Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inglorious Basterds: Quentin Tarantino at His Most Erratic

When it comes to judging creative works, I have come to believe that there are no absolutes separating “good” from “bad.” Art is subjective to personal taste, which entails a mix of our emotional experiences and sense of aesthetics. Our judgment is heavily influenced by our level of enjoyment or appreciation of a particular work. As the cliché goes, “one man’s feast is another man’s famine.” This is particularly true of the often polarizing films of Quentin Tarantino.

To me, a “good” film is one that connects emotionally. The story holds my interest and the characters are relatable, if not always likeable. Sometimes the presentation is thought-provoking, sometimes merely entertaining. A “bad” film is one that annoys or insults one’s intelligence. Because neither the story nor the characters connect, it is ultimately a tiresome bore. Oddly enough, Tarantino’s “Inglorious Basterds” does all of the above, good and bad.

When I learned that Tarantino was working on this project I did not have high hopes. I remembered the 1978 Italian film, “The Inglorious Bastards,” as a pretty lousy effort. It struck me as a brainless shoot-‘em-up with a poorly-written story, atrocious acting, and absolutely no concern for period accuracy. Like many history buffs, I have problems with World War II fare where the men wear late ‘seventies shag hairstyles and porn star moustaches, as was the case with the earlier production.

When pre-release interviews with Quentin Tarantino revealed that “Inglorious Basterds” was not a remake of the earlier movie, my curiosity was piqued. Being a fan of the filmmaker’s often dark and disturbing style, I was ready to give his latest work a chance. After all, “Pulp Fiction” and the Tarantino-written “True Romance” are personal favorites. It stood to reason that I would enjoy yet another entry in the Tarantino canon.

“Inglorious Basterds” tells two intertwining tales of revenge against the murderous tyranny of the Nazis. As the first story begins in France in 1941, teenaged Shoshanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent) miraculously survives the massacre of her family at the hands of S.S. Colonel Hans Landa, a.k.a. “The Jew Hunter.” Three years later, she has assumed the identity of “Emmanuelle Mimieux” and now owns a cinema inherited from a deceased relative. In the other tale, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leads a group of eight Jewish-American commandoes dubbed “The Basterds.” They successfully infiltrate Nazi-occupied France shortly before D-Day and terrorize German units with unspeakable brutality, including scalping. The two tales converge when Mademoiselle Dreyfus and Lieutenant Raines launch parallel plots to sabotage a Third Reich propaganda film premiere that could potentially kill many high-ranking Nazis, including Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Goering, and Adolf Hitler himself.

While both stories are intriguing, the resulting film is a mixed bag. It is possibly Quentin Tarantino’s most erratic work to date, running the gamut from inspired brilliance to utter idiocy. When it is good, it is an incredibly suspenseful and intelligent thriller. When it is bad, it seems like nothing more than Tarantino’s fan boy self-indulgence, clumsily attempting the hip cultural references of “Pulp Fiction” in a Second World War setting. The iconic name-checking becomes very monotonous, serving only as a distraction from the stories in progress.

On the plus side, Shoshanna’s story is very compelling. A young innocent turned cold and ruthless by the senseless slaughter of her loved ones, her plot to avenge their deaths evokes much sympathy and leaves the viewer hoping for her success. Her story is beautifully written and filled with enough unexpected twists to prevent any second-guessing until the very end.

Also praiseworthy is the performance of Austrian actor Christoph Waltz as the fearsome Colonel Landa. In classic Hollywood fashion, Waltz creates a villain that one absolutely loves to hate. The S.S. officer is painted as a highly manipulative opportunist who uses false graciousness to charm as he kills. The effect is incredibly creepy and profoundly unforgettable.

While Brad Pitt gives a commendable performance as Aldo Raine, complete with a very accurate-sounding Tennessee accent, his character proves difficult to like. Very early on, we realize that Raine is something of a psychopath who actually enjoys killing. In reality, the atrocities committed by his Basterds are no less heinous than similar acts by the Nazis. It is hard to sympathize with Raines in the same manner as Shoshanna. He is a hero only by virtue of being on the side of American democracy rather than Nazi totalitarianism.

