How It Sounds: schmuck in the room by frankie cosmos

Simple turned to sublime when frankie cosmos strung six chords together to create the one minute and 46 wonder “schmuck in the room” from her 2014 demo album “affirms glinting.”

The song’s lyrics are hinged to ideas of social anxiety and the stress of social situations that any introvert can relate to. Every verse describes a different kind of anxiety: the first asking “how many ways can you call/ whatever I do small?” focused on societal expectations; the hook insinuating isolation “I’d rather be in the bathroom/ with a National Geographic / than talk to anyone;” the chorus attacking everyone’s inner doubts about themselves “if you can’t pinpoint the schmuck in the room/ it’s you it’s you it’s you/ it’s all for you:” and the last verse “’no shoulder’ is what the sign says/ I remember how it felt when I was/ without one/ without one” referring again to isolation, making the song come full circle.

However, the music that backs those sad but honest lyrics carries a sweetness with every strum that contrasts any meaning that can be drawn from schmuck in the room’s words.

The tempo of the single guitar’s strumming is slow and steady. There is also a close relationship between the chord changes and the words, mostly happen in sync with each other. The softness of the chord progress is played with, or lack of force on the guitar strumming, also mirrors the softness of frankie cosmos’s voice.

The overall effect of the just the instrumental aspect of schmuck in the room as a result creates a different world from the lyrics. If the words of the song represent anxiety and social stress, then the music is a utopia light in feel and absent of pressure. The music creates an extremely brief utopia that feels bright like a sunrise being watched from a field — you’re both being lifted by the rays of light but grounded to the earth for comfort.

It may just be all of my reading of surrealism in French literature this semester, but the guitar’s sound is so soft one could compare its music to lens flare on a vintage camera’s photo. The simplicity of the song may be invoking the ideas of the past and nostalgia, but the almost seamless presence it has feels like it happened accidentally, by chance or a mistake of the light in the world around it.

The music in schmuck in the room as a result works in opposition to the lyrics, but it will take more than one deep listen to feel any tension at all. Frankie cosmos seems to make the contrast work and at moments you can forget about each component of the song respectively, spending a few seconds on just the simple chord changes happening in the first few frets of the acoustic guitar and then a few lines of lyrics on the upsetting experience cosmos is describing.

The way these two contradicting effects of the song work together fascinates me as a listener and has made this one of my favorite works of hers.

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