“He Doesn’t Even Have the Best Pants”: Jonathan Coulton’s “Mr. Fancy Pants” as an Exploration of the Human Condition in Capitalist America

January 1, 2011 § 13 Comments

The  human condition is at once a highly subjective and ultimately fatalistic field of inquiry, suffused with themes of misery, melancholy and mortality. In the words of Albert Camus, “He who despairs of the human condition is a coward, but he who has hope for it is a fool.” Explorations of the human condition in art, literature and film naturally tend to be depressing and defeatist. For that reason, true glimpses of the human condition within the generally more palatable realm of popular culture are rare. A notable exception is the song “Mr. Fancy Pants” by singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton, which is, in its both its lyrics and its presentation, a profound exploration of the human condition, particularly as evidenced within the capitalist culture of the United States.

The song tells the story of a man known as Mr. Fancy Pants, who has, by virtue of having the fanciest of pants, been the perennial winner of a regularly held fancy pants parade.  During the course of the song, Mr. Fancy Pants is dethroned from his position as the possessor of the best pants after the listener, addressed as “you,” finds and purchases a superior pair of pants and wears them in the parade. Mr. Fancy Pants’ loss of identity and status is evident in lines from the song’s penultimate stanza: “Everybody cheers / while he’s blinking back the tears / He doesn’t even have the best pants.”

It’s a silly premise on the surface, and Coulton himself has, in numerous public appearances, expressed his thought that the song is nonsense and that he doesn’t know what it means. However, a closer examination of the lyrics reveals a persistent, sinister undertone and a focus on the evils of trying to find meaning through consumerism.

The song begins:

Chances are your pants are not as fancy as the pair
Of very fancy pants that Mr. Fancy Pants will wear
When everybody’s marching in the fancy pants parade
He’s gonna pass the test
He’s gonna be the best
The best in terms of pants.

In this verse, Coulton introduces the following ideas:

  • That pants, a material object, are a manner of conveying or demonstrating best-ness
  • That the listener, by not having pants that can rival Mr. Fancy Pants’, is less worthy by comparison

A logical extension of this line of thought is that the listener should, in the style of keeping up with the Joneses, acquire better pants by some means, for the purpose of being as good as or better than Mr. Fancy Pants.

The second stanza details the listener’s search for better pants, in spite of already having “a hundred pants,” which is certainly a more than ample pants allotment for any reasonable person. Then, after devoting considerable time and effort to this search:

… suddenly you see the greatest pants you’ve ever seen
And even though you know
It’s gonna cost a lot of dough
You have to have the world’s best pants.

At this point, monetary expenditure, material gain and an increase in status outweigh practicality and frugality, two traits more commonly associated with long-term personal and spiritual satisfaction, in the mind of the listener. With these lines, the listener’s happiness seems to lie entirely outside of his own self or any spiritual pursuit: It is completely dependent upon pants.

That spiritual sense arises again in the third stanza, which also functions as a chorus. It admonishes the listener to “Say a little prayer for Mr. Fancy Pants,” since “the whole world knows / It’s only clothes / And deep inside he’s sad.”

By shifting the focus from the external factor of having the best pants to the internal factor of Mr. Fancy Pants’ happiness, the song points out a paradox common in American existence, at least to persons of some privilege. At some level, a person may understand and even profess that money cannot buy happiness (“the whole world knows”), but, simultaneously, he or she may also make many attempts to secure happiness through material objects, all while knowing that effort to be ultimately empty (“And deep inside he’s sad”).

In the song’s conclusion, alluded to earlier, the listener is awarded a trophy for having the best pants; Mr. Fancy Pants is stripped of his title. This title was, explicitly, the core of Mr. Fancy Pants’ identity (“It’s all he had”) even though it was based entirely on materialism and not on inner worth. The song consoles the listener, who has witnessed Mr. Fancy Pants’ drop in social and material status and subsequent tears: “don’t feel bad / he’d do the same to you.” It is a barbed attempt to allay the remorse the listener may feel upon seeing the consequences of his success.

Indeed, in addition to tying material objects to status and success, the song’s moral seems to be that it is only possible for a person to raise his own condition by robbing another person of his or her success, in this case, through pants.

The song’s exploration of capitalism and the human condition does not end with its lyrics, though. Coulton has, in live performances of the song, used a digital midi controller known as a Zendrum to augment the song, with the expressly stated underlying intent of distracting the audience from it. In a performance on Jan. 16,2010, at Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, Ga., for example, he expressed the idea that any distraction would do, equating the Zendrum to “a couple of white Bengal tigers doing tricks behind me.”

Although it is couched in the idea of diverting the audience from the song’s simplicity and silliness, Coulton’s focus on distraction speaks to a greater truth. In order to appreciate the song and not find it horrifying or demoralizing, the audience must be distracted from the difficult certainty its center: Not only does money not buy happiness, but people will continue to attempt to procure happiness through objects, in spite of their knowledge that this attempt is futile and in spite of the impact their actions have on others. Perhaps that is why the song, when played via Zendrum, begins with a long and plaintive wail.

The samples Coulton uses and his manner of arranging them using the Zendrum provide an underpinning to the overall sense of distraction. One popular addition has been a sample from Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up,” used to “Rickroll” audiences and, at least temporarily, drive “Mr. Fancy Pants” from their minds. The final flourish in a long mix of samples is generally a string of clips that, played together, become “Chances [are] you’re the best in everybody’s pants,” using sex as the ultimate distraction. Finally, the generally up-tempo, cheerful music serves as its own distraction, pulling the listener’s mind from the lyrics from beginning to end, just as people must constantly distract themselves from the futility of their situation through objects and money.

At the same time, Coulton has used samples in other performances that reiterate the themes of capitalism and consumerism rather than detracting from them. For example, he has in more than one performance used a sample of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It),” which explicitly ties love and commitment to the material object of an engagement ring, layering it with the theme to Nintendo’s “Super Mario Bros.,” one of the best-selling video games in the world. [eds. note: In their themes and symbolism, the use of these two pieces together could be an essay of its own.] But even when using samples that bolster the song’s themes, the overall intent is still to deter the audience from focusing on the lyrics.

In spite of its perky tone and quirky presentation, “Mr. Fancy Pants” is a dark and unsubtle caution against humanity’s attempt to secure happiness and meaning through material gain, particularly in the context of capitalist societies. The song shows this effort as it is: doomed to failure, yet something humanity has great difficulty in wrestling itself away from. That Coulton did not want to write the song – that he only did so because he could not get part of it out of his head – is particularly telling. It is as though the artist himself created the work only after all attempts at distracting himself had failed.

Perhaps without meaning to, in all his efforts to distract and obfuscate, Coulton has created a song that resonates on a purely joyful, optimistic level. Even children of middle-school age, too young yet to understand the complexities and tenor of adult life in America, have become entranced with the song and performed it in public. Perhaps they will, as they mature, understand that the key to happiness cannot be in supplanting someone else’s pants.