My biggest gripe with “Inglorious Basterds” would be the liberties that Quentin Tarantino takes with history. Granted, the story is intended as a revenge fantasy, but the deliberate historical inaccuracies come off as sheer idiocy. Lieutenant Raine and two of The Basterds gain admittance to the premiere by posing as an Italian film crew. If this story is set in June of 1944, shortly after the Normandy invasion, then it is highly unlikely that this ruse would have worked. Italy surrendered to the allies in September of 1943, making Italian nationals persona non gratis in the face of such high-ranking Nazis. However, this is a minor quibble compared to the ending that completely rewrites the outcome of the war in Europe. It is a confounding conclusion that is cathartic and stupid at the same time. Maybe that was Tarantino’s intention, but I doubt if it will make “Inglorious Basterds” attain the same legendary classic status as “Pulp Fiction.” Time will tell.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Defending the "Disco Sucks" Movement 30 Years Later

In recent months, Trash Culture Connoisseur has been examining the concept of selective nostalgia. This is the way that our popular culture looks back at any era with rose-colored glasses. The biggest problem with this type of selective memory is how it tends to revise the past. This time, we are seeing a lot of revisionist history involving the disco phenomenon of the late nineteen-seventies.

As one who hit adolescence during that time, I vividly recall the massive popularity of disco. Not only did the music garner enough radio play to become the dominant soundtrack of our lives, but the social phenomenon became the subject of hit films like “Saturday Night Fever.” So popular was this movement that it crossed age lines. Previously the territory of young people, many middle-aged parents found themselves donning polyster three-piece suits and evening gowns to dance the night away to that funky music.

Just when disco became so big that it seemed like it would last forever, it imploded upon itself. Many young people, tired of hearing slicked-up dance music coming from every speaker cone began to stand up and shout, “Disco sucks!” Perhaps the most prominent driving force behind this sentiment was Chicago disc jockey Steve Dahl. A rock fan at heart, the proto-shock jock began running gags on his radio program where he would “blow up” disco singles on the air. So popular was this joke that he organized a “Disco Demolition” at Comiskey Park during a White Sox game. So passionate was the fervor over this event that a fan riot forced the White Sox to forfeit the game.

During the past month, the Guardian UK ran an editorial observing the 30th anniversary of this event. Commentator Ben Myers went as far to raise the argument that anti-disco sentiment was motivated by racism and homophobia!

I have heard this argument for the past 10 years, and completely disagree. To this rock, soul, blues, and jazz fan, it sounds like a lot of politically-correct self-pity. Many of my favored genres include artists of various races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations. I love their work regardless of these superficial differences, but still harbor disdain for disco.

First off, a lot of music unfairly written off as "disco" was in reality late 'seventies soul. Sure, it may have had the repetitive skating hi-hat, but it was largely an extension of the Philly soul from earlier in the decade. Prime examples would include performers like Gloria Gaynor, The Commodores, Kool and the Gang, the multi-talented Chic, and the late great Michael Jackson.

As for disco itself, it was usually by white artists or producers doing a slicked-up and sanitized imitation of contemporary rhythm and blues sounds--think in terms of The Bee Gees. As more performers followed this approach and further dumbed down the genre, disco became increasingly popular to the point of overkill. Soulless dance music became so ubiquitous that it seemed to be crowding out all other styles, including rock. It was easy to build a resentment for something that would have otherwise been met with personal indifference.

When Steve Dahl organized the Disco Demolition in 1979, he appealed mostly to fans of contemporary arena rock like Foreigner or R.E.O. Speedwagon. So young and shallow were these followers that few cared about any rock from before 1970 or it’s African-American roots. Even though I was in my early teens at that time, I was not part of this crowd. I was equally dissatisfied with mainstream rock. To these ears, arena rock was just as sterile, brainless, and overblown as disco. No wonder that I found myself looking to the UK and finding highly satisfying newcomers like The Jam, Elvis Costello, The Clash, and The Specials.

On a purely visceral level, disco records that were at least one generation removed from genuine rhythm and blues still annoy. The production is cold, sterile, and over-orchestrated to the point of the saccharine. While I do not expect all pop lyrics to be profound, the repetition of one or two phrases is utterly monotonous. Most offensive to these ears, though, is the narcissistic conceit that radiates through the grooves. Added together, these elements still make for an unpleasant listening experience that has absolutely nothing to do with the ethnicity nor sexual-orientation of the artists involved.

Being a fairly sheltered and naïve Midwestern teen during the height of disco, I was completely ignorant of it’s appeal to the gay community. It was only after I had grown up and came to accept and love gays and lesbians as my brothers and sisters did I learn of this aspect. By that time, it was irrelevant.

