Article by Matt Clark
The song “It is what it is” was written by the jazz turned rock guitarist Vic Chesnutt. In it, he explores the various themes of appearance versus true identity. This can be seen in the very first few lines he sings:
I am a monster like Quasimodo
or Caliban, the natural man
Giving wild ripostes to my reflection.
One ugly morning in a rage
Father threw an apple into my carapace.
Vic Chesnutt would always write songs that retained part of who he was. These first few lines illustrate this because he was left deformed and crippled after a car accident in his early life. Because of this, he compares himself to monsters such as Quasimodo or Caliban, repulsed by his own reflection. The next few lines even make a reference to Gregor from Kafka’s Metamorphasis, in which his father throws an apple to ward off Gregor, who’s appearance repulsed those around him. Following this, Vic says that,
Appearance is everything
Nothing is how it seems
A civilized society
Is calm civility.
By saying this, he is stressing the importance we hold to ones appearance in our culture and how our entire society is really based more on tolerance, calm civility, rather than acceptance.
In the next stanza, Vic brings includes more concepts of existentialism, saying
I’m the phantom of the opera
singing beauty and at ease
or Henry Darger’s autobiography
and that is curt clues to my essence
These lyrics convey Vic’s opinion that perhaps one exists to become obsolete, a nihilistic concept, but he also says that he sings beauty and he references Henry Darger, a man who was institutionalized in his early life before making thick tomes of beautiful and thought provoking art work after being let out. And so, Vic may be saying that one exists to create beauty.
In the next stanza he echos the previous “chorus”, but with slight changes:
Appearance is everything
nothing is how it seems
in a market economy
its called marketing
Although he is repeating the first two lines, they take on a different meaning this time, implying that in the capitalist economy that we all live in today, people manipulate appearances to make things seem more appealing. Beauty products, clothing, and alcohol are all marketed to enhance the user’s appearance.
The next few stanzas strike at the core of existentialism:
But sometimes clear headed
sometimes a doofus
sometimes very cordial
and somtimes aloof
I am syrupy optomistic one moment
and gravely pessimistic the next
irritable as a hornet some times
than agreeable as it gets.
These passages directly relate back to “The Stranger”, because Vic is acknowledging the fact than man cannot be defined by anything but his actions and that his actions are not always predictable; they are sometimes sporadic.
The next few lines introduce more of Chesnutt’s beliefs, in which he holds no major reverence for either religion nor science. This perhaps could be more connections to the protagonist of “The Stranger”, who didn’t have any regard for religion either.
And I’m not a pagan
I don’t worship anything
not Gods that don’t exist
nor the Sun that’s oblivious
The last few lines continue to convey Vic’s beliefs :
I love my ancestors
but not ritually
I don’t blame them or praise them
for anything they have passed along to me
And I don’t need stone altars to help me hedge my bets
against the looming blackness
it is what it is.
These lines seem particularly meaningful to me. Vic loves his family, but only because he wishes to love them, not because it is part of his religion. He also accepts the inevitability of death, claiming that one cannot distort it. Again, this introduces Vic’s past experiences into his lyrics: After his car crash, Vic was in constant pain with little relief from pain killers. In an interview, he said that he had flirted with death, attempting suicide many times and that “it just didn’t stick”. Vic Chesnutt died on Christmas, 2009 from a painkiller overdose in the hospital.