Appetite for Affection

Pop music's food fetish is just a thinly veiled hunger for love.

By Sarah Vowell
March 29, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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Listen to enough rock 'n' roll songs and you get the feeling we humans live on
love instead of bread. Shocking, when you consider the statistics: By my
calculations, I have consumed nearly 30,000 meals and I have fallen in
love -- the song-worthy, head-over-heels kind -- three times. That ratio,
therefore, is 10,000 to 1. And yet, the proportion of songs about food to
songs about love is pretty much reversed. For every "Mashed Potatoes" and
"Vegetables," there are 10,000 variations on "Let's Stay Together" and
"Love Me Do."

In popular music, food is more decoration than digestion. Parliament calls
predominantly black Washington, D.C., "Chocolate City," Neil Young and the
Beatles woo the "Cinnamon Girl" and "Honey Pie" respectively, and when the
B-52s rap about "Quiche Lorraine," they're talking dog, not dish. Ditto
Bikini Kill's non-dairy "Bloody Ice Cream" and Sonic Youth's "Creme Brulie,"
which might be about getting a sunburn or something.


Most often, food's just a code word for sex, from Bessie Smith's "Kitchen
Man" ("How I love his saucy meat") and the Rolling Stones' "Brown Sugar" to
Jerry Lee Lewis' ferocious "Meat Man" ("I got jaws like a bear trap," growls
the singer with a scandalous taste for veal) and the Flaming Lips' "She Don't
Use Jelly." This can be hilarious (Smith), vaguely racist (Stones), smelling
of statutory rape (Lewis) or sweetly seductive (Lips). But playing up rock's
lewd leanings can sabotage songs that really do get around to talking about
food. A friend in Seattle said she heard a talk-radio psychologist field a
call from a father condemning the goof-rock band the Presidents of the United
States of America for corrupting his child with the alleged double entendre
of "Peaches." But all the complaint did was unveil the father's dirty mind,
since the Presidents are about as sexual as Gerald Ford. When singer
Chris Ballew grins, "Moving to the country/Gonna eat a lot of peaches,"
he really means it. Sometimes, a banana's just a banana ...

Maybe sensing rock's malnourishment, the culinary zine Gourmandizer
has just put out a compilation record called "When I'm Hungry I Eat,"
unfortunately chock full o' songs you'll never care about by bands you've
never heard of. The one delightful exception is Low's "Peanut Butter Toast
and American Bandstand," a beautifully banal batch of realism describing
living room snacking in front of the TV delivered in Low's lullaby sound. It's so soft, so low, you could drift off to sleep on a peanut butter pillow.

But in the '90s, we woke up with Kurt Cobain's stomach pains. When he confessed, in
"Pennyroyal Tea," "I'm on warm milk and laxatives/Cherry-flavored antacids,"
it made me want to skip dinner altogether. When he killed himself, I
couldn't help but remember the best description of how another rock death
felt: record producer Felton Jarvis' eulogy for Elvis in 1977. He said,
"It's like someone just told me there aren't going to be any more
cheeseburgers in the world."


Last year, Japanese duo Cibo Matto's "Viva! La Woman" made me feel like
we were getting our appetites back. Their playfulness about dining, the
strange sensuality of the phrase, "Let's eat carrots together until ...," the
way they found the pathos in artichokes and the humor in beef jerky, their
ravenous advice to "Shut up and eat" -- all of it made listening to their album feel like
being in my favorite silly restaurants, which are always friendly, eccentric,
and slightly surreal. But there is something about Cibo Matto's funky exoticism
that can make even the normal foods they sing about -- like chicken -- sound as
strange as "White Pepper Ice Cream." They have this special-occasion quality
that is more glamorous than real.

The other arts don't need fattening up; painting's been trotting out the
same three apples for centuries. So why is pop music so anorexic? Is it
because all the rock 'n' roll spoons are so bent from cooking up dope that they
no longer hold a proper load of soup? Is Robert Johnson the only singer with
a kitchen to come on into? Is Tom Waits our only diner habitui? Surely
Karen Carpenter isn't the real queen of rock 'n' roll?


There is one rocker who gets vitamins from something other than malt
protein. He once sang that he frequents bakeries because of "a lack of sweetness in my life," loves a "late-night falafel stand" and titled his greatest ode to chowing down "I Eat With Gusto, Damn! You Bet." He's Jonathan Richman, and he sings from the bottom of his heart about his bottomless stomach. As the greatest culinary composer, he has the keenest insight into why there
aren't more songs at table. In "Affection," he mumbles, "You know your
friend Jonathan likes to eat food a lot ... but affection is the most important
thing for me."

Rock 'n' roll deals in desire, but it takes that desire one step further. It's
really about bravery, about having the guts to see desires through. This is
what makes pop music a whole new world, a world where we do live on love
more than food. "I used to starve for affection," Richman sings, adding,
"It takes nerve to reach out and give affection." If rock 'n' roll equals
derring-do -- and at its best, I think it must -- then it makes sense that
its principle subject is love. That takes a stronger stomach than anything.

Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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