If anyone still wishes to insinuate that my disdain for disco is racist or homophobic, I'll show them my Little Richard records. That should shut them up.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What The Hell Is New Wave?

Over the past thirty years, we have seen the cycle of nostalgia repeat itself with very predictable results. As each generation hits 40, they have secured positions of influence in the media and begin selling the general public nostalgia for their formative years, usually some twenty years prior. However, it is usually a very idealized and sanitized picture of their youth. In the 'seventies, we saw 'fifties nostalgia in the form of “American Graffiti” and “Happy Days.” In the 'eighties, the 'sixties were celebrated with images of The Beatles, Motown, Woodstock and other cultural icons. In the 'nineties, selective memories of polyester and bell bottoms became trendy. Now, we are seeing the youth of the 'eighties recalling the excesses of The Reagan Years through rose-colored glasses.

Of course, each generation has a very selective memory of their teen years, reminding us only of the most positive and romantic aspects of that decade, even if they existed only in popular mythology. Even though films like “Grease” lead us to believe that 'fifties teenagers were greasers and bobby soxers grooving to Elvis and Chuck Berry, the reality was far less idealistic. It was a time of institutionalized racism and fear of nuclear annihilation. There were far more crew-cutted jocks who hated that cursed “jungle music” than hip Elvis wannabes. Then again, memories this bleak are not very commercial—they can’t be sold to a younger generation with no real memory of that past.

As a senior member of Generation X, I am now seeing my peers sell an equally idealized vision of our adolescence and college years. They paint a very rosy picture of the 'eighties as being exactly like any John Hughes film. To believe this mythology, all 'eighties teens were apple-cheeked youth with unisex blow-dried hair, fluorescent colored Izod clothing, and plenty of Members Only jackets. As for their music of choice, it has become lumped together as “new wave.” While that was a legitimate term in the 'eighties, it has since become twisted into something very inaccurate but highly commercial for sale to today’s kids, who weren’t even born during that decade.

As I thumb through music store bins, I see plenty of nostalgic collections purporting to be some sort of definitive new wave compilation. Then I look at the contents. I see plenty of songs by the likes of Duran Duran, Culture Club, A Flock of Seagulls, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Animotion, Men Without Hats, and Kajagoogoo. In other words, the androgynous and synthesizer-oriented groups who became popular in America after the advent of MTV in 1982. Funny, I seem to recall that “new wave” meant something very different back then.

My story started in the late winter of 1979. I was a frustrated fourteen-year-old Beatles fan who took a lot of crap from my schoolmates over my love of a defunct band. I tried to take an interest in their musical tastes, but arena rock like Styx and Kiss just did not do it for me. I approached my 24-year-old brother for advice on seeking out some truly hip contemporary bands to share with my buddies.

As we discussed my laments in a Wendy’s on a Friday night, I realized that I loved the innocence and simplicity of The Beatles and other 'sixties bands, and longed for something new along those lines. Of course, my brother had an answer. He told me about a movement taking place in New York and London called “new wave.” It was all about young musicians who shared my frustrations with the current state of rock and wanted to return to the stripped-down and poppy sounds of the 'sixties.

My brother then told me about a review he read in “Rolling Stone” of a young British band called The Jam. He explained that the reviewer described them as “a cross between the early Who and Kinks.” The article also stated that The Jam were part of a sixties “mod revival” that was sweeping England. Much like The Who and Kinks, The Jam wore matching suits, skinny ties, and dangerously short hair! Because this all sounded so naff by late 'seventies standards, I was intrigued. It actually seemed very radical, indeed.

The next afternoon, we went to a record store on the Ohio State University campus and bought a copy of the album in question, “All Mod Cons.” By the time we finished playing it, I was infatuated with The Jam and their bouncy-but-slashing mod anthems. I wanted to hear more and discover other bands that were part of this marvelous movement.

By fall, a few of these so-called new wave bands had made inroads to the American Top 40. The first was The Knack, who were touted as the new Beatles, thanks to their bouncy melodies and matching suits. Next was Blondie, whose manic drummer made them sound a lot like The Who, but were fronted by a gorgeous woman who resembled a combination of Marilyn Monroe and Greta Garbo. I quickly purchased their latest hit singles and gobbled up every music magazine available to learn about these fascinating new bands.

