El Cuarteto de Nos is an Uruguayan alternative and rock band, and is the oldest Uruguayan musical group that is still active. Its songs are known for their humor, but many of them also address profound philosophical themes in a way that is as enlightening as it is funny, and they acknowledge the complexity and duality of various topics by portraying points of view in ways that both support and criticize them at the same time. This is why the band appeals to me, and the purpose of this post is to analyze the key strategy that the band uses to express complexity with its lyrics: the “flawed narrator,” or a narrator with clearly erroneous or extreme opinions.
Many songs establish a “flawed narrator” using deliberate and obvious hypocrisy. For instance, consider the song “Roberto,” in which the narrator imparts a series of vague, metaphorical, and seemingly unrelated pieces of advice: “if everything is going well, something is sure to go wrong,” “never hurt someone you can’t kill afterwards,” “never sleep with someone with a dagger tattoo,” and so on. The hypocrisy appears in the first and last lines of the song, in which the narrator advises “never give advice to someone that hasn’t asked you for it” and “never tell anyone what they should never do,” a clear self-contradiction. But the hypocrisy of the narrator doesn’t imply that these are bad suggestions (indeed, sleeping with someone with a dagger tattoo is tempting fate), but rather that a list of advice like this can be overwhelming, and that reality is much more complex than any aphorism. The fact that the narrator doesn’t follow his own advice (not to give advice) underscores the imperfect nature of maxims that pretend to be infallible.
A similar message appears in the song “Calma Vladimir” through a narrator that grows frustrated and angry while pleading with his friend Vladimir that he be calm, keep his cool and not lose his good judgement. In fact, this song is similar to “Roberto” because of its refrains, like “patience has a bitter root but yields sweet fruits” and “one is the owner of what one thinks and the slave of what one says.” This song tries to express not only that it is important to act with a cool head, but also that it is never as easy to control your emotions you might think. In this way, the song captures the dilemma of this situation without representing it one-sidedly.
In addition to deliberate hypocrisy, the songs of El Cuarteto de Nos employ another artistic method to establish a “flawed narrator” and capture both sides of an issue: the hyperbolic representation of a point of view. By creating a narrator with an exaggerated and monomaniacal perspective, they demonstrate the merits of such a perspective and its flaws at the same time.
The song “No Quiero Ser Normal” serves as an ideal example. It is about conformity, and the narrator proclaims his individuality and weirdness while denouncing “the idea that the majority of people is always right.” However, the narrator comes off as an immature contrarian and even an elitist, due to his celebration of his own oddities as if they were virtues simply because they are strange (“I took a course in Croatian and my pet is a rat”), his obstinate rejection of what is popular simply because it is popular (“if it becomes popular, I think it’s boring and it doesn’t interest me”), and his inappropriate and offensive disdain for everyone else (“if I’m on an abandoned island with three retards and they vote on a leader, I’m not going to pay it any mind”). As in the other examples, the understanding that the listener has for the narrator is accompanied by a recognition of his imperfections. The listener neither accepts nor rejects inconformity, but rather appreciates and understands the intricacies of the issue more deeply.
This method of representing complex themes appears in many other Cuarteto de Nos songs. “Algo Mejor Que Hacer” criticizes high expectations and the pressure from society to be successful, but it also criticizes laziness and acceptance of mediocrity or failure using a exaggeratedly passive and ambition-lacking protagonist. “Vida Ingrata” laments life’s injustices, and at the same time expresses the uselessness of complaining about it by being sung by an incurable grouch. “Caminamos” is about activism and social justice, but the narrator’s idealistic and naive belief in the invincibility of his cause makes the listener suspect that there exist limits. “Disculpe” emphasizes the importance of asking for forgiveness, and also how bothersome a person that asks forgiveness for trivialities can be. Each song expresses a point of view and undermines it by communicating it with an unreasonable narrator.
Although these paradoxes may seem to confuse the philosophical themes treated in each song, they actually elucidate all of them by revealing that none has a direct solution. Actually, this idea - that everything is more complex than it seems and that nothing has a simple solution - is the central idea of philosophy. El Cuarteto de Nos embraces this duality, and in fact, the song “Lo Malo De Ser Bueno” is dedicated to it. It verbalizes this concept by listing paradoxes one after the other and saying seemingly self-contradictory aphorisms like “the truth is that there is no truth” and “I look for answers and find questions,” which happen to be fundamental principles of philosophy.
In addition to addressing profound and complex concepts and appropriately expressing the complexity of all of them, these songs often refer (briefly) to other sources that enrich their philosophical explorations, like Greek mythology (they invoke the names of figures like Sisyphus, Kronos, and Narcissus) and some famous works of literature or theater (like Romeo and Juliet or The Portrait of Dorian Gray). Last, but not least, they spice up their songs with pleasing rhymes and clever sayings that would make them entertaining even without profound philosophical content.
A new album is coming out in Autumn this year. I’m really looking forward to it.back to home page