Recently, it was announced that Jimmy Buffett will at long last realize his dream of a Broadway musical fashioned in his own image. The “Escape To Margaritaville” is iminent.
What started as a benign celebration of beach bum lifestyle has metastasized into a full-blown multi-million dollar empire and Boomer subculture and spread throughout the dark underbelly of the entire country. If you know anyone over 50 who owns a hawaiian shirt, there is likely a Parrothead in your life right now.
As one born well after Mr. Buffett’s ascendance past superstar status and plunge into self parody, I never regarded the man, his music, or business concerns as anything less than an innocent comedic figure—no more threatening than the tiny swords and umbrellas that festoon the beverages of his fans.
And to everyone who has undoubtedly brushed up against his breezy tunes at some point, the casual assessment holds up. Inoffensive at best, aggravating at worst, it’s nothing to get worked up about. And really, having a firm stance on Jimmy Buffett either way is even more embarrassing for the detractors than the Parrotheads. So why bother?
At least, that’s what I thought until recently on my daily trudge to work, I encountered a short NPR piece on the aforementioned broadway development. With nothing to distract me but my customarily half hearted efforts to avoid fatal collision with other motorists, I found myself forced to engage with the lyrics of the short musical excerpts throughout the segment.
What confronted me was dark enough to make Ian Curtis blush. I gazed long into the daiquiri, and the daiquiri gazed also into me.
And so, like so many Floridian septuagenarians, I took a deep dive into a shallow pool. I fear no chlorine, for the Lord is with me.
Now—I don’t have the psychological steadfastness or willingness necessary to sully the recommendation algorithms on my Spotify or YouTube Accounts by doing a truly exhaustive investigation into the man’s wide-but-shallow discography. But much like the scum that rises to the surface of the courtyard jacuzzi, what I found in my brief perusal was enough to tell me about what lies beneath.
The music itself is as light and insubstantial as a light breeze ruffling the palms in Boca Raton, from what I can recall at least. But the seasick strums and day drunk vacation vibes do less to obscure the lyrical content than they do to amplify the chilling implications, like an ugly pear-shaped shadow silhouetted on the pristine white sand beach.
Take my hand and come with me for a pleasant stroll through the dystopian nightmare world of Mr. Buffett, where beach bums become beach bummers.
The workday passes like molasses in wintertime
But it’s July
I’m getting paid by the hour and older by the minute
My boss just pushed me over the limit
I’d love to call him something, but I think I’ll just call it a day
Pour me something tall and strong
Make it a hurricane before I go insane
It’s only half past twelve but I don’t care
It’s five o’clock somewhere
Well this lunchbreak is gonna take all afternoon
And half the night
Tomorrow morning I know there’ll be hell to pay
Hey, but that’s alright
I ain’t had a day off now in over a year
My Jamaican vacation’s gonna start right here
If the phone is for me you can tell ’em I just sailed away
These are just a few of the lyrics from the first part of Mr. Buffet’s highest ranked song on Spotify, the infamous “It’s 5 O’ Clock Somewhere.” These few scant lines form a perfect microcosm of Jimmy’s world. Buffet has described this animating ethos of his music as “escapism,” which he sees as increasingly necessary in these trying times. This is a much more pleasant way of describing a lifestyle that vacillates between dreary beige corporate life and the somehow even more frightening kitschy alcoholism that is seen as the only alternative.
It’s hard to question the necessity of small diversions, and the entire entertainment industry would rather you not, anyway. But the Margaritaville mindset is disturbing, not only because of what it is an escape from, but also what it is necessarily, then, and escape to. To the legions of Boomers whose lives have long been devoid of any meaningful struggle or friction, the only alternative to the antiseptic prison of late capitalism is nothing short of full-blown alcoholic excess set against the tropical backdrops not unlike those hiding beneath mountains of spreadsheets on your PC desktop. The prototypical behammocked palm trees and white sand beaches are the paradise of an imagination long dulled by countless conference calls and mugs of stale office coffee. You’re getting it coming and going, with no middle ground between misery and decadence. You’re either hungover or about to be.
Take our protagonist from the aforementioned song. The man feels his life slipping away slowly, and the only remedy is to get loaded at noon on a work day. And it doesn’t stop at lunch time, but carries all the way through the evening hours until the question of a better start to tomorrow entirely slips away. And so the cycle continues–a better future precluded by the need to escape the present nightmare by the direst means possible. Wage slavery is the only way to survive, and the only point of that survival is to get loaded.
Here’s a fruitful exercise—imagine each of these following vignettes sung-spoken in the style of Mark Kozelek and try not to reach for the nearest bottle of Zoloft.
Blackout tattoos in “Margaritaville”:
Don’t know the reason,
Stayed here all season
With nothing to show but this brand new tattoo.
But it’s a real beauty,
A Mexican cutie, how it got here
I haven’t a clue.
Absentee lovers in “Come Monday”:
I hope you’re enjoyin’ the scenery,
I know that it’s pretty up there.
We can go hikin on Tuesday,
With you I’d walk anywhere.
California has worn me quite thin,
I just can’t wait to see you again.
Diet-driven binge eating reveries in “Cheeseburger In Paradise”:
But at night I’d have these wonderful dreams
Some kind of sensuous treat.
Not zucchini, fettuccini, or bulgur wheat,
But a big warm bun and a huge hunk of meat.
When viewed through a critical lens, they serve not as a celebration of the lifestyle, but as an indictment of capitalism and a knowing embrace of our most self-destructive desires. Jimmy understands deeply that palm trees and sand don’t preclude depression, but bring it into an even clearer focus. And in turning his deeply tanned back on the quotidien in favor of liquor addled kitsch the cultural void of gringo infested resort towns, he admits defeat. There is no search for authenticity or meaning, because there isn’t any.
Whether his adoring worldwide death cult realizes it (as deeply, and subconsciously, I think they do), Jimmy Buffett fully understands and embodies the logical conclusion of our modern plight, and it is a headlong swan dive into the bottom of a piña colada. In fact, make mine a double.