Jeffrey Lewis misses the mark in new comic strip

For the blog Opinionator’s “Anxiety” series, Jeffrey Lewis made this comic strip and accompanying essay, jointly titled, “A Song of Woe, Gone Viral.”

In each piece he tells the story of his song “Anxiety Attack,” which since its 2005 release grew from small potatoes to a minor viral phenomenon, receiving several music video interpretations, all by basement filmmakers totally unaffiliated with Jeffrey Lewis. Together these videos amassed tens of thousands of YouTube views.

For Lewis, the moral of this story is that people have identified with his message. In the comic strip he asks: “Is there something particular to being attacked by personal demons that brings people together?” And in his essay he says “Anxiety Attack” is proof that songwriters should focus more on everyday problems, like being “overweight and underpaid,” rather than the comfortable lifestyle enjoyed by most popular musicians.

Lewis’s argument is interesting, but he has perhaps misinterpreted his own success. While his feelings expressed in the song (e.g. “What if I wasted my whole life?” and “How come I get nothing done but always feel so busy?”) certainly represent the self-doubt that’s pandemic in our modern America, he cannot attribute the song’s entire popularity to relatable lyrics. It has a nice melody, too. Lewis asks whether there would be “a similar breakthrough if [he] wrote a song about diabetes, or erectile dysfunction”; and one might reply, “Sure—if it’s catchy enough.”

In fact, taking that counterargument further, we might even say that music is useful precisely because it draws us to ideas we might not otherwise consider. For example: the We Are the World Foundation made “We Are the World 25 for Haiti,” and thereby drew huge amounts of views (nearly 100 million as of this writing) to the 2010 Haitian earthquake relief efforts. For another example: So many classic songs are written about people to whom we almost definitely cannot relate. The Doors’ “The End” is about a man who kills his whole family and then has sex with his mother. We can relate to this deeply twisted Oedipal scenario because the frantic rhythmic drive pulls us into the protagonist’s mania.

Perhaps because we are a heavily text-oriented society, we tend to reduce music to its literary component, and think about little else when evaluating the meaning or value of a piece. But music is not poetry. When we talk about music, we have to talk about music. We have to think about why music in particular is such a useful medium.