Whatever In The Landscape
Liam Lynch’s “United States of Whatever” is, in a sense, a novelty garage rock song. In another sense, “United States of Whatever” is the entire history of novelty garage rock songs, condensed into less than two minutes. Over a distorted, barely interpolated Surfaris guitar riff and a clattering beat that sounds as if it were recorded on, played on, and performed by a sheet of aluminum foil, Lynch yelps about a series of failed social interactions, punctuated by a chorus of the song’s title being belched out. It's like a grade schooler describing the Sam Kinison version of “Wild Thing” to his single mom—an anti-heroic claim to nihilistic autonomy.
In the fall months of 2002, American popular music was in its second year of a misremembering-of-history hysteria. The United States at the time was both doe-eyed victim and righteous vigilante. George Bush Jr. saw himself as Gotham’s avenging angel, with the Twin Towers as Batman’s parents—Thomas and Martha Wayne laid low in the Crime Alley of Manifest Destiny’s historical currents—and as proxies for George’s own pearl clutching pappi, George Bush Sr., humiliated a decade previous by Saddam Hussein, a.k.a., the Joe Chill of Mesopotamia.
The superhero analogy quickly falls apart. There’s nothing comic books love more than a good origin story and America, in 2002, had no interest in causation.
Like so much of what occurred in the first few years of the new millennium (Y2K hysteria, 9/11, the Strokes, etc.), “United States of Whatever” was a 21st century event that’s roots grew out of the century that came before it. In this case, those roots were a short lived television show, called The Sifl and Olly Show, which aired on the Music Television cable network for two seasons in 1998 (a third season was filmed but not aired on MTV). The Sifl and Olly Show was a comedy show where the characters were performed by actors’ hands, using comedically-tailored socks as costumes. In the sketch that introduced “United States of Whatever,” the character of Sifl (voiced by show co-creator Matt Crocco) bemoans his friend Olly (voiced by Lynch) over using the term “whatever,” saying “it’s cliche crap…I can’t believe you…you may think it looks cool but it’s really dumb” to which Olly’s response is: “I got the ‘tude now. So just whatever. I don’t care. I’m just letting it happen. I’m freewheeling…” And then, before an American flag backdrop, as the black sock of Sifl looks on in bemused dismay, the white sock of Olly sings his new personal anthem.
Though “United States of Whatever” the sketch aired in 1997, it wasn’t until five years later, after CDRs of the song were illicitly shared like a Napster-god-breathing-spirit into the clay of CD technology, that it would be officially released. It immediately became a massive hit, partially making its mark on history by being the shortest song to (at that time) reach the top of the U.K. pop charts.
That it took “United States of Whatever” five years to fulfill its earworm promise is no surprise. While the market for novelty songs is eternal, and rarely dependent upon genre, the humorous music of 1997 was decidedly of the “not rock” variety, with Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” being too close to a soccer hooligan chant to be “funny,” and with Squirrel Nut Zippers’ “Hell” being the most rock-adjacent hit. In fact, with both the third wave of ska and Aqua’s “Barbie Girl” dominating the charts, it’s arguable that the very concept of “novelty” song was redundant in 1997. Not to mention the similarities between “United States of Whatever”, in both title and song structure, and the entire catalog of The Presidents of The United States of America—that would’ve been too much for a listening public still recovering from the national hangover caused by the latter band’s chipper omnipresence.
2002, however, was a different ball of wax entirely. Rock was back. Nihilism was proving to be a reasonable worldview. And, while irony, in the wake of 9/11, had been declared dead, that edict had been declared with no input from the population at large who still loved to laugh and only half mean stuff. And so “United States of Whatever,” one part grungy refusal and one part proto-Apple ad, took off. Whatevermania swept the nation. An oblique anthem for a youth bristling at the meaning being foisted upon them by the older generations who couldn’t decide what they missed more: the Summer of Love or the Crusades. Plus, if you wanted to relate to the Strokes or the Moldy Peaches but didn’t know any coke dealers or models, “United States of Whatever” would do in a pinch.
The song took on a totemic quality, like a baby shark built from SNL catchphrases, if SNL had been remotely funny in 2002. "Whatever fever" culminated in the song being performed live with the Foo Fighters in 2003. Dave Grohl returned to his drumset, as if allowing for a “whatever” torch to be passed; Liam Lynch flailed about as frontman, looking like one of the baby guitar hero audience-plants the Foo Fighters are known for “randomly” plucking from the crowd (if said audience plant looked like Steve Albini and wasn’t that great at playing guitar). The negation of grunge was made magical and alive, as though “Touch Me I’m Sick” had finally gone gold.
