In HateSong, we ask our favorite musicians, writers, comedians, actors, and so forth to expound on the one song they hate most in the world.
The hater: Actor, comedian, and regular panelist on the now-defunct Chelsea Lately, Guy Branum has made his bones by being outspoken. That’s not always without consequence, as he detailed in a recent op-ed for The New York Times, but Branum has succeeded despite adversity, with a new album, Effable, out now on A Special Thing Records.
The hated: Radiohead, “The National Anthem” (2000)
The A.V. Club: Why is this the song you picked? It’s not going to be a popular choice.
Guy Branum: Well, I went into this process thinking about how all the songs that I hate sound alike to me, in that they are all respectable-dude indie rock or indie pop songs that are very full of themselves and proud of themselves and have no joy in them. So, I was like, “Oh, well, one of those Radioheads.” And then I went and listened, and “Creep” and “Karma Police” have charisma. Like, in the same way their hits are going to have charisma. But then I was like, “What’s that song that makes my ears hurt?” And the answer was, “National Anthem.”
My argument against “National Anthem” is a) it just makes my ears hurt. It is just annoying and grating to listen to—that’s A; b) is that I just hate the angry, angsty, disaffected, “We live in this world of muddled media and nobody communicates with each other” and all of that. It makes me mad. I’m always just trying to communicate. I’m not spending my time whining about how disconnected from the rest of society I am, because I feel pretty disconnected from society and I’m always trying to fight to understand and be understood.
So much of my hate for this song is just about the idea of respectable music—of the music you’re supposed to like. This New York comic Jon Early has the funniest joke that’s basically just, “I wish I had spent less time in high school listening to Radiohead and more time learning how to use my butt for sex.” It’s a very funny joke, but it’s basically about how much he was trying to be respectable and do this stuff that a guy was supposed to like instead of doing the stuff that meant something and worked for him.
Here’s the thing. I love most of the songs that you shit on in this series. Specifically, “Same Love,” “Thrift Shop,” and all of the glorious little earworm songs that everybody’s like, “It’s so annoying, it’s so annoying.” I pretty much universally think that those are fun and a good listen.
I hate that the national council of guys with interesting hair decided in 2002 that Radiohead was smart and good and respectable and to be a worthy person you had to like Radiohead.
AVC: It does seem like the vast majority of people in the world prefer a song like “Thrift Shop” to “The National Anthem.” I imagine “Thrift Shop” has sold a lot more copies. And now there’s almost a backlash happening against Radiohead. They’re too big, even according to guys with interesting haircuts.
GB: Radiohead is less my problem than the tyranny of those guys. Like, the anxiety I experienced throughout college of having somebody ask me what kind of music I liked and deciding that was going to be the gauge of how interesting a human being I was. I was never going to like any sort of music that they thought was valid. And I wasn’t formed enough to be able to make my angry arguments that, like, “Call Me Maybe” is a meaningful song with more relevance to my life than “National Anthem.”
AVC: That’s valid, though. It’s the high versus low culture argument. More people can relate to The Breakfast Club than to Homer’s Odyssey.
GB: I feel like with music, it’s almost different because music has always been targeted to demographic groups and I feel like teenage girl culture gets a really bad rap because we are able to say, “This is the worst part of consumerism and this is the worst part of having America tell you what you should do and what you should like and you’re just being like everybody else.” It’s ignoring that they are an extremely vulnerable group. Let’s take women that are so young that they don’t have rights and then also get them exactly to the point where they are sexually vulnerable and start telling them about how they’re never going to achieve the things that men are going to. There’s going to be a lot of angst and anxiety. And these songs are about those girls getting themselves through the day, reminding themselves that they’re important, or talking about what boys they are going to end up with. “Call Me Maybe” is just a beautiful step forward in saying, “Hey, I’m going to make this choice, I’m going to give him my number.”
