11. “Philosophy” by Ben Folds (1995)

The JOAT 50 Song Countdown is a blog series where every weekday for 10 weeks I am posting a brand new long form essay where I have ranked and written about my 50 favorite songs of all-time. From Adele to Zac Brown Band, Patsy Cline to Plasma Canvas, Ludacris to Rise Against, this series offers a personal essay about the 50 songs that hit me the absolute hardest.

I pushed you ’cause I loved you guys
I didn’t realize you weren’t having fun
And I dragged you up the stairs, I told you to fly
You were flapping your arms, you started to cry
You were too high, no, too high

I don’t always play well with others. I’m a hard worker and have no patience for those who aren’t. I work effectively and efficiently under pressure. I have an unusual sensibility and even weirder taste. I have a fondness for freaks, weirdos, outcasts and other eccentrics. I’m moody and opinionated. I’m ultimately an introvert, so I can tire of people quickly. I am not for everyone, and I like that fact. In short, I’m almost certainly a huge pain in the ass.

But those factors are also what make me a pissy little self-possessed, self-starting, successful entrepreneur. I’ll try lots and lots of shit, and most of it ultimately doesn’t even work. That’s not fair. Let’s just say very little of anything I’ve tried has achieved the transcendent success I pictured when I let myself daydream a bit. That’s ok. Because goddammit, at least I tried, which is more than a lot of people can say. And I know that all I truly have ownership of is my brain, my work ethic, and my reputation. Or to summarize, my “philosophy.”

As has been a recurring theme in these columns, I didn’t know Ben Folds until Kristin brought him to me. And she literally brought him to me in the form of an all Ben Folds mix she made when we first started dating. I oh-so-cleverly titled it Kristin Does Ben Folds, and this thing had 17 tracks on it. I groaned. I’d heard of Ben Folds Five in high school and thought, “What… is that like some dorky shit like the Dave Clark Five?”

The very first track was a live version of “One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces” which is pure, uproarious fun. I went from skeptical to delightfully intrigued when he got to the chorus and sang:

Yeah, now I’m big and important
One angry dwarf and 200 solemn faces are you
If you really want to see me, check the papers and the TV
Look who’s tellin’ who what to do
Kiss my ass

What the hell is this, and how have I been missing out on it for this long??? (Don’t answer that.) Ben Folds is wry, self-aware, and ridiculously, otherworldly talented. I swear to God when he is lighting that piano ablaze that he’s playing with four hands. I have no idea how he plays music this complex this fast and still cracks jokes in the lyrics. The dude is an absolute force of nature.

I now have more Ben Folds and Ben Folds Five in my iTunes library than any other artist. And “Philosophy” will always be my favorite. First of all, it showcases his remarkably deft hands and brilliant songwriting chops. The song shreds and Ben even throws in a piano sample of Dick Dale’s “Misirlou” (the theme song from Pulp Fiction) in the bridge just for kicks. But it’s also primarily about Folds trusting himself in the face of criticism, naysayers, and other cynicism.

It seems to have worked for him as he’s released a ton of albums (including albums co-written with noted authors Nick Hornby and Neil Gaiman), done work with symphony orchestras, judged a televised a capella singing show called The Sing-Off, praised the use of mono recordings, and a shitload more I’m certainly leaving out. He puts on one of the finest live shows I have ever seen. The dude is an absolute treasure. And he is so unique and so specific, you could never look at his career template and apply it to literally any other artist. That rules. And that’s what I want for myself.

I myself am unique. Paradoxically, so are you, and so is everyone else. My favorite people are the ones who don’t waste time trying to be an inauthentic version of themselves or fitting into anyone else’s preconceived notions of what they should be. This is partially why I don’t always play well with others and have such fondness for the aforementioned freaks, weirdos, outcasts and other eccentrics. They can’t help but be the most authentic versions of themselves. Try-hards, poseurs, and social climbers are exhausting.

And look, sometimes even I don’t know what the hell I’m doing or why. But I trust my own philosophy because my gut tends to be right. I can’t tell you exactly how or why I know the things I know, but I know that I know them. Semi-related: Because I’m the last one to go to bed in this household, I’ve gotten really good at navigating it in the dark. And since I can’t use my eyes, I’ll ask my feet how many steps we’ve taken and where that puts us in the room. If I can’t remember if I’ve given the cat his pills, I’ll ask my hands if they remember handling the pill pockets or cutting up pills. I ask my body these things, and I’ve gotten good at listening. The same is true of my gut.

I could tell you a recent project I worked on wasn’t going to succeed before the first episode ever aired for a variety of reasons. We persevered and gave it a shot, but I knew it was doomed early. How did I know that? As Ben Folds would say, “I got my philosophy (Keeps my feet on the ground) And I trust it like the ground.”

I also have a magnet on my fridge that reads “My decisions are not always right. But they are always interesting.” I suspect given the enormity of his success, most of Ben Folds’s decisions are right, and they are always interesting. We should all be so lucky and intuitive. Many of mine are not, but on balance, I think I’ve hit more than I’ve whiffed. More than anything, I want to maintain the confidence to keep trying. Take risks. Find joy. Be weird. Have fun. Work hard.

And that’s why my philosophy keeps me walkin’ when I’m fallin’ down.

Up next: Time for the Top 10! And we kick off with a song from an album I can still sing every word from start to finish.

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