Lyrical Hermeneutics with Pile’s “Special Snowflakes”

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Pile specialize in heavy, stadium-sized songs for shitty, beer-soaked basement shows. They’ve got a million influences—Nirvana and the Pixies’ quiet/loud dynamic plus vocal grunt, Fugazi’s highbrow guitar interlocking and drum pummeling, the Jesus Lizard’s all of the above, etc.—but sound little like any of them. Their songs are so loud and so heavy that we tend to miss what’s beneath them, and what’s beneath is poetry of an exceedingly high quality. Strip the distortion and oil-tanker-fill frills away and you have these twisted little Elliott Smith-like folk songs going on here, an Exploding in Sound constant. Singer/guitarist/songwriter Rick McGuire is the man of the hour.

Their most recent track, “Special Snowflakes,” is a meandering behemoth and, in my humble opinion, the best song they’ve ever recorded. Seven minutes long, sounding both alike and above everything they’ve recorded previously, the song is, more or less—and this is from the title alone—about us. About the thing within us that tells us we are an original, autonomous being. That we are unique and above easy categorization; more than just shady lumps of “human” or “American” meat. But, question: are we? Even if we’re one in a billion, there are still seven of us, and that number is always increasing. We’re special, sure, but if we say we are then we concede that all of us are special, and so, rudimentary philosophy here, if everyone is special then no one is special. So, in a sense, our snowflake-ness—that is, sameness, our swarm-like nature—outweighs our specialness, our distinctiveness. But, obviously, if we were actually able to say that that’s really what the song is ABOUT, that that’s really who we are, then why would I be writing this thing? There’s obviously more, and the more in a song like this deserves attention.

Let the ExeJesus begin…

Morning comes with birds and kids
Talking to themselves for some reason
And wrists can vibrate at a comfortable rate
To get you to sleep, or keep you from it

The song begins how everything begins: morning. In my interpretation, we have a jaded insomniac jerking off so he can go back to sleep and avoid the self-congratulatory kids (i.e. this generation of kids; Pile’s and yours truly) who think they’re so damned special, who think their own voice rings truer than others. But this opening character is larger, referred to as a “You,” and, to some degree, distinct from the “He” we get soon after. The narrative of the song can either be seen as the ‘he’ to come becoming increasingly jaded, or, alternatively, as our insomniac, the early “you,” looking back on how he got so fucked up, turned from the descriptor containing “he” to an amorphous, identity-less and universal “you.” I like the second one. Let’s go with the second one.

Just one more cockamamie theory to keep in mind before we start things off for real: it can be seen as the parable of the indie-rock band made big and corrupted by the big. We’re getting ahead of ourselves, though. There’s still a mess of info in the first verse that needs unraveling. The most striking thing early on here is the sheer bleakness. Our insomniac jerks off—that is, willfully chooses to shoot his life-giving seed onto himself—instead of participating with life itself; the birds and kids who awake the new day, relatively clear symbols for the future. As soon as the new day begins, the insomniac wants it done with—he/you wants life done with. He is existentially depressed, unable to gel with the movements of life itself.

He wears that hole in his shoe with real grace
And if he wears it right
He just might have a leg up on everyone
Bet it’d feel so good
They’d all watch him tie those gold laces
And they become things he can’t stop tying
Becoming grateful and bitter for his brand new handicap
And holding the ropes that he’d been thrust upon
He can’t get his hands off his feet to enjoy the walk
Now it’s tough to tell if ever he was real
Just knows the crunch of his new boots crushes all special snowflakes

