The Sophtware Slump, by Grandaddy:
Abandoned Toaster Ovens, Alcoholic Humanoids, and a Science Fiction Album for the 21st Century
"Adrift again 2000 man..."
The Sophtware Slump begins with a lost pilot, the first of many characters introduced in the album. He lost his "maps" and "plans," making his attempt to land nearly impossible. When he finally returns to earth, however, the narrator/singer informs him that "they want [him] to give in" and he continues to ask, over and over, "are you giving in 2000 man?" He's asking the pilot whether he will give in to the new world, the world of the 21st century.
The arrival of the 21st century brought the world into the age of the future, but it brought with it fear, concern, and disillusion. Fear of technology and its dangerous potential. Concern for the earth and whether it will survive past our generation. Disillusion with a world plagued by war, filled with trash, and obsessed with itself. The 21st century, it seems, is a time of immense growth (technological) and consistent stagnation (emotional, but perhaps technologically inspired).
In their 2000 release The Sophtware Slump, now defunctCalifornia band Grandaddy attempt to deal with their concerns for the future. Post-apocalyptic at times, while reminiscent of Asimov and Dick at others, The Sophtware Slump fits comfortably within the canon of science fiction literature and should undoubtedly be included in future iterations of Science Fiction and Fantasy Literatures with Professor Gillian Steinberg.
Why The Sophtware Slump belongs in a science fiction course:
(-note: all lyrics referenced below come from:
Lytle, Jason. "The Sophtware Slump." Songmeanings. Web. Accessed 27 Dec 2014.
-New York Times article comes from:
Strauss, Neil. "MUSIC: The Year in Pop and Jazz: The Critics' Choices; Raps of Persecution, Songs of Alienation." New York Times Archives Online. 17 Dec 2000. Web. Accessed 27 Dec 2014.
-Wisgard article cited below)
Acclaimed science fiction author Isaac Asimov once wrote, "Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology." Science fiction, then, can be understood as an engagement with the present world. It serves as a genre which looks at the world and examines what has been done to it, specifically in relation to technology. However, Asimov doesn't address whether the "reaction of human beings" is good or bad, nor does he specify what changes have been made. Grandaddy, on the other hand, seem to have quite a few opinions on the matter.
For one, they feel that technology has physically trashed the world. In many of their songs, thrown out machines liter the ground and cover the earth in a post-apocalyptic garbage paradise. "Hewlett's Daughter," which tells the story of one man's attempt to win the affection of a protective father's daughter, introduces this theme. Observing the disheveled landscape below him, the narrator sings, "High above the wrecks/On ice shelves and glaciers/I spy below the mess/And measure the pressure/Where sofas float on roads/And someone stole your guns" (Lytle). The narrator sees "wrecks" and "sofas float[ing] on roads" in what might be a post-apocalyptic environment. In "Broken Household Appliance National Forest," the narrator finds himself in, as the title might suggest, a preservation of trash: "Sit on the toaster like a rock/No need to worry about a shock/The refrigerators house the frogs/The conduit is the hollow log/Meadows resemble showroom floors/Owls fly out of oven doors" (ibid). The juxtaposition of a natural landscape with thrown-out appliances acts as a commentary on both wastefulness and the pervading nature of technology. As the New York Times put it, "[this album] delivers a heart-achingly beautiful requiem for a culture in which progress and technology have led to alienation and disposability" (Strauss). In many other post-apocalyptic works, garbage-lined streets act as a signifier of complete desolation and destruction; The Sophtware Slump addresses this same theme quite repeatedly and evocatively in many songs.
The Sophtware Slump seems to view the over-technologization of our world as destructive and dangerous, both for the individual and society. The modern world, in Grandaddy's eyes, is fake and disconnected. In "The Crystal Lake," we find the narrator lost in a city, yearning for his old, more natural home: "Should never have left the crystal lake/For areas where trees are fake/And dogs are dead with broken/Hearts, collapsing by the coffee carts" (Lytle). Unlike his idealized "crystal lake," the world the narrator finds himself in is hollow and artificial, like the "fake trees" and "coffee carts" surrounding him; he is disillusioned by the modern world.
