Recently a friend glared at the speakers by my couch, narrowed his eyes, and accused the speakers of playing Billy Joel in my home.
“It’s not Billy Joel,” I assured him, and myself. “It’s Tobias Jesso Jr.”
Tobias Jesso Jr. is a 29-year-old songwriter who released his first album, Goon, earlier this month. I remembered his last name immediately, because it’s delightful. After hearing him on a discerning music blog, I chose to play him aloud, as one does. But — an all-caps, italicized, exclamatory BUT! — Tobias Jesso Jr. doesn’t not sound like Billy Joel.
Simple chord progressions are no excuse for adenoidal whining. This hasn't stopped Billy Joel, Tom Petty, or Ben Folds. In fact, countless other men with feelings and reedy voices have successful careers. Each has an impressive ability to wail variations of “why me?” and sell them as existential pathos. But despite these valid skills, no mopey sad-sack has ever been my particular jar of jam. To each her own. It’s not for me.
A record store could fairly file Mr. Jesso Jr. in this Melodious Man-Wails subset of the pop section. BUT! I like him. So does very cool person Danielle Haim, who drums on “Without You.” Music critics, who all seem very cool, are dancing strange dances of taste-justification. Pitchfork's Mark Richardson, for example, argued that it’s acceptable because it's actually commentary on the Piano Man’s complaint. He writes, “With its clear debt to a specific era, Goon has a meta quality, an album of music that illustrates the power of music. While the songs are almost all about heartbreak, they could be more likely to have you ruminating about the role music plays in heartbreak instead of the emotional pain itself, but this distancing effect, in which the songs unfold so patiently, doesn’t diminish the record’s pleasures.” Uh-huh. Will Hermes at Rolling Stone shrugged and made an apt comparison: “Accusing Tobias Jesso Jr. of piano-rock plagiarism is like accusing Shake Shack of hamburger mimicry.” The fast-food burger might be a deplorable category of food, but there’s no arguing against Shake Shack. Everyone loves Shake Shack.
I like all sorts of burgers, and I like all sorts of people and music, but I never like whiners. Complaining should only happen when absolutely necessary, and then, only to people who already love you or a dog. Listening to whining from someone you don't love is agony. A friend in nursing school just told me the hardest lab simulation ever assigned to her class was to simply listen to a patient complain without problem-solving or halting the conversation. It’s not natural to just let someone wail for the purpose of wailing; medical professionals have to take whole lessons on it. This reinforced a theory I have about whiners: They don’t even need people to really listen to them, just to hear them. Whiny mopester singers are the pinnacle of this impulse. They need so many people to hear their wails, they record them. It’s just needy noise pollution to me.
Jesso Jr.’s songs do all these things I don’t like. He's mostly plunking chords on a piano. He puts all the emotional work on the shoulders of the other person. He has a penchant for asking questions he doesn’t want the answer to: Can we still be friennnnds? How could you, baaabbbyyyyyy? Why can’t you just love me? Should I move on, or should I wait? But if I change, could I ask you on a dateeee? Writing out these questions, my brain so quickly answers, with cackling laughter: NO, EASILY, and NO, NO, NO. When Mr. Jesso Jr. sings to me, I wonder unhelpfully alongside him. Why have you been left, you mopey man? Keep asking your questions, never think of possible answers, you poor, poor dear. I will listen endlessly.
Whatever the particular special sauce in his voice is has spilled all over my brain and flooded the system. Maybe our similar ages tricked me into an initial patience. Most Melodious Man-Wails come from old dudes, who should have grown out of it at this point, even if they were youths at the time of recording. (By the way, Tom Petty was a 44-year-old teenager when he howled "you don't know how it feels.") There are other, slighter justifications for my affection. Jesso's voice has a gentle inquisitive quality, which removes any entitled antagonism from his whine. He has very pretty curls, the kind that might inspire me to print a picture of him and deliver it to the next person to cut my hair. The reasons are both plentiful and meaningless. Forget it, Jake; it's Shake Shack.
The ear wants what it wants. I believe neither in denial nor deprivation. Robbed of the only whiny man my ears have ever loved, they might be as sad, as helplessly heartbroken as Tobias Jesso Jr. They might just wail to me: Hooooooww, could you, baaabyy?