This Song Is a Chair

Why is the Replacements’ “Unsatisfied” such a great song?  Ask a fan and odds are that it will be among his or her favorite Replacements songs.  But why?  After all, it’s very simple, and—except for a couple of brief sections—it essentially repeats the same lyric over and over.  In fact, in an interview, Paul Westerberg himself dismissed it: “‘Unsatisfied’ is one of the most overrated, half-baked songs ever written.  OK, I meant it, but it really only had one line.”  I would hardly say that Westerberg’s concession is as trivial as he plays it here, though.  It’s precisely because he meant it and that the song only had one line that makes it great.  John Lennon famously defended the lyrical simplicity of his song “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” against a critic who declared it was a symptom of Lennon’s atrophying skills as a lyricist by declaring, “When it gets down to it, like [Yoko] said, when you’re drowning you don’t say ‘I would be incredibly pleased if someone would have the foresight to notice me drowning and come and help me,’ you just scream.”  Which is precisely what Westerberg does in “Unsatisfied”—he’s drowning and he just screams.

Before he does either, however, the song opens with a musically lyrical introduction that doesn’t really intimate the anger and pain that will be expressed within a few short minutes, but rather suggests the calm against which those emotions are so starkly contrasted.  The introduction lays out the basic chord sequence of the song arpeggiated on a twelve-string guitar, a muffled voice submerged under the music saying something that can’t be understood, before Westerberg shouts, “Jump!” and the band joins in, plunging into the water with him.  Then comes the lyric, the “one line,” that is repeated five times in this four minute song: “Look me in the eye / And tell me that I’m satisfied . . .”  At first, as one might expect from such a lyric, it comes across as a dare, a challenge to anyone with the nerve to look Westerberg—or at least the song’s narrator—directly in the eye and tell him something he knows is untrue.

This challenge is immediately followed, as the one line always is, by throwing the question into the listener’s lap.  But this first time around, and only this time, the words get tripped up in the narrator’s bravado, and he asks what sounds like either “Was you” or “Is you satisfied?”, the mistake vocally pinched, as if the narrator or even Westerberg realized it was the wrong word as it was coming out of his mouth, but he has committed to saying it, he has already jumped, so whatever comes out is what is supposed to come out, accident or aphorism, so he just pushes forward.

With each repetition of “Look me in the eye / And tell me that I’m satisfied,” there’s a slightly different inflection, moving from that initial dare into a bit of a threat, Westerberg giving the line a bit of a sneer, and eventually, after admitting, “And it goes so slowly on / Everything I’ve ever wanted / Tell me what’s wrong,” the narrator lets down his guard before expressing pain, anger, and then a combination of both that, with Westerberg’s raw-throated singing, sounds like primal scream therapy.  And then, the bubble burst, the screams let loose but no rescue in sight, the singing dissipates, the voice fading away, the lyrics reduced to the narrator repeatedly moaning, “I’m so unsatisfied . . . I’m so dissatisfied” until he can’t even work up the energy for that, the phrase devolving into, “I’m so dissatis, disatis,” and finally just, “I’m so …,” as the song’s chords essentially move back and forth between a suspended F and a D7, both demanding resolutions they never receive, much like the narrator himself.  It’s quite a dramatic range of emotions for such a relatively short song.

That they all spring from such a simple and repetitive song is due in no short part to the universality of what it expresses.  I remember “Unsatisfied” really spoke to me when I was an undergraduate.  A self-fashioned angry young man, I was never satisfied and thought it was my moral obligation to share my indignation with the world, drawing attention to what was broken so it might get fixed.  I suppose such feelings are really a sign of youthful optimism, rooted in the sense that things not only can be better, they should.  One genuinely believes that the ache in the heart that fuels all that restlessness and rage can be cured.  What surprised me as I got older is that my dissatisfaction never quite went away.  Things didn’t get better, and as loved ones started dying while it became clearer that my life was going nowhere in particular—certainly not in any direction I had hoped for—I realized I was still unsatisfied.  This dissatisfaction no longer felt the same, nor did I express it similarly, but that ache was still there.  And while I understand that such dissatisfaction is just a way of looking at the world, I have come to see how common it is.  Even the wisest among us—perhaps especially they—feel it.  So the song, so suited to the pains of youth, took on a different, more complicated set of feelings as I got older, instead of being something I merely remembered being passionate about when I was younger, as I expected was going to happen as I occasionally revisited Let It Be.

It’s the universality of what it’s expressing, and the simple directness with which it does so, that keeps the song alive.  It’s not sophisticated; it doesn’t need interpretation.  There’s another quote from John Lennon that’s appropriate here.  Discussing the blues, Lennon said, “the blues is a chair, not a design for a chair or a better chair . . . it is the first chair. It is a chair for sitting on, not for looking at. You sit on that music.”  Or, if I can put it another way, the blues are occupied, much like a chair is.  You don’t interpret them any more than you do a chair.  If you do, they become something else, an approximation of the blues, a pale imitation.  Rather, the blues is music that has to be lived.  The song structures, the lyrics, like “Unsatisfied,” resist interpretation because they are so open to it.  But you can’t come close with the blues.  Because they express themselves so directly, they’re either there or they’re not.  “Unsatisfied” is great not because it’s clever like a Cole Porter song—as clever and wonderful as Mr. Porter’s songs can be—but because it’s a chair.

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5 Responses to This Song Is a Chair

  1. Ah, yes, I remember that angry young man, Steve.

    Taken as a whole, this album can be seen as a document of a young man transitioning into full adulthood, but the transition is not nearly resolved by the end of the album: Westerberg lashes out at an answering machine presumably because he can’t say these things to his girlfriend.

    I probably wouldn’t have an insight into this album without reading your essay, Steve. Think about the other songs on the album and see if you agree with my interpretation.

    Rrandy

    • chaszak says:

      Thanks for the response, Rrandy. I’ll keep it in mind the next time I listen to LET IT BE. It’s always nice to hear the familiar from a new place. I’m assuming “Gary’s Got a Boner” is in the “young man” camp.

      • That song, and “Tommy Gets His Tonsils out” are reveling in adolescence. “Sixteen Blue” is consolation to those of that age from someone not far removed from that turmoil.

  2. Kitty C. says:

    Why Rock ‘n’ Roll Matters. Yes. Let go of the words and just scream. Such a shame my academic music and rock music educations had to be separate. But I can’t imagine life without them both. Especially the rock ‘n’ roll. Thank you, Steve.

    • chaszak says:

      Thanks Kitty. I’m sure you would agree that rock & roll is more than simple lyrics and shouting—as pleasurable as they can be when they show up. But, as a musical style, r & r seems especially well-suited for creating chairs.

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