As John Cusack's character repeatedly tells us in the American film adaptation of Nick Hornby's music-themed novel, High Fidelity, pop music has always been one of life's greatest excuses to retreat into the deepest recesses of one's self. Whether for the purpose of wringing every possible bit of drama out of a failed love affair or inflating our problems beyond any resemblance to reality, self-absorption through music has a long and storied history. So let's lock ourselves into our figurative rooms and indulge the spoiled brat lacking all perspective in all of us.
Starting with its perfectly straightforward and universally woe-is-me title, this tune strikes a chord of lyrical bombast that perfectly matches the overwhelming emotions we feel when we lose perspective on our own situations. The one shining moment of this Australian band's brief career, "What About Me" is chock full of memorable lines, ranging from the catchy and highly identifiable chorus to the song's eventual move toward gaining some perspective: "I guess I'm lucky, I've smiled a lot/But sometimes I wish for more... than I've got." This is a haunting piano power ballad that doesn't quite fit into the typical new wave or arena rock sounds of the early '80s, and it translates that timelessness into a highly emoting classic.
This flamboyantly orchestrated soft rock song is such a fist-clencher that it can really only be done justice by a singer with four hands. Equating the loss of love with a personal prison created by himself, Vannelli has fashioned a portrait that is at once familiar and pretty laughable if observed from a distance. But if you allow yourself to step inside that world, you can easily become drenched by an existential flood of self-doubt and desperate confusion. And you know how quickly laughter can dissolve into tears. Despite the dangerous and delicate balance it strikes, this track ultimately rests its significant merits on a permanent, affecting melody. There's not much that rocks about Vannelli's Euro crooning, but it certainly emotes.
Aside from being one of the Police's most criminally underrated singles, this song perfectly encapsulates a rather extreme fantasy that most of us have probably had at one time or another. You know the one, when you approach your beloved in a highly public setting so the world can see you ceremoniously off yourself on account of the hurt and rejection he or she has caused you. Oh, it's just me? Oh well, anyway, the staccato lurch of this song is a perfect mode of presentation for the lyric, "You'll be sorry when I'm dead, and all this guilt will be on your head." Though it initially appeared on 1978's appropriately titled Outlandos D'Amour, this track enjoyed a summer 1979 rerelease that gives me an excuse to squeeze it on this list.
Buoyed by a simple melody that is nothing short of sublime, this Rod Stewart '80s pop classic perfectly captures the "woe-is-me" philosophy when it comes to matters of the heart. "Alone in a crowd," after all, never feels quite as lonely as when heartache has set in and every couple somehow seems like the most blissfully happy romantic pair on the face of the earth. Stewart takes the mundane happenings of every day and imbues them with an intense longing that comes only from internal sources. Now I'm not saying there's nothing cheesy about this track, especially the "whoa-oh" element that can sometimes feel like a sharp instrument scraping at the listener's brain. Yet somehow there's something classic and elegant about this performance.
Perhaps no '80s band fit better with a locked-in-your-room angsty aesthetic than the Smiths, but lead singer Morrissey - assisted by his plaintive moan - puts things over the top with a delivery that threatens to wrap the listener in a smothering blanket of internalized agony. Throw on top of that slacker lyrics like "I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I'm miserable now," and you have a potentially eye-roll-inducing but simultaneously affecting portrait of enabled despair. This is mesmerizing alternative music drenched in unique post-punk gloom, which is a description that fits the music of the Smiths anyway. However, the precision of Johnny Marr's guitar on this track lays on the mood delightfully thickly.
Leave it to the jittery, frenetic brilliance of one-of-a-kind American college rock trailblazers Violent Femmes to inject something particularly dangerous into self-involved wallowing. Usually, pop music whining can be a bit predictable, but this band has a knack for leaving listeners completely off-balance about what its characters might be up to next. With its usual blend of paranoia and bottled-up anger, the Femmes hurtle toward a crescendo that mirrors the downward spiral of someone who not only threatens suicide but is damn ready to follow through. The classic countdown manages to make Gordon Gano's plight seem far worse than anyone else's. "Everything, everything!"
More of a Bob Mould solo acoustic offering than a full band track, this tune nonetheless packs a powerful emotional punch. Lyrically, it's probably the most eloquent treatise on suicidal despair in the annals of rock history. Granted, there may not be too many such musical documents, but consider these lines: "When I sit and think, I wish that I just could die or let someone else be happy by setting my own self free." Only a deep, dark retreat into the self can result in that perspective, and this band had demonstrated many times at this point in an accomplished career that it never feared going to unexplored emotional depths.
Now don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of Michael Been and the one-of-a-kind anthemic rock he made with his underappreciated American college rock band. But I must say I have never seen a more extreme use of the first-person singular in a piece of music than we get in this tune. Lyrically composed of a lengthy series of declarative sentences regarding how the singer feels, what he wants and doesn't want, and what he's simply not willing to do, this rousing song is a celebration of the self even Walt Whitman might think is excessive. Been's dazzling melodic sense and the group's balanced employment of synth and guitar help make this tune far more than an exercise in self-obsession.
In the span of the first verse of this Canadian band's gem of a pop song, the mood goes from devotion to simpering insolence, and that kind of bipolar swing is what self-absorption is all about. Even more indicative of this kind of insular world view is the heavy contrast between the narrator's earnest request for his beloved not to forget him, in the face of all evidence that she's already done so. The singer essentially reports, to borrow from an old standard, that "nobody knows the troubles I've seen," and then he complains that not only does he wake up and his beloved isn't there but that she also doesn't care. The rhyme is free, but tears are not included.
Boy George delivers an unforgettable pitiful puppy plea in this well-known '80s hit from English band Culture Club. Ultimately, the song drowns in teenage girl diary sentiment, but somehow, in the context of this piece of music, that's not even an insult. The dime store poetry actually works. Exhibit A: "In my heart the fire's burning, Choose my colour, Find a star." Exhibit B: "Wrapped in sorrow, Words are token, Come inside and catch my tears." The verdict? Guilty of self-involved brilliance, Your Honor.