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10 Years, 100 Songs: #13. “I Was There…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on December 9, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.


(Only full-length version I can find on YouTube. Weird but kinda works.)

James Murphy was something of an unlikely underground rock hero for the Naughty Oughties. An irascible, pudgy thirty-something, Murphy made some sense as the producer / brainchild behind DFA Records, one of the most important record labels for both rock and dance in the 00s, but he made much less sense as the frontman for one of its signature acts.  Basically, he looked and acted like a rock critic–had the same fashion sense, the same anal tendencies, and as soon would become abundantly clear, the same insecurities. And all Blue Oyster Cult and Saint Etienne-type anomolies aside, critics are not supposed to be even competent music creators themselves, let alone artists that would so hit a nerve with their target audience that they would be considered definitive, even anthemic of their respective eras.

But this was the thing with LCD Soundsystem–Murphy and company specifically targeted an audience of other rock critics, or at least those who could see themselves in that mold. And let’s face it, the number of people who fell into that category was steeply rising throughout the decade–largely due to the success of Pitchfork and other online-based music criticism sites, as well as blogs and discussion boards and every other forum for public opinion that the internet provided, suddenly everyone was a critic. And Murphy was absolutely brilliant at creating songs that united that burgeoning and disparate group of modern-day music nerds, made them feel like they were not alone in their obsessiveness, gave them a rare voice in something vaguely resembling the mainstream. In a perverse and compeltely unanticipatable way, LCD was kind of like the critically-acclaimed KISS of the 00s–giving its audience of freaks and misfits that emboldening feeling of Power in Numbers that suddenly makes any behavioral deviance socially acceptable. Messenger bags and rapid-fire namedropping might not seem as cool on the surface as fire-breathing and rock and rolling all night, but they still connected with their Armies on the same core level.

At first, “Losing My Edge” seemed more like a novelty single than a mission statement. It’s not hard to see why, either–any eight-minute-long dance single taken from the purposefully crotchety point-of-view of a past-his-prime hipster, complete with a cacophonous hip-artist-checklist breakdown is bound to met with a combination of amused chuckles and deserving skepticism. That’s partly because it seemed largely like Murphy was taking the point of view of said PHPH for satirical purposes, trying to skewer the too-cool old guard who refused to acknowledge that it was impossible to stay current for one’s entire life. And though that’s certainly at least somewhat the case–it’d be extremely naive to think that someone as shrewd as Murphy would release such a ridiculous single without a fair bit of self-awareness–it’d also be hard to deny at this point that the song’s source was in something real, some genuine panic that Murphy experienced at the age of 32 when he realized his coolest days were behind him (a 1/3-life-crisis?), and one which many other 32-year-olds had similarly felt (and many eventually-to-be-32-year-olds knew they would one day feel). That’s what kept “Losing My Edge” from becoming stale over the years.

Well, that and the fact that the thing fucking rocked. “Losing My Edge” wasn’t built in the traditional tension-and-release structure of most dance music, but more like the constantly accelerating, six-minute crescendo mold of a song like “Free Bird.” The thing was just relentless, building and building throughout as more layers  of buzzing synths and clicking drums kept getting thrown into the mix. It wasn’t so aggressive that it became exhausting to listen to over its relatively sizeable running time, but once it started it just never really broke, throbbing insistently as Murphy’s rants about the kids “coming up from behind” became increasingly agitated and weirdly specific. With a less propulsive or more yielding beat behind it, Murphy’s lamentations would’ve seemed unbearably self-pitying and pedantic, but with the rest of LCD kicking out the jams behind him, it begins to sound surprisingly close to a legitimate rallying cry.

It was a muscially timely song, as well. The discopunk phenomenon was on the horizon in 2002–we’ll get to a purer example later in the countdown–but what was still really dominating the dance underground at the time was electroclash, a sound based around cheap drum machines, aggressive keyboards, and dispassionate vocals. The subgenre was purposefully superficial and produced little in the way of true classics (when acts like Peaches and Fischerspooner are your flagship artists, your movement is probably not going to be defined by its longevity), but it was certainly fun for a spell, and probably made the success of “Losing My Edge” possible. The song even starts out sounding like an electroclash number, with the static “Day in the Life”-esque intro swell and tinny drum machine giving way to Murphy’s sung-spoken lyrics. Only a good deal of the way in, when the live drums and bass become more prominent in the mix, does it begin to sound more in the dance-rock hybrid vein that the DFA would perfect towards the middle of the decade–in effect, bridging the gap between the two sounds and paving the way for the next couple years of underground dance music.

For the whole thing to work, though, it needed a hell of a rant on top, and Murphy laid down a masterwork of geeked-out grumpiness. He starts it out with the “I Was There” section, inserting himself into the history of Cool Music like Forrest Gump, claiming everything from Captain Beefheart’s artiness (“Don’t do it that way. You’ll never make a dime.”) to Daft Punk’s crossover success with rock audiences (“I played it at CBGB’s. They all thought I was crazy.”) to his credit. His history established, he begins to fret about the youth of today in the “I Heard” section, listing the gossip he heard about his new competitor’s credentials in terms of collection (“Every great song by the Beach Boys,” “A white label of every seminal Detroit techno hit”) and trendiness (“You want to make something real. You want to make a Yaz record”). It all climaxes in the song’s most famous section, where Murphy lists all the artists in his own collection, in perhaps the first recorded sonic assault of music snobbery (“Eric B. and Rakim! Index! Basic Channel! Soulsonic Force!”)

