Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Week 43: "The Impression that I Get" by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones

For a brief period when I was a college student in Portland, Oregon I got very interested in the ska music scene. This week’s “Song of the Week” is the only ska song in this collection of short essays on 52 songs. My thoughts about this song will be divided into two sections. First, I will write a little bit about the ska genre. More importantly, I want say something about this song’s meaning to me personally.

When I lived there, the residents of the Pacific Northwest had strong feelings (mostly negative) about the influx of Californians and California culture. I’m sure these feelings continue today. But borders are porous and cultural trends spread. Living in Portland, I got to witness at second hand the growing popularity of third-wave ska-punk music whose ground zero was Southern California.

Ska is a genre that originated in Jamaica in the 1950s and 60s. It is a syncretistic musical style that developed when American Jazz and blues encountered Caribbean musical styles such as calypso. It is said that ska actually launched the more popular and well-known reggae music. Ska combines a flamboyant horn section with a rhythm that accentuates the offbeat.

Ska would find a new audience first in the late 70s and 80s in England where it found its niche as a subgenre within the British punk and mod movements of that era. For example, The Police were influenced by ska. Probably the most well-known British ska band was Madness.

In the 80s and 90s, ska music found a following in the United States where it influenced both punk and hardcore artists. It was fun music and it was a fun scene. From the “bubblegum ska” music of a band like No Doubt to bands that combined the ska beat with lots of distorted electric guitars, this was catchy music. Further, the style that accompanied the sound was also fun: tweed jackets, suspenders, fedoras, skinny black ties worn with a white shirt and black trousers, Doc Martens or wingtip shoes. Let’s just say that I wore lots of tweed my sophomore year in college.

With perhaps the exception of No Doubt, The Mighty Mighty Bosstones are probably the most recognizable ska band of this era, thanks in no small part to a cameo role in 1995 Alicia Silverstone film Clueless.

While my favorite Bosstones song may be the anti-romantic “Someday I Suppose,” the song “The Impression that I Get” is just as fun musically and a good bit more thought-provoking lyrically. While many genres of music, from Blues to Reggae to Rap to Rock, contain nearly constant themes of facing hardship and overcoming it, “The Impression that I Get” turns this concept on its head. In this song, the lyrics claim an absence of an experience of hardship. The lyrics open with the question, “Have you ever been close to tragedy or been close to folks who have? Have you ever felt the pain so powerful, so heavy you collapse?”

The lyrics that follow consist of somewhat of an empathetic break. “I’ve never had to knock on wood, but I know someone who has, which makes me wonder if could… I’ve never had to knock on wood, and I’m glad I haven’t yet, because I’m sure it isn’t good. That’s the impression that I get.” Later in the song, vocalist Dicky Barrett announces, “I’m not a coward, I’ve just never been tested.”

So, why do I like this song? I find that I both identify and do not identify with this song. However, I certainly do applaud the Bosstones for overturning that common motif to write songs about how hard something has been, especially when those songs depend upon the artist stretching and embellishing or even inventing the truth.

In the end, I think the song speaks to ministry. I know without a doubt that every person suffers, that every person faces hardship. And I also know that there are all kinds of hardship and suffering that are beyond what I have experienced. It turns out to be a fair question, “How would I face it if that happened?” It is that lack of resolution, that position of not knowing, that I find so refreshing in this song.

You can watch the video to “The Impression that I Get” here.