In one of the album's most science fiction-y songs, "Miner At The Dial-A-View," we find a lonesome coal miner on a distant planet attempting to view his old home through the Dial-A-View, a machine where one can "punch in the latitude and longitude of places on earth, and revisit wherever you want" (Wisgard, quoting Lytle). Described like "a Philip K. Dick novel in miniature" (Wisgard), the song describes the sadness felt by the miner and his futile desire to return home: "Fifteen years is almost done/And I don't recognize anyone/From the dial-a-view/My home, my friends, and you/I watch them fade by what can I do?/From the dial-a-view" (Lytle). As well, he observes "tire scraps on the federal roads," a sign of the pervasive destruction noticeable on earth. If science fiction sheds light on humanity's "reaction... [to] science and technology," the miner's is clearly one of loneliness and despondency.
Dejection in the face technology is a theme found throughout Grandaddy's album, and it speaks of a pervasive attitude in the 21st century. Yet, one character on the album embodies this emotional attitude while also addressing another important questions asked by science fiction: what makes us human? Jed the Humanoid perfectly characterizes the sad robot motif, which inevitably raises questions about non-human intelligence, emotion, and love. In fact, Jed makes appearances on two songs throughout the album, perhaps making him the main character of the text.
He is introduced in "Jed the Humanoid," but his existence is quickly understood as one of despair and sadness, as the first lines read, "Last night something pretty bad happened/We lost a friend/Jeddy 3 is what we first called him/Then it was Jed/Now Jed's systems dead/Therefore so is Jed" (ibid). The robot dies, but his life is retroactively described: "We assembled him in the kitchen/Made out of this and/Made out of that and/Whatever was at hand/Jed could run or walk, sing or talk and/Compile thoughts and/Solve lots of problems/We learned so much from him" (ibid). Jed was created, but he becomes more human than robot. He befriends his creators, and even teaches them a thing or two. His end, appropriately, is quite human as well: "A couple years went by something happened/We gave Jed less attention/We had new inventions/Left for conventions/Jed had found the booze and drank every drop/He fizzled and popped/He rattled and knocked/And finally he just stopped" (ibid). Sadly, Jed loses the affection of his creators, which leads him to drink himself to death. His loneliness, and perhaps his inability to cope with his limited robot existence, lead to his demise.
In his second appearance on the album, on the song "Jed's Other Poem (Beautiful Ground), it is revealed that during his short lifetime Jed composed poems. In one of his poems, Jed addresses his lonely existence through his drunken wanderings: "You said I'd wake up/Dead drunk, alone in the park/I called you a liar/But how right you were" (ibid). Once again, Jed succeeds in capturing both the alienation and confusion caused by technology. (Below, I've attached the video made for "Jed's Other Poem," which displays the words of the poem written on a 1979 Apple II computer, one of the world's first word-processing computers).
In light of everything stated above, there is one specific element of The Sophtware Slump that makes it unique in the canon of science fiction, and would make it singular in any course taught on science fiction. The musicality of the work, obviously, adds an element of distinctiveness to the work; in part, it is the type of music employed by Lytle and the rest of Grandaddy that make the album science fiction-y. Beeps, blips, and computer noises are present throughout the album, but so are acoustic guitars, ukeleles, and the never-unassuming clashing of drums. The combination of futuristic sounds with classical instruments make the sounds both relatable and foreign, much like science fiction works in general. As well, the music helps emphasize the content of the lyrics. Sad songs often sound sad, like "Underneath the Weeping Willow," which is, appropriately, a piano ballad. Each song stands alone as a singular work because of its specific sound and lyric combination.
While quite different from other works on the syllabus, The Sophtware Slump would make a significant addition to a course on science fiction. Both lyrically and tonally, the album relates to science fiction in a unique and enlightening way. Grandaddy effectively combine many elements of science fiction, from post-apocalyptic notions to robotics to technologically-induced alienation. Through the media of music, they bring the genre into the digital age.
Short Essay Assignment:
What can Jed teach us about the human experience? Is his experience more "robotic" or "human"? Is he meant to be seen as a robot or a human, or both? What traits make him robot and/or human? What can be said about his experience in light of the album as a whole? Is his loneliness that different from, say, the miner on "Miner At The Dial-A-View."
