The Way We Get By
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MeaningThe Austin Chronicle, Britt Daniel discussed the inspiration for the title of his band's fourth full-length album, Kill The Moonlight. "It's the name of a Futurist manifesto," Daniel says. "In Italy from about 1900-1920, there was a movement called the Futurists. There was a little pamphlet decreeing what they believed in."
He quickly adds, "I didn't read it, I was just looking for titles. We almost called [the album] Bring It."
This anecdote is a prime example of what "The Way We Get By" demonstrates about Spoon, and specifically about songwriter Britt Daniel: the band has a high level of intelligence tempered by a hefty dose of lethargic cool. Just when you think Daniel is getting a little pretentious on us in this interview, he pulls back with a timely and humorous amendment that helps him maintain a certain "punk" edge. It is a practiced, studied cool, but it's cool nonetheless. The same might be said for Spoon's music.
"The Way We Get By" was Spoon's commercial breakthrough song. It propelled them from indie obscurity into the spotlight. The song was featured on the first season of immensely popular SoCal teen drama The O.C., which averaged a total of almost 9.7 million viewers. It appeared in the episode called "The Outsider," which also featured songs by The Black Eyed Peas and The Roots. This put Spoon on the map, and after that success, Britt Daniel was asked to help handle the music for the well-received comedy/drama Stranger Than Fiction starring Will Farrell, which also featured the song.
As for their influences, Spoon's got lots, and from all over the spectrum. In 1993, Britt Daniel and musical partner Jim Eno named their band in honor of an avant-garde German group named Can. But the lyrics of "The Way We Get By" point us to early punk music by alluding to specific songs by Iggy Pop, with either The Stooges or David Bowie. The Stooges' songs "Shake Appeal" and "Down on the Street" are mentioned in the first and last verses, respectively. Smack dab in the middle is a shout out to the David Bowie-produced Iggy Pop number "Some Weird Sin." Before we even get down to the music, we already have evidence of the band's debt to these artists. The Can influence, though, can be a little tricky to recognize.
Can shared certain qualities with The Stooges and early punk music in general, but taken in historical context, Can's music is regarded as an intellectual, progressive demonstration of experimentation and musicianship. The Stooges, on the other hand, played more of a hard-drug-induced caveman blues. Their music was primitive and violent, grossly favoring instinct and raw power over intellect and technical prowess. In other words, they didn't really care about how well they could play their instruments, as long as they got their point across. Spoon is similar to Can in that the band is intelligent and self-consciously progressive, and the lyrics of "The Way We Get By" explicitly identify with the defiant stupidity of The Stooges.
Musically, though, Spoon doesn't sound like Can, and it certainly doesn't sound like The Stooges. This is because Britt Daniel relates to the cool but dim-witted attitude of punk, but he does it on an academic level. He can admire punk music without actually imitating or becoming it.
The allusions to punk in "The Way We Get By" aren't just in the name-dropping, either. The lyrics relate to the universal feelings of boredom and restlessness that cause people to seek out unusual forms of excitement. The narrator is speaking not just for himself, but for a larger "we," the group of people that tries to go against the grain by doing things like going out in stormy weather. They have cars, but they seem to only use them to get high in the backseats. They break into mobile homes, but never go anywhere in them. They can't quite figure out what to do with themselves, so they end up just passing time, just "getting by." (Check out the Lyrics section for a more detailed analysis, including a detailed look at the Iggy Pop songs mentioned.)
All of this is boredom prime subject matter for early punk music and culture. Lou Reed sang about waiting around for drugs, The Ramones sang of sniffing glue and needing something to do, just as Television, The New York Dolls, The Dictators, and more all played songs about the ways of escaping their own boredom. Iggy Pop's lyrics were perhaps the most explicitly about this ("Another year for me and you / another year with nothing to do") and they were deliberately juvenile and simplistic.
But Britt Daniel's lyrics show an exceptional literacy. And though Spoon's music is minimalist and edgy like The Stooges, it is a practiced and studied minimalism. In fact, "The Way We Get By" shows more of a debt to David Bowie than Iggy, The Stooges, or Can.
Bowie was another educated patron of the punk arts; he participated in them but defined himself as something wholly different. Like his punk brethren, he hated the idea of growing old, but while Lou Reed and Iggy Pop lived destructively, and people like Sid Vicious and Johnny Thunders actually met their deaths, Bowie aged gracefully and without incident. Some people actually criticize Bowie for this, saying that he exploited punk music and attitude while only being superficially engaged in its "causes." Britt Daniel is an educated guy from Austin who clearly does not aspire to be a marginalized artist like Iggy, but perhaps he does aspire to be like David Bowie, who loved Iggy, and took a lot of inspiration from him, and yet set out on his own healthier, and perhaps more lucrative, path.
Pitchfork Media summed up what we're saying here. It found Spoon's distanced flirtation with punk nihilism familiar, saying that in Kill The Moonlight, "Bowie soul seamlessly flirts with Spoon's deceptively simplistic rhythms and vocals that span all the hope and hopelessness of the human condition." But though it may be about hopelessness, "The Way We Get By" shows a lot of hopeful promise, and we're excited to see what Spoon comes up with in the future.