Thoughts On: Pinch Me - Happy Apathy In The Hyper-Normal


Pinch Me - Happy Apathy In The Hyper-Normal

Thoughts On: Pinch Me (2000) by Barenaked Ladies

A look at a pop rock song's tonal meaning.

I've never been a huge Barenaked Ladies fan. I only know two of their songs. The first I heard and liked came from Digimon: The Movie. As a kid, I watched that movie endlessly, but, I don't suspect that anyone who was not young in the in the early 2000s would be very familiar with it. In short, Digimon was a show about Pokémon on the internet, or in a digital realm - digital monsters that young kids would battle and go on adventures with. I have not seen the film in well over a decade, so I won't suggest anyone watch it with high expectations. Alas, there are quite a few montage sequences in the film that are hinged upon pop rock/punk songs. One of my favourites comes early on and uses a Barenaked Ladies song...

It was probably One Week's mere association with this film that made me like it so much--that and this sequence cultivated a nice tone, light and comedic, in a landscape somewhat typical of cartoons of this era, but nonetheless whole. One Week gives the montage energy and a rather silly sense of romance which resonates with our main character's conundrum (trying/not trying to talk to a girl he has a crush on over email). This movie is, of course, an American cut of a Japanese anime. It is more than just a dubbed version of an anime, however, as this brings together three medium-length short films into one feature-length film through an awful lot of editing and cutting. That explains the bad dubbing - which, I have to admit, I can easily look past through my nostalgic gaze - and, possibly (I have not seen the original Japanese films), the use of music and montage.

A friend of mine, who also liked this film and the song because of its place and humour, found and turned me onto Pinch Me - the only other Barenaked Ladies song I know. It is only recently that I began to remember all of this having come upon an old playlist of songs which randomly played Pinch Me. It has been at least a few weeks since I found the song again, and I'm still listening to it, so, in an effort to continue exploring art outside of film on the blog, we're going to talk about it today. First off, however, here it is:

Pulling me into this song is its embodiment of laziness of the most inconsequential character. In fact, you could argue that this song defines a feeling of existential detachment rather perfectly. Not only do the rolling guitar riffs, the rather frail, distracted and quiet vocals and hushed (but nonetheless rather active) drums give this song a strong meandering rhythm, but so do the lyrics:

It's the perfect time of year
Somewhere far away from here
I feel fine enough, I guess
Considering everything's a mess
There's a restaurant down the street
Where hungry people like to eat
I could walk but I'll just drive
It's colder than it looks outside
Like a dream you try to remember but it's gone
(Pinch me) Then you try to scream but it only comes out as a yawn
(I'm still asleep) When you try to see the world, beyond your front door
(Please God) Take your time, is the way I rhyme gonna make you smile
(Tell me) When you realize that a guy my size might take a while
(I'm still asleep) Just to try to figure out what all this is for

It's the perfect time of day
To throw all your cares away
Put the sprinkler on the lawn
And run through with my gym shorts on
Take a drink right from the hose
And change into some dryer clothes
Climb the stairs up to my room
Sleep away the afternoon 
Like a dream you try to remember but it's gone
(Pinch me) Then you try to scream but it only comes out as a yawn
(I'm still asleep) When you try to see the world, beyond your front door
(Please God) Take your time, is the way I rhyme gonna make you smile
(Tell me) When you realize that a guy my size might take a while
(I'm still asleep) Just to try to figure out what all this is for

Pinch me, pinch me, cause I'm still asleep
Please God tell me that I'm still asleep

On an evening such as this
It's hard to tell if I exist

If I pack the car and leave this town
Who'll notice that I'm not around
I could hide out under there
I just made you say "underwear"
I could leave but I'll just stay
All my stuff's here anyway
Like a dream you try to remember but it's gone
(Pinch me) Then you try to scream but it only comes out as a yawn
(I'm still asleep) When you try to see the world, beyond your front door
(Please God) Take your time, is the way I rhyme gonna make you smile
(Tell me) When you realize that a guy my size might take a while
(I'm still asleep) Just to try to figure out what all this is for
Try to figure out what all this is for

(Pinch me) (I'm still asleep) Try to see the world beyond your front door
(Pinch me) (I'm still asleep) Try to figure out what all this is for

The lyrics here tell a story distractedly, using redundancy of an ironic character ("It's the perfect time of year... somewhere far away from here, "There's a restaurant down the street... where hungry people like to eat", "I could walk... but I'll just drive", etc) to cultivate an apathy that is not melancholic, rather, humanly comedic. There is also a rather effective lack of punctuation in these lyrics too - especially as they are sung. Statements then seem like half-questions, all sentences ending in ellipses that either roll into a non-sequitur or onto nothing. For example, are we being told in the end that we should "try to figure out what all this is for"? Is the character saying this to himself, or is the lack of a pronoun revealing only the inevitable nothing and inaction that will follow his empty thoughts?