Moving forward, or, rather, chronologically backwards, we see how the insomniac became such a sad piece of shit. ‘You’ was once ‘he’ and his story begins with a hole in his shoe, a crutch of sorts. What this hole represents could be any number of things: it could reflect our hero’s lack of money, his having a tougher time walking, some other mental depression-like hindrance, or just plain old narcissism (e.g. purposefully scuffing up clothes to give them an old, grungy, special look). But this hole at least gives him “real grace,” which is the most positive, least embittered lyric yet and to come. The hole gives him grace and, consequently, a leg up on others. And so to compensate for that hole, he gets gold shoe laces. Did he piss on them? Is that the joke? It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that he can’t stop tying these laces (a fairly clear play on tying off/shooting up), and now he is grateful and bitter—another insurmountable contradiction like the “get you to sleep or keep you from it” from the beginning—instead of having grace, and, second and just as important, he starts being watched by a faceless “they” as soon as he gets these gold laces. He becomes addicted to tying his shoe laces, just like he is addicted to jerking off at the end/beginning. He is jerking his newfound specialness off, his contradictory shoes with holes and pissed-on laces—his cool. But he is only doing this because he now has an audience to do it for, a “they.” And so he is “thrust upon” ropes, a more dramatic version of laces, one that intimates hanging yourself, and now can’t even walk, the real function of wearing shoes. The insomniac to be becomes so consumed by shitty, special shoes (himself) that they stop functioning as shoes, instead turning into something cool but ultimately useless—like fingerless gloves—a masturbatory thing to help you masturbate, a parallel to the cock he can’t stop beating off.

Quick break: I want to focus extra-hard on the line, “Now it’s tough to tell if ever he was real.” What does “real” mean here? Let’s call real authentic. “He” strived for specialness but instead lost all realness, the only positive quality (“real grace”) he ever had. We can contrast realness with specialness, calling specialness something that exists only in the minds of others, wholly unreachable places, that essentially means you, special person, are exceptionally different, whether good or bad, bracketed with scare-quotes or not, while realness is a sort of intangible quality defined as being true to oneself, whatever truth may be and whatever oneself (and one and self) may be. Realness is harder to gauge because (probably) to most people there is no such thing as a mystical authenticity, a true you at the center of your heart. Conventional wisdom says you are always adapting and changing and that the brain is an amorphous thing. But this goes deeper than neurochemistry and we all know what it means and we all can tell who is real and who is not after a few beer-filled nights heavy on personal history (I’d like to hope, at least). Possibly a better way to look at it: I have many selves but only one distinct I, and that I is so unfathomably deep, hidden from me and complicated that I don’t know who the fuck I am or what that I burrowed deep in my ever-confused soul is, but I still know it and I exist. You can have a self called Rick, a self called Mcguire, one called singer in a band called Pile, but can you ever get to the essence of Rick Mcguire, singer in Pile? When you use the loaded word I, what self are you referring to? Realness is trying to touch that I. That is why, I would like to think, “I” is never used in the song— “he”/”you” only engage with a dubious, fake, imitation of self, reaching for what will make him cool and special but not what will make him real. It’s not so much the “grace” that mattered earlier on, but the “real grace.”

Smoke the evil out
Smoke the evil out
Smoke the evil out

Our character is now so consumed by his shoes that he can’t enjoy life (“the walk”) and the only thing he definitively knows now is that “the crunch of his new boots crushes all special snowflakes.” The title, at last. As we end the second verse the only thing our hero is sure of is that he is more special than the other special snowflakes—that he, in a way, feels like the most special being ever. And so we enter the first refrain with a sort of tying-together chant: “Smoke the evil out.” There is evil inside now, and we’re desperately trying to get it out by any holes necessary. The “stroke” takes us back to the beginning, to the hero to be, showing that what he is really doing at the beginning is not just an exercise in momentarily pleasurable futility but a earnest attempt to rid himself, or, rather, “you,” of himself/yourself. If the drive for feeling special has caused you to feel so terribly shitty then why would you want to give your shitty specialness to others? Onanism ensures no more shitty yous are running out there.

It’s satisfied
By removing chunks of dead skin
It turns it on the same way
Couldn’t keep a straight face staring at it
It turns it on

This next verse introduces a new kind of pronoun, an “it.” “It” presumably refers to the evil in him, so he can only satiate that evil drive by, for lack of a better word, jerking it off, playing along with it. His dick, that coiled snake, holds future evil, and the only way he can expunge that evil (himself) from himself is “by removing chunks of dead skin,” by expunging it all over himself. “It” turning “it on” is evil getting off to evil, an ugly man looking in the mirror and getting off to his ugly face. It’s a profound addiction to self that leads “you” to so chronically masturbate, and it’s that addiction to self that gets reflected mirror-like on the “he” of the longer verses. So, to shorten everything, the author of evil is the self. And so now, the hero is no longer a “he” or even a “you,” like in the parallel first verse, but an “it”—all the human in him/you has died.

