Thursday, November 29, 2007

Book Review: I Hate Myself and Want to Die: The 52 Most Depressing Songs You've Ever Heard, by Tom Reynolds

Your Thanksgiving was a disaster. Your wife warned you that her third cousin’s extended family “might” be coming to your home for Turkey Day dinner, but you never expected this to happen. Their trailer currently resides in your front yard, your house is being treated like a Red Roof Inn, mashed potatoes are somehow smeared on the walls, and the cousin’s teenage son is suggestively eying your dog with something that approximates lust.

You’re angry, frustrated, and a little depressed; to make things even worse, when you turn on the radio you are subjected to “Seasons in the Sun” and “I Will Always Love You.” According to Tom Reynolds, you’ve just heard 2 of the 52 most depressing songs ever written.

Reynolds’ hilarious I Hate Myself and Want to Die: The 52 Most Depressing Songs You’ve Ever Heard is the perfect way to kill whatever holiday cheer or faith in humanity’s collective taste in music you might still have left. Cynical, snarky, and sarcastic, Reynolds’ irreverent take on these songs and why they’re so depressing is the funniest critique of songs since Greil Marcus’ Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (wait… he was being serious in that book)?

With chapter names like “I’m Trying to Be Profound and Touching, But Really Suck at It” and “If I Sing About Drugs, People Will Take Me Seriously,” Reynolds’ book cannot be accused of subtlety. Yet Reynolds’ writing style and approach rarely becomes grating or repetitive. Although he never says it directly, Reynolds’ humor takes as its starting point the fact that these songs are so depressing, first and foremost, because they’re so god-awful.

From there, Reynolds’ witty jabs take care of the rest, and no clichéd rock image is safe from Reynolds’ biting humor. Absurd lyrics are exposed (on Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen”: “I don’t know of a single seventeen-year-old girl who would tell off the homecoming queen by saying she has debentures of quality; she’d call her a stuck-up bitch and key her Honda”); musical genres are mocked (on Evanescence’s “My Immortal”: “a song that does for piano ballads what the Hindenburg did for zeppelin travel”); and the flaws of supposed untouchable songs get a swift finger to the eye (on Springsteen’s “The River”: “I’d rather drag my scalp over a cheese grater than listen to it again”).

I can only make a few complaints about this book. Although Reynolds’ song choices are hard to argue against – “Macarthur Park,” “Mandy,” and “Let Her Cry” are indeed both depressing and depressingly bad – it’s a bit presumptuous for the author to call these the most depressing songs ever. No such list is complete without at least one, two, or five choice cuts from Lou Reed’s Berlin, which in my opinion still remains the single most dreary, bleak, and utterly humorless album ever recorded (think I’ll go listen to it now). I’m sure other music sickos out there can find many other songs worthy of consideration in such a list.

The other complaints I have are minor. Sometimes Reynolds comes across as just another VH1 or E! talking head, and can be too witty for his own good. I’m not sure I’d want to sit next to him on the subway. In addition, some of his jokes are very stale and should be relegated to the dustbin of humor at this point (another joke about how Robert Smith from the Cure looks like Edward Scissorhands? A critique of how MTV used to play music videos? Really? Still?).Those shortcomings aside, I Hate Myself and Want to Die is damn funny. Fans of comedy books, cynicism, and good and/or lousy music will find something to like in it. And with enough songs about misery, woe, death, drugs, and suicide, and why they are so appallingly depressing, it’s the perfect holiday gift. Tis the season, after all.

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