Is This What Passes for Substance Now?

I was going to do a Worst Songs I Have Ever Heard entry on “Got It All” by Portugal. The Man, but I have a bit of a past with that band. Well, more specifically, I had a run-in a couple years ago with some of their more undignified fans and I don’t want to be seen as trolling anyone here. But this is my fucking blog and I’m not going to let the possible wrath of a few rabid wingnuts dictate what I do and don’t talk about.

So here’s the thing: since I’ve moved to Portland, I’ve heard Period The Used Incorrectly’s new hit single, “Got It All” like a billion times on the radio and I’m sick of it. I know someone is going to say, “Change the channel,” and I frequently do, but sometimes my wife likes to put the radio on (she doesn’t always love the CDs that are in my car) and we mostly enjoy the offerings of 94.7 FM when we’re driving around our new/old stomping grounds. So even given my comparatively rare time spent listening to the radio, “Got It All” is taking up too fucking much of it.

In all honesty, “Got It All” is not one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard. When considered alongside utter pieces of shit like Kid Rock’s “Amen” or pretty much anything by George Thorogood, “Got It All” is fairly musically inoffensive. But I find it troubling for two reasons.

First – and we’ll just mention this one and then let it go, thanks – the song, like much of their Satanic Satanist album, still sounds actionably (in a legal sense) close to MGMT’s first record (angry PTM fans please note: I am not saying that I think MGMT is original in any sense of the word. I am merely pointing out that Portugal. The Man seems to like to sound like them. And if you’re going to use the “all music is derivative” defense, pretend I’ve heard it a million times and don’t bother showing up). People still seem to like it and that’s their right. Some people like Brussels sprouts.

My second and largest beef with “Got It All” is the fear it instills in me that songs like this are going to be what passes for “substantive” now and perhaps for long time from now. If you’ve managed to avoid this song so far in 2011, you lucky sods, the chorus is, “We got it all/ until the revolution comes,” which I assume is intended to assert that our current moments of luxury, perhaps spent listening to and/or dissing Portugal. The Man, are tenuous at best. I don’t dislike that idea, but it’s delivered in a trope that’s so played out that it has become a crutch. “Got It All” makes me realize that the word “revolution” needs to be voluntarily banished from the vocabularies of thinking people for the foreseeable future. Portugal. The Man makes no attempt to describe this revolution that is coming and they neither oppose nor endorse it. If anything, the chorus seems preemptively wistful about the loss of the titular “it all.”

Lyrically, the song seems to be yearning for some kind of idealistic change and – again – that’s a fine goal. But – also again – the delivery leaves something to be desired. I am not suggesting that every song written now has to be substantive (Billy Bragg is saying that and I love him for it), but “Got It All” is clearly trying to be substantive and I feel like I’m going to be in the minority for observing that it fails miserably. I can already hear kids nodding along to this song and going, “Yeah, man. ‘Revolution'” without ever having any real concept of the word. If you’ve paid attention to the news since last spring, there are people all around the world seeking real meaning to the word “revolution” and some of them are giving up their lives on that journey. The meaning of “revolution” as it appears in American pop culture is miles away from what it means to people in Egypt and Libya right now and that renders the word’s repeated use in “Got It All” all the more shallow. Portugal. The Man, many of the people who listen to their music, and most other Americans (myself included) really do have it all in comparison and we all know by now that a revolution isn’t fucking coming. And if one does come to America, the evidence is overwhelming that it won’t be the one we need.

Portugal. The Man clearly knows how to write (or borrow) a catchy melody and that’s a power that can be used to inspire incredible things (read Billy Bragg’s article about the profound effect the Clash had on him if you want to know what I’m talking about). What if “Got It All” actually got down to brass tacks and talked about what kind of revolution was going to come and take away “it all?” Even better, what if they discussed their feelings about the having of “it all?” Perhaps they welcome the surrender of “it all” in order to change the world for the better? We’ll never know because they never say. Generalities sell more records (another theme hit upon by Mr. Bragg, right before he writes, “Joe Strummer is spinning in his grave”) because they offend fewer people. It’s every band’s right to say nothing if they want, but I’m also well within my rights to piss and moan when they dress it up like it’s something.