Ben Folds Five – Army

The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner
Year :
Weezer / Joe Jackson / Billy Joel

The first time I heard “Underground,” perhaps the best-known song from Ben Folds Five’s self-titled debut album, I was immediately taken. To hear a piano-based, rock band on the radio in 1995 was as odd then as it would be today. The premise alone is enough to immediately sabotage anything but flawless execution. Miraculously, Ben Folds and company pulled it off on their excellent debut album and more-or-less pulled it off on its very good follow-up, Whatever and Ever Amen. Mr. Folds has a real gift for melody and arrangement and over the span of two albums managed to keep a cheeky sense of humor in the right balance with genuinely poignant moments. It earned the band a very loyal following, and with good reason.

By 1999, though, something had to give as the risk of becoming a bit of a novelty act started to appear more and more possible. Folds swung for the fences on The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. Though the album is largely regarded as a disaster, it’s certainly the most revealing album he’s made. For an album that veers into showtune territory on more than one occasion, it’s deeply personal and emotionally raw, almost entirely devoid of the lighthearted playfulness that characterized the band’s early work. It might also be the most fascinating work he’s done.

One track, though, managed to break through on the otherwise bleak affair. “Army” took the power-pop of sound of the band’s early work and upped the ante, adding horns and a grander sound. To date, it’s still one of the best songs Folds has penned. As with much of his music, there are moments that seem bit silly, but they jut up against with moments sound autobiographical. One of these moments is the memorable closing line to “Army.”

In this time of introspection
On the eve of my election
I say to my reflection
God please spare me more rejection
’cause my peers they criticize me
And my ex-wives all despise me
Try to put it all behind me
But my redneck past is nipping at my heels

Here we get the first direct mention of Folds’ “redneck past.” In the context of The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner it’s particular interesting given that it’s a direct reference tying “Army” to the song “Your Redneck Past”, which appears later on the album. Folds sings on “Your Redneck Past”:

Choose from any number of magazines
Who do you want to be?
Billy Idol or Kool Moe Dee?

If you’re afraid they might discover
Your redneck past
There are a hundred ways to cover your redneck past

Is this a character or is this Ben Folds? My theory is that these lyrics are autobiographical. Why? Well, there is a hint in a line from the band’s debut album on “Best Imitation of Myself”: “Do you think I should take a class / to lose my southern accent?” In the context of Ben Folds Five alone, the line seems like a non sequitur, but jump into the future and there’s something there. Namely, anxiety due to some awareness by Folds of exactly who he is and at the same time a sense of shame in that. It goes deeper though. Folds ends “Your Redneck Past” with the line “It’s good to be back home.” It’s not that he necessarily wants to change, it’s that he has to hide who he is, either due to concerns about political correctness or the need to maintain an image for paying customers. It’s at once, honest, tragic, and crass.

All of that alone might be enough to mine and make some very interesting work. But, Ben Folds has long had a penchant for humor. A welcome relief in many cases to be sure, but if Folds is being honest about his “redneck” tenancies, it colors some his comedic misfires with genuine ugliness. Case in point, Folds returns frequently to mocking send-ups of rap songs, most notably Dr. Dre’s “Bitches Ain’t Shit.”

Bitches Ain’t Shit

On the one hand, a song called “Bitches Ain’t Shit” has an inherent foolishness and there’s nothing wrong with a goofball cover song. But Folds often returns to this trope. There’s For Those Of Y’al Who Wear Fanny Packs, for instance. The problem with all of this, if we are to believe it, is that from a self-professed redneck, this cover (and style cover) doesn’t come from a place of appreciation for the source—it comes from a place of ridicule. The songs imply (particularly “Fanny Packs”) that Rap is not a serious kind of music.

Even if you grant me this, does it matter? Rap, especially commercially-minded rap, is ridiculous, after all. What’s wrong with a good jape? Well, I would argue that the source of the jape matters. Folds has a chronic-history of foot-in-mouth disease whenever race relations come up. Which is truly weird, considering that there generally needs to be no mention of race relations in his music in the first place. Consider this line from 2001′s “Rockin’ the Suburbs” (which also heavily mines rap music’s vocabulary for comedic effect):

In a haze these days
I pull up to the stoplight
I can feel that something’s not right
I can feel that someone’s blasting me
With hate and bass
Sending dirty vibes my way
Cause my great great great great grandad
Made someone’s great great great great grandaddy slaves
It wasn’t my idea
It wasn’t my idea
It never was my idea
I just drove to the store
For some preparation H

Here we have a direct encounter with the third rail. But, rather than find something intelligent to say after bothering to bring up the issue in the first place, Folds backs off the whole idea with the line about “Preparation H.” The takeaway seems to be that having to deal with the very real problems of race in America is little more than a pain in his ass. If it’s not intentionally dismissive, it’s downright stupid. These are Fold’s words and they seem to say: “I am who I am. I’m putting on appearances for your sake. But I didn’t cause these problems, therefore, I am free to say anything I want.”

