Little boxes

Every now and then a song comes along that savages the sterility and banality of modernity and its cookie cutter institutions.

Malvina Reynolds' classic “Little Boxes” did it in 1962, with its allusions to the “ticky tacky” conformity of residential tract housing and the sanitized roles that our social order tries to stuff us into. A half-century later the tune holds up all too well, as Walk Off The Earth brilliantly demonstrates.

This song identifies SO many easy targets: our barren, highway-glutted, carbon-wasting, soul-choking suburban sprawl (which is arguably the biggest contributor to climate destabilization); our assembly-line industrial-era educational factories that produce obedient citizen-workers who (too often) “come out all the same”; and our personality-crushing, spontaneity-killing, Dilbert-imitating corporations that strangle the creativity out of its boxed-in cubicle captives.

As former Hallmark employee Gordon MacKenzie wrote in his wonderful book, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool's Guide to Surviving With Grace...

Society appoints its clandestine cartel to put a cap on imaginative brilliance…an originality-suppression agency that permeates our lives. It tyrannized Galileo into recanting the fruits of his own scientific genius. It handed Socrates a cup of hemlock, put a match to Joan of Arc, and fomented the crucifixion of Christ…From cradle to grave, the pressure is on: BE NORMAL.

Maybe "thinking outside the box" isn't such a dumb metaphor after all.

For my interview with WOTE's irrepressible Sarah Blackwood, check here.

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  1. Great to hear this song again. It sounds so innocent until you listen to what it's saying.

    How can anyone not love this band?

    By making suburban sprawl the #1 carbon threat aren't you ignoring some more obvious ones?

  2. I love the fact that it sounds like a children’s song (Reynolds was, in part, a children’s composer) but the lyrics make it a polemic. One of my favorite songs of all time. I especially love songs where the SHAPE of the melody helps communicate the lyrics. The downward movement of the melody at the end of each verse actually helps me picture a housing development on a hill.

    WOTE’s album is due out in February, which should put them on the map.

    Surburban sprawl is such a threat because it has become an alternative to living in CITIES, which are actually greener and more sustainable. Based on a per-person expenditure of energy, cities are a conservationist’s paradise, and could be MORE so if city planners allowed more vertical construction. The high cost of living in many US cities—due to housing scarcity—pushes people to the burbs where they consume MUCH more energy (in home heating and driving).

  3. Yeah, I forgot to mention Seeger's version. There are about 75 renditions of the song on iTunes (all of which I've subjected myself to) including ones by Elvis Costello, Randy Newman, and Engelbert Humperdink. There's even a thrash metal version by Rise Against. (I kinda liked the version by a U. of Illinois vocal group, No Comment A Cappella.) One gripe I have is that half of these artists never listened to the original by Malvina Reynolds and missed an obvious chord change. Harmonically, I still like WOTE's version the best.

    On a separate note, for those who think my (and the song's) assessment of our educational system is too gloomy, there ARE some hopeful signs for the future, which I may discuss from time to time — as they relate to business — on these cyberpages. I also discuss this topic in my book (which will soon be shopped to publishers) but I'm not sure that section will make it past a scythe-wielding copy editor.

  4. Shortly before I left San Diego, a new housing project took over the bulk of the empty land in the second half of my commute. Hundreds of houses, acres, as far as you could see from the freeway, and every single one was the same color.

    They're slowly moving the old Victorians to a special park, restoring and preserving them in a giant architectural museum.

    Having been raised by a wild non-conformist, I've never had the stomach for the suburban home, 9-5 life, and when I talk to people who think that's normal, that evenings are for television and travel is what you do to Puerto Vallarta on your 2-week vacation . . . I don't know if I'm more frightened or sad.

  5. Regarding the Scythian portions of your book (yes, I realize that's not proper usage) you can always publish them yourself as mini-ebooks or something that sounds less awful. Never throw away good content, eh?

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