Listen to this track by rock ‘n’ roll throwback eccentric Jonathan Richman and his band the Modern Lovers with their ode to the symbol of suburban gentrification. It’s ‘Rockin’ Shopping Center’, as taken from the band’s 1977 self-titled LP Jonathan Richman & the Modern Lovers.
There is perhaps a fine line between earnest songwriting and ironic songwriting. The great thing about Jonathan Richman is that you’re never really sure. With this tune, Richman asserts his approach that anything can be a subject of a song if you choose to write about it. And there is something innately endearing about this, and a lot of his other work that often sounds like wacked out children’s music written on the spot more so than planned out beforehand.
Yet, Richman’s music is clearly in the traditional rock ‘n’ roll tradition, with a stylistic nod to the Velvet Underground too, which makes Richman something of a forerunner to both punk and post-punk. Richman’s ‘Roadrunner’ would be a touchstone for punk rock bands from the mid-70s and onward.
I personally love this tune, perhaps because it evokes a landscape of my childhood, the ‘burbs where shopping malls were like little cultural Meccas, characterized as they are by little details that are not really noticed on any conscious level. Yet, Richman is able to connect just by bringing those details out. Much like kindred spirit Robyn Hitchcock, Jonathan Richman’s strength as a writer lies in his ability to avoid cliches, simply by writing about subjects that other songwriters don’t generally identify as topics for songs.
And often what comes out are statements that make a point, without necessarily being the intention of the song on its surface. On this one, the shopping center represents (maybe) the homogeneity of shopping malls, and the death of the main street in America. Or, maybe he’s just talking about a specific day he spent thinking about malls. Or, maybe one day he went shopping and this song popped into his head. And of course, it could be all three. His almost childlike approach to songwriting and performing is so disarming, that it almost pays better dividends not to worry too much about what the songs are supposed to mean, or what he intended when he wrote them.