Phil Gramm, former Texas senator and Sen. John McCain’s senior economic adviser, once declared the American public to be a “nation of whiners.” While a gross, thoughtless sentiment, it couldn’t be more apropos of a certain choir of complainers who have recently made their Philly debut.
As the opening act to First Person Arts, an annual festival dedicated to documentary and memoir-styled art, the Complaint Choir aspires to create a veritable sensation in Philly from what has become a worldwide phenomenon.
The idea of a complaint choir actually originated overseas.
Two Finnish artists conceived it in 2005. There happens to be a phrase in Finnish that literally translates to “complaint choir,” or the unruly debate among friends and people.
Shelley Spector, artist, curator and teacher, first pitched the idea of a Philly Complaint Choir. She did so after taking a trip with FPA administrative coordinator Nicholas Forrest to New York City, where they attended a presentation of complaint choirs from around the world.
“After seeing the presentation in New York, we decided that it was high time that Philly had its own complaint choir,” Forrest said.
Considering the city’s notoriety for its tenacious citizenry and universal disdain toward the Philadelphia Parking Authority, Spector and Forrest couldn’t be more right.
The Philly Complaint Choir’s inception was highly organized – unlike other choirs that have been more spontaneous.
“We had T-shirts that said ‘Complaint Collector,’ and we had clipboards. We just went up to people and asked them if they had time to complain about stuff. And the complaints usually range from very serious to very hilarious,” Forrest said. “I think the thing about Complaint Choir is that since it is a universal thing, they can have that range from the mundane to the serious and still everyone can relate.”
While the complaints are usually specific to each city, Evan Solot, the composer for the Philly Complaint Choir, sought to encompass nationally felt grievances as well.
The lyrics swing between crass street grumbles to stern expressions of political angst and economic strife. The opening stanza pretty much sums it up:
“The government does not believe in global warming. My unemployed roommate just smokes pot all day. The maintenance man will not take my phone calls. I wish I had time to complain.”
“I think the Philly Complaint Choir, now more than ever, is relevant, considering all the turmoil with the [election] and the eminent success of the Phillies. People are hyped and complaining more than ever,” Forrest said. “And no matter what is the outcome of either of those things, people will have a complaint choir to go to hear their grievances sung aloud.”
Forrest and the rest of the FPA staff didn’t expect so many participants to come forward and sing in the choir. At first, only 20 people showed up, but now, the choir is 70 members strong.
“And a big part of the complaint choir is that you don’t need any singing experience prior,” Forrest said. “The music is folksy, so nothing’s really complicated. And it’s just fun, accessible lyrics and melodies that they can be enjoyed by anyone.”
Forrest likened unions used to rally the working class with their own brand of rabble-rousing ballads to the Philly Complaint Choir. While counteracting unfair working conditions and paltry pay were the aim of union songs, the complaint choir seeks to unite people under the banner of workday gripes.
Aaron Stella can be reached at email@example.com.