Song of the Week: Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues"

Fleet Foxes.  Harmonies.  Lyricism.  Scarves.
Fleet Foxes. Harmonies. Lyricism. Scarves.

Twenty-five years ago, there were the Pop Bands Everyone Knew (say, Bon Jovi), and the Cool Bands You Knew If You Were Paying Attention (say, R.E.M.).  Through the 80’s, 90’s, and even part of the 00’s, there was a delineation between artists the general public had heard of, and artists the “real music fans” had heard of.  Loosely, “big” bands vs. “small” bands.  Those who received music vs those who actively sought it out.  Top 40 vs. college radio.  Rolling Stone vs. a local fanzine.  Etc.

All that to say: I don’t know how popular Fleet Foxes are.

In 1988, Fleet Foxes’ heady lyrics, folk influences, and organic production would’ve placed them squarely in the latter camp.  They might’ve been a favorite of college radio, indie publications, and the general “small band” set.  And today, they’re darlings of niche radio stations and indie blogs.  But they’re also signed to a major label subsidiary, they’ve played SNL, and their first single (2008’s “White Winter Hymnal“) has 8 million YouTube views.  In the winter of 2011, Cake topped Billboard’s charts by selling 40,000 records in a week, the lowest number ever for a #1 rock album.  Fleet Foxes’ most-recent album (2011’s Helplessness Blues) went gold in North America and the UK. I have friends who don’t know who Fleet Foxes are and couldn’t name one of their songs.  And I have friends who don’t understand how that person could possibly exist.

If this decade is the Age of the Big Small Band, Fleet Foxes could be its posterboys.*

Song of the Week: Fleet Foxes, “Helplessness Blues

People think of my generation as a still-emerging class of tweens, adolescents, and nascent college co-eds.  We’re not.  The generation roughly defined as the “Millennials,” “Gen Y” (or, as I call them, “people I know who aren’t my brother”) was born in the 1980’s.  So, most of us are somewhere between “post-grad” and “nearing thirty.”  We’re no longer tweens; we’re twentysomethings.

If the countless articles about Gen Y have told us anything, we’re (in no particular order):
1) ambitious yet lazy
2) self-absorbed
3) entrepreneurial
4) dependent on our parents
5) entitled
6) innately tech-savvy

Now, listen:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique…
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me…

Like everyone else, I’ve read that recycled Newsweek article every year since I was sixteen.  And–maybe like everyone else–I’ve been at odds with my peers for a long time.  We are self-absorbed.  We do act entitled.  We should walk more and talk less.  We are frequently awful, solipsistic, distracted company.  Hell, I’m public enemy #1: an independent musician blogging in a coffee shop.  I believe our heart is in the right place, but I worry about our head.

That’s why “Helplessness Blues” is a breath of fresh air.  The only thing more antithetical to the Gen Y stereotype than being a “functioning cog in some great machinery” is wanting to be one.  Though the song is about one man’s existential crisis, it’s an assault on the perception of who we are and what we value.  And I’ll be honest: I don’t know who we are or what we value.  Neither does the song (“I don’t know what that will be…“).  That’s okay.

It’s good to hear a statement of selflessness in action instead of in theory.  It’s nice to hear confusion expressed as a fact of adulthood, not another feeling on a diary’s page.  A Gen Y male’s fantasy life might involve a non-nuclear family and independent wealth gained through entrepreneurial and technological savvy.  Yet this song ends with an alternate fantasy of the “good life”: he works an orchard “til he’s sore” and she waits tables.  Living simply, and honestly, and in service of something.  It sounds new, but old.  It sounds simple, but good.**

While taste-making, influential records continue to emerge from our generation, most of them are implicitly meaningful.  That is, Mumford & Sons’ recent popularity means something, but it’s not necessarily something Mumford themselves address.

But “Helplessness Blues” does.  It asks these questions explicitly, and grapples with them honestly.  It remains one of the only popular songs from recent years to do so.  And those questions can be heady.  But–whether or like it or not–we’re here.  And–whether we mean to or not–we’re answering these questions, and we’re shaping that future, and we’re writing those songs.

Congrats, everyone!  We’re out of the mall.


(*What’s interesting to me isn’t that 100 bands can occupy 100 different spots on the popularity spectrum.  What’s interesting to me is that now more than ever, a band can be popular without being famous.  Fleet Foxes sell out the Ryman just like Mumford does; in terms of success, they’re not too far apart on the spectrum.  But one band only my “music friends” know, and the other band all of my friends know.)

(**I know, it also sounds like enough of a hipster fantasy that it could be a Portlandia sketch.  So, all things in moderation here.)


3 thoughts on “Song of the Week: Fleet Foxes, "Helplessness Blues"

  1. Great song, and very well written entry! I can totally relate to your perspective. I actually think the economic downturn we’ve experienced at a time in our lives when we were supposed to start our ‘careers’ caused a lot of us to reflect on what we really want. For me, it was definitely living a simpler, more fulfilling lifestyle, so I think working in an orchard every day sounds pretty good!


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