Queens of the Stone Age’s (QotSA) fifth full length studio album, Era Vulgaris (2007), is a well-polished yet uneasy album speaking on depravity. Era Vulgaris, the Latin term for “Common Era”, was chosen by the band’s leader, Josh Homme, due to it sounding like “the vulgar era,” something which “he would like to be a part of.” The album’s brooding, caustic tone is nothing new for QotSA or Homme, considering the introspective stoner rock that their music has been rooted in. In anticipation of the album, Homme stated that the album’s theme and tone was inspired by the times in which he had to drive through Hollywood, describing it as a manicured surface covered with “dirt, clearly seen.” It made for an album that many critics didn’t expect, changing its tone and theme dramatically from the previous Lullabies to Paralyze and their standout hit Songs for the Deaf (which was a concept album about his cramped drives off towards Joshua Tree during his Kyuss days).
While there are multiple standout songs off of Era Vulgaris (“Turning on the Screw,” “3’s & 7’s,” and “Suture Up Your Future”), it’s the album’s third track, “I’m Designer,” that is the song that most uniformly captures its maligned sarcasm and self-deprecation. Between the eye-rolling lyrics, Homme’s scoffing vocal track, and atonal lead guitar, “I’m Designer” provides the multiple perspectives/people that define this so-defined era vulgaris — lives void of individuality and self-worth yet left with full wallets after having sold themselves off for quick means of “fortune and fame.”
Homme’s intonation and vocalization are the first obvious signs of the sarcasm and humorous commentary in “I’m Designer.” Whether for the way he pronounces words in a lofty way (“baggage,” “neither,” and “designer”) or for the utilization of falsetto and vibrato to give his words a posh exterior, it provides the listener with an understanding that what he’s saying shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Likewise, consider the way in which phrases of lyrics are inserted off of downbeats — it’s an easy way for asides and clarifications are provided to the listener from the vocalist (consider the opening couplet in each three verses).
The most obvious significance of the theme comes, quite simply, from the lyrics of the song. Breaking the song down, there are numerous areas in which the vocalist contradicts themselves or attempts to provide clarifications to show what the world stands for beneath the façade:
-My generation’s for sale/Beats a steady job/How much have you got
-It’s just like diamonds/In shit
-I’m high class, I’m a whore/Actually both/Basically I’m a pro
-It’s truly a lie/I counterfeit myself
-How many times must I sell myself before my pieces are gone/I’m one of a kind/I’m designer
-Never again will I repeat myself/Enough is enough/Never again will I repeat myself
Among these lyrics, some of the particular standouts are “It’s just like diamonds/In shit” and “I’m one of a kind/I’m designer.” The “like diamond in shit” line is prefaced by another couplet, “The thing that’s real for us is fortune and fame/All the rest seems like work.” By presenting that the outcome is like “diamonds in shit,” it’s getting to the core of what his “generation” wants out of life: by attaining fortune and fame, wealth and respect comes immediately, almost out of nowhere, which is not too different than taking a shit and finding diamonds magically inside of it (again, humor). Similarly, when considering “I’m designer,” we must be reminded that this is prefaced with a line wondering how much one must sell of themselves before their individuality is gone. This couplet is obviously tongue-in-cheek, referring to themselves as if a God, or more simply as a designer apparel item compared to a swath of clothing from a clearance store. The reliability of the vocalist comes into question, more so in the matter of how they view themselves, as they see themselves about the rest of their generation and envision themselves as a one-of-a-kind individual.
The other theme that is spoken about at-length in the song is the notion of “selling out” — selling your individuality to the man as a means of achieving popular success. Furthermore, the vocalist continually espouses how they are unique among a crowd of “sell outs,” and knows the man/media/companies for who they are; however, there seem to be glimpses where the vocalist realizes that he is similarly a part of the system, something that he cannot separate himself from. There are lines all throughout the song that get to this idea:
-The thing that’s real for us is fortune and fame/Beats a steady job
-We’ve all got our own style/Of baggage/Why hump it yourself
-You’ve made me an offer that I can refuse/Course either way I get screwed/Counter proposal: I go home and jerk off
-You don’t own/What none can buy
-You don’t own/Neither do I
-High and mighty you say that selling out is a shame/Is that the name of your book?
-No more holding us down, down, dog, dog, mutt, nice mutt
-You’re insulted you can’t be bought or sold/Translation: offer to low
-You don’t know what you’re worth/It isn’t much/My piano is for sale
-It used to be the plan was screwing the man/Now its to have sex with the man/After he buys you dot-com for sale at a low, low price
Why internalize your troubles when you can sell them as Art?
Sell yourself to the system — they’ll screw you out of your freedom and your money.
If it isn’t profitable, it isn’t worth existing.
Whatever you think you’re worth, in the grand scheme, to be honest with you, it isn’t very much (I own objects that are worth more than you).
Whatever happened to “fuck the man?” Oh, well, now that he can buy you “freedom” and “fortune and fame,” we might as well side with him.
Overall, there isn’t that much that makes any of the characters of this generation unique. That’s what Homme is getting at. In a culture that was fortified and rewarded for their yuppie tendencies, they fused into the system and became inseparable from it. Rather than making decisions for themselves, they needed to look towards The Man for an answer, a helping hand, a route towards success. In this way, each individual contributing towards the system and seeking rather immediate outcomes and security, they made for an overly sterile culture that reeks — the grotesque, seedy underbelly of Capitalism fueling the system and keeping the people in their necessary order. While Homme might see himself as separate from the system, he realizes that he is just as much a part of it as anyone else, in that he is still producing material. (Of which people want. If he has nothing pleasurable/marketable to offer them, then there are content with letting him hold onto it, since it has no worth to the market.) While he views himself as a “designer,” as someone above the common denominator, someone that is producing material that is high-end and unique comparative to the state of rock and pop awash with generalities, he is still a part of the music industry.
“I’m Designer,” even as a funny track with biting sarcasm, is still dirty and unnerving (similar to Lullabies to Paralyze‘s “Skin on Skin” and “”You’ve Got A Killer Scene There, Man…””), providing you with an idea of the direction that the album is going to take. For Era Vulgaris, that means sticking to both its Latin root and Josh Homme’s interpretation of it: the Common Vulgar Era.