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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Thanks for the margaritas: The life and legacy of Jimmy Buffett

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Maria Tobias


Jimmy Buffett passed away on the first of this month, and I was sent the headline four separate times by four different people.

I’m not ashamed to say I cried. I know I wasn’t the only one. “Parrotheads” — devout fans of Buffett in the same way that “Deadheads” obsess over the Grateful Dead — are often thought of as being baby boomers, but he’s also popular among younger generations. This isn’t the first article The Observer has published about Buffett since his death. It’s not even the second. The question is, why? How has Buffett’s legacy stuck around so long? What has kept him so relevant?

For over 50 years, Buffett has stood as a monument in the music industry and in tiki bars everywhere. He was, and remains, a beloved Hawaiian-shirt-wearing icon. Buffett is often associated with a laid-back and carefree approach to life. His music is seen as an ode to loafing, ideally listened to on a boat somewhere in the Florida Keys with a Corona in one hand and a margarita in the other. His country-folk-beach-rock sound invites the listener to kick back and let go for a little while, and it has become his trademark.

But behind the marimba and steel drums, there’s a profound sorrow to Buffett’s lyrics. “Margaritaville,” for example, paints a tableau of sunny laziness — and also melancholic regret. For every line about beachy relaxation, there’s another about barely hanging on. The song is about spending an afternoon on a front porch and contemplating all the things that led to that moment — and where to place the blame. The narrator never does find their lost shaker of salt, and it’s their own damn fault.

For an even stronger example, see the lyrics to “Boat Drinks,” where a catchy hook disguises the darkness in lines like “Everything seems to be wrong,” “I’m close to bodily harm” and “This morning / I shot six holes in my freezer.” Buffett wrote his songs from the perspective of someone for whom things are simply not going well, and that perspective resonates with the millions of people who have proclaimed themselves Parrotheads.

On the other hand — and perhaps the true reason behind Buffett’s fanbase — there’s also an enduring optimism present in his songs. Maybe things are bad now, but after a margarita and an afternoon on the beach, they might seem a little better. There’s hope on the horizon. Come Monday, it’ll be alright.

I’ll be transparent: Jimmy Buffett’s discography has gotten me through some really rough times. There’s nothing quite like the catharsis of sobbing on your couch while “Boat Drinks” loops for two hours straight. Buffett’s songs aren’t about giving up. They’re about holding on. Jimmy Buffett is there if you’ve ever had a case of the Mondays, if you’ve ever been stuck in a cold climate and yearned to go where it’s warm or if you’ve ever desperately needed an excuse to drink at noon. As he once put it: “If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.”

This is for anyone who’s ever found refuge in Buffett’s music, who’s ever entertained the thought of flying south to a beach just to get away from it all. This is for a man who continues to represent a lifestyle. This is for a legacy that will outlive any of us. Pour one out for Jimmy Buffett.