10 Years, 100 Songs: #96. “It’s Coming Down to Nothing More Than Apathy”
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on June 6, 2009
The Brits brought it over at the beginning of the decade, but it wasn’t really until the middle of the 00s that the piano briefly became possibly the predominant lead instrument on Top 40 radio. It was the perfect instrument for what could probably be referred to as the Grey’s Anatomy era in pop/rock, as the staggeringly popular medical drama regularly picked its teeth with these super-dramatic songs of urgency, hurt, and helplessness, even rocketing a couple (including a song coming up later) towards the top of the charts. They were a little too meek to feature any prominent guitar work, and any extended solo might’ve sounded a little threatening to the fragile audiences for which the songs were intended–call ’em half-power ballads, if you will. They demanded a guiding instrument to be powerful but vulnerable, commanding but not oppressive. The piano, having sat on the shelf in rock music roughly since “Candle in the Wind 1997,” was more than happy to oblige.
The Fray were not the first, but they were probably the best, and certainly the most definitive–for one song, at least. Even their name was ideal for this kind of slightly-right-of-MOR rock, implying a battlefield but mentioning no specific action or violence. “Over My Head (Cable Car)” came out and it just felt right for the time, moving in a vague, unspecific way and personal without being quite as obnoxiously self-involved as some of the spunkier rock bands. Having the medical dramas to soundtrack helped, but perhaps even more supportive of the White Guys With Pianos movement was VH1, who seemed to have been missing something scene-ish to rally itself around since the Lilith Fair crowd died out at the turn of the millennium. Soon their playlist was stacked nearly top to bottom with Keane, Augustana, Aqualung, Matt Kearney, and countless others of these anonymous types with their sensitive songs and their boxes of wood and ivory. A couple years later, and “Over My Head” is close to the only one I can think of without shuddering.
You know what the crazy thing is about “Over My Head”? I heard that song countless times when it was popular, I’ve sung it at karaoke, I’ve answered trivia questions about it–and until about an hour ago, I had the completely wrong idea about what the song was about. More accurately, maybe, I just had no idea what it was about at all–knowing only the chorus and isolated lyrics from the verses, I figured it was a relatively standard song about being in love and being too scared to do anything about it. And I guess that was right, in a way, but certainly not the way I thought. As I gleaned from Wikipedia and actually reading the song’s lyrics, apparently the song is about lead singer Isaac Slade’s rocky relationship with his brother Caleb, the former bass player for The Fray, and their growing apart to the point of not speeking after Caleb was kicked out of the band. Unconventional subject matter, but somehow, fraternal estrangement seems to be a more logical fit for the song than anything as grandstanding as romantic love. At the very least, it explains the song’s subtitle, which never seemed thematically or lyrically relevenat to the rest of the song (It was the nickname for Caleb, presumambly due to the phonetic closeness).
What it doesn’t really explain, though, is the song’s chorus. “Everyone knows I’m in / over my head, over my head / with eight seconds left in overtime / she’s on your mind, she’s on your mind.” If, indeed, the song is from his brother’s angered, betrayed perspective, which sort of makes sense (‘I wish you were a stranger I could disengage / say that we agree and then never change / soften a bit until we all just get along”), then why does the song become about inability to perform under pressure due to romantic distraction in the chorus? Possibly it’s just meant as being symbolic of stage fright / general impotence, which might have had something to do with Caleb’s exit from the band. The musical pragmatist in me, though, finds it easier to believe that The Fray just came up with a really good chorus–and it is a killer, striking and yearning and instantly unforgettable–and were more than willing to shoehorn it into a not-necessarily-appropriate section of a semi-thematically-related song, just because they knew that no other chorus would be able to take it to that next level.
But let’s not drift too far from the main point here–the thing that makes the song go is the piano. It’s not used in a particularly big way, but it makes the whole texture of the song, providing most of the song’s low end for the guitar (which unlike some of their more stubborn contemporaries, is still there, just not being used to overwhelming effect) to soar over. It kind of reminds me of the way Bruce Springsteen used the piano to beef up some of his classic-period hits–or more pointedly, I guess, the way The Hold Steady use it when they’re imitating Springsteen (I was listening to their “Atlantic City” cover earlier today and the similarities were fairly striking). And aside from the piano, the song has the same kind of energy as most of the great borderline-MOR rock bands of the last few decades–bands like the Goo Goo Dolls and Better Than Ezra that never really rocked hard enough to get the alternative cred they (may or may not have) deserved, but wrote songs as powerful as any of their contemporaries.
The Fray took it a little too far shortly afterwards, as mega-hit follow-up “How to Save a Life” crossed that thin line from poingantly impassive to just outright wussy, and appeared in about ten TV shows too many to boot–not to mention that it failed to live up to its title, not even providing a decent instructional gimmick to hang its hat on. And eventually the Grey’s era started winding to a close, and the pianos gave way back to guitars again, as VH1 realized that Kelly Clarkson and Jason Mraz might’ve been more their speed to begin with. But The Fray lives–“You Found Me” was actually pretty decent for a second-album hit, and was even covered by eventual American Idol victor/thief Kris Allen. It might behoove them to stay flexible with the whole piano thing, though–you never know what sort of instrumentation AC Top 40 will trend towards in the 2010s. Accordians? Glockenspiels? Rock Band instruments being played without being plugged into anything?