September 18, 2011

30 Songs #8 - Winner Take All: Desperate Driven Delusional Dreamer Ditty

I am the God your God. Pull my handle and watch me spin, baby!

Sometimes a song lyric is going to be just average—not terrible, but not great—and there's nothing you can really do about it. No transcendent wisdom, no killer metaphor, no clever insights—so you just put your head down and grind through the thing hoping that the tune and performance will save it. Sometimes you get lucky and the band injects that song with a jolt you'd never imagined, and sometimes the thing implodes under the weight of its own mediocrity, never to rise again. "Winner Take All," a Honey White-era demo completed by Radblaster, started out as the latter and ended up the former: an energetic tune hobbled by an average lyric and saved by great performances. It also helps that its creative life is still mostly yet-to-be defined. Listen here:

That's a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time version as demoed by Radblaster in April of this year, during the same rehearsal sessions that produced our other original demos on the Hecho en Naranjastan E.P. It's a little diamond-in-the-rough, but definitely better than the sum of its creative component parts. The lyric's problem, for me, is its pseudo-political-commentary nature. It's not bad, or embarrassing, or off-the-mark—but on paper it has no bite. The great results that we've got for it in Radblaster are all down to Bryn's vocal delivery and the frenzied pace set by the band. I know I've been on a politics kick lately, but this is the last example of that. Last week's "30 Songs" entry was a bit heavy, and while this one's not exactly a lightweight, it doesn't pretend to be A Big Statement About Important Things. "Winner Take All" is simply a competently-executed lyrical composition that depends on musical energy (as opposed to lyrical quality) to get liftoff. The lyrics are:

"Winner Take All"

Still up against the way it always will be
and shackled to the way it's always been
Still opposite the center of attention
or banished to the outside looking in
Forgiven every consequence of any reckless stunts
as long as I do anything to win

Don't matter if I can't move like I used to
or even if I think as slow as sin
or even if I don't know any better
or if a soul is underneath this skin
cause all the broken pieces always snap back into place
as long as I do anything to win

Cause I can take a dive, yeah I can take a fall
but as soon as I can take control I'm gonna take it all

So when the worst of here and now is over
and dangerous charades are wearing thin
and aftershocks are right around the corner
and ever after's itchin' to begin
I'll look out on the promised land, the king of all I see
as long as I do anything to win

oh yeah I would do anything, oh yeah I would do anything
it's been too long, it's been to long, I'm bound to hit the wall

But I can take a dive, yeah I can take a fall
and as soon as I can take control I'm gonna take it all

"Winner Take All" has some of the same little flaws that "Hold Still" does—namely, the soft arrogance of presumption that every writer assumes when they're trying to work from someone else's voice. In this case, it's me building a fake persona of a character I think I know a lot about, but probably know very little: the desperate American Dreamer. This is a character who's been told he (and it is usually a he) will get everything he wants if he just plays by the rules and works hard. When he does this and nothing happens—or worse, he gets stepped on and tossed aside by other, more ruthless examples of his own species—he bubbles over with angry, pseudo-entitled resentment.

Now, you tell me—how fucking arrogant is that of me to write from that perspective? What the hell do I truly know about any of that? I grew up in a leafy green Orange County suburb. I haven't had to really work hard for anything—much less scrape and claw for my own survival. My life is still pretty good. It's like I'm writing about something I saw in a zoo. "Look at this rough beast, my dear. Isn't it curious? Watching 'American Idol' and 'Jersey Shore!' How cute!" All sneering aside, I think this lyric came from the weird, almost ignorant distaste and un-interest I have in competition for its own sake. Does that make sense? The way this ended up being "political" was through the lens of this idea that the relatively powerless in America always seem to vote against their own interests. Not necessarily that they vote Republican—but that they vote for people from either party who consistently enact policies that keep their voters relatively poor and powerless.

The reason I think it almost works in the lyric, though, is that the best and worst thing about the United States has always been how this nation validates—and often rewards—unapologetically risky behavior. Think about it, though; The American propensity for desperate and crazy impulses has been with us from the beginning. Conquering an unknown land via enslavement and genocide isn't exactly novel, but we've done it with particular enthusiasm. The U.S.A. excels at thinking up new and innovative ways to gamble and score and win and destroy our competition. We reward the people who make shit-tons of money because hey—they must have done something right. Never mind the hundreds or thousands of people they stepped on or over to get to where they are. Those people are losers, and the worst thing to be in America is a loser.

