The Best Limitation of the Self: Ben Folds Fifty-Five Vault

February 27, 2012 at 8:21 am, by

No justification for my love of Ben Folds is needed here. Just check out this post on Lonely Avenue, this one on a live performance in NY, this one on 8in8, or this one on “Amelia Bright.”


You won’t be shocked to hear that I’m enchanted by the digital album Ben Folds Fifty-Five Vault–released as a supplement to Folds’ The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective.

The 3-disc retrospective includes songs with Folds playing all the instruments, Folds as part of Ben Folds Five; Folds singing released songs, singing (previously) unreleased songs; performing alongside Regina Spektor, performing alongside Rufus Wainright; covering Steely Dan, covering Ke$ha; and doing so much more that makes each track a unique review of Folds’ multi-faceted career.

What might be initially surprising to the listener is how much name-dropping you can do when reflecting on Folds’ career. And Ben Folds Fifty-Five Vault shines light on even more collaborative efforts from Folds.

Of the 56 tracks on the digital collection (Ben was never great at numbers), over a dozen of them are not penned by Ben Folds at all, and a number of these show Ben taking a backseat. Ben plays the bass on the instrumental “For All the Pretty People,” penned by Robert Sledge (at the piano); Robert sings lead on his own “Prince Charming;” Jared Reynolds and Lindsay Jamieson share lead vocals with Ben on “Lost In the Supermarket;” and it is a light string section that takes flight above the Five in Sledge’s instrumental “Birds.”

Such willingness to sit backstage might make a Folds fan question where Ben is. Isn’t this a selfless reflection on the self?

In Pirkey Avot, the sage Hillel teaches, Im eyn ani li, mi li?” (“If I am not for myself, then who will be for me?”).

This saying encourages people to think of themselves as whole beings–good enough to exist on their own. If you are there for yourself, then others can there be for you too.

But, one might say that there is an inherent flaw in the logic: if you want to be good enough to exist on your own, then why does it matter if others are there for you too?

Hillel continues, Ukhshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani?” (“But when I am for myself, what am I?”) (1:14).

You have to be able to exist for only yourself, but that is not enough. You need to exist for others too. Otherwise, you ain’t nothin’.

To Hillel, being a human means being responsible: for yourself and for others.

For Hillel, being a human is a relational thing: humans can only exist if they exist in relation to other humans. If people decide not to engage with those around them, then those disengaging people don”t matter. They’re not people. Nobody can be there for them.

So, when it comes to Ben Folds’ retrospection, Jewish thinkers shouldn’t be surprised to discover that Ben Folds can’t exist in a vacuum. This musician needs others’ music. Without being a backup musician or being able to cover someone else’s songs, he’s just not as notable a musician. Ben Folds couldn’t be a musician if he didn’t play others’ songs, or if he never accompanied someone else.

Had Hillel produced Ben Folds Fifty-Five Vault, he would’ve come up with something similar to what Folds released: Ben playing his own music solo, Ben playing a co-written song solo, Ben solo covering someone, Ben in a band covering someone, Ben in a band playing co-written music, Ben in a band playing his own music, Ben in a band playing another band member’s music…


You’ve got to be yourself. You’ve got to play your own music.

But if all your music is just for your own sake, that’s just not music at all.

Who’s gonna listen?

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