50. Song No. 320: “American Television,” Ben Lee
The only viable threat to Guster’s probable and dubious distinction as my most-seen live act is Ben Lee. Guster might’ve been the musical constant among my college friends, but my best friend and I loved Ben Lee enough for a veritable gaggle of people. Like, we spent an evening in a Soho yoga studio just to see him do this wonderfully intimate show in a thoroughly unconventional space after ayahuasca begat a whole new trajectory for what was once a potentially radio-friendly career of slinging well-done pop music (even though they don’t play Ben Lee on the radio, but that’s the way I like it).
That first weird year after graduating college was all grappling with the realty of being an actual, bona fide adult amid the foggy emotional limbo and moving 10 times in 12 months and having everything you own strewn across three counties while you’re figuring out where the hell you’re going and staying. My husband and I started dating right in the middle of that surreal adjustment period, just months after I dramatically bemoaned how helping my brother move into his sophomore-year dorm rubbed salt in the wound of my first fall not heading back to college. I felt a little more grounded as our relationship deepened and it became abundantly clear that we’d found our person. It also helped squash the creeping bitterness of deciding to start my career instead of seeking the sweet academic shelter of an MFA, and nipping that shit in the bud was imperative.
In the months between realizing I’d been working for a full year and getting engaged, Ripe was released. Probably thanks to both Ben Lee’s eternally sunny disposition and the vernal flora gracing the album cover of its predecessor Awake is the New Sleep, his music sounds like springtime, especially spring blooming at college. That same floral theme carried into some show of his that bestie and I attended early in our senior year, and we protectively ferried the stage-prop flowers we liberated right after the set through the city, subway, train and car ride back to our dorm room, where empty Guinness bottles became makeshift vases for the majority remainder of the year.
This album, as bright and airy and catchy and peppy as it is, feels more like fall than its older sibling. “American Television” absolutely reminded me how much I looooooved Ripe and had me playing it so much more these past few days than I have in recent years. It also reminded me of how much more adult everything felt at the time it was released, fall standing in stark, sober contrast to the more juvenile joviality of spring and finally accepting that it was all getting older and adultier from here.
Individually, “American Television” evokes very little of this, though hearing it rocked me right back to all these things the album made me feel. And how different and less pants-shittingly terrifying facing the world every day felt then. An Australian musician now providing musical commentary about the U.S. entertainment industry would most likely look a lot more like the global travel conference I attended a few years ago, where one of the keynote speakers laid into the White House resident for the mockery this country was becoming on the international stage to very, very mixed responses from an audience largely comprising capitalist wealth-hoarders; back in the retrospectively more naive days of Bush II that had us all thinking that surely we’d reached the nadir, the insights were still honest but an optimistic love letter to being in love with possibility presented by the flashy medium and the images it tries so hard to hold up as realistic representations of anything that can become a selling point.
I’m still pretty sure that Ben Lee is one of the happiest dudes making music these days, and it shows in the work he’s let flow through him. It was really wonderful getting back in touch with all the reasons why he’s been one of my favorite coping mechanisms when the world gets to be too much, even if it takes a little more effort to dispel the storm clouds that seem to hang a little more darkly and ominously than they did when this album came out 13 years ago.