There are a few songs on every album that we love less.
Like middle children or unsalted fries or those blanched days between winter and spring, they lack a certain quality that is difficult to define but enough to cost our affection. In the age of internet radio, the problem is exacerbated. Most of the songs we hear are orphaned from their albums—from the stories that contain them—and flashed across our consciousness by some secret algorithm. They are lonely sparrows flitting through a forest of noise, and we love it. We love being able to skip and thumbs-down and unsubscribe and only listen to that which offers maximum titillation for the small amount of time we please to afford.
When an artist or group I respect releases a new album, I challenge myself (oh tortured, pious soul) to listen to the whole thing in one sitting. Phantogram’s latest release, Three, is a perfect example of what I’ve been describing: a few tracks that make me close my eyes and salivate, a few that I might, in the right mood, enjoy, and one that I almost couldn’t bear—at least on the first listen.
“Calling All,” is a bit out of character even for Phantogram, whose songs are notorious for blending genres and whose sounds have always been edgy. There’s something especially irreverent about the lyrics of this song and its chant-like cadence that makes me feel as if I’m listening to a different artist, or perhaps a song that made it through production by accident—some late-night, last-minute practical joke played by the mastering technician. But it’s not, of course. Not a joke. It’s garish and crude like a hooker in countries where hookering is legal, but it’s not a joke.
Getting to the point and speaking of hookers, this song is about prostitution. Vocalist Sarah Barthel describes call girls earning cash in various denominations at night and committing unscrupulous acts “down by the boat docks.” She repeats the refrain, “We all got a little bit of ho in us,” a total of nine times.
Since I respect Barthel’s artistic sensibilities, I can only assume she’s reaching for a more more symbolic interpretation than, “We all wish we were hookers.” I certainly don’t wish I were a hooker. Too much accounting. Too many hazardous materials. But I am familiar with the temptation to “put out” when the price is right or when I need to “get by.” I know what it’s like to give myself away—my time, my attention, my emotional resources—to things that aren’t worthwhile and don’t love me. Sometimes, that might involve a detestable act like [insert detestable act here]. Other times, it might be innocent—like accepting a job at some vacuous marketing agency in order to provide for my family.
I’m also familiar with taking. I know what it’s like to leech value for my own gratification and give very little in return. Internet radio is one example. Pornography is another. Even going to the movies, in some cases, could be construed as a mindless transaction of negligible value. Pay money; get titillation. Laugh, cry, clench, go home, forget. The multi-sensory “feelies” in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are an example of Taking in its ultimate form: see and touch and smell and hear and taste another reality without leaving the comfort of a theater chair.
That’s why our culture of production and consumption functions so seamlessly and cyclically. A percentage of the population makes things, and the rest of us devour those things. And at least half the people who make things only make them because people devour them, or because they could be devoured, and half the people who devour things only devour them because they’re being made and marketed in such a tantalizing way—not because we actually want or need the things themselves.
How can we look at FitBit and VR goggles and Pit Bull and honestly suggest that society is better off with these commodities? We can’t, but we love them all the same. We crave what others put out, especially when a lot of people already do the same. Did you know, for example, that the civilized world is home to 1.7 billion Facebook users, and that 78 percent of U.S. adults have a social media profile. To stay in touch with old friends? Maybe in some rare cases. But most of us, whether we realize it or not, build social media profiles so that people can look at us and want us and want to be us—sexually, financially, or otherwise. In the case of most dating apps, the action is not even symbolic. Hooking up and putting out is literally the whole point. Here’s some language taken directly from the press kit of sexual rendezvous app PURE:
“Using modern technology, we are creating a significant positive change in the way people think about sexuality. . . PURE is a platform where users can let go of traditional models of love and sexual relationships, and explore connection on their own terms . . . We promote a sex-positive attitude, free of judgement and the weight of social constraints.”
You don’t even have to break the law or exchange money to find or be a hooker anymore. And like the less-appreciated songs of a new album, we can quickly swipe away from any suitors whose profile pics don’t promise fantastical delight.
So what are we doing, as a species? Are we evolving, or just festering? What will we become tomorrow? The next day?
We take and enjoy things without considering their origins or cosmological significance. We satiate our cravings while not yet fully understanding them. And as patrons of this global debauchery, aren’t we just as implicated in the act as those behind the control panel? Aren’t the givers and the takers equally responsible? I believe so. I believe we all got a little bit of ho in us.