All the high-functioning sociopaths in our society who've made it to crazy-high levels of success in business or politics or sports or entertainment have one thing in common: the manic drive to get the fuck out of wherever they used to be. Chris Rock said this best when describing Madonna: "While you're sleeping, Madonna's working." That's great for Madonna, but personally I need six hours a night, you know? So, we see all these successful people on TV or wherever, and we act and behave and vote aspirationally after being fed the delusion that one day we'll be as successful and famous as they are, because…why, again? Not to get too Tyler Durden about this (because hey, he was a psychopath too), but how does this help anyone but the people who are already rich, famous, and powerful?

The character in "Winner Take All" either doesn't understand any of this, or understands it too well. He could either end up in the ditch with all the other losers—or he could become Donald Trump or Michael Vick or Rick Warren or Thomas Kinkade or Gordon Gekko or Kanye West or Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton or George Bush or Barack Obama. He either becomes a hero or a goat, but until then he's just another grifter in a nation of grifters, hucksters, hustlers, boomers, carpetbaggers, snake-oil salesmen, get-rich-quick-no-money-down schemers, game show hosts, and North Vegas slot machine addicts. The mentality that gives a person singular focus and drive also seems to take away empathy and compassion. Now, in a nation of narcissistic sociopaths with varying degrees of functionality, that's not necessarily a sin. It's just a game.

Okay, enough of that noxious anti-American crap, right? Less talk, more rock! What are you, some dirty fucking hippie? Ho ho. Fine, I'll get to the tune's (short) lineage before signing off. It was originally a demo of Bryn's, jammed out by Honey White in March 2005 but left undeveloped in favor of other new-ish songs like "Nightfall" and "Green Hills." Here's an mp3 I unearthed (note cool breakdown and wild solo from Brian):

mp3: "Winner Take All" (Honey White jam, 3/27/05)

It took a little more work to get from that point to the Radblaster 2011 take at the top of this post, but going through that step-by-step would involve digging up bad demos of me singing like Johnny Cash on acid. You'll have to take my word that they didn't work very well. Anyway, by about November 2007—well after Honey White had called a hiatus—I wrapped this lyric up, recorded a demo, and promptly shelved it in favor of my Weapon of Young Gods Low Tide side project.

I revived "Winner Take All" for Radblaster because I figured the song would work in our stripped-down, retro-rock combo. Radblaster has also proven to be just as friendly to rootsier/country-ish stuff as Honey White ("Sean Goes to Africa") and the Mojo Wire ("Margarita"), and since Adam, Bryn, Kevin and I are all better players than when we first formed the Clap in 1996, "Winner Take All" has turned out pretty good after all. Once we get a better take of it, I'll probably add it on to the Naranjastan collection (and that goes double for several other songs, too).

That's all for the politics lyrics, folks. I'll leave you with the silliest and best example of the kind of mentality I tried to describe above. Here's Bono as the Mirror-Ball Man singing "Desire" with Zoo TV-era U2 in 1992:

Yikes. Maybe we need some demented harmonica on our song. I think next time we'll delve into some slightly different yet more fun examples of uncontrolled personal debasement. I don't know if that will be next weekend or later—extenuating circumstances are starting to put the squeeze on me—but "30 Songs" will be back in force very soon. Stay tuned and as always thanks for enduring.

Song stats:
Music by Bryn DuBois and Honey White (2005)/Bryn DuBois and Radblaster (2010).
Lyrics by Keir DuBois, November 2007.
Appears on the following albums: None (yet…)


  1. Sometimes I feel quite a bit like the character you described, Keir. But then, as you did, I usually remember that as someone with a background pretty solidly in the middle class I don't really have much to whine about.

    This is a fun song to play. I'm actually pleasantly surprised with how much Radblaster stuff is turning out as pseudo-country material. Especially after last weekend's old-timey shanty fest I'm pretty happy to play some rootsy-type stuff!

  2. I think that if you feel like that, it's because you've been conditioned to feel like that. Our society encourages the kind of sick, ruthless competition this character engages in—and encourages it as the only legitimate way to do things. It's bled out of the business world into everything else—or at least it seems that way because it's how business works. It's really always been "everywhere else" too—America's been road-testing it on natives, slaves, immigrants, the poor, and any other relatively powerless group of people for hundreds of years.


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