After reading several issues of “Creem” and “Hit Parader,” I learned that this new wave was an outgrowth of punk rock! With my curiosity piqued, I read further, and learned that ultra-modern bands that used electronic synthesizers instead of guitars were also part of the new wave. I suddenly realized that I was seeing the future before my very eyes.

As the 'eighties dawned, I realized that so-called new wave music could be divided into three camps. First came the raw, which consisted of caustic punk bands like The Ramones, Clash, and Sex Pistols. Secondly came the retro—groups such as the aforementioned Jam, Knack, and Blondie who seemed to be reinventing sounds of the past for a whole new generation. Lastly came the original, the electronic synthesizer bands whose cold and detached minor chord melodies were made all the more novel by their use of clever mechanical beeps and boops. These included The Cars, Devo, and Gary Numan.

While the 'eighties kicked off with a number of these strangely wonderful new groups in the pop charts, this success seemed short-lived. By mid-year, most new wave had disappeared from the radio in favor of more mainstream sounds like disco, arena rock, and crossover country. Popular punk legend has it that President Jimmy Carter disapproved of daughter Amy taking an interest in this new music, so the chief executive was rumored to have told his cabinet, “I don’t like this new wave thing. Stop punk rock!” Personally, I find it all bollocks. It was simply a case of commercial radio allowing consultants to tell them what to play so not to risk offending the vast majority of Baby Boomer listeners who did not want to be jolted from their mellowed-out 'seventies comfort zone.

Entering high school in the fall of 1980, I was enthralled by all three camps quite equally. Like any good teen into a new musical movement, I emulated their fashion sense. My feathered fluff hairstyle was shorn into an inch-long ska cut and I traded my polyester shirts, flared trousers, and sleeveless sweaters for button-down Oxfords, baggy twill slacks and skinny ties—worn at half-mast, of course. Most of my schoolmates thought I had completely lost my mind. New wave was nothing more than a joke to them. Then again, since they were mostly stoners and metal-heads, their opinions meant nothing to me. Even more so for the clean-cut preppie wannabes who kept asking why I never wore designer jeans, Izod sweaters, nor anything “sporty.” If only they understood.

Even though a few new wave bands did continue to crack the American Top 40, namely The Police, Blondie, and The Cars, they seemed like anomalies. For nearly two years, I kept wishing that new wave would catch on, get airplay, and make other teens aware of my world. Unsuspectingly on August 1, 1981, I got my wish. An experiment in cable broadcasting called Music Television, or MTV for short, signed on. Youth culture was about to change irreversibly.

As I entered my senior year in the fall of 1982, many of my classmates started humming melodies by various new wave bands broadcast on MTV. I started noticing some underclassmen actually dressing the part with skinny ties, short skirts, spiky hairstyles and concert T-shirts with hip band names like The Psychedelic Furs or Madness. However, all was not steady in my world.

Hungering for information on these cool new musicians, I began reading a British import teenybopper magazine called “Smash Hits.” The new trends I saw coming from England concerned me. It was obvious that punk rock and retro bands (like ska, rockabilly, and power pop) were falling out of vogue and being replaced by something called “new romantic.” This new breed of pop stars dressed in very effeminate and foppish fashions, wore big and ornate dyed hairstyles, painted their faces, and played a highly electronic form of dance music that sounded a little too close to disco for my comfort. Soon, one of these acts would become overnight sensations thanks to their very elaborate videos on MTV. They were Duran Duran, whose slick good looks and androgynous fashion sense made thirteen-year-old girls swoon over these sexually benign manufactured idols.

By the time I graduated from high school in 1983, true new wave seemed like history. Punk and retro bands like The Buzzcocks, The Jam, Blondie, and Rockpile had broken up. Their place was taken by even more effete synthesizer players such as A Flock of Seagulls, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Kajagoogoo. While I had once enjoyed synth pop for its novel originality, I was now finding these bands unbearably pretentious. Their electronic noodling seemed to have nothing to do with rock ‘n’ roll and their songwriting was self-indulgent and just plain bad.

For better or worse, gimmicky videos on MTV gave these “new music” groups smash hits in the United States. Many songs by these bands ended up on the soundtracks to massively popular teenage movies, such as “The Breakfast Club” and “Pretty in Pink.” The raw and the retro were quickly forgotten as yesterday’s college kid fads while mascara wearing “artistes” programming dance beats into drum machines became the memorable face of new wave.

