Download: Freedy Johnston – “Bad Reputation”
Freedy Johnston’s “Bad Reputation” is on the short list of my favorite songs of the 1990s. I would describe it as the gateway song of my development as a music fan. Prior to this I wasn’t listening to much indie rock but exposure to short-lived radio stations like KSCA and the still-thriving “Morning Becomes Eclectic” slowly exposed me to music beyond Hootie and the Blowfish.
“Bad Reputation” registered with me while driving back to school after a weekend at home. The song came on the car radio and there was something oddly familiar about it. Where had I heard it before? The chorus felt right and I hoped that the DJ will tell me who it was and perhaps answer where I had heard the song before. Freedy Johnston, said the DJ. I had never heard of him but vowed to look into him.
My research eventually reminded me where I heard the song before. I had just been to a screening of Noah Baumbach’s seminal post-grad life film, Kicking and Screaming, and “Bad Reputation” was the song that played in the end when the screen goes black. The song also appeared on Johnston’s terrific album, This Perfect World, which I purchased immediately.
The most remarkable thing about “Bad Reputation” is the level of poignancy it achieves, which results from Johnston’s ability to create a complete and empathetic character within the first verse:
I know I got a bad reputation
and it isn't just talk, talk, talk
If I could only give you everything
You know I haven't got
I couldn't have one conversation
If it wasn't for the lies, lies, lies
And still I want to tell you everything
'till I close my eyes
We see here the push and pull of love as the speaker confesses his flaws and imperfections to the one he loves and thinks does not deserve. The second verse is even more devastating as he meekly pushes her away (“Don’t try to be an inspiration”) but underlining each verse is the realization that he doesn’t want to let her go.
“Bad Reputation” isn’t a song about love conquering all or how the love of a woman can transform a man. That’s the territory of lesser songs and songwriters who simplify what it is to be human. Rather it’s an unresolved song about the difficulty of changing even for the one you love. It’s about stubbornness that gets in the way of happiness. Yet it’s also about patience and understanding and the ability of love to make us want to be better people.
Adding to the poignancy is Johnston’s plain, unremarkable voice. It grounds the song in the realm of the ordinary man (physically speaking, Johnston too is ordinary, balding and weak-chinned). He’s no great lover; he’s just a man struck by love and unsure of how to deal. When Johnston gets to the wonderful chorus, it’s quite a revelation. “Suddenly I’m on the street/ Seven years disappear below my feet,” he sings, summing up the transformative power of love. But sure enough he catches himself and asks the question, “Do you want me now?” That question, sung in Johnston’s unadorned voice, sounds like a plea as well as a dare. He wishes she does but challenges her that it won’t be easy.
So does she still want him? We don’t know. Johnston certainly expresses himself so deeply and so powerfully that I can’t help but be moved. Perhaps the more pressing question is whether it will all work out even if she does. Will it be worth it? That’s another song altogether.