons why I am wrong (just that I am equally as bad as Frankie). My question(s): Why do you defend this song? Is it solely because you have some tenuous connection to its singer, and thus a vicarious claim to fame, or does it really ‘speak to you’? In what way? I really am genuinely curious to know. What do you glean from this song, for I come away empty. Why is it good?

      But please, don’t think I hate the ‘player’, it is the ‘game’ that is the true enemy here.

  3. Danny says:

    Oh please, don’t take my comment as my ‘claim to fame’ – if I truly believed Frankie’s band sucked, I wouldn’t’ve wasted five minutes replying to your blog, aha 😉 I defend the song as a reflection on the whole album – while it’s certainly not the best song on there (though arguably a fan favourite, oddly – personally, I much prefer Fragile and Tender) it is a good example of what he’s made since he started the band out. Listening to old demos here, the lyrics have been retained through the album version – though I see where you come from with your belief that the song was written for the mainstream. In fact, these lyrics were all penned while he managed a charity shop debating whether or not he had chance enough in the music industry to quit his job. I honestly don’t believe Frankie has any tags on himself at all (and yes, he’s Frankie Francis, aha, real name), and I’ve never once believed him to be in any way ‘vain’. I think you put too much emphasis on the pause after ‘I wrote this song with you in mind’ – I’ve never once interpreted it as you did, but hell, I probably wouldn’t knowing that he doesn’t think so much of himself as to need to affirm that he wrote the song.

    And yes, I apologize for the way I attacked you in my previous comment, though had you explained your interpretation and reasons behind disliking the song in the same manner as you did in your comment, I wouldn’t’ve replied like I did. In the end, it’s unpleasant seeing material from a mate’s album attacked as savagely as you did initially, whether founded or not. Really, you should give songs such as Fragile a listen – that one really does speak to me, it’s a very heartfelt song, and one of his first. 🙂

    I do hope you’ll reply. 🙂

  4. Marcel says:

    I can’t believe what i heard. I thought Lady Gaga or Shakira ( for example ) were unlistenable but this stuff… Gruesome. By the way Atos, thanks for this discover. This ”stuff” manages to be as unbearable and wrongly arty than any Zappa’s records but without any abilities to play correctly guitrars or drums. Stunning.

  5. Lucy says:

    Bit late to the party on this one…… But came across this post whilst looking for some nice pics of FATHS (that abbreviation has to be the one good thing about this post).
    Now I certainly don’t have a degree in music, nor English literature, but I personally think its a cracking song. I admit that this isn’t the worlds perfect album, but these are dark days for music, and I think it is a heck of a lot better than some of the stuff out there. (kindly turn your attention to lady gaga)
    As Danny said, for a new band and for a first album, it’s pretty darn good. So this isn’t me attacking you, it is simply my opinion that you are an up yourself poncey git. Even if you don’t like the lyrics can you not just enjoy the music, the tune?? even if you hate this band with all your heart, you can at least congratulate them for trying. I have always thought this about all musicians (even Gaga, blllurrghh) good on them for trying.

    So yes, their lyrics are still a bit wonky. But can you honestly think of one band who’s best album is their first one??

    • asto1 says:

      firstly; bands whose first album is their best:

      Bruce Springsteen – greetings from asbury park
      Crosby Stills and Nash – crosby stills and nash
      planxty – Planxty
      oasis – definately maybe

      secondly – Thanks for reading. It’s nice to know someone ever reads these things – even if they don’t like them! You are right about a couple of things (aside from me being an “up myself poncey git”). This is a dark time in music and actually, the gist of the argument here is precisely that – FATHS seem to have been pushed into an album too quickly; and in the rapidity of the music industry today, they have had to milk it for more than its worth; the content is not there – it’s all about the performance, and, to me, less substance.
      The question is; will FATHS get to make a second album?
      Also – I feel a bit bad about this post now; it’s a bit of a waste of time writing about music i don’t like.
      Also – lady gaga is alright. Using her as a paradigm of what bad music is just lazy.

      Any finally. I do have a degree in popualr music, so lyrics are just about the most important thing for me. Sorry. i can’t just ignore them.

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