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My heart explodes every time I hear this song.
The Format was one of my favorite bands. You’ve probably never heard of them, yet they still so sound familiar to you. Why is that? Because The Format’s lead singer was Nate Ruess, the elastic-voiced lead singer of the band fun. and guest-vocalist on the Pink duet on “Just Give Me a Reason.”
I’m obsessed with Ruess’s extraordinary rubber band voice. Not only does he have a tremendously large range, not only does he have that androgynous mixed-voice tone I’m obsessed with, but his pitch is impeccable.
I always assumed they auto-tuned the heck out of him to get the perfectly round, ringing sound from his falsetto even as he swoops grandly from note to note. I’ve now seen enough live clips to think he’s the real deal (plus, I asked him about it one time on Twitter and he swore that it was without digital tuning).
The Format’s 2006 LP Dog Problems gives me butterflies in my stomach for the entirety of each listen thanks to the resonance of its lyrics and the peculiar sonic palette of indie dance pop with the occasional show tune influence, but if I had to choose one song from the album to leave on an endless loop it would be “She Doesn’t Get It.”
“She Doesn’t Get It” is a song built on surprisingly simple bones, with the intro and verse built on the barest sketch of an endlessly repeating e-g(/d#)-c#-g(/d#) figure. The band spins it up into something more intricate, with frantic hi-hat rides, chiming high guitar riffs, and ringing bells.
There are so many layers to unpeel in this narrative about being the odd one out, the oldest soul in a crowd. That’s the story on the surface, but underneath there’s something deeper about the nature of reality and how we choose to consume it. While his friends are all out to enjoy themselves, all Nate can see is the same dull trends rubber-stamped across the group.
All the girls pose the same for pictures
All the boys got the same girls’ hair
I am bored ’cause I feel much older
Look at me, as if I’ve got a reason to stare
He’s a sort of intellectually-elderly ugly duckling who can foresee the conclusion at each fumbling attempt at a relationship before they even begin, yet he keeps falling for the same types of girl because he knows exactly what type of guy they want. But, it’s not just any girl that he wants – it’s the one who’s about to go away.
She says she’s leaving on a Sunday
That leaves me one more night
Can I take you home?
I know it’s wrong
but I know your type
He can play the role for a night or two, but it never sticks. Maybe that’s why he’s waited until the last possible moment to make a move for this one girl – so it can be a perfect 24 hours without all the messy fallout that usually follows.
Wouldn’t it be easier if he could turn off that older feeling and just have fun and hook up with any one of those girls who strike the same pose for every selfie? The problem is, he can’t help but peer at their bookshelves when they excuse themselves to freshen up. They love that he’s into older music, ironically singing him the refrain of “Hungry Like The Wolf” as they fall into bed together, but when he mentions his favorite Duran Duran tune they haven’t the slightly clue of what he’s talking about.
I’ve read every word you’re said
From a poster of a cat
Four books look across your sofa
I thought your coffee table
was more clever than that
It gets worse once we get to her room
as she stops and sings
“doot do do doot do do doot do”
I claim “new religion” is my song
She doesn’t get it
It’s all before she was born
(I’d like to take this opportunity to say that every time Ruess sings “from a poster of a cat” I picture the framed Théophile Steinlen art nouveau poster that hung on the far wall of the women’s apartment on Friends.)
They sleep together anyway, because that’s what all these same posing girls and boys with girls hair do every time.
Suddenly between sheets and eyelids I am reminded why I don’t do this
I fall in love far too quickly
I never want her to forget me
When you’re gone
Will you call? Will you write?
I’ve been in a relationship for an eternity at this point, but I remember this feeling perfectly well – especially when I think of it in terms of the middle school dance in the video. I’ve been that boy who reads too much into everything, whose references are from shows I stayed up past midnight to watch when everyone else was asleep by eight.
Even with E, whose interests overlap my own an absurd amount, I’m constantly pulling out references to things from the 80s she has no recollection of, while she fondly remembers aspects of the 90s that were “kids stuff” at which I looked down my nose. (She’s only a year and half younger than I am.)
I don’t think all of the song’s resonance for me comes from how well it describes my period of stunted romantic growth. Even in the modern day I can still feel completely apart from my peers. It’s no longer that I feel like a 40yr-old in a 12-yr-old’s body, but that I don’t even understand how other people consume things anymore.
If you go long enough avoiding pop culture’s major delivery mechanisms like TV and radio and not doing the things that everyone else does like drink coffee or follow sports all while learning about theatre, music, journalism, and marketing, eventually you can’t see a piece of pop culture as gestalt any more.
You can’t help but deconstruct every aspect of it the way an architect looks at a building, peering beyond the story story at the message and the intent in the same way that they see effortlessly identify the load-bearing walls, all while your friends sing “Hungry Like The Wolf” because that’s what was playing in the background of the commercial they keep seeing.
That’s why Dog Problems gives me butterflies, moreso than Nate Ruess’s work on fun.. He puts it perfectly on the title track:
I smoke myself to sleep
And blame postmodern things I can’t relate
Like summer camp and coastal states
Like alcohol and coffee beans
Dance floors and magazines
I think its safe to say I’ve only got
myself to blame
But boys in swooping haircuts
are bringing me down
Taking pictures of themselves
“Boys in swooping haircuts you know who you are”