Morning Music: the Meaning of “Pablo Picasso”

The Modern LoversWith this Pablo Picasso painting getting sold for $179 million, it got me thinking of the song by The Modern Lovers off that first great album, “Pablo Picasso.” I’ve never spoken to Jojo about it, but I’m pretty sure that everyone misunderstands the song. To start with, it is not about the Pablo Picasso. It is just about a local celebrity. That cool guy who all the other guys want to be. The second verse starts, “Well the girls would turn the color of the avocado;
when he would drive down their street in his El Dorado.” You know that guy.

But the main thing in the song is that Pablo Picasso is never called an “asshole.” Not like you! And this is repeated over and over. But that isn’t the point of the song. It isn’t about how some guys are cool and others aren’t. It isn’t even about a cool guy. The hook is repeated a number of times, “Pablo Picasso was never called an asshole.” And this builds up to the last line of the song, “Pablo Picasso was never called!” This is, tellingly, a line that is normally missing from covers of the song.

Richman’s point is that you can be like Pablo Picasso and be cool and never make a fool of yourself. And if you do that, you will be alone. Your other option is to put yourself out there. Risk being called “asshole.” But then you won’t be alone. You will be called. This goes along with pretty much Richman’s entire song catalog.

The best example is his song “Affection.” It starts off with him repeating, “People all over the world are starving.” And then he ends it, “People all over the world are starving… for affection.” The refrain of the song is this:

People all over the world are good
People all over the world ain’t bad
But if they keep on chickening out
They won’t get what they wish they had… affection!

And that is what he’s saying in “Pablo Picasso.” That is the meaning of that song: don’t be like Pablo Picasso.

4 thoughts on “Morning Music: the Meaning of “Pablo Picasso”

    • I’m pretty sure I know that group, but I can’t quite place them. It’s an interesting take, because the American way is like Mitt Romney’s advice, “Go out, start a business, risk everything!” And if you fail, well, die of hypothermia while living on the streets. Our society values risk takers, but only if they succeed. If we truly valued risk taking, we would make it easier to fail.

      I remember being down at my sister’s a couple of years ago and American Idol was on. It was the first show of the season and there was this Christian woman who thought that God had told to go an compete. But she was quite bad and it was a humiliating experience for her, made all the worse by one of the hosts following her out to her car, asking her questions like, “Did you really think you could sing?!”

      There was no outrage from the culture at large. We simultaneously tell people “Put yourself out!” and then “What a jerk!” when they fail. In fact, there is this 20-20 hindsight thing that goes on. The greats should have known that they were great and the losers should have known that they were losers. Of course, if that were the case, there would be no risk. So what the society is really saying is, “Be great! Don’t suck!”

      It’s a nice song. It is always a little hard to get advice about being fearless from people who are successful. But I appreciate the sentiment.

      • I think when they started out they were YouTubers (hence the quick cut to snarky comments) — since then, they have a show that’s been picked up by cable. It’s a tolerable show, but it suffers from being about Making It In The Biz. The universe is not Los Angeles is not the universe, to steal Gore Vidal’s line about university-based authors who write about university life.

        I’d be surprised if many of the “American Idol” singers lampooned for their lack of talent aren’t plants. Reality shows depend on humiliation; that’s their bread-and-butter. It’s incredibly sad that Americans love this stuff. And they don’t in real life — we enjoy strangers being mocked or sentenced to death or beaten by cops, not the neighbor we vaguely know. But we’re turded on by so many forces, we enjoy vicariously seeing others turded on. Poop rolls downhill, as they say.

        The only places (besides here!) I’ve had any luck pimping my typing are, bizarrely, sports blogs, so I enjoyed this G&O bit, “Sports Go Sports!” (it’s better here than on their TV show):

        • I don’t think it is surprising that the Mexicans brought us “pena ajena” (shame experienced on behalf of another person). And the Germans brought us “schadenfreude.”

          You may be right about the plant. I know they do this. And usually, I hope they do it — especially on the court shows.

          As for the song, I couldn’t possibly have a better life because I am such a successful loser!

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