On Monday, May 3rd through Friday, May 7th, KEXP celebrates Nurse Appreciation Week playing requests from and dedications to healthcare workers, hearing messages from nurses in the KEXP community, and reminding everyone to be kind to their community by getting vaccinated. In conjunction with this special programming, KEXP's Martin Douglas chats with Portland punk outfit Mr. Wrong about their song "Holding For Healthcare."
In my 12 ½ years working for a supermarket in my neighborhood, I often — okay, frequently — half-joked — okay, way less than half — that I was only there for the health insurance.
Chances are if you know a musician or someone otherwise working in the music industry, they have some type of day-job or side gig wherein they toil away for a reasonably sustainable income and access to affordable healthcare. (And I’m talking before this COVID-19 pandemic, where absolutely no musicians are making money from their heretofore financial lifeblood of endless touring.) It’s because people say they value art but many of them only value it for the cultural fulfillment and corresponding cool points.
These types aren’t willing to put their money where their mouth is in order to support artists. They pay their $10 a month for Spotify Premium (where one artist told me they had to garner a million plays in order to net a $3000 check and another famously rapped about earning a paltry 57 cents for every hour their music is played) but complain when artists charge $30 or more for a limited edition vinyl copy of their work. Only the most fortunate of us in the artistic class make enough money to be able to afford health insurance on our own. Even fewer work in industry jobs where health insurance options are presented to us.
When Mr. Wrong released their second full-length album Create a Place last year, parts of it ended up being prescient as fuck (“Isolation Du Plenty” unwittingly became a quarantine anthem), but most of it was a trenchant document of having to live in an untenable society. Sharing space with rape culture deniers (“White Male Teacher”) and witnessing American politics reduced to the worst kind of disposable entertainment (“Prime Time President”), the self-taught Portland punks tied their instruments into knots and sang of being in a “Nuclear Generation.” Though it’s difficult to pick out a clear highlight from the sixteen minutes of wall-to-wall bangers on Create a Place, I usually gravitate the easiest toward songs that point toward a deeply human experience that isn’t often captured. “Holding for Healthcare,” the album’s penultimate track, emphasizes a gift not earned easily in art: the ability to sensationalize the mundane.
“Holding for Healthcare” captures a moment that feels like a hundred years distilled into two-and-a-half minutes: being on hold. It’s a fucking arduous, treacherous, utterly masochistic device to test someone’s patience, one employed specifically and expertly by healthcare providers as seemingly an added “fuck you” for having the audacity to need medical assistance in America. It’s the insult tacked onto the injury of America not being anywhere near willing to convert to socialized medicine and, you know, literal injury. The grass grows beneath your feet, the paint dries until it flakes off the wall, the hair on your legs turn into a forest.
Over an indelible slice of stop-and-start post-punk, the band sings of carving out their entire day to wait and see if they’re “broke enough to afford an annual check-up.” The muzak playing on the line comforts them from the loneliness of being miles away from talking to another human. The line about the care being not so urgent reminds me of waiting in an urgent care waiting room for two hours before puking in the doctor’s sink, taking a $1000 ambulance ride for eight blocks to the hospital just so I would get treated faster, and finding out hours later that I had a kidney stone. The tension of the song elevates as the song speeds up at the end, and the refrain of “I’m on hold, I’m on hold / I’m on hold, getting older” damn near turns into an existential mantra.
Since we’re celebrating Nurse Appreciation Week and all, I got in touch with Mof and Ursula — the former the band’s guitarist, the latter the drummer, vocalists both — and asked them a small handful of questions about possibly the greatest song ever detailing the most boring ordeal humans have to suffer through.
KEXP: Please guide me through the inspiration for writing “Holding for Healthcare.” Was it as simple as being one of those mundane situations of being on hold for someone to help with an insurance matter or an appointment?
Mof: I remember texting Ursula, exasperated, that we should write something about the experience of holding for health while on hour 2 of waiting for OHP to take my call. We had commiserated over the experience before and I needed to take my mind off the waiting music.
Ursula: I had gone through similar ordeals with trying to access care, and agreed there would be plenty of fuel for a song there. Just the amount of bureaucracy and hoops you have to jump through to get health concerns addressed as a lower-income person in this country is astounding.
How often do you draw upon mundane, everyday situations for musical inspiration?
Mof: I feel that the mundane moments can be the best way to approach bigger topics as they’re universally relatable & often symbolic. Write about what you know, as they say
Ursula: I agree with Mof. I would say that this is one of our most specific songs — often our lyrics have more of a wide lense approach to looking at an issue, this one pinpoints a very specific moment.
Do you think rich people have to wait so long on the phone for adequate service? I mean, I’m sure Jeff Bezos has a private physician who is available at his every beck and call, but what about the non-obscenely rich? This is something I wonder about a lot.
Mof: Maybe they pay someone to wait for them? *imagine*
Ursula: This is a great question. I don't think so — ironically it's always the people who can't afford to take time off work who end up having to somehow make these hours-long calls during the workweek (the lines are closed after 5pm and on weekends). The system is rigged.
Have you ever had to live with an injury or a medical ailment for a few days (or weeks) because you couldn’t talk to a healthcare specialist before their office closed?
Ursula: I've been lucky enough to avoid anything too awful, although lack of insurance and money stopped me from getting preventative health and dental care for years in my early 20's — and that has definitely contributed to multiple health issues I'm still sorting out at the age of 30.
Mof: The worst dental emergencies are always on the weekend.