It works almost like a three-act tragedy with prologue and epilogue, as Murphy is ultimately done in by his need to stay youthful and contemporary amidst staggering evidence to the contrary. But it’s also really, really funny. I’ve heard “Losing My Edge” referred to as the “You Might Be a Redneck If…” for hipsters, and there’s definitely truth to that–your own need to keep up with the Murphys of the world will likely dictate how many of the song and artist references you understand throughout, and in your life as a music nerd, you’ll probably catch yourself understanding one or two more of them with each new listen. But it’s done with genuine insight, as well. The line about the young’ns selling their guitars to buy turntables, and then selling their turntables to buy guitars, for instance, explains the essential paradox of trying to stay ahead of the curve better than an entire critical thesis could. The line about “borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties” almost shamed me into avoiding VH1 for a couple years. And if you don’t recognize a couple names of artists that you tried your hardest to get into but just couldn’t during the song’s dirty bomb of a climax, well, then, you’re probably not a card-carrying member of the LCD Army after all, and you shouldn’t get to shout “GIL! SCOT! HERON!” (the most unlikely shout-along moment in rock history since “LEO-NARD BERN-STEIN!”) with the bespectacled and ironic t-shirt-donning masses at their live shows.

Of course, the great (although possibly not unintentional) irony about “Losing My Edge” is that for all its moaning about being left in the dust, it helped make James Murphy among the hippest figures of the entire decade, a tastemaker and trend-setter who just increased in popularity throughout the decade, with singles like “Yeah,” “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” and “All My Friends” becoming obligatory plays at Cool Kid parties, bars and clubs. My taste for it has faded somewhat over the years–after a half-decade of Murphy trying his hardest to define my life and experience as a music nerd, I’ve started to wish he’d just speak for himself from time to time. (Tellingly, my favorite LCD album these days is the almost entirely-instrumental 45:33, which proves that when Murphy’s not busy serving as a hipster carnival barker, he’s also still one of the best electronic producers in the business.)

Still, credit must go to Murphy for tapping into a zeitgeist that no one before had seemed to even notice existed, and for giving us “Losing My Edge,” a song that even with all the overkill, still sounds just as clever and exciting today as it did when released eight years ago. When the kids finish coming up from behind, they might end up similarly lamenting the fact that thirty-somethings like Murphy wont go gently into that good night. “I can’t find my edge / The adults refuse to let this shit go.”

(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)

The List So Far (Now With Links!):

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
90. Cassie – “Me & U
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It
81. 311 – “Amber
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite
79. Nas – “Made You Look
78. Royksopp – “Eple
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!
67. Incubus – “Stellar
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday
55. Darude – “Sandstorm
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside
52. Luomo – “Tessio
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love
47. Snow Patrol – “Chasing Cars
46. Sean Paul – “Like Glue
45. Ludacris – “Stand Up
44. Britney Spears – “Toxic
43. Kings of Leon – “Sex on Fire
42. Jennifer Lopez f/ Ja Rule – “I’m Real (Remix)
41. Lifehouse – “Hanging By a Moment
40. Plain White T’s – “Hey There Delilah
39. MGMT – “Kids
38. Gym Class Heroes f/ Patrick Stump – “Cupid’s Chokehold
37. Franz Ferdinand – “Do You Want To
36. Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head
35. Vertical Horizon – “Everything You Want
34. The White Stripes – “Fell in Love With a Girl
33. Jay-Z – “Takeover
32. Maroon 5 – “This Love
31. Silversun Pickups – “Lazy Eye
30. M.I.A. – “Paper Planes
29. Timbaland f/ OneRepublic – “Apologize
28. Beyonce f/ Jay-Z – “Crazy in Love
27. Coldplay – “Yellow
26. Lil’ Wayne – “A Milli
25. Shaggy f/ Ricardo “RikRok” Ducent – “It Wasn’t Me
24. The Strokes  – “Last Night
23. Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone
22. Radiohead – “Idioteque
21. Fall Out Boy – “Sugar, We’re Going Down
20. The All-American Rejects – “Move Along
19. OutKast – “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)
18. Interpol – “PDA
17. Justin Timberlake – “Rock Your Body
16. Vanessa Carlton – “A Thousand Miles
15. The Clipse – “Grindin‘”
14. Cam’Ron f/ Juelz Santana & Freekey Zeke – “Hey Ma
13. LCD Soundsystem – “Losing My Edge”

2 Responses to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #13. “I Was There…””

  1. ZD said

    I heard that everyone you know is more relevant than everyone I know.

    I’m in luck in a couple of way here. First off, I only first heard this song about four months ago — basically in spite as I wondered how Pitchfork could rank a band I’d never really heard of (yeah, I know) so high in their countdown and had to see for myself. So while LME may be wearing off on you a touch, it’s still new to me. But furthermore — being more in the Murphy demographic than I might like to admit — while I don’t exactly associate with the narrator a whole lot (see my earlier comment), I kinda dig the fact that an older dude can still put together something so hip.

    Please don’t think less of me: that “borrowed nostalgia” line doesn’t necessarily *not* make me think of the time(s) when the 20yo you was beating everyone’s ass on my audio round despite being on average about a decade younger than everyone there — due to your phenomenal knowledge base. Although, as it were, I think I snuck one of the (apparently deep album cuts — unbeknownst to me…big surprise) Modern Lovers’ tracks past you one time…

  2. ZD said

    Upon further review — that video has one guffaw-worthy moment around the 5:15-5:25 mark. I guess some hilarity ensues when a Vince Clarke band has their name passed through Castilian Spanish ears…

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