“The Leanover” Goes Viral

A weird part about blogging is that all of my old posts just sit around on the internet and still are occasionally stumbled upon by random people using Google. Most of my posts aren’t very high on search engines, but I’ve had a few that get listed prominently on Google through certain search terms, usually involving more obscure bands where there is less saturation of content written about them. One such post has exploded in popularity recently: a fairly short 2012 piece concerning my obsession with “The Leanover” by Life Without Buildings. The coolest part about the post isn’t anything I wrote, but a comment left by the band’s guitarist, Robert:

Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed reading this. For my money, you nailed most of what makes this my favourite of our songs; the aspect of joy that Sue always conveyed was something that we talked about a lot, and something that we felt distinguished us.

The Leanover was the first thing we wrote which we knew was good, and the first thing that successfully grafted Sue’s writing to the music; it was when we realised she had killer timing as well as everything else. I remember when we’d put down the backing track for the home demo, then Sue came round with a stack of paper and did what became The Leanover pretty much first-take, on an office chair in my bedroom, with the rest of us sitting on the bed in awe.

Good luck with everything!

Robert, Lwb guitar

That remains one of my fondest blogging memories, and even though I would write the post a lot differently today, I’ve always been somewhat proud of providing the “fan’s perspective” on this band for anyone who searches them out of curiosity. And Life Without Buildings are a band that I would guess leads to much more Google searches on average from people who hear them: their songs certainly grab attention, and they make people want to figure out what the deal with the group is. At least that’s how I felt when I first discovered them.

Anyways, it became clear from my boost in traffic that there was a sudden, somewhat significant interest in this song from 2001, and I searched around to see what the cause was. As it turns out, “The Leanover” has become something of a viral sensation on the social media platform Tik Tok, where it has been featured in 55,000 videos so far. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I have never used Tik Tok, and the thought of young people using this alien way of communicating that I do not understand fills me with terror. I created an account so I could see what the posts were about, and it seemed to mostly be people trying on clothes while the song played in the background. I am no closer to understanding why this is entertaining or what anyone is really getting out of this platform, and every second I spent there made me more and more aware of my uncoolness and looming death.

That said, I’m no gatekeeper. If Tik Tok is making people discover “The Leanover,” then keep the videos coming (also, keep finding my blog). And it was a lot of fun to read comments about the song and see the reaction people have to this unique band. As expected, there was plenty of “this is nails on a chalkboard to me” and “this song is so annoying.” But there was also a lot of the feeling I had when I first discovered Life Without Buildings: puzzlement, uncertainty, and a definite curiosity in what this band was and how they made a song like “The Leanover.” Those are the people I assume are finding the blog and I’m hoping my words and Robert’s comments are a decent enough answer.

I went on and on about this song and band back in 2012 (to the point that I was self-conscious about the amount of obsessing I was doing), and my opinions haven’t really changed much. In terms of capturing something unique that feels special and exciting, I don’t know if I rank any song over “The Leanover” or any album over Any Other City. Sue Tompkins’ performance on it is probably my favorite by an artist in any medium: innovative, daring, and endearing, her personality radiates off these songs, which have an enthusiasm and spirit that is beyond infectious. And “The Leanover” is the best showcase of an artist who really invented a new kind of singing and lyricism. There have been talky singers before, and artsy poetry lyricists before, but nobody who did anything quite like this. Tompkins was a painter at the time, and approached words like they were colors and the music like it was her blank canvass, there to be covered with splatters, blotches, and other intentional imperfections. While some will inevitably dismiss her style as pointless babbling, I find there to be an internal logic to her lyricism — there isn’t much literal meaning, but all of the words, the references and repeated phrases add up and cohere into tangible feelings and emotion.

Another crazy thought I’ve had about Life Without Buildings: they’re the only band I’ve heard that I feel would be virtually impossible to cover. In fact, one of the themes in the Tik Tok videos I saw was people trying to lip sync along with her words, and just doing that is too difficult. Nobody else in the world could have Tompkins’ timing or her energy — even if they managed to get all the words right at the right time, so much of the band is based on the specific way Sue’s voice sounds and the way she says the words. I’m never bothered when people say the song is annoying because when an artist does something so different, it only makes sense that it will irritate those who are used to only hearing music made in a certain “normal” style. A more pessimistic view I have sometimes is that Life Without Buildings expose the lack of imagination in so much other music and lyricism, with the conventional rhyming schemes, recycled influences, and basic structures. But really, they mostly prove how hard it is to actually innovate, and how enjoyable it is to hear artists who find something new that actually works.

The uniqueness of Tompkins and the band are why “The Leanover” makes a weird amount of sense as a viral hit, even 20 years after its release. A word that comes up over and over on the Tik Toks is “vibe,” and Tompkins definitely has that in spades. She was maybe ahead of the curve in having a quirky individuality that mirrors some of the short videos, which are mostly people looking to stand out online via their offbeat fashion and music choices. Tik Tok also seems to be an emerging platform for music discovery, and hearing a snippet of a song in this context is probably more effective at getting people interested in a band than the most well-written reviews. I don’t know if the song’s success of platform is necessarily evidence of any of this on its own, but I’m glad that greatness like “The Leanover” is finding an audience, even if it’s through unconventional means.