Audio: The foolish heart

Culture | Talented satirists expose the horrible without trivializing it

Issue: "Finster's unusual art," April 27, 1996

No art exposes the foolishness of the human heart as effectively or as entertainingly as satire, yet in these esthetically malnourished times, good satirists are hard to find, and therefore the times themselves often seem less endurable than they otherwise might.

Ironically, despite the spiritual importance of their work, good satirists are rarely saints. Take Loudon Wainwright III, for instance, the 49-year-old singer/songwriter who has labored in relative obscurity since his lone top-40 hit, "Dead Skunk," gleefully turned roadkill into a metaphor for the Woodstock generation 24 years ago.

On Grown Man, his 15th album, Mr. Wainwright turns himself into a metaphor with songs that move from pathos to humor and from outrage to compassion with an acute self-awareness and verbal facility more akin to good fiction than to folk music. And what he lacks in sanctity-quite a bit, by his own admission-he makes up for in humility, honesty, and humor. References to his several failed marriages, for instance, provide the dramatic context for at least half the songs, and in the best of them he takes his share of the blame.

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"I'm like my daddy, I'm just the same," he sings in "Just a John." "He loved to play that cheatin' game." But instead of bragging, Mr. Wainwright concludes that "the ladies' man" is an even "big[ger] fool" than those who "choose booze, smack, or crack" or who "lose it all at the race track."

The "cheatin' game," after all, can result in children who grow up without fathers, and as Mr. Wainwright reveals in "A Year," paternal instincts stifled by absentee fatherhood can rankle: "For reasons that don't make much sense and you won't understand," he sings to his newest child, "I've stayed away for your first year..../But I've been in your neighborhood, sometimes just blocks away./I didn't come to visit you because I couldn't stay." That he's seeking absolution from a two-year-old only emphasizes the brokenness at the song's core.

And by following immediately with "Father-Daughter Dialogue," a duet with his 19-year-old daughter Martha (who, according to another song on Grown Man, escaped being aborted when at the last minute her mother lost her nerve), he emphasizes the brokenness even more. "Dearest Daddy, with your songs," she sings, "do you hope to right your wrongs?/You sing of my mother and me/somewhat sentimentally./You sing of a father and son/ When all you do from him is run." His feeble rejoinder is that "the guy singing these songs ain't me," but he hardly sounds convinced himself.

What he does sound convinced of emerges in his overtly comical numbers. In "1994" he cracks jokes at the expense of those who cite genetic research to destigmatize sin and its effects ("If you're dumb, fat, queer, or crazy,/no one is to blame./You've just been dealt a lousy hand/in the genetic poker game"); in "IWIWAL"-or "I Wish I Was a Lesbian"-he exposes the multi-level narcissism of homosexuality with couplets like "I wish I was a lesbian, I'd like to be a dyke./I think it would be nice to love someone who was alike." As an antidote to the increasingly popular music of lesbian artist Melissa Etheridge and our culture's infatuation with nonprocreative sex in general, "IWIWAL" is strong medicine.

What enables Mr. Wainwright to make these points without smugness is his willingness to see his faults and those of his loved ones for what they are. Just as he doesn't see in his growing list of ex-wives and neglected children a testament to his own machismo, he also doesn't see in homosexuality and abortion the solutions to his or society's problems.

But his strongest suit is his offhand manner. His colloquial diction, his bright, expressive voice-imagine James Taylor on caffeine-and his band's jaunty acoustic accompaniment create the sort of relaxed atmosphere most conducive to getting listeners to drop their guard and consider non-politically correct musings on hot-button topics.

A similar intelligence, emotional range, and satirical bent characterizes the music on Born on a Pirate Ship, the new LP from the four Canadian men who call themselves Barenaked Ladies. In true satirical spirit, not only are they not "barenaked" or "ladies," but they also don't want to be. They are, instead, a quartet of modest heterosexual men in their mid-20s who chose their name as an attention-getting comment on, not appeal to, man's increasing tolerance for the prurient.

And their songs are worth the attention. Funny and imaginative, they uncover links between the aspects of our culture that reveal its true condition. "I have faith in medication./I believe in the Prozac Nation," sings Stephen Page in "This Is Where It Ends." "Make excuses for behavior,/can my illness be my savior?"


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