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Ben Folds

Johnson Athletic Center

April 24, 2009

The 50s had housewives and modular homes. The 60s had race riots and pot. The 70s had prog rock and wide ties. The 80s had punk and cocaine. The 90s had hip-hop.

We’ve got less than a year left in the decade, and that means we’re in the home stretch to come up with buzzwords to define the last ten years, so we can look back and pretend we know what the fuck just happened. And the problem is: we already have them. 6 billion-fold. This is the oft-cited YouTube generation, where all it takes to make it big is a smile, a catchphrase, a webcam, and a heavy dose of absurdism. We don’t make culture, we excrete it. There are no more filters, no more central opinions. If you can dream it (…n girls, n-1 cups…) someone has already done it. And we’re all a little numb.

We want someone we can trust, someone who can guide us through this 4chan-induced cultural shitstorm, a Walter Cronkite for our virtual ’Nam, an FDR to sit us down and tell us that it’s all going to be OK.

Ladies and gentlemen, Ben Folds.

Folds is no superhero. He’s just a wee bit chubby, soft-spoken, sporting acetate frames and playing a grand piano. But he might just be our Moses when it comes to guiding pop music through the Red Sea of the 21st century. Before Folds, pop music had broken into two camps: trashy superficialism and pretentious hipster douchebaggery. It’s indie rock and a trashy superficial high place, and culture is finally getting a little tired of it. We aren’t looking for a revolution anymore. We just want a decent compromise.

For the hipster camp, Ben Folds has a dorky exterior and ironic lyrics (his mellowed-out cover of “Bitches Ain’t Shit” is his most popular song). For the more bubble-gummy pop camp, Folds has unendingly whistleable songs, like “Zak and Sara.” And he’s well-respected as a standalone instrumentalist, putting on shows with the Boston Pops as well as several other well-known orchestras. His songs have French horn licks. He’ll stick Altoid tins in a grand piano to see how it sounds. He sings about love and loss like everybody else, but his love and loss seem to be just a little bit deeper, a little bit quieter, a little more subtle. It’s the same message as before, but not administered quite so crudely. We’ve been so lobotomized by conflicting stimuli, all fighting for our attention, that all we really want or need is a love song that doesn’t make us nauseous.

I’m not going to pretend that Ben Folds never has his head at least a little of the way up his ass. I find “Bitches” a little too self-consciously ironic, and his impromptu song about how last Saturday’s audience was so respectful and sober (unlike his past ones) was just a little to the left of precious. But we’re listening to him anyway, and that is important. Pop music is changing, and I couldn’t say whether Folds is the shepherd here or merely a particularly noticeable sheep, but either way, it gives me some hope.

Welcome to the Ben Folds generation, bitches.