With that mirror you forced yourself to stare
And you stink of the holiness they soaked you in
And it ends up driving you bored, drinking you numb
So special for a minute though

The next verse is a more or less an extension of the previous one, but also the most laceratingly vicious and angry. For the first time “you” and “they” collide into one verse. It’s no longer just he being a masturbatory fuck but the OG jerker-offer, “you,” giving into you yourself: you force yourself to look at yourself while you jerk off to yourself. “You” smells now, too, stinking “of the holiness they soaked you in.” This holiness is the piss that turned his shoelaces gold. The outside force, “they,” returns to not just haunt “he” but “you” too, so the two worlds, the worlds from their respective first and seconds verses, finally mesh for the first time. So, holiness is praise, affirmations of specialness lauded onto “you” by “they.” Now, because of that, “you” turns self-destructive, starts “drinking” and “driving.” The next line is the most bitter in the entire song. Look where your specialness, your gold laces, your one hit-indie-wonder got you. A minute of special, and then this: hollow.

He wears that hole in his shoe with the same face
And if he wears it right
He just might have to keep that leg up on everyone
Cuz it feels so good
They’d all watch him tie those gold laces
And they become things he can’t stop tying
Gratefully bitter for that old handicap
And gripping the ropes that he holds himself on
Feet paraded on our heads as his take a walk
Now it’s tough to tell if ever he was real
Just knows the crunch of those old boots keeps him a special snowflake

The final verse is an edit of the long second, most of the lyrics being just slightly off from their precursors. Instead of wearing the hole in his shoe with real grace, he now wears it with the same face, the same face he wore when he would stare at himself in the mirror. It’s no longer about the real shoe for him but the self-satisfying face. Now when he wears it right it’s not that he “just might” have a leg up on everyone, a privilege, but now a curse: “he just might have to keep that leg up.” He’s lost control over his own body, and it’s no longer a “bet” that he might feel good but definite knowledge, “cuz it feels so good.” “They” are still watching him tie off and he is still addicted to it, but he is no longer “grateful and bitter” but “gratefully bitter,” meaning there is no separation between object (being grateful towards someone) and himself (being bitter about something): now a solipsist, everything is a part of him and everything relates to him—he is all that exists. The “new” handicap, the hole, like everything, turns “old” with time, and novelty (having a hole-like sound) becomes stale (having a pissed-on sound). He isn’t just holding the ropes any longer but “gripping” them, as if, on the edge over oblivion, that’s all he has left; and he isn’t “thrust upon” those ropes, no longer forced on them by an outside interference, but is in total control of his misery—he now holds himself on and by those ropes. His feet parade on our heads––our first inclusion in this song, giving it more of a parable-like quality (i.e. don’t turn into this sorry shit, please)––and, with this, he becomes totally and completely self-righteous. In other words, he, via all of this, keeps himself a special snowflake.

So after all this pretentious ranting what is this song actually ABOUT? is there some moral to the story of the boy with the shoe gone self-obsessed and douchey? Yeah, kind of. What it’s ABOUT is doing something that actually fucking matters. We can call ourselves inherently original, say we wear unique clothes, read obscure books, listen to obscure bands like Pile, write music too under-the-radar for the masses, etc., but if there’s nothing to show for that, if it’s all just a pissing contest for popularity, then, again, what’s the point? That’s the antithesis of the real. Originality doesn’t deserve praise, because, what the fuck, original doesn’t even mean good, of value, of merit, of anything. It just means different, and anything can be different, any new, previously un-earthed idea is different, but not every previously un-earthed idea is any good, right? It’s ABOUT looking into the face of young kids and young bands who are getting more acclaim than you for doing less work and for catching a buzz or a wave or whatever we’re calling it and saying, “alright: there are truer things, more real things than ‘making it big’ in a compromised fashion.” There are other people, an audience, a sad kid on the other side of a computer feeling things that he/she/they normally doesn’t feel: they feel life, and if they feel it deep enough, perhaps a new life. Because can you really even tell one snowflake apart from the rest of the snowflakes? Not really: it hits your hand and melts. But if a few snowflakes fall onto the tongue of someone dying of thirst, someone dying of themselves, then, yes, you can tell them apart. Those were life saving snowflakes that deserve to be called Special Snowflakes. And the right song (a snowflake) from the right band (a snowflake) in the right drought of a kid’s (a snowflake’s) bedroom does the same.