Alphabet Soup: Favorite Songs for The Letter U

Believe it or not, I am not offering five songs with “Under” in the title. Let us call this week “U for Unusual.”

The Letter U

1. Ukulele Anthem – Amanda Palmer

Even if I am not a hardcore Amanda Fucking Palmer fan, I do still like her a lot, and I definitely mega-respect her ladyballs-out approach to her career. You’ve perhaps heard about how she raised over a million dollars via Kickstarter for her latest album, Theatre is Evil, which went on to enter the Billboard Charts at #10, all without a record label. Since she comes from a street performance background, she knows how to hustle, and I dig that. Also, she’s married to Neil Gaiman, who is also awesome.

Much like this song! “Ukulele Anthem” is a little bit silly, a little bit serious, and probably pretty easy to play if you have a ukulele at your disposal. It’s a lovely, simple tune about not being afraid of your creativity and that as long you are happy, you are not failing.

Lizzie Borden took an ax, and gave her father thirty whacks
then gave her mother thirty-one, and left a tragic puzzle
if only they had given her an instrument, those puritans
had lost the plot completely
see what happens when you muzzle
a person’s creativity
and do not let them sing and scream
and nowadays it’s worse ’cause kids have automatic handguns
it takes about an hour to learn how to play the ukulele
about same to teach someone to build a standard pipe bomb

My eight-year-old daughter thinks Amanda Palmer is pretty great, from what she’s seen/heard, since she’s also an artist who is interested in just about everything, except for looking like everyone else. She wears what is comfortable, and doesn’t much care if her hair is brushed or if the clothes match (I have relented enough to where I want her hair brushed for school, and her clothes have to at least mostly match). My hope is that she holds onto that fierce sense of self because she’ll need it.

2. United States of Whatever!! – Sifl and Olly

You gotta hear this song, if you haven’t before. Really. Hit play. I’m just not sure I can do the song justice without you having heard it. The song’s only two minutes long. Go on. I’ll wait.

Waiting now.

Are you back? Are you laughing? Are you all “Yeeahhh… Whatever?

Then I’m throwin’ dice in the alley
Officer Leroy comes up and he’s like,
“Hey I thought I told you….”
And I’m like, “Yeah, whatever!

For a brief time, MTV devoted airtime to sock puppets who spent their half hour talking and singing about everything from ninjas to pandas to being “crescent fresh.” Friends and I still get endless enjoyment from referencing it, years after the show was canceled (Don’t tell me that it’s more than a decade. Let me pretend). I can’t see the word tangerine without mentally singing Chester’s part in their song “Tangerine.”

Tangerine! Got some cereal in my pocket
Tangerine! I can’t wait to make you nauseous

It’s just so ridiculous that it’s awesome. One of the creators, Liam Lynch, tried releasing “United States of Whatever” under his own name a few years after Sifl and Olly. I saw the video once on TRL, but it wasn’t the same. I’m not sure the TRL audience quite got it, and besides, it’s much funnier coming from sock puppets. Go spend some more time tracking down the show on YouTube (after reading the rest of this letter, of course). Hilarity ensues.

3. Unrequited Love – Lykke Li

(I really was under the impression this song was just called “Unrequited,” but apparently not! When I downloaded it from Amazon shortly after it came out, that’s the title it had, so I’m not sure what happened.)

In some ways, “Unrequited Love” sounds like the demo version of a Ronnettes song. I say “demo” because you know that if Phil Spector had his mitts on this, there’d be horns and strings and the whole production sink thrown at it. (Her “Sadness is a Blessing” also reminds me of something from The Ronettes.) What I like about the way Lykke Li does this song is that, with only a guitar and vocals, it reminds me of the sort of thing one might sing in the shower. You’re thinking about who you loved and will never have, you’re quite sad about it, and “Oh the shame / this crying game…”

Also what I like is that she’s not afraid to say that she’s done this before, loved someone who did not love her in return. She’s trying to strengthen her resolve to move on, to hopefully not do this again when, “I know it so well.”

Really, we’ve all been there. I don’t know that the feeling is confined to age or even to romantic love. We could even extend the feeling to difficult family and friends – people who we haven’t yet learned to let go, for their behavior is going to do nothing but increase stress. This song distills all our conflicting feelings perfectly.

4. Unsent – Alanis Morissette

“If I ever end up with another person named John, you have permission to shoot me,” I said to my friend Amy. We were fifteen and eating in the cafeteria. Whatever we had been discussing brought me to the sudden realization that guys with that name and I were never meant to be. I hesitate to use specific names with specific situations – tossing a bone of privacy their way, whether they deserve it or not – but trust me. Then, as teenage girls are wont to do, the next year, ignoring the memory of that lunch and all that led to it, I fell face first into adoration with someone who had Amy giving me a deserved look. “Remember, you said I could shoot you,” she said.

