Dead Serious Music
Lessons Learned from an Ex
Ivan Anderson talks about what he learned from sending a song to his ex-girlfriend.
When I was a freshman in college, I recorded a cover of “Jealous Guy” by John Lennon and sent it to my ex-girlfriend, thinking it would be powerful and moving. My cover was self-serious on purpose, and I did the hushed-male-singing voice. I didn’t know better. It was the early 2000s, and John Mayer was at peak superstar.
I never heard back from my ex-girlfriend about the song, but that summer I discovered a blog post she’d written where she made fun of it. On every level: she made fun of my attempt to be intense, the choice to send it to her with no letter and no message, the performance itself, all of it. You better believe she made fun of hushed-male vocal.
The only thing she didn’t touch was the guitar solo I had added, which I took as a minor, useless victory. She even made fun of the lyrics, even though they weren’t mine. It was a total takedown.
If you had asked me, right as I was mailing her the song, what the absolute worst-case scenario would be for the whole project, it would have been this. It would have been her and her friends laughing at my thing and throwing it in the garbage, which she described doing exactly on her blog.
The rest of that summer was rough. I figured I had to redo my entire personality. For starters, I decided that trying to be moving and powerful was done. Me trying to do Elliott Smith was done.
Hushed-male vocal was banned for life. From now on, there would always be an angle. “Just a guy in a dorm room, recording his feelings” was not good enough. You can’t leave yourself open like that.
Next, I decided she was right. I listened to my cover again, and it was cringe. It was pure cringe on a second-to-second basis. I was trying to make her like me by feeling sorry for me. It was Doomed.
But then also, what about the fact that she went after John Lennon’s lyrics? Was she right about that, too? On this last point, I decided not to come to a verdict. How was I supposed to know whether my ex-girlfriend was right about John Lennon? It was too hard to figure out whose side I wanted to be on. But maybe that’s not the point, I thought. Maybe the point is just that no one is safe.
I did not immediately get good after that. I still had no idea what my angle was, and without hushed-male voice, I was terrified of singing. But I could sense, dimly, a way forward. There was something in between self-serious and profound. A way of being serious that was absolutely not maudlin and not trying to be important. I couldn’t put my finger on it yet, but whatever the opposite of serious and profound was, that’s what I wanted to be. Serious and funny, maybe. It seemed like a contradiction, but it also seemed harder to mock. Let’s try it, I thought.
— Ivan Anderson