Building 1, Unit 303 (1동 303호) by Jang Pil Soon and How To Fight Loneliness (외로움을 이겨내는 법) by Wilco are songs about loneliness and alienation. While they are quite different in musical style and background, they share a caustic sarcasm about modern life where we feel our true selves tend to be relegated to the back while a hollow and showy facade takes the front stage. The sardonic, angst-ridden words and tune hit home with the listeners, perhaps in large part because they ring true. We do experience these forces of alienation in our lives one way or another.
Building 1, Unit 303
How To Fight Loneliness
외로움을 이겨내는 법
Jang Pil Soon’s Building 1, Unit 303, referring to an apartment unit, is about alienation and emptiness of modern city life. In Korea, because of the limited usable land space, high-rise apartments are ubiquitous and roughly half the population live in an apartment. This concentrated form of residence often gives rise to problems, one of them being the unwanted noise that the song is opening with. The narrator struggles in the new environment where invasion of people’s privacy and comfort abounds and true rapport with neighbors is rare. The refrain sums up the cold and empty lifestyle she has to grapple with: wrapped in a showy outfit displaying disingenuous smile, agile to keep up with the neck snapping speed of modern life, while immunizing yourself to needless compassion for others. While it is a cold, sarcastic picture that is difficult to brush aside as a distorted view, it also shows a ray of hope in the third verse where she sees her room’s light looking beautiful and the security guard’s greeting brightens her. There are lows and there are highs.
How To Fight Loneliness is by the American alternative rock band Wilco who have been making music in their current form since 1994. Performing rock music with heavy country influence, Wilco is a Chicago based band led by Jeff Tweedy who write most of the songs. Tweedy is in a way an unlikely looking rock musician as his vocal style is rather subdued and down-home without much flair. Nevertheless, some of his songs, including the featured How To Fight Loneliness, are truly outstanding in terms of their innovative musical phrasings and thoughtful lyrics.
How To Fight Loneliness is a dreary song of scathing sarcasm and sad resignation. To start with, the title itself is a stark indictment of our shallow society which is inundated with cheap How-To books everywhere, with tawdry titles like How To Marry A Millionaire or How To Marry A Married Woman. It is like the saying Man Is The Loneliest When He Is In A Crowd. Dime a dozen, readily available cheap answers and what not without the requisite conscientious thoughts and efforts behind them bring on more despair than help. The stunningly bleak lyrics goes on: you must smile all the time, laugh at every joke they say to be part of the in crowd; draw your blanket so you don’t see the unpleasant truth, fill your heart with cigarette smoke, and just want what is in vogue, not what you really need. Its brutal honesty hits you really hard. And there’s the repeated And smile all the time at the end - yes, even a smile can add to your despair if it is a disingenuous one thrown about for an ulterior motive.
One might ask: What’s the point of these songs? What good could there be in dwelling on the gloomy feelings? Is there a place for these songs? I’d say the answer is a resounding yes. For one, these negative feelings represent a certain truth about our world. Even though one can’t say this is a simple truth since the world is too big and complex for any such one dimensional categorization, these views do bring on greater awareness of the darker side of our reality as well as the attendant sympathy for our fellow human beings which we already harbor deep in our minds. I believe they do serve a purpose.
More important, though, is that they work so beautifully in art. I don’t know what it is, but it seems such sad and dark sentiments are so effective as an ingredient of an art. Maybe it is just the way catharsis works - pathos arising from sadness and denial seems to work such a wonder in all art forms, even though all, or at least most of us want to avoid such negative things and lead a happy life. Can it be because the human mind gets bored with the plain simple happiness, and needs a dose of the other dark side through art to balance it out? Whatever the reason, it appears the real life and art are two ironically incompatible things. At any rate, these songs move me, in large part because of their dark ironies.