In the lyrics and instrumentation, there is an overall sense of positive apathy. I like the album version of this song most due to the fade out guitar solo that solidifies a feeling of uncanny levity; of life carrying one away on a small float that you only lounge upon. And it is here where we come to the heart of this song as a definition of existential detachment or an embodiment of surreal laziness. The title of this song is, of course Pinch Me--a call to be woken up--and such a sentiment is subtly centralised; our main character feels he does not exist, he can so easily forget that fact, and so needs some kind of sensation to remind him of at least an illusion of reality. (Such themes seem to reveal this song to be pop-punk at heart with its central nihilism detracted of energy and fury as opposed to energised - as we'd find in more classical punk rock, the kind of which was re-branded by the likes of Blink 182, Sum 41 and Avril Lavigne at the turn of the century). This call to be awoken - Pinch Me - is a really rather poignant and affecting one--likely the reason why I find this song stuck in my head. It conjures and is bound to a sensation of losing touch with reality, being so deeply immersed in routine and oneself that one becomes numb. This numbness is not shocking, is not upsetting, does not cause a problem; it is slightly inebriating, unbelievable and, as said, surreal. The idea provided by this song and the feeling it instils within its listener is then based up existing in the hyper-normal or the super-quotidian.

In my mind, this song then has me cycle back to those days of waking up early in the morning or sitting at home on the weekend and watching Digimon. As a child, one essentially plays in the hyper-normal space; everything around you is structured and, usually, taken care of, but you move into this sphere of being via your imagination and become a dinosaur hunter, a pirate or something equally childish to invigorate life into a state of what you might call just existing. A young child around 6 or 7 doesn't have any real issues; no money problems to think about, no work to attend, no pressing homework to do, no food to cook and put on the table, no girlfriend or boyfriend, no family to take care of, no schedule to organise, no life to sort out. To a content 7 year old, what is pretty much just... is. You exist in a world of minimal consequence. An adult would find it hard to exist in this world. This is firstly because they'd have to find a backdoor into it; have to find a way out of work and responsibility so they could just sit at home and watch cartoons. Alas, even if an adult finds themselves in this space--and we've likely all seen this ourselves--they need help: drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, something addictive, chemically distracting and likely self-destructive, to sustain them. I think this has much to do with the fact that part of growing up is forgetting how to play.

I think now of Spielberg's Hook, which is essentially about finding that 'inner child' and learning how to play again. The most poignant element of the film, however, is the ending. (I assume that you've seen the film). When Peter wakes up in the real world again, there is a subtle implication that all was a dream, that Peter spent a drunken night out in the snow; and, indeed, he still seems rather drunk or high on something when he meets his children again. And so, though we know Peter changes at the end of the film, I always felt as though Peter would either bounce back a little--become more serious and adult-like--or cause a disaster; a kid falling out of a window maybe. This sober vision of the melodramatic end Spielberg builds is based around the conundrum of an adult truly playing like a child. Is this possible? Is this desirable?

In my opinion, an adult cannot, and should not want to, play like a child. Without the imagination, most adults chase chemical pathways towards the anaesthetising hyper-normal world. Beyond this, the kind of play an adult engages is so often simulated and remembered; it is mimetic. When an adult is not off their face in some capacity, and still wants to play, they'll begin to ruminate on or imitate true kid-play. They do this with art so often, art of a nostalgic, naive and almost lazy character. Melodramatic movies with happy endings usually provide this adult meta-play; allow us to pretend, from an observational distance, that all is well in the world for instance, or that we we are a dinosaur hunter, a pirate or a hero for an hour or so. Furthermore, so, I feel, does the song Pinch Me.

Pinch Me uses its tone and lyrics to imitate child's play, to speak of an adult existing uncannily in a child's realm of the hyper-normal. There are moments in the song where things do become a little too childish ("I just made you say underwear"), but the general effect of this piece of music is an induced reminder of play from the, or in the, adult world. When we watch the music video for the song, this becomes all the more obvious:

The story here is a basic work-place melodrama. Everyone hates their job, but are forced to play a game and pretend they love it. It is because the workers are forced to play a childish game that they are upset; they, as adults, are unable to truly play after all. Nonetheless, the singing of this song allows the characters within to look at the reality of their world (to the "thumbs down") and start playing a meta-game of art. This game is a rumination on laziness, detachment and unreality, and it is danced to. Of course, this music video is not a masterpiece (I find its story unrelated to the lyrics and it to be rather inane), but it does well to dramatise this sensation of pretending, of playing yet not playing a game, of moving into the boring nature of life and existing not just through apathy, not via drugs, but by an adult version of child's play: art.

With all of that said, I'll leave things open to you. Do you like Pinch Me or the movies mentioned? Are there any other songs/films that you think speak to the ideas we have been exploring?

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