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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Semi-Charmed Life," another not-really-happy song, and how I experience it

I can't help but smile when I hear this song, but man, it's messed up. (And holy cow, a 90s track! About time.)

Man, what is it with me and those happy-sounding sad songs lately? Yesterday, I wrote about Jamiroquai’s “Little L,” an infectious funk/nu-disco slice with lyrics about the end of a relationship. Today, that song and a couple others with that aforementioned dichotomy between instrumental feeling and lyrical meaning were stuck in my head.

What does that say about me? Am I emotionally conflicted? Have I been fooling myself with a façade of happiness that’s now wearing off? Is my relating to these songs a result of me doubting myself so much?

I respond to all those questions in a similar way: Yes, and Go Bears — because “Go Bears” can work as a response or reaction to pretty much anything here in Berkeley. More than that, though, it’s fitting for me to say “Go Bears” because today’s selection was penned, produced, and sung by a Cal alumnus. Stephan Jenkins, co-founder and frontman of Third Eye Blind, is the man behind their smash hit debut single “Semi-Charmed Life,” which is rapidly approaching its silver anniversary of release in February. It’s a song that very much sounds like its era: an alt-rock track with some pop tendencies and hints of hip-hop in Jenkins’ vocal delivery. All the while, though, the happiness is underscored by some… messed-up lyrics. More on that as I delve into the song over the following paragraphs.

I can’t help but smile when I hear the beginning of “Semi-Charmed Life.” The song is so identifiable from its initial drum hits and guitar chords, and the recurring “doo-doo-doo,” inspired by Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side,” never fails to get people to sing along. For the introduction alone, the track is an epic pop rock achievement. It’s even more impressive when you consider that it was 3eb’s debut single, and that they immediately had that kind of impact with the intro. (Of course, they ultimately never matched the success of their self-titled first album, between this song and “Jumper,” but that’s neither here nor there for this post.)

Everything seems so innocently happy in this pop rock bliss... until the first verse begins, at which point we're immediately thrown into the world of crystal meth addiction and the sordid escapades it fuels. As Jenkins discussed in Rolling Stone the year after the track's release, nothing about the lyrics is cryptic; it's all out there for the world to hear. As rosy as the picture may seem, especially in the bridge ("I believe in the sand beneath my toes... And the four right chords can make me cry" — by the way, there are only three chords in the main progression), the talk of the addictive nature of the drug and the harshness of coming down from its high always discolors the picture. Jenkins saw just how quickly speed took hold of his friends, and how they were always searching for that first-time feeling again, and he captures it heartbreakingly well in his dense verses. The chorus is a whole lot slower, but the refrain of "I want something else" hints that the addicts know they're harming themselves as well as their loved ones, that nobody close to them can truly enjoy life to its fullest while they're under crystal meth's thumb. That's why their life is only "semi-charmed": despite how great they may feel under the drug's influence, they're only hurting themself and their "charmed" world by continuing to use it.

With the sordid nature of Jenkins' lyrics, the question then becomes how closely people listen to them. For such a thoroughly upbeat-sounding track like "Semi-Charmed Life," it definitely takes a closer listen than normal to pick up the lyrics. They might be quite literal, but they're delivered in this fast-paced, quasi-rapped style that makes the lines feel like they're whizzing by. The prominence of the bass and the rhythm guitar line in the verse also likely distracts some listeners to an extent, even in their repetition. As much as I've listened and sung along to the song, I've never gotten through the whole thing without staring at the lyrics the entire time. I'm still not sure whether that says more about me or the song, but it's a part of how I experience it.

Perhaps my inability to remember all the words is why I approach "Semi-Charmed Life" with such wonder. More than that, though, I think it's that I have a different relationship with music which came before me, or at the very least songs which peaked before I really started paying attention to popular music (let's say before the late 00s). I really feel like I'm seeking out tracks from before then when I decide to listen to them, and it adds another layer of attachment to those songs.

Sure, I might like what's on the charts/radio/trending playlists today, but I live in the same moment as those songs and hear them out in the world all the time. Crafting a personal connection to any sort of music requires a lot more than just hearing it in passing; in fact, hearing a song in passing may make that connection even more difficult to achieve. I'm not the kind of guy who passively listens to music, so when I start a playlist or turn on the radio, I really listen and see if there's something I like. I know I've really found something when I go out of my way to hear it again, and "Semi-Charmed Life" is one of the foremost tracks that I seek out from the decade about which I know the least musically.


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