"Still Fighting It" / Ben Folds
Over the holidays, when so many of us troop home to visit our old stomping grounds, the entire Rockin' the Suburbs album by Ben Folds hits home for me. As he declares in pseudo hip-hop style in the title track, "Let me tell y'all what it's like / Being male, middle-class, and white / It's a bitch; if you don't believe / Listen up to my new CD." We have to laugh at his "white-boy pain," but to tell the truth, that's what most of us know best, and Folds mines the territory with sympathy, insight, and not a trace of condescension.
"Still Fighting It" begins tenderly, just Folds singing a swooping melody breathily over his soft piano part, and I see it as an early-morning scene, with the dew still beaded on windshields and mailboxes: "Good morning son, I am a bird / Wearing a brown polyester shirt." With that polyester detail, I'm immediately sucked into the scenario, which appears to take place at a fast-food drive-in window: "You want a Coke, maybe some fries? / The roast-beef combo's only $9.95." Here we are, at the heart of the suburban cultural experience, and these two guys are having a stilted sort of conversation, just like fathers and sons have been doing for time immemorial.
Drums, guitar, backing vocals, strings -- the works -- are laid on for the chorus: "Everybody knows, it sucks to grow up / And everybody does . . . so weird to be back here / And let me tell you what: The years go on and / We're still fighting it." That "we're still fighting it" line is the heart of the song, and it repeats several times, building up to anthem level with big crashing Elton John-like chords. After all, that fight is the universal story, that inevitable clash between generations -- maybe 20 years from now they'll be able to laugh about it over a beer, but right now there's a lot of pain.
Has anybody out there ever watched a father and son tear each other apart? -- let me see a show of hands. Somehow it seems that getting together for the holidays always brings it to a head. The young guy is only doing what a young guy has to do; the dad is only reacting as he must. But what gets me is how Ben Folds -- who was probably 35 when he wrote this song -- sees both sides, and makes both guys sympathetic. It even more amazing when you learn that Ben wrote this to celebrate the birth of his own son; he's imagining their future together, with all the ying-yangs of emotion ahead of them. He has only been in the shoes of the father for about, let's say, three days, and already he GETS IT.
There's a break-free moment toward the end, referring back to that "bird" in the first line: "You'll try and try / And one day you'll fly away . . . from me." (That line completely chokes me up. ) Then it hushes down at the end again, as he sings simply, in a rather lost-sounding voice, "You're so much like me -- / I'm sorry . . . " Does that come from the dad or the son? Does it matter by this point? It's understated, awkward, completely schmaltz-free -- and so heart-wrenching I can hardly stand it. You have nailed this thing, Ben -- way to go.