Discuss specifically why Jed might have been chosen as the protagonist of the album, or whether he is the protagonist at all. Artificial intelligence is an important subject--specifically for the genre of science fiction--when approaching the question of what makes us human. By analyzing Jed's experience as a humanoid robot, try to think about this question and what it might mean for you in the 21st century.
*due to the fact that The Sophtware Slump is a music album, most of these sources are reviews of the album or interviews with the band, not necessarily academic works.
1. Music Video for "Jed's Other Poem (Beautiful Ground)":
The video shows the lyrics of the song written in code on a screen. At various points, the lyrics are written in different shapes and forms (for example, the word "bank" appears surrounded by dollar signs $). However, as the song ends a long strip of code rolls down the screen, as the camera zooms out to reveal that the text was being written on an old Apple II computer.
The computer might represent Jed or the fact that he is indeed a computer. The visualization of the lyrics on the screen help to both creatively depict the lyrics and personify the computer itself. Is the computer--a machine we generally deem subservient to our whims--capable of creativity and imagination? This video might help one picture Jed and empathize with him.
2. "Grandaddy's Jason Lytle Revisits The Sophtware Slump" by Alex Wisgard
Wisgard describes The Sophtware Slump as "a sort of concept album about the decreasing value importance of the natural world in the digital age." Throughout the article, Wisgard explores Lytle's experience making the album, how he felt about it's subsequent success/the band's dissolution, and the stresses of touring. The article ends on a positive note, with Lytle looking towards the future optimistically.
Like any work, the author's intentions may or may not be considered important. With an album, however, the intentions of the musician are in the forefront. In the article, "Lytle reveals that there's a little of him in [Jed]'s tragic story." Does this fact add/subtract from the work as a whole? Does it matter what Lytle thinks about Jed, or does Jed stand alone as a character outside of Lytle? How important is the musician's view/perspective?
Wisgard, Alex. "'I think my brain is working on another level-- Grandaddy's Jason Lytle Revisits The Sophtware Slump." The Line of Best Fit. 31 Aug 2011. Web. Accessed 27 Dec 2014.
3. "Stuff Doesn't Happen Unless I'm Alone" by Laura Barton
In this article, Barton tracks down Lytle in his Montana home and discusses The Sophtware Slump, particularly it's recording process. Lytle admits that he made most of the album himself, and he only feels creatively successful when he is by himself. He goes on to reveal problems with the band and their subsequent break-up, as well as his past reliance on drugs. He also discusses Grandaddy's stagnant status and inability to "blow up" like other, contemporary bands they knew and worked with.
In this article, Lytle reveals his somewhat reclusive personality. He discusses the fact that he locked himself up for weeks to record the album by himself: "Everybody talks about this whole technology versus nature thing [in Grandaddy's songs] and if it's anything that is it: look who my best friends are, a bunch of plastic and circuitry and electricity, when I should be running around getting chased by bumblebees." What does this kind of seclusion reveal, if anything, about the work as a whole? Like in source #2, should the musician's experience be taken into account when engaging with the work? Or should the work be looked at on its own?
Barton, Laura. "Stuff Doesn't Happen Unless I'm Alone" The Guardian. 18 May 2006. Web. Accessed 27 Dec 2014.
4. Review of The Sophtware Slump, by Ryan Schreiber
Writing for Pitchfork Media, Schreiber discusses Grandaddy's album as a whole, breaking it down into two parts: happy and sad. The album bounces from upbeat songs to depressing melodies, largely concerned with "failed industrial machinery-- crashed airplanes, malfunctioning androids, and abandoned appliances-- returning to the earth, or just lying around broken." Score: 8.5/10.
Schreiber encounters the album as a work "wallow[ing] in a depression so deep, it'd make your grandparents stock up on canned foods and dress in rags." What does this album do for/add to the post-apocalyptic genre in general? How does it depict the world? Is the world it depicts our world? A future version of our world? A different world?
Scheiber, Ryan. "Review: The Sophtware Slump." Pitchfork Media. 6 June 2000. Web. Accessed 27 Dec 2014.