It’s impossible to overstate (or even state) the seismic effect “United States of Whatever” had at the time, or the effect the song’s reverberations have had, going backwards and forward in time, ever since. “United States of Whatever” is a song where the Beach Boys embraced neither quadraphonics nor Reaganomics. It’s a song where garage acts like the Pacific Northwest’s Sonics were bigger than the Beatles. It’s a song that encompasses both the garage and surf of the 1960s, the retrograde “authenticity” of ‘70s punk, the solipsism of the 1980s, the irony of ‘90s “punk,” the medium-stakes death urge of grunge (with special attention paid to Soundgarden’s “Sub Pop Rock City”), the celebratory crapulence of both Weezer and Ween, and the bubblegum joy of both the Clueless soundtrack and the Clueless film itself. “United States of Whatever” manages to find the middle ground between such disparate sounds as that of the Hives and the White Stripes, between comedy and tragedy, between the Dwarves’ “Motherfucker,” and “Let’s Fuck” by the Dwarves.
If you wanted to relate to the Strokes or the Moldy Peaches but didn’t know any coke dealers or models, “United States of Whatever” would do in a pinch.
Almost as soon as “United States of Whatever” dropped, Jack and Meg White dropped the pretense of an ambiguous relationship, the Strokes decided one good album was probably good enough, and Interpol’s Carlos D bought a dog-eared copy of Stella Adler’s The Art of Acting. In the deep South, an itinerant Wiseblood-esque preacher convinced three members of a local gang of apple-cheeked pickpockets that they’d have a brighter future if they pretended to be brothers and learned how to perform versions of “Barely Legal,” minus an entendre or two.
Most importantly, without Liam Lynch’s reinvention of the guitar as bass, his reinterpretation of "Surfin’ Bird" as a godheadSilo song (plus jokes), it’s hard to imagine Death From Above 1979 happening at all. (To even consider such a possibility is to shudder.)
On the song’s Genius page, a user theorizes that the lyric “aren’t you that dude…” refers to “Lynch pretending to be a stuck-up celebrity, with the fact that he would’ve only had a cult following at best adding another layer of humour.”
This theory is, on its face, absurd. It fails to take into account that the protagonist of the original song is the sock puppet Olly. He could not be “the dude from…” any famous show, as the song was written before The Sifl and Olly Show achieved a cult following. And Olly is not a celebrity. He is a sock. If chronology and common sense are going to be collapsed, a more plausible theory is that the lyrics are dog whistles to gain the attention of Tony Hawk, a pro-skater famous for his nonchalant attitude about getting recognized in increasingly prosaic circumstances. Regardless of the song’s intent, “United States of Whatever” would indeed be featured in Tony Hawk’s Underground, 2003’s addition to Hawk’s Pro Skater video game series. (The “underground” of the game’s title refers to skateboarding opportunities below ground, not the metaphorical cultural “underground” which informed the aesthetic ideology shared by the two men.)
“United States of Whatever” manages to find the middle ground between such disparate sounds as that of the Hives and the White Stripes, between comedy and tragedy, between the Dwarves’ “Motherfucker,” and “Let’s Fuck” by the Dwarves.
Such seemingly willful misreadings of the text of “United States of Whatever,”—an insistence on applying an ahistorical lens upon the work and presuming a subtext of surface level irony—is sadly all too common in the 20 years of analysis, scholarly or populist, devoted to the song.
In reality, the lyrics of “United States of Whatever” both adhere to and subvert the classic Thebes parable of man’s natural progression, posed as a riddle to the kinky hero Oedipus by the mythic sphinx.
The song begins with: “I went down to the beach and saw Kiki, she was all like 'ewhhhh.’” The beach, of course, is the place where we play as children; the sandbox where everyone may as well be named “Kiki.” Then “this chick comes up to me and she's all like 'hey... aren't you that dude...'” The referring to a female by the diminutive term for a baby chicken, followed by the oft misinterpreted questioning of his identity, implies that if the song’s protagonist has aged at all, he’s still amongst children, still at the stage where children struggle with the names of things. Our hero soon finds himself in an archetypal place of young adult affectation; a clubhouse, in this case a poolhall. There a “girl” (the state of being just beyond “chick”) “comes up and she's all like 'uhhhhhh.'” While language is still a struggle, the specific vowel sounds of the ostensible love interest’s specific exaltation makes clear a yearning that is at least (one hopes) post-pubescent. Within the confines of the medium, is “uhhhhh” less articulate (or, for that matter, less worrisome) than “she was just seventeen/you know what I mean?”
By the fourth verse (“And then it's 3 a.m. I'm on the corner wearing my leather and this dude comes up to me and says 'hey punk'”), it’s clear that the song is now chronicling stages of adulthood; young adulthood spelled out by the disregard for reasonable bedtimes. Then, the protagonist’s middle age is strongly implied by the wearing of a leather jacket and the caring about punk.