As a gay guy who doesn’t have culture for me most of the time, that stuff has always spoken to me. Especially those empowerment songs. It’s why angst bothers me so much. One time I was listening to blues and I was like, “This is about depression being a national issue for black people.” It made me think more about the way that gay guys listen to music. I think for us, it’s not about how, if we focused on the things that made us sad, we might never be sad. Our suicide statistics are high enough already. For gay guys, reminding yourself why you’re on this planet and why you need to keep putting one foot in front of the other is important. So we’re not going to spend as much time just roiling around in angst and bitching about things. We have actual stuff to complain about that we’d like to not think about for awhile.
Oh, and my other problem with “The National Anthem” is I really like national anthems.
AVC: You like the American national anthem?
GB: I like the Canadian national anthem a lot. I have five versions of the Canadian national anthem on my phone. I have two versions of the French national anthem. They’re generally kind of rousing and fun. The good ones, at least.
This song is just so annoying. It doesn’t go anywhere and it all feels so deliberate. It feels like a bunch of choices being made and consciously trying to not be fun.
AVC: I will say it’s a little on the nose, but maybe in 2000 we didn’t quite get it as much as we do now. It wasn’t so ridiculous and ham-fisted.
GB: Well, that’s the thing. I lived with a very observant hipster couple in Oakland, in 2001 to 2002, and it was a very different world. A lot of the stuff we can now take for granted, people were still being pissed off about. But it was just such an article of faith for them that Radiohead was the best possible thing. And they were lovely people, but I just took all of my annoyance with that and dumped it on Radiohead.
AVC: Do you like any Radiohead songs?
GB: Well, no. I like “Creep” and “Karma Police,” like I said. I like everyone’s poppiest song. Sometimes I will accept the mantle of “I have bad taste in music”—but what I mean by that is that I don’t have the taste in music that you think is morally acceptable. I always like everybody’s one poppiest, most fun song. Like, the only Björk song I have is “It’s Oh So Quiet.” I really like “Shiny Happy People.” Some people might call it a terrible cliché. I call it my truth.
AVC: Why is music so personal? I can say I don’t like The Tree Of Life and a film person might get that, but if you say you don’t like Radiohead, people will think you just haven’t heard enough. They take it so personally.
GB: It’s interesting because I tend to have very good, respectable opinions for everything else, which is why I’ve always been angry about music being this one badge that everybody carries around of like, “Look at how complex I am. I like this one sad song.” I mean, look, music is profound, but it’s also, generally, about three minutes long. So it’s not that hard to digest and consume, where three hours of Ingmar Bergman—that’s a bit more to take on. I’ve never understood why music is such an important badge for most people’s identity.
I just get so mad when people talk mad shit at fun songs. The last track on my album is about my resolute case for that one song that they play all the time on the radio right now. I always like that one song that everybody likes right now. And people can just assume that I’m not a smart person or assume that I’m not an emotionally complex person because of that. And it fills me with rage.
AVC: But you’re taking the opposite tack, in a way. You’re assigning a belief to all people who might like Radiohead.
GB: You know, I’ve read this feature for some time and I don’t think I hate songs in the same way. I just avoid the songs that I dislike. As I said, they all just sound alike to me. By now, I’ve gotten good enough at just ignoring songs that don’t matter to me. It’s mainly just my anger about why people feel such a resolute need to say Taylor Swift is shallow and untalented. Look, I thought Taylor Swift was shallow and untalented too until this last album. And then I was like, “All right, this bitch has something to say.” “Shake It Off” is wonderful, and “Shake It Off” means something to me. There’s also something great about knowing there are little boys and girls who are going through shit that is real to them right now and they just need to be reminded to shake it off. Because the “haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate.”
AVC: Everyone’s allowed to like what they like for sure.
GB: I’m more focused on trying to like things, because I just feel like there’s enough to hate in my life. That’s why it makes me so mad that you get these songs that are just about rolling around in your anger at something that you don’t really even have complex thoughts about. There’s already a lot of media coming at us about that. I don’t care.