Of course, some twenty years later, these massively popular Top 40 idols are selectively remembered by aging Gen X’ers as “new wave,” while the genuine innovators like Graham Parker and Elvis Costello are relegated to the obsessions of rock snobs in squalid record shops everywhere. That is truly a sad shame, because the marketing forces behind eighties nostalgia are cheating the general public out of a lot of awesome music whose time has finally come.

Sunday, August 12, 2007


Entertainment critics and people prone to intellectual snobbery are very quick to complain about rock music when it becomes clichéd. However, they seem to miss the biggest cliché in that culture: nihilism. Many, in fact, refuse to believe that rock can exist without a self-destructive mentality of “live fast, love hard, and die young.” Personally, I can’t think of anything more trite and predictable in modern popular music.

How many of us associate rock with self-destructive bad boys who constantly tempt death with self-indulgent behavior? How much of rock iconography consists of symbols of death, such as skulls, demons, and grim reapers? For that matter, consider just how many rock heroes brought about their own demise either through substance abuse, suicide, or gross personal irresponsibility. The list is very long; Hank Williams, Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Elvis Presley, Keith Moon, Sid Vicious, Kurt Cobain, etc., and it only keeps growing.

Being a self-appointed "Trash Culture Connoisseur,” I am all about defending an adult's right to enjoy rock culture without being regarded as immature or empty-headed by the vanilla masses. However, I have never been particularly fond of rock’s obsession with self-destruction. Even as a teen, I was more impressed with artists whose rebellion was more subtle and intellectual: Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen, for example. For me, rock (and rock 'n' roll) is about celebrating youth, life, love, and standing up for needed social change--civil rights, feeding the needy, ending war, and uniting the divided.

Then again, consider that I am a lifelong Beatles fan. Even though they were far from saints, they were never about tempting death nor behaving like badass tough guys. Sadly, this has made many rock fans (especially those whose tastes begin with post-psychedelia) regard The Fabs as "wussy" or "wimp rock." This is hardly the case, especially considering that the early Silver Beatles played months of 8 hour sessions in sleazy and violent Hamburg nightclubs that would frighten even the most macho among us.

Granted, I love the musical output of the likes of The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Iggy Pop, The Sex Pistols, and Nirvana, but have never been compelled to emulate their public nihilism. As Dee Dee Ramone once wrote (ironically, as time has proven), "I wanna live...I wanna live my life..." So do I. So do many of us.

In reality, nihilism has become a classic rock cliché for one reason: it sells. Ever since a generation who liked and understood rock ‘n’ roll took over the business reins in the late ‘sixties, the model of the fast-living badass has been remade and remodeled numerous times for each successive rock generation. The ‘seventies gave us Led Zeppelin. The ‘eighties gave us Guns ‘N’ Roses. Nirvana and Marilyn Manson represented the ‘nineties. Now, it seems that almost every rock newcomer, be it pop, metal, or alternative, is sold as a pierced and tattooed love boy determined to outrage and shock every teenagers’ parents.

This formula works, and it does not take a psychology major to understand why. The idea of a menacing-but-sexy singer appeals to an adolescent’s growing sense of independence as well as their libido. Nothing better expresses one's own identity than emulating a pop idol who alternately annoys and intimidates one’s parents. There’s only one problem with this model—today’s parents are young enough to have been part of an earlier rock generation who did the same thing to their parental units. Sadly, time and changing social status often blinds adults to their own youthful rebellion and how, at the core, it is exactly the same as their children's.

If anything, this commercialized nihilism has actually stunted creativity. In the late seventies, a certain contingent of post-punk musicians realized this and started rejecting wanton self-indulgence. Many, such as Squeeze, Marshall Crenshaw, and Rockpile, were critically acclaimed for their fresh approach and originality. They were characterized by a more subtle and cerebral sound with a down-to-earth and "ordinary" image. Sadly, most were commercial failures with the mainstream pop audience and never really expanded their fan base beyond intellectual college students and public radio listeners. This is probably because rock fans had been programmed to accept “bad asses” much more readily than “nice guys.” Major labels gave up on promoting this type of artist and turned to a much more lucrative and proven cash cow, the hard-living bad boy. The music industry will continue to milk this formula—and recycle ‘seventies-styled hard rock—until the public tires of it. I do not see this happening any time soon.