Finally, like grandmothers playing Mahjong, the hero of “United States of Whatever” plays dice. He is forced, regardless of his protestations, to reckon with his living within a system (represented in the second to last verse by both Officer Leroy and the high walls of the alley).
As the song ends, Liam Lynch’s proxy meets Zafo. As we all must. The hero asks, as we all do, “what’s up?”
Zafo says, “Nothing.”
The hero says, “that’s cool.”
Because, really, what else can he say? There is no negotiating with Zafo. The song is a cinema vérité examination of a life’s stages. A tour de force of existential realism, with the surf guitar serving to drive home F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum regarding the irretrievability of youth.
Whatever’s Clever II
As to the song’s subversive qualities: these are illustrated by the protagonist muttering “whatever” at the end of every line.
Whatever And Its Discontents
Is saying “whatever” the most sane response to the crushing inanity of contemporary life, which would put the song within a tradition of refusal first spelled out in Nirvana’s use of “well whatever nevermind,” as after-thoughtful anti-anthem? Or is Liam Lynch, instead, like early defenses of “gangster” rap, providing incisive (but objective) documentation of cultural forces already in motion?
Is “United States of Whatever” a prescriptivist or descriptivist song? The actual question is: Is the song saying “whatever”? Or, a bit like “Monster Mash,” is the song about monsters and their rallying cry? Frankenstein or Frankenstein’s monster? Some works of art exist to erase the thin membranous division between chicken and egg, life and the creation of life, mad doctor and the madness that made him. It’s pointless to try to find how far down the stacked turtles go. If “United States of Whatever” is a signifier, it is so in the way that the belief in God signifies God’s existence. If “whatever” is analogous to “America,” then it hardly matters if collective whateverdom is a product of manifest “whatever” destiny, or if the United States’ “whatever” ethos was built into its charter.
Of course, as always when discussing great art, a far uglier interpretation of the themes at hand is possible: The direct translation of the title of literary provocateur Michel Houellebecq’s debut novel, published in 1994, is Extension of the Domain of Struggle, but the English language edition was published simply as Whatever.
Is saying “whatever” the most sane response to the crushing inanity of contemporary life, which would put the song within a tradition of refusal first spelled out in Nirvana’s use of “well whatever nevermind,” as after-thoughtful anti-anthem?
According to the Incel Wiki, the novel’s English title “is a pithy example of the main characters (sic) dismissive and nihilistic view of life… It is perhaps the most frank depiction of inceldom ever in literature, containing arguments about inceldom that the media later attributed to incel forums around 2018.”
Knowing this raises another, distinctly unpleasant theory: that “United States of Whatever,” through its self-valorizing contempt for the Kiki and (in retrospect even more problematically unnamed) “chick,” was prescient in ways that (one hopes) would make even the song’s author unhappy. Luckily this theory is belied by the misandry shown to both the song’s poolhall punk disliker and Officer Leroy. The lack of gender assigned to the character of Zafo renders the whole thing a draw.
What can one say about a song so broadly and stridently about abnegation as to render black metal’s anti-life project irrelevant, performed by a sock? Is celebrating such a song’s anniversary antithetical to its professed ethos? Or is a celebration required, truer to the song’s spirit than a rigid adherence to Liam Lynch’s professed indifference to the rules? It’s hard to say. But the act of observing anniversaries is inherently sentimental, and it would be counterfactual to ignore the joy that “United States of Whatever” brought to the world or at least Dave Grohl. Would the world as we know it exist without the “United States of Whatever?” Would the United States? Would Hoodie Allen?
Only Liam Lynch might know for sure, and neither he nor his representatives responded to requests for comments. Someone at CREEM said he’d get in touch with members of Baroness to discuss the influence that “United States of Whatever” had on that band, but I guess he forgot.
Both Ezra Koenig and Laibach also, when reached via email, declined to comment.
At the end of the day, 2002 was 20 years ago. The years, like shit and like the Killers, happened. What Liam Lynch is doing now is anybody’s guess. A perusal of the index of Lizzy Goodman’s Meet Me In The Bathroom shows no mention of the name. Same with Spencer Ackerman’s Reign of Terror. Maybe Lynch has transcended his physical form. Maybe he’s a bird. Maybe he’s directing videos for Tenacious D. It is impossible to say without going through emails from publicists. All we can know for certain is that we are here, still living in whatever state of whatever. We wake up in the morning. We laugh and we cry. We try our best to be more Kiki than Officer Leroy. We look to Zafo and hope that it, whatever “it” may be, remains cool.
In 2002, Liam Lynch sang "this is MY United States of whatever." In 2022, that whatever belongs to us all.