Written By Phillip Mottaz
Dedicated to those songs that I can't stop playing, humming, or thinking about; the 4+ minutes you fall head-over-heels in love with. Past instances have included The Stooges' "No Fun," Tom Petty's "Listen To Her Heart" and Monster Magnet's "Negasonic Teenage Warhead."
It's a miracle when you find a song that you love so deeply and it's in your vocal range. With "Girlfriend" I can do it all. Maybe this speaks more to Matthew Sweet's vocal limits, but I prefer to take the positive and assume it was a gift from above. Doesn't matter if it's lead or backing vocals, it all seems like I can do them with ease. I can't, but it seems like I can. Some may demand more difficulty from their art, but I am not one of these people. Most times I prefer to see difficult things done easily, especially in pop music where simplicity is king and can be so easily trampled.
Matthew Sweet sort of introduced the idea of celebrating a single song for an extended period of time, but not with this song and not to me. It was with "Sick of Myself" around 1996. I had fallen in love with the song in 1995, bought the album and enjoyed it just as much. When I later learned my college girlfriend (not to be confused with the title of the song being discussed in the article in general, just not this particular paragraph) loved "Sick of Myself" as well, I lent her the CD. After a week or two, I asked her how she liked tunes such as "Lost My Mind" and "We're the Same", she answered, "I don't know, I haven't gotten past 'Sick of Myself.'" She was trapped, just as I'm trapped in another of Sweet's pop anthems.
Debate has flowed through my house as my former-college-girlfriend-turned-wife and I interpret the lyrics. I believe Sweet's saying "I'd sure love to call you my girlfriend," and she thinks it's "I shouldn't have to call you my girlfriend." The hope and optimism and sheer up-beatness of the song hung in the balance, and we were both delighted to discover I was correct. Simplicity got even more simple. If I had been wrong, then we'd have another interpretation of "And I swear that I don't have a gun" as an invitation for "love" with air quotes. As it stands, "Girlfriend" remains sweet to the core, giving us one of the pop world's greatest profession of sweetie-pie love since "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."
I love angry, bitter and pissed off songs, too. But it can't hurt the soul to spend a week singing (loudly) along with something top-to-bottom nice. And rockin', but nice. It seems to me -- especially in the wake of my "Girlfriend" listening marathon -- that the attributes of "nice" and "rockin'" cannot co-exist. You wanna rock? Then you have to sing about how you're messing with a sunofabitch. You wanna be nice? Then dial down those guitars and talk about sunshine and rainbows. This should not be, and it only proves how heroic Matthew Sweet truly is that he boldly smashed the two together. It's no "Mississipi Queen" as far as rockin' goes, but properly cranked "Girlfriend" effectively wipes away any traces of other music's existence.
I've often written about the moment "Worthy of a Cranking (of the Volume)" as the point where a song declares itself as owner of all it surveys. When I remember the giddy joy of "Girlfriend," I want to guess it has no less than 27 of these moments. (This marks the first time my iPod-to-car situation could be considered "lucky;" allows for multiple volume boosts. Getting those moments in a song like this is like being given a bottomless plate of your favorite cake. Even though you're not going to run out, you want to devour as much of it as possible as quickly as possible.) In reality, it has 3.5 distinct, unquestionable cranking moments: the first verse (with the first use of the central chunk-a-chunk guitar riff), the first chorus (with those gorgeous backing vocals -- more on that later), half a crank for the bridge freak-out section, and then another full cranking for the chorus again at 2:20. I don't always do these crankings in order every single time, so they get all muddled up. Add to this my memory's inability to remember one bad moment in the whole 3:40, and you arrive at what feels like 27 cranking moments. Like the best art, "Girlfriend"'s true greatness exists in the mind.
"Girlfriend" epitomizes the beautiful illusion of rock music. Some people would say -- and I use that phrase in the strict Fox News context, which is to say 'I've said this in the past and I don't know if anyone else has, but I'm going with it,' which is to say 'I'm an ass hole; that this is a cheat.' -- that if the song has been manipulated in the studio and it can't really be performed that way live, then it lessens the artist's pure abilities. I truly am an ass hole, because A. that's not true, and B. I don't care. Yes, if I heard "Girlfriend" live and it didn't sound exactly like this studio track I would be disappointed, but that neither lessons Sweet's artistic abilities nor proves that this song is anything less than the best noise in the world. It actually proves the opposite. It shows that Sweet's abilities in the studio are masterful, worthy of more praise than I've heard for the guy. And because you cannot fully recreate live the joyous illusion of greatness of the studio track, that only proves how great the studio track was to begin with. If DaVinci couldn't re-paint the Mona Lisa again in front of our eyes, does that make the original painting any less of a masterpiece. Again, I'm talking to myself, and I answer with a resounding "no."
"Girlfriend" unlocks the beautiful euphoria that is illusion and allows me to live in that world without distratction. In my mind, I can sing. Therefore, in my mind, I can sing every part of "Girlfriend" perfectly. It's a temptress of a track. Besides the earlier-mentioned vocal range of Sweet himself, the song contains another personal favorite vocal choice: the semi-unnecessary harmonization. Logically speaking, I cannot understand one-man-bands like New Radicals and Nine Inch Nails or Matthew Sweet, because it seems like lonely, alienating, controlling work -- the main reason for starting a band is to avoid work, at least in the conventional sense. Vocally speaking however, I can completely relate because I love suddenly harmonizing with myself. Sounds impossible, but you must realize that my mind works on a logical plain known as "logic" (with the quotes around it; this is the same kind of scientific logic as the Lost island) I could be singing along to anything, and I'll imagine myself as the backing vocalist (usually the sideman with a guitar), and I lean in to the lead singer's mic and we harmonize like the awesome buddies we are and isn't this life great? But I want to sing lead as well, so in my imaginary band, I'm also the lead singer. Logic prohibits me from making my dreams come true, but "logic" encourages me.
THE POINT IS, to hear someone like Sweet doing what I always dream of doing by harmonizing with himself leads me to believe I've found a kinship in "logic." We get each other. Listen to the "Need someone to love" portions of the last verse and you can hear him backing himself up with himself, slipping down and up in the same track while staying distinct from one another and you get it. It is at this point when all the prior crankings, acknowledgment of rockin' and niceness that I've been drawing in reach the mountain top. All other songs in the great competition nobody knew we were having can turn in their applications to the nearest dumpster. This is the greatest feeling in the world from the greatest song in the world. If I feel optimistic that another will actually best "Girlfriend," it is only due to the optimism I glommed off of "Girlfriend" itself. It has become Alpha and Omega. There ceases to be any wrong or right: there is only "Girlfriend."
And with that, please enjoy the following video someone made mixing in weird sci-fi anime scenes with the official video for the song (it blows me away that they'd keep so much of Sweet himself, especially the creepy moment where he says "All right" into the camera).