III. THE DUKE OF GUYVILLE
Liz Phair, Jeremy Engle, off the (seriously, you should investigate this) comeandgetit EP (lyrics)
Jeremy Engle lives in a tangled rent-controlled apartment with his Communist family. There are books all around them; the dining room table is lacquered in news clippings yellowing badly. They argue at dinner. His brother’s friends drop by to throw a line in or two about Tolstoy. They all play guitar, and they’re all very far away in their own minds from the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
I’m sorry, can we just meditate on the side-splitting hilarity of that opening? That is so spot-on. Like, I know that guy. I hate that guy. Here are some other things we know about Jeremy Engle from the brief sketch she gives us:
Jeremy Engle went to the kind of school depicted on Gossip Girl (my money is on Collegiate). His parents are Ivy legacies, but he went to a smaller liberal arts college on the Northeast (Bard, most likely, but Wesleyan is also a possibility), preferring its “intimacy,” “atmosphere of intellectual freedom,” and “readily available quantities of marijuana,” where he majored in Philosophy and almost got a minor in Art History. He thinks the fact that he would vote Democrat if he believed in the electoral process means it’s okay to use the word gay ironically, and wants you to be extremely clear on the fact that making out with a dude ironically doesn’t make him gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that but seriously shut the fuck up we were both wasted it’s not funny anymore god you guys are so immature. Jeremy Engle opposes the patriarchal beauty standard but has never slept with a girl who didn’t look like she could have stepped out of an American Apparel ad. He thinks that identity politics are a waste of time because issues not currently relevant to white straight men will evaporate after The Revolution. Jeremy Engle recently typed a Tumblr post on his MacBook about how proud he is not to own a TV. His favorite thing to play on the guitar is mocking acoustic covers of hit rap songs. He wrote a paper on Marx sophomore year and received a C; when girls come into his bedroom he puts away as though he were just flipping through it the worn copy of the Marx-Engels reader, bought secondhand on Amazon, and notes that the economic analysis, of course, is far from sound, but the core of the work is really still just so essential, you know? He gets nervous when he sees homeless people on the 1 train.
Jeremy Engle is a douchebag, and the song a welcome skewering of a particular breed of That Guy - the one who talks a big game about the proletariat he barely notices when he buys beer from his corner bodega. But there’s curiously little venom in it: she sounds a little bemused, a little rueful, a little sorry for him - but only a little. Ultimately this song isn’t a caricature so much as a study: distant, analytic, curious about that other dimension of high high-browism.
In the second half of the song Liz introduces a curious metaphor, describing herself as more of a napkin. It’s the most mundane of objects, but Liz packs it with layers of meaning, turning it into an emblem of what I’ll call the pragmatism/bullshit dichotomy. It’s an old, old trope to place men and women on opposite sides of that axis, traditionally aligning women with practicality and men with something that is definitely not practicality, though the angle changes from author to author; in the hands of one it might depict women’s simple heads being easily occupied by basic tasks while men’s minds clamor for something weightier and ultimately more consequential, while another might break it down into men thinking up a bunch of abstract ideas while women get shit done.
This song is a great example of the latter (John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath is another). Liz-the-napkin is not blessed with the vision beyond how I’m matching the china and wine. The use of “blessed” makes it self-deprecating on the surface, but think of how Jeremy and his clan come across in this song: vision isn’t much of a blessing. And matching the china and wine means noticing the people you live among, working to keep peace and harmony - also known as “actually giving a fuck about other human beings.” The image of Jeremy needing her to wipe off his eye, some gelatinous thingy his brother’s rebuttaling mouthful let fly is so dense with meaning. There’s a woman cleaning up after a man’s mess, with the sexual undertones of a woman wiping a gelatinous mass off a man’s skin; there’s men’s helpless dependency on women; and meanwhile it’s his eye she’s wiping off, almost like a crocodile tear, a male-delivered wound (with male-coded word skewering) depicted to highlight Jeremy’s disconnect not just from the world but from himself.
Turning it into a male/female thing runs the risk of essentializing the genders, but the song sidesteps this pitfall by simultaneously making it a class thing. For those of you unfamiliar with the demographics of New York City neighborhoods, the Upper West Side means the Engles have money, and so his pathetic hollowness isn’t just a guy thing: it’s a rich person thing, an indication not of some inherent quality of men and women but of the fact that some people have to deal with the real world once in a while, and people like the Engles don’t. Tolstoy-reading (or more probably Tolstoy-skimming) Jeremy looks down at Liz the way a lord looks at his placemat or a stain on his tie, his politics stopping just short of the part where it would influence his interactions with other people. He has no desire to step out of the Ivory Tower, and he’s so high up that compared to him, everyone seems salt-of-the-earth. Sometimes all you need is a napkin, but somehow I doubt Jeremy will ever need one long enough to realize that, or swallow his pride enough to admit it.