5. "Hidden Agenda: Grandaddy's Fake Plastic Trees Can't Obscure How Good They Are," by Richard A. Martin
In this article for CMJ, Martin addresses Grandaddy's sudden appearance and equally sudden disappearance from the popular rock music scene. He mentions an anecdote where they played a show with a "barrier between themselves and a baffled audience of several hundred people, using six-foot high plastic trees placed strategically along a 40-foot stage," clearly highlighting the band's reclusiveness.
Later in the article, Martin mentions that "Lytle expresses sympathy for the lost souls and machines of the high-tec dot-com landscape throughout the album." Is this a correct reading of the album? Are Grandaddy sympathetic or critical of technology and its relationship with landscapes? What exactly are Grandaddy attempting to bring to our attention, if anything, with their "fake plastic trees?"
Martin, Richard A. "Hidden Agenda: Grandaddy's Fake Plastic Trees Can't Obscure How Good They Are." CMJ New Music Monthly. Feb 2001. Web. Accessed 27 Dec 2014.
Class Discussion on The Sophtware Slump
In a class discussion dealing with this work, I would attempt to go over some of the main themes present in the album. My class outline is as follows:
The Sophtware Slump: 21st Century Concerns Put to Music
I. Technology --> Disillusion and Alienation
1. In the album, many characters feel disconnected as a result of technology:
-The Miner is far from home and can only view his friends/family through a screen
-In "The Crystal Lake," the protagonist feels lost in the "fake" surrounds of the city, as opposed to his more natural home at the "lake"
-The theme of escape present in "So You'll Aim Toward The Sky," "Chartsengrafs," and "Underneath the Weeping Willow"
2. Discuss the implications of technology on the lives of those who encounter it in the work. How do they feel about technology? Is it positive? Negative? How is it portrayed?
3. Why would technology lead to loneliness? Reflect on our own experiences with technology (cell phones, facebook, etc). Is it possible that Grandaddy's vision of technology isn't so far off from our own experiences? Can technology really lead to disillusion and alienation?
II. Post-apocalyptic tones
1. To start, is the album post-apocalyptic? What about the album would/would not be representative of a post-apocalyptic work?
2. Garbage, litter, waste. Are these themes reflective of a post-apocalyptic world, or just the world in general? What does Grandaddy's obsession with trash and waste say about their view of the world? Is our world filled with trash? Do "sofas float on [our] roads"?
3. What exactly is Grandaddy attempting to say with "Broken Household Appliance National Forest"? The song describes an entire park filled with garbage... is that our future? Or are they saying something more?
4. Is Grandaddy's vision of the world optimistic or pessimistic? Lytle has mentioned in interviews that he is an optimist, but he seems to view our future as fairly bleak? Can work be both critical of our world and optimistic for the future?
III. Jed The Humanoid
1. Jed is obviously an important part of the album; he's the only character to appear on two songs. Is he the protagonist of the work? Does his recurring appearance say something about the unity of the work? Is the album one, whole work or a collection of eleven, separate works? Discuss unity/factionalism.
2. Why include a humanoid robot who drinks himself to death? What does this reveal about Jed? About his creators? About us? Is Jed human or robot? And why drink himself to death? Is there something significant about this fact... he could have pulled his own plug?
3. Is there anything significant about the fact that Jed wrote poems? Poems general imply a level of creativity and self-reflection/observation. Does the fact that Jed wrote emotional pieces of creative poetry make him more than just a robot? What if he had written prose? Or what if he didn't write poems, would he still be as special? It is revealed that he "wrote poems for no one"; is this fact significant?
4. Should we consider the video for "Jed's Other Poem" in conjunction with the work, or separately? It was created with the consent of the band, so does that make it an addition to the album? Does the video reveal anything significant about Jed?
IV. Music of the Future
1. What does the music of this album reveal about the work as a whole? Each song comes with a different, unique sound. Should we focus more on the music or the lyrics, or both? Can we "read" sounds like we read words? Should some songs be considered more science fiction-y if they sound more science fiction-y? For example, "Underneath the Weeping Willow" is a piano ballad, while "Jed's Other Poem" is a much more synthetic sound, containing beeps, blips, and synthesizers. Should these two songs be treated differently, and how?
* * *
That's it for now. Hope you enjoy, Professor. Thanks for a great semester! Here's one final look at Grandaddy, in their video for "The Crystal Lake."