Listen to this track by former Czars frontman and plain-spoken confessional singer-songwriter John Grant. It’s “GMF”, a sweeping pop vista of melodic delight that employs some fairly colourful metaphors having to do with mothers and the coital act. The song is taken from Grant’s 2013 record Pale Green Ghosts. Note: that’s Sinéad O’Connor on back-up vocals!
The song is chock full of musical ingredients that complement each other seamlessly. Grant adds touches of orchestral pop, progressive rock, and even Beatlesque pop into this song that is the seeming portrait of a narcissist. In pop music, there are all kinds of central characters in songs that appear to be thoroughly repugnant characters who speak as if they are the hero of their stories. From Dion’s “The Wanderer”, to The Smiths'”Bigmouth Strikes Again”, to Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again”, unpleasant and cruel acts as casually delivered by characters of questionable motives and justifications are practically a pop staple.
This song is among the best of those for many reasons. But, one big one is this: this character is not a monster, but rather a real person in pain, hinting that what is monstrous is the circumstance that has brought him to where he is as we find him in this song.
John Grant has become known for his unwavering confessional approach to songwriting, while also having an intelligent and humourous edge to avoid the obvious path to his subject matter. A gay man raised in a religious environment, conflict around personal identity is an obvious thread to follow in his writing. But, even in knowing this, “GMF” has its own internal narrative that reveals that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the story, and to understanding the person behind it.
Narrators in pop music are sometimes difficult to pin down on first listen, and sometimes even beyond that. It’s easy to take them at face value inside of three or four minutes. Songwriting is short form storytelling, requiring a listener to be engaged in filling in a share of the picture for themselves in a pretty narrow window of time. For example, on the first listen of “GMF”, it would be easy to say that this is the voice of an over-confident cad just by the repeating phrase in the chorus that is so hard to ignore: “I am the greatest motherfucker that you’re ever gonna meet/From the top of my head down to the tips of the toes on my feet.”
But, in getting past this, the song is actually revealed to be a litany of character flaws and self-loathing. It’s easy to miss on first hearing, revealing itself after the seeming braggadocio and the shock of the language heard in that chorus has worn off. This is not a contented person we’re spending time with here. It’s easy too to forget that there is another character in this song: the absent creator of “the monster” we initially thought we’d met on the first chorus. The literary reference is apropos: “Make your mind up, Dr. Frankenstein”. This is someone who has been abandoned by a lover who has encouraged him to love himself instead of denying his true identity, but who in turn has removed his love before the transformation is completed. As a result, that self-love has corrupted into self-obsession.
Suddenly, the monstrous narcissist is cast in another light as a lost soul who is forced to overcompensate for that which is missing in his own life; love and acceptance by those around him. As such, beneath the surface of conceited statements of his own greatness in the chorus, this song is desperately sad, a mournful lament rather than a personal fight song. This is a man crying out for love while standing alone.
In this song, who else is there to love but himself?
John Grant is an active musician and songwriter today. Find out more about him at johngrantmusic.com.