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Ben Folds worries about becoming uncool (not really)

Kai Ryssdal and Bridget Bodnar Aug 7, 2019
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"I cannot grow artistically if I am beholden to the opinions of an industry I’ve outgrown," Ben Folds writes in his memoir.
Joe Vaughn

Ben Folds is a musician known for his work with the band Ben Folds Five, his solo albums and his genre-bending collaborations with the likes of Regina Spektor, William Shatner and Nick Hornby. The following is an excerpt from Folds’ memoir, “A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons.” Click the audio player above to hear his interview with Kai Ryssdal.

Warning: Contains expletives.

Cover Image, courtesy of the publisher

“Your dad’s tired-ass rock music fuckin’ sucks!” an overgrown high school bully with a mustache said as he shoved my sixteen-year-old son against a cold locker.

“You got that lunch money you owe me, li’l bitch? Or has your daddy gotta go play ‘Brick’ at weddings to get paid first? Chump!” he sneered as his minions laughed. My son, who was left to fish his schoolbooks out of the trash, watched as the bully and his two side-kicks did a few chest bumps and headed to the bathroom for some smokes.

Sorry. This never happened. Obviously even my imagined school-bully scene is dated. Chest bump? I’ll bet nobody even does that anymore.

It’s a legitimate worry for an aging rocker that your music will become so out of date and toxically uncool, it will get your kids beaten up at school. But, hey, it’s your job. I used to see all those old guys with stringy long hair, pouring their fat asses into leather pants year after year, and think to myself, That’ll never be me! That’ll never be me! But it’s really understandable. How fair is it that, like in dance or sports, a rock-and-roll artist can expect to have to retire in his or her mid-thirties? That’s just the way it is. But there’s another world out there for them, if they’re so lucky. They can become a Heritage Artist™ and keep reliving the magic, make the house payments, and send their kids to private schools with a security guard. This was the thought that began to wake me in a cold sweat each night! (Not really, I just wanted to make the point.)

Slapping my way through a wedding band gig 1989.

It’s important to remember that after an artist has made a few records, the entire music business and its audience must decide whether there’s really any space on the shelf for this artist anymore. Any new record you release after your first few albums can be used as evidence that it’s time for you to go. It’s not evil, or personal. It’s that there’s so much new music and so little time and space. We all have to make room in our lives for new artists and new ideas. But an artist like me, in his second decade of making records, better not get stuck in any ruts.

As satisfying and safe as it can feel to have mastered a craft, it also can be a sign that it’s time to learn a new trick. It’s the known that the artist should fear, not the unknown. All that terrain that’s been well illuminated should scare the piss out of you artistically. Because the known is where boredom takes root. Staying in the well-lit areas is what gets you stuck. I felt a strong urge to lurch into the dark and leave pop music behind, but of course we all resist change, we all want to keep our job.

Good pop music, truly of its moment, should throw older adults off its scent. It should clear the room of boring adults and give the kids some space.

So what about the middle-aged making pop music? Sure, it’s allowed. But let’s be honest about what pop, or popular, music is. It’s music for the mating age. It’s a soundtrack for that yearning, that youthful anger, those ideals and inside jokes of the teenagers and young adults as they experience the rough ride together. It fills an important need. It helps get us through to adulthood. Pop music can be a life jacket, a sexy security blanket, a hipster Hallmark card. And it communicates very real things. It also requires serious craft and is a competitive business, worthy of great respect. Pop music saved my ass as a kid, paid the bills in my earlier career. And I love to make fun of it.

Good pop music, truly of its moment, should throw older adults off its scent. It should clear the room of boring adults and give the kids some space. If you’re post–mating age, you might enjoy new pop music to a degree, but it’s not really for you. Post-mating-age adults have a whole other heap of problems, the likes of which the sickest beat and saddest rhyme are woefully unequipped to solve. You don’t need an earful of sexy when navigating your aging parents into an old folks’ home or when you’re worried your kids might be trying drugs at their delinquent friend’s house. There is music that speaks to grown-ass adults, but it probably ain’t mating beats. And the grown-ass adults, when they’re in heat, usually reach for music of their own era, the stuff they consumed back when they were mating age. They spring for high ticket prices for a magical night with their favorite Heritage Artist™.

At Veronikas with Guest Trombonist (not pictured)

I, for one, don’t feel the need to try and relate to younger music that’s not for me anymore. I appreciate it, but I don’t try to like it or relate to it. Why should I? I view pop music the way I do a children’s television show, with its cartoons and bright colors — it’s for kids. I’m no more riveted by a grumpy puppet who lives in a garbage can than I am by a horny auto-tuned journal entry edited over a lonesome computer loop. I don’t hang around playgrounds, so why, at my age, should I be wandering around Burning Man shirtless, tripping on ecstasy? Or speaking in vocal fry like middle-aged men and women I overhear every day in the coffee shop down the block?

If I’m being really honest? Really feeling my age and unafraid to admit it? Here we go: I’m actually repulsed by overly computerized music, which dominates pop music now. It makes me feel ill. Canned bass drum that dry-humps my eardrums four-on-the-floor in the back seat of an Uber while an overly gymnastic auto-tuned vocal holds me down. . . . It just isn’t my cup of tea. There’s something sad about a singer pouring his heart out over a quantized machine. That heartless machine would keep playing out for days in an empty room, long after the singer keeled over. Hey, kid! That loop doesn’t love you! I want to tell the singer. I’m reminded of those horse insemination machines where the poor stud is humping away into a horsey robot. It’s just sad. Now, that’s some old-man shit I just laid down, but it’s about being honest, because I know that I cannot grow artistically if I am beholden to the opinions of an industry I’ve outgrown. If I require the approval of children.

From the book “A Dream About Lightning Bugs” by Ben Folds. Copyright © 2019 by Ben Folds. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.