I find it distasteful, but even in spite of that, I looked the other way with Folds for a good long time. And besides, I’m college edumacated! I know that even though Nietzsche was a Nazi and Birth of a Nation is racist propaganda I can still appreciate the work because, hey “Death of the Author,” AMIRITE!?

I could look the other way until I had the misfortune of watching the reality television acapella-competition show The Sing-Off on which Ben Folds was a judge. Consider the clip from Season 2 where Folds gives some feedback to gospel-inspired group Committed following their cover of The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.”

Ben Folds on The Sing-Off

Folds seems be completely unaware of what he’s saying here, chiding the group of young black men for not “making convincing thugs,” as if that’s an appropriate look for the song. Was he expecting them to do the Puff Daddy version? It’s a truly baffling and awkward moment. Throughout Season 2 of the show, Folds praised the band effusively, almost to the point of saying nothing at all. In retrospect, it seems as though he was afraid to offer criticism lest this sort of thing fall from his lips. It’s a truly embarrassing moment for all involved and Folds is extremely lucky that this moment flew under the radar.

All of this is to say, that I’ve come to a point where maybe I actually understand Folds in a new way, though not one he’d like. I’m more or less embarrassed to say that I like his music, and generally avoid to try telling people.

Ben, put a sock in it.

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(@YahSureMan) is the Founder of The Daily Soundtrack and Bark Attack Media. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.

2 Responses to “Ben Folds Five – Army

  1. August 24, 2013 at 3:08 pm, Alex Lupica said:

    While I can see the Sing-Off point (though I’d say it’s more in his slight emphasis on “thug,” since he frames it in the context of rock music), I have to disagree with Rockin’ the Suburbs on account of the whole song being a send-up of the first line: “y’all don’t know what it’s like being male, middle class, and white.” He may well believe the sentiment, but I don’t think I can read the song as anything more than a middle-aged white guy mocking not only himself (lord knows he’s frequently mined the idea of life being hard, which it is), but also the musical milieu in which RTS was released (with nu-metal in its prime and emo just surfacing). We’re supposed to see how ridiculous his every complaint is about whiteness, because it IS ridiculous.

    I definitely think that Ben, like, I’d imagine, many Southerners, has a huge difficulty reconciling his place in a world steeped in racism and “redneck pasts”. There are definitely times he mines hip-hop for humor (though I think this is just as much self-deprecation as an old fogie, since in many ways hip-hop is also seen not just as a music of another race, but of another generation). But I suspect that all this boils down to a man who, if he’s hiding anything, is deeply embarrassed about it. If there’s a complicated race relation in Ben’s work, it’s just as much about his relationship with growing up white in the south.

    Just my two cents on the topic.

  2. August 24, 2013 at 7:45 pm, April Wells said:

    Awesome song choice and write-up. I really think ol’ Ben here is being satirical though. He’s making fun of white suburbia throughout the whole song. He gets like that. I think of this from the Frown Song:

    “Tread slowly from the car to the spa

    Like a weary war-torn refugee

    Crossing the border with her starving child

    It’s a struggle just to get to shiatsu”

    And this from All You Can Eat:

    “Son, look at the people lining up for plastic

    Wouldn’t you like to see ‘em in the National Geographic
    Squatting bare assed in the dirt eating rice from a bowl

    With a towel on their head and maybe bone in their nose”

    His attitude in both of these cases, as well as most of the rest of Rockin’ the Suburbs make me feel like he doesn’t dismiss things.

    Keep in mind though, I am quite obsessed with Ben. Huge bias possibility. As a matter of fact, the very excerpt you used from Army is the excerpt that escalated him to my top five favorite artists. It was one of those “are you trespassing in my soul?” moments. Army is a favorite for so many reasons. One is that it has nothing to do with the army. It has everything to do with quarter-life crisis and dealing with life-altering decisions you make in your twenties that keep haunting you. So this song made him my soul mate and began my obsession. I would never give him back his black tee shirt. I would keep it forever.