Dear Jonathan, I liked you too much.
I used to be attracted to boys who would lie to me
and think solely about themselves

Doom. So, so much doom. Thankfully, Amy did not act on my words, and I lived to learn very important lessons about being fair to other people. We all lied and we all were selfish in our own ways. What could center around a name has never left me since.

“Unsent” takes a look at past relationships, a letter to each person that has the benefit of perspective. Alanis sings about what she learned from each of them, getting it all out in a positive and straightforward tone. They had faults, she had faults, but each relationship had value in its own way. I don’t know if she assigns the real names to the different men she mentions, but the specificity makes me think about my past and what I would say. By coincidence, she and I have more than one name that overlap, and one section of lines could be pulled straight from my brain:

We learned so much
I realize we won’t be able to talk for some time
and I understand that as I do you
The long distance thing was the hardest and we did as well as we could
We were together during a very tumultuous time in our lives

Much like putting a personal song on an album anyone can buy, consider this my not-so-unsent apology. I could have been better, and I should have let go long before we did.

5. Underneath the Sky – Oasis

When I was a kid, I started out thinking I would be an artist, the painting variety, complete with easel and beret. Then I discovered I wasn’t particularly good at it. Then I thought, Dance! That is, up until the point I realized dancers are often background players and I wouldn’t have any of that. Plus, this was pre-SYTYCD. Fashion design held my interest from the age of 8 until 12, which is when I hit middle school art and sewing classes. I discovered that not only was my drawing no good, but I couldn’t sew either. In fact, sewing machines had a tendency to need exorcisms as soon as I touched them. In retaliation, they seemed to transfer some sort of plague onto me because I managed to be out sick for at least three days, right about the time I really started to struggle with my assigned project. Fashion design just wasn’t meant to be, and now I’m lucky if I buy more than one new shirt in a year. I’m wearing a t-shirt I’ve had since the age of fifteen right now, a giant band t-shirt from Bush’s Razorblade Suitcase-era.

However, through every doomed career aspiration, I wrote stories. At three years old, I found it frustrating that my hands were not coordinated enough to write down my ideas. Even once I learned how to use a pencil, it seemed like too much trouble, so I taught myself to type using a primitive version of those vTech toys kids use today. When I could, I’d have my dad drag out one of the old typewriters, preferably the one with the correction feature. I’d work away at stories about the dogs, my Barbies, or even the occasional outer space trip. The days in school that the teacher would assign a big writing project, some kids would groan, and I’d think, “Oh good, we’re not doing math.” Why writing never seemed like a career option until 13, I don’t know. I suppose at that age, my family finally owned a computer, and it became that much easier to work. Of anything that has ever held my interest, writing has always felt the most natural. I’m forever working on my skills, and I’m not sure where I’m going most of the time, but it’s the only thing I’ve wanted to do since I realized I was any good at it.

Of all the professions I entertained, besides their creativity, they shared a theme of self-sufficiency. No one had to teach me unless I wanted it. Yes, schooling adds to the learning experience, but beyond learning the basics, school was a supplement, not the key. No one could take away my imagination and tut, “Not until you get that degree!” Creativity, for all its free forms, offers an amazing amount of control. I can be collaborative or disappear – there are no program requirements. I read what I want, learn what I want, and listen to what I think is necessary.

Underneath the sky of red
is a storyteller sleeping alone
He has no face and he has no name
and his whereabouts are sort of unknown

“Underneath the Sky” found its way to me around the same time I started writing with the rest of my life in mind. It ended Side A of a B-side mixtape my friend Amanda made me, until it cut off before the last line of the chorus, and I’d have to flip over to the next side to hear the whole thing. “All he needs is his life in a suitcase / It belongs to a friend of a friend” caught my attention as a great jumping-off point for storytelling, and though I’ve never used it as a prompt, it would get me thinking. For me, the song is all about that headlong jump into the unknown. I hear an adventurous spirit, one I remind myself to maintain.

So wish me away to an unknown place
Am I living in a land with no name
I’ll be making a start with a brand new heart
Stop me making sense once again

I’ve always wished I could write songs. At best, I can eke out some serviceable poetry, but the construction of a full song around them remains a mystery. I may know good music when I hear it, but I am often amazed that someone had the imagination to get it so right. How does one know to coordinate so many elements into one perfect offering? How do that many minds in the room work it out? Maybe that’s why I tend to write about musicians – I want to solve the mystery. I want to know where we overlap.

Honorable Mentions:

Under Pressure – David Bowie and Queen (Obviously.)

Under This Spell – Diego Garcia (Look. At this man. Mmmhmm. Also, I love his music. Let’s not forget that part.)

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

12 replies on “Alphabet Soup: Favorite Songs for The Letter U”

I under-own any Pixies stuff, but I do always love hearing them.

And yeah, Amanda Palmer’s one of those people that I’m generally ok with because I know she puts thought into what she does — it’s the mindless, unconsidered opinions people get that bug me. So even when I don’t agree, at least I know she has her reasons.

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