Better Than Ezra were a stunningly bad band. When you think of the most witless, gormless, reheated alternative rock of the mid-‘90s, Better Than Ezra elbow their way to the head of the queue with aplomb. Their playing is edgeless, featureless. Their lyrics are fresh from a high school creative writing workshop. The way they namedrop R.E.M. in the chorus of this dreadful song makes me understand why so many people started to hate that band. But I’ve reached a point in my thinking about music where I wonder if I don’t have to burn away the last of my taste prejudices. For people who think thinking seriously about music is a relatively serious matter, the current critical milieu is one in which we begin to deny the fantasy of objective judgement of popular art. In this scenario, there are no parameters which inherently makes one music better than another music. There is only the art’s effect on us personally as listeners that ultimately matters, and thus critical judgement about art is ultimately concerned with how the effect is mobilized and to what application (see Theodor Adorno, if you want to, I guess). In a few years, the thinking will shift, possibly to a view more in line with traditional values of creation and consumption. What I must ask myself is whether this purposefully nebulous, amoral “perfect pop” idea I’ve been pursuing is just my reaction to these times, or if it can be relied upon as a stable axiom.
I have to talk about what bands like Better Than Ezra can do to me, and whether the fact that I think they suck is irrelevant.
Perfect Pop Singles: Vol. 31
Better Than Ezra – Good (1995, Elektra)
Why It’s Perfect: That walking Pixies bassline. The descending, More Than a Feeling-ish guitar riff. The loud/quiet dynamic. The yowling, vowelly chorus. Better Than Ezra’s Good was once generic, and is now nostalgic. Most critics tend to console themselves with the idea that all of the “bad” music that dominates the charts will have a short shelf-life, but nostalgia is the great alchemy ensuring that the lowest-common denominator stuff lives on. The classic rock format, where REO Speedwagon and Grand Funk Railroad still hold sway, Lionel Richie and Phil Collins’ deathgrip on the easy listening stations, the chemical half-life of ‘90s alternative acts like Matchbox 20, Live, Third Eye Blind and Blind Melon. Singer Dale Lawrence of the brilliant Vulgar Boatmen once said that the problem with nostalgia is that “it reduces everything from the past to the same level.” This is a problem for bands like Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins or even the Vulgar Boatmen because they are pressed flat, made peers with the average. For Better Than Ezra, it rockets them upward.
I always thought the chorus to Good went “Uh-huh, if it’s good / Do anything you want uh-huh / If it’s good / Do anything you want,” which for me anyway, is the sort of chorus that I call “vague-irrelevant.” What could that phrase or sentiment really ever mean to anyone? As an anthem it lacks direction, as a mondegreen it lacks quirk. Recently though, the song sort of appeared in my head unbidden, and while trying to find the name of it on Google I ended up reading the actual lyrics for the first time: “It was good livin’ with you, uh-huh / It was a good aww-aww-awww-awww/ It was good livin’ with you uh-huh / It was good.” That shift moved it from “vague-irrelevant” to “vague-universal.” Real talk, yeah, my living situation is up in the air at the moment, good friends of mine are going to be moving away and I’ll soon have to be packing up myself and making life decisions and all that horrible business. This personal circumstance, that slight shift in comprehension, and Good suddenly hits me in the chest like a sledgehammer. The song and band is so generic that it fits seamlessly over the painful, sentimental montage of memories and images that my TV-addled brain instantly conjures as I sniffle things like “It was good, man” into a wad of Kleenex. (The montage is much like this.)
It’s harder for better or more distinctive songs to do this to me. All Apologies is always going to be a song that fits better into the narrative of Kurt Cobain than in my own life, say. Do you know anything about Better Than Ezra? Neither do I. Is there any part of Good that isn’t cribbed from another, more famous band? No. In a way this frees me as a listener to just enjoy the way the guitar changes up in the second verse, to get a bit more lost in the chorus’ yodelling. Good is a triumph of a great hook, a good idea played capably.
In 1995, at eight years old, I was closer to an embryo than an adult. Yet Better Than Ezra’s biggest hit, with its effortlessly catchy valedictory, makes me feel everything I’m going to miss about my past. By being dated, it draws attention to change, and makes me face farewells. It can have the sweet smell of my Perfect Pop-fuelled pyre, the dissolution of superiority.
Defining Moment: The way the second chorus takes off with a long “GOOOOOOOOOOOoood” as the guitars kick up dust around it. The guy really did have a voice well-suited to this sort of thing.
Other Great Songs by Better Than Ezra: Umm, well YouTube tells me their next best-known song is called Desperately Wanting and it sounds like Candlebox or Semisonic with a slightly more dramatic tenor, if that sounds good to you.