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?”
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) 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!
 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).