Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up” captures the dark side of adolescence

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The Violent Femmes may get older, but their music is permanently preserved by the elixir of youth. They’re patron saints of adolescence, their self-titled debut album in particular capturing a certain kind of playfulness and knowing naiveté, awkward and strange but nonetheless carefree, a paradox mirrored by their own loose and unconventional take on post-punk. Every teenager in America surely knows “Blister in the Sun” by heart—I’m sure I do, though I’m decades past being a teenager (and I don’t even particularly like that song—sorry). But it endures all the same, in the bedroom breakup dance of Angela Chase on My So-Called Life, and in the sing-alongs of thousands of performances since its release in 1983. You’ve heard it on mixtapes, in a friend’s car, at a party, and even if it wasn’t that song, it was probably “Kiss Off” or “Gone Daddy Gone,” and hearing it now will probably transport you to your own personal, hopelessly dramatic memories.

“Somebody told me once, ‘If you haven’t heard of the band before college, you will hear about Violent Femmes when you go to college. Somebody’s going to be playing it in the dorm or at a party’,” Gordon Gano told The Aquarian.

You’ve also almost certainly heard “Add It Up” under similar circumstances, and maybe it fit in comfortably next to the sing-song melody of “Blister in the Sun,” only swapping lyrics about…well, whatever “Blister in the Sun” is about (Gano says it’s not about masturbation, for the record) for verses about a desperate need to get “just one fuck.” And in that sense it’s still very much reflective of teenage feelings and frustrations, a primal scream from a cracking voice. But it’s a little dirtier, a little more adult—or at least the protagonist wants to be, however unlikely that is.

Throughout its nearly seven minutes, that petulant horniness grows more desperate and unsettling, violent and hostile. From Gano’s opening, somber a cappella declaration, “The day after today, I will stop and I will start” portends something dramatic but ambiguous—a new beginning, but not necessarily a positive one. The song’s urgent strums, even if played on acoustic guitars, feel more explicitly aligned with punk than the band’s other signature songs, with each verse filling up with just a little bit more bile until five verses in, when the innocent kid having a solitary tantrum turns his anger outward, “he went downtown and he got him a gun.”

When Gano wrote the song, it didn’t have any basis in any real event—just a therapeutic moment of catharsis for Gano, himself, born of a similar kind of aimlessness, if a less outwardly explosive one.

“I was in my bedroom—that’s where I wrote it—feeling frustrated,” Gano said of the song. “I had nowhere to go and nothing to do. It just happened to feel good lyrically …and it still does.”

Gano’s Chekhov’s gun never quite goes off even as the sweat beads and the anger mounts, and it threatens to go one of two ways. He’ll either take his pent up rage out on an unwitting victim (“Don’t shoot, shoot, shoot that thing at me“) or he’ll turn the gun on himself (“The day is in my sight/When I take a bow and say goodnight“). We don’t know what’s in store for the angry young man whose words we hear, but we know that no matter what, it doesn’t end well.

“Add It Up” isn’t exactly an anomaly in the Violent Femmes catalog, and the group more explicitly courted gothic western storytelling in 1984’s “Country Death Song” and the haunting shadow of religion throughout Hallowed Ground as a whole. But “Add It Up” is less atmospherically or allegorically unsettling, it feels more visceral, almost physically uneasy, Gano’s charming and easy-to-like vocal sensibility managing to convey a kind of loathing that feels more dangerous. Even more uncomfortably, it feels real.

In the 40 years since the Violent Femmes released their debut album, the kind of figure we hear in “Add It Up” has become something of a tragic real-life story. Murderers radicalized by right-wing YouTube grifters, mass shooters indoctrinated in regressive and misogynistic beliefs—you can hear echoes of their own voices in “Add It Up.” Because it’s the Violent Femmes, of course, it’s not exclusively morbid and menacing—Brian Ritchie’s bass soloing and the general instrumental interplay alone make for a song that ends up being incredibly fun in spite of the tension boiling beneath the surface.

That’s, admittedly, a pretty big caveat, but that fascinating conflict between accessibility and antagonism is what makes it one of the band’s best songs. And to Gano’s own point, it’s good therapy—if the song’s own protagonist could actually hear a song like “Add It Up,” maybe he’d have a healthier outlet and would be able to let the rage subside through something as innocent and productive as shouting along to the song’s chorus. No doubt countless teenagers over the years have. But even as one of the most beloved songs by an enduring and legendary American band, “Add It Up” still feels like a warning.

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