Last night I watched (via the magic of DVR, because I’m too old to stay up late and watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report when they air) one of the more uncomfortable interviews I’ve seen. Not screaming-gun-nut uncomfortable, but it was definitely tense.
Much like myself, Stephen Colbert is a smartass music geek who harbors in his heart a secret dream of being a performing musician, as is evidenced by the fact that he sings with any and all interviewees that will let him get away with it. (He was so cute with Dolly Parton recently.) As such, he’s usually less in character during music interviews and segments than he is during the rest of his show, because he’s so excited to have guests he’s a fan of on his show. And I tend to enjoy his excitement, and his breaking of character, because his faux conservative persona is a jerk, and I hate to see musicians I like subjected to that.
Stephen Colbert was interviewing Ben Gibbard, the latter of The Postal Service and Death Cab for Cutie fame. But something about Gibbard put Colbert off his game. Maybe it was the fact that Gibbard’s people must’ve told Colbert to refer to his guest as “Benjamin” instead of “Ben,” only to find that Gibbard didn’t really care one way or another. Or maybe Gibbard wasn’t chatty enough, and Colbert decided to try to provoke him (which didn’t really work, either). Or maybe Gibbard isn’t actually a Colbert fan, and wasn’t sure what to make of the Colbert persona who generally likes to antagonize guests when Colbert himself isn’t completely star-struck (like when he interviewed Ian McKellen).
Gibbard’s new(ish) solo album, Former Lives, features a duet with Aimee Mann, and Gibbard mentioned that in the interview, evidently peeving Colbert, who gave him a hard time for ruining the surprise that Mann was actually there that night to perform the song “Bigger Than Love.” Except that Gibbard didn’t; he was talking about the song on the album, and Colbert let the cat of the bag with his response, and when he couldn’t let it go during the remaining awkward moments of the interview.
The songs for this album were written over the last 8 years, and Colbert wanted to know if that long time frame would make the songs stale (he didn’t use that word, but that was the implication), which was a pretty backhanded question to begin with. Gibbard said that he tended to write about universal themes, which is the musical equivalent of “I just came to play, and to give 110%.” (The flip-side of that same coin is when musicians announce their songs as “something very personal.” Of course they’re personal; you wrote them.) Of course they’re universal; there are few humans alive who have experienced something entirely unique. There is nothing new under the sun, and even the oddest experiences have been experienced by many. That’ll happen on a planet of 7 billion living souls, and countless others that have gone before us.
That is not to say that we shouldn’t share our experiences through music and other art just because others have had them, too. Quite the opposite, in fact, because I think that is the great power of music–to bring us together, to make us feel less alone, when we hear a song that touches us, and our experiences. I suppose that’s why we become such passionate fans about our favorite musicians and songs; when someone else has managed to articulate perfectly what you feel in your soul but have never quite been able to put into words, you feel understood. And I think we all ache for that, especially because to feel perfectly understood is a rare and precious thing.
I found myself wanting to answer the question for Gibbard, to edit his response, to do anything to save the interview, because I felt bad for him. I actually don’t mind music that dates itself. I like the synthesizers and a certain style of guitar solo that peg music in the ’80s. I like songs that mention contemporary phenomena, like Facebook and pocket-dialing, because it creates a musical time capsule. Music has always had the ability to do that. When I was a kid, I was amazed at my parents’ ability to name the year of songs they heard on the radio, because they were the soundtrack to important events in their young lives. I’m old enough to do the same now. I tend to think that songs are only “dated” if you don’t have an appreciation of music from all eras; if you do, their temporal markers are a delight, and a memory trigger, rather than an area ripe for criticism. And at this point in his life, Colbert should be very aware that 8 years is nothing; time seems to pass so quickly once you pass the midpoint.
In any case, once the interview finally, blessedly, ended and Gibbard took the stage with a full band of Aimee Mann on vocals and bass, Ted Leo on guitar, and Jon Wurster on drums, and a guy on keyboards whom no article on the internet thought important enough to name, so I cannot, either (sorry, dude), things got better. If you’re not familiar with the many incarnations of Gibbard’s work, you can check it out here, and at the above Former Lives link.