If young people ever hope to make any lasting social change, it will be when they finally reject nihilistic idols in favor of a smarter and more positive model. Emulating destructive and indulgent behavior will only sap their abilities to take action and change their little corners of the world. Going in with a clear-headed determination will only help them attempt to improve our world by running for public office, volunteering for political campaigns, doing environmental and social work, composing and performing music that inspires others, and even writing columns that few people actually read!

Time has proven that hard living takes it's toll on the mind and body, and that is exactly what turns one into the feeble fool who lives up to the negative rock stereotypes of the beige mainstream. We are much smarter than that! We need not sell ourselves short any more.

Special thanks to Randall Hugh Crawford of Grand Rapids, Michigan for inspiring me to write on this topic.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

MP3: The New 45 RPM Single

As much as I love rock 'n' roll and it's ongoing ability to push the pop envelope, I admit to having a very strong preference for artists whose music is song-oriented. Even though jam bands, prog rock groups, and other types of improvisational musicians may have better technical chops, their lack of a song-oriented focus does not hold my interest particularly well.

That being the case, I have always held a special place in my heart for artists who are "singles-oriented. " My terminal adolescent is probably showing when I admit my love for that obsolete piece of musical technology, the 45 RPM single.

Of course, the "45" was the method through which I enjoyed many groups on a song-by-song basis. It was a cheap and easy way to sample new artists without committing to the expense (and potential disappointment) of buying a whole LP.

Then came that day in the late eighties when the "45" was no more. Sure, we could still buy hit songs (and a b-side or two) in the form of an oddity called a "cassingle." However, at $3.00 a pop, it never seemed like money well-spent, as compared to less than a buck for a seven-inch vinyl. Of course, cassettes also had the disadvantage of moving parts that wore out rather quickly, as compared to a single, which was nothing more than a solid slab of material that lasted, seemingly, forever.

Now, with the Compact Disc, we can enjoy up to 74 minutes of music for the "bargain" price of $18.99. As much as I love the simplicity of their technology, CD's, for me, are not a good buy. First, it is difficult to take a chance on unknown artists when nearly 20 bucks are at stake, versus merely a fin for an LP. Secondly, bands feel compelled to pack these releases to capacity. Unfortunately, this generally means that a new release often has 18, 19, or 20 songs, but only half are truly memorable. I really miss the days when the limitations of vinyl cutting forced artists to self-edit, and give us only their 10 or 12 best songs.

Seeing how I like to sample new artists without the risk of being burned by a full-length release that consists of one cool single and 15 stinkers, I really and truly miss the 45. However, the MP3 has become something of a modern single. I can download as many as I like for about a dollar apiece. I can still fill my iPod with a decent library without being stuck with several dozen 5 inch coasters cluttering my home.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Overkilling The Icons

About three weeks ago, Mrs. Connoisseur and I celebrated our seventh wedding anniversary with a weekend trip to Pittsburgh. A highlight was a visit to the Andy Warhol museum.

The Warhol is a surprizingly low-key affair that brings out the best in the artist's work. His visual pieces were often of such a grand scale that they need to be seen in person to be completely appreciated. Never have his portraits of soup cans, Elvis Presley, Marilyn Monroe, nor silkscreened facsimilies of grocery product boxes looked so good.

Mrs. Connoisseur made an observation that got me thinking. She pointed out that Warhol's work is so iconic that it has become overkilled in the mass media. It is easy to become desensitized and to take it for granted, forgetting it's true greatness.

This triggered a thought process that made me understand the concept of Iconic Overkill. Works of popular art are recognized as great by the general public and are then seen so frequently that they start to seem run-of-the mill and uninteresting.

I can think of other pieces of "Termite Art" that strike me this same way. In my heart, I know they are great, but often pass them by as too common and ordinary.

1. The Beatles 1967-1970: As a lifetime Beatles fan, I have experienced a rather rocky love affair with the band's latter-period work. Around 1980 (but before Lennon was murdered) I started to find the sound of the post-Pepper Beatles stale and tired. This had nothing to do with the undisputable greatness of the music, but everything to do with media overkill. Album Oriented Rock radio and the rock press were constantly putting the last three years of The Fabs in our faces, often at the expense of ignoring their earlier and equally meritous work. It also did not help that the overall style of "The White Album" and "Abbey Road" had been so incorporated into mainstream arena and "corporate" rock, that they seemed absolutely run-of-the-mill and commonplace by the dawn of the eighties.

