In the final segment of today’s Costco-sized Drive To Place, I got pretty het up about “Signs” by Five Man Electrical Band, which I consider to be one of the most irritating songs of all time. Over the course of driving to place, we got to the root of my annoyance with the song, which is that it’s a textbook example of a song belonging to what I’m going to group together into a genre called Unearned Contempt
I came across the idea of Unearned Contempt songs in a Slate piece, “The Worst Pop Singer Ever”, posted in 2009 but which I only read a couple of days ago. In this piece, Ron Rosenbaum identifies Billy Joel as the most awful pop music artist ever, an allegation I considered questionable at first, but was convinced of by his supporting evidence.
Rosenbaum defines Unearned Contempt this way:
Both a self-righteous contempt for others and the self-approbation and self-congratulation that is contempt’s backside, so to speak. Most frequently a contempt for the supposed phoniness or inauthenticity of other people as opposed to the rock-solid authenticity of our B.J.
I won’t recreate his thorough argument here — the piece is well worth a read. And it’s worth underscoring that what is under discussion here is not all music that expresses contempt for its subjects (for instance, a lot of protest music is extremely contemptuous, but victims of injustice have earned their contempt for their oppressors). In order to be an Unearned Contempt song, it has to demonstrate no particular reason why the singer should be considered any kind of authority on the subject, or why the singer warrants either the self-righteous contempt for others, or the self-congratulation.
“Signs,” in my view, absolutely fits into the Unearned Contempt category. The band, Five Man Electrical Band, a Canadian one-hit wonder, is probably the most nondescript, forgettable band ever to release a “Best of” collection. By neither artistic merit or any musical significance of its members does Five Man Electrical Band qualify as the kind of cultural authority who could pass moral judgment upon others from an enlightened perspective.
This got me thinking about the idea of Unearned Contempt as an actual artistic genre. The concept I think exists in just about every form of art. Probably 90% of standup comedians, for example, work in the Unearned Contempt genre, using “observational humor” to express their moral/intellectual superiority over others, despite for the most part demonstrating insufficient personal merit, or even funniness, to lend weight to their superior stance. There’s also Unearned Contempt in literature (mediocre novels about how mediocre people are) and film.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I think I’ll start compiling a few lists of examples of Unearned Contempt in art. Feel free to contribute any suggestions. Long-haired freaky people, however, need not apply.