Drinking my way to the meaning of Dawes' 'When the Tequila Runs Out'

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The journalistic process

“Alexa, play ‘When the Tequila Runs Out’ by Dawes on repeat for the next hour.”

It’s not a command my Amazon Echo Dot understands or can execute. And how could it? To a partially sentient hockey puck, the request is illogical. Why one song? Why that song? But there are no amount of Silicon Valley development hours that can replicate what I understand -- the infinite and performative nature of human stupidity.

For anyone with an FM radio in Minnesota, 2016 was truly the year the tequila ran out. 89.3 the Current’s inexplicable love for the hokey indie-folk party anthem meant you couldn’t turn on your car without hearing Dawes frontman Taylor Goldsmith outlining his plans for Friday night. It became my favorite local gripe of the year, as the entire public-radio-listening populace groaned collectively across Twitter whenever it came on the air.

That’s not to say the song isn’t popular. The Mandy Moore-starring YouTube video for the song has more than 200,000 views; the track reached No. 5 on Billboard’s Adult Album Alternative chart. The album on which it appears -- the apropos We’re All Gonna Die -- led the country in vinyl sales following its September release.

The problem isn’t innate in the quality of the song; it’s the predatory insistence with which The Current pushed it. All told, I’ve probably listened to “When the Tequila Runs Out” 70 or so times in the last five months. Not once was it voluntary. I’ve developed such a visceral reaction to the opening triangle chime that it actually rivals my college-borne revulsion for tequila.

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The journalistic tools

But with Dawes coming to Minneapolis' State Theatre on February 3 -- and since I’m not afraid to get drunk for this paper -- I decide to give the song a chance.

In the spirit of fairness (and click-gobbling stunt journalism), I gathered with my editors, Jay Boller and Hannah Sayle, and Fagerberg household resident DJ Alexa so that we can listen to “When the Tequila Runs Out.” With intent. With intensity. With tequila (and eventually champagne) for an uninterrupted hour in hopes of figuring out the song’s embattling appeal.

1st Listen

Some remedial number-crunching informs me that, at a runtime of 4:52, an hour will mean listening to “When the Tequila Runs Out” just over 12 times. I’ve figured out how to get Alexa to repeat a song ad infinitum without any protests, so at least I won’t have to repeat my command of “Alexa, play ‘When the Tequila Runs Out’” a dozen times.

The tequila I’ve selected is a Trader Joe’s blanco that cost less than most household cleaners. It’s not the type of spirit anyone with any respect for the agave plant would ever drink, but tonight is not about respect. I crack its plastic screw top as the inaugural triangle chime hits.

The regret is instant and resounding. On both counts. Between the nauseating groove and the gallons of mouth sweat, it’s overall a stomach-churning beginning.

2nd Listen

Holy shit, it started again. Something tells me the song is formulated for this exact purpose -- it runs seamlessly from one rotation into the next. Bongos cascade into that infernal chime ... “Stacked for snacking.” That could be the tagline, though I don’t think this song needs any more marketing help.

3rd Listen

OK, we’re at a critical point. Scientifically, this is the point where the brain begins to recognize and attach to trends. The root of addiction. Before long, I’ll be hopelessly salivating over the triangle as a Pavlovian cue instead of dreading its gonad-shriveling chime.

Thankfully, lyric annotation website Genius has the cure for that, bringing me back into the song’s absurdity. “Refering [sic] to the chorus, he drunk to [sic] much tequila,” reads one note.

Cynicism intact.

4th Listen

Jay uses the term “yupster” to describe Dawes’ L.A.-ready yoga mom rock. He’s right. He also said that Dawes is for people who think Wilco is too challenging. He’ll probably want credit for that.

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5th Listen

I’m taking the tequila in slow sips now. It’s a horrible strategy, but I can’t bring myself to do anything with much enthusiasm. With every repetition, the task seems heavier. Each time Goldsmith runs down the tepid minutiae of the party he’s at (who gives a shit if you turned the pool lights on?!), I slink into a defeated crouch. We’re a little over a third of the way there, and I’ve now accustomed myself to thinking this is what I’ll be doing for the rest of my life.

6th Listen

By this point, everyone has abandoned me. They’re talking about banks somewhere else in the room. Hannah stopped taking pictures because she can’t bear to document the continuing alienation. The name “Nationstar” is brought up in relation to a mortgage refinance. I sit at my computer smelling the tequila as a means of staying on task. It’s a mistake.

What is the pan flute noise that leads into the guitar solo before verse three? It whistles into the background in a way that you’d only notice if you were foolish enough to subject yourself to Dawes academically. What a weird moment. What a weird song. What a weird band. Who else could work “PLEEEEEAAAAAASEEE” into a convincing penultimate bridge?

7th Listen

Hannah takes a moment from discussing mortgage refinancing to report that she’s never heard “When the Tequila Runs Out” before tonight. And that she likes it. This is why she isn’t the music editor.

8th Listen

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The part of the song I’m fixating on now is the part where Goldsmith coos “Ladies and gentlemen we’ve begun the initial descent.” There’s something so genius about it. Goldsmith must’ve recognized the hypnotic power of the song’s bassline. And, in order to make sure the rote-ass chug-a-lug didn’t lull the listenership into a dream, he employed a technique that flight crews have used for decades to shock drowsy businessmen back to life.

Layers of the song are revealing themselves to me. Maybe Hannah was onto something. But before I can fully form that revelation, the tequila bottle runs dry. I’m not exactly sure what the course of action is afterwards.

9th Listen

Just kidding, jackasses! There’s 750 golden milliliters of Korbel in the fridge. L'chaim!

10th Listen

Cork popped, I settle back in at the keyboard. Goldsmith is running down the inconsequential details of the party -- clarifying that it’s “Thriller" the song not the album on the stereo, commenting on the bathroom line, noticing the breeze -- and suddenly it dawns on me: Maybe this song is ironic?

Perhaps by being such a shitty narrator of the good times going on around him, Goldsmith is trying to make some sort of commentary on social anxiety in public settings. Giving a voice to the outsider in all of us. Championing the awkward agoraphobic.

When the tequila runs out, the truth comes out, it seems.

11th Listen

OK, now I’m really into the lyrics. My head is swimming in the way that only carbonated booze can make it swim. I feel like Good Will Hunting unlocking algorithms on a chalkboard at MIT. Yes, Goldsmith isn’t creating yet another tired party song in the vein of LMFAO or P!nk. Instead, he offers a deadpan, comically disaffected counterpoint.

Where the fuck is Genius with these insights? This champagne tastes like the breast milk of immortals. I am engorged with booze and brilliance!

12th Listen

As an omniscient vessel of the divine, a new revelation dawns on me: Regardless of the nose-thumbing undercurrent, this song is still awful.

The tug-of-war between form and function has been cleanly won by function, offering no useful form for delivery. What good is a message if it’s impossible to listen to? “When the Tequila Runs Out” is like emailing your boss to request a raise and leading with the subject line “Are your parents siblings?”

My drunken euphoria fades seamlessly into the dread of a tequila/champagne combo hangover. I am not as immortal as I assumed. Everything is crumbling.

13th Listen

“Alexa, stop!” I declare with triumphant abandon. 


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