2. 1955-1957 Chevrolet Bel Air and Ford Thunderbird: Absolutely beautiful American cars that deserve every bit of love and affection of auto enthusiasts. So coveted and revered as icons that they seem far less interesting now than less attractive cars of the era, such as Packard, Studebaker, Hudson, and Rambler. Innovative engineering and good looks made the Ford and General Motors products stand the test of time. The same cannot be said of the other makes.

3. Motown, 1960-1970: Held in such high regard by Baby Boomers that classic songs by The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, et. al. seem ubiquitous even on the most inoffesive Adult Contemporary stations. By the early nineties, classic Motown seemed as safe as Disney products and not the innovative pop and soul recordings they truly are.

4. Fender and Gibson guitars: Fender and Gibson are proof that a good design with solid engineering and beautiful aesthetics are timeless. Even more important was that both makers got their designs right the first time around, when the technology was still primitive and an unknown frontier. Who doesn't love the look and sound of a Telecaster, Les Paul, Stratocaster or SG? Sadly, when attending a guitar show, a plethora of Gibsons and Fenders seems disappointing to the vintage collector. Flashy but inferior makes like Mosrite, Vox, and Danelectro seem much more interesting in this context, but far less likely to last a lifetime with consistently satisfying results.

5. Marilyn Monroe: The woman formerly known as Norma Jean Baker was the epitome of "die young, stay pretty." Her image has been splashed all over our popular culture so much that it is easy to forget that she was an underrated and horribly misused actress. While she finally got to shine in her last completed film, "The Misfits," evidence of her genuine talent could be seen in lightweight work like "How To Marry A Millionaire." Even in insipid romantic comedies, Marilyn Monroe could imbue each and every character with unique mannerism and tics that made each one unique. That is truly solid acting.

Surely, the rest of us can think of other examples where Iconic Overkill has desensitized us to the greatness of an artist or work and caused us to take them for granted--cheating ourselves out of much pleasure and enjoyment.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

MTV Turns 25: Fondly Remembering The Early Days

On August 1, 1981, broadcasting history was made, although few knew it at the time. On that day, a New York-based experimental cable channel went on the air, telecasting nothing but promotional films by popular music artists. Intended as a television version of Top 40 radio, this new network ignited a cultural powder keg by transmitting a clip of The Buggles lip-synching their 1979 British hit, "Video Killed The Radio Star." It was the birth of MTV.

Early MTV was an unbelievably exciting experience that can never be duplicated. It was almost like tuning into a secret underground world of pop music that was the exclusive territory of youth. Not only did the fledgling network show promo videos by up-and-coming pop artists, but they were hosted by hip and attractive "video jockeys." The first five jocks were easily the best, with each one having a distinctive on-air persona. J.J. Jackson was the knowledgable elder statesman; Nina Blackwood, the wild older sister; Mark Goodman, the opinionated and boisterous hunk; Alan Hunter, the simple-minded-but-charming boy next door. And of course, my fave was the doe-eyed and innocent Martha Quinn, whose shag cut, short skirts, and Beatles obsession gave me the biggest crush on her. I was not alone in these feelings.

As a cultural phenomenon, Music Television could not have come at a better time. As American rock radio became increasingly restrictive in it's playlists, it seemed that only established artists could get any airplay. Even as the new wave of post-punk was cresting, you would not have known it from radio. The FM dial remained stuck in a 'seventies-based comfort zone, rehashing stale heavy rock classics like "Stairway To Heaven" and "Aqualung" ad nauseum while completely ignoring meritous newcomers like Elvis Costello and The Clash. MTV would soon change all of that by giving punk and new wave equal time with heavy metal and arena rock.

As a culturally stranded midwestern teenager, MTV seemed like a Godsend. In a world that resembled a real-life version of "Fast Times At Ridgemont High," my own predeliction towards new wave music and fashion made me something of a freak among my peers. With MTV, that passion was finally vindicated. At last, my skeptical classmates could see these bands that I had been ranting about for the past two years. For the first time, my chums realized that The Jam, Squeeze, and Madness were not figments of my imagination.

The first 18 months of MTV were truly magical. Even though I preferred punk and new wave, there was something highly entertaining about seeing all types of pop in these strange and experimental shorts. Some were very rudimentary, being nothing more than films or videotapes of an artist in concert. Others were more daring and artsy, although low budgets and limited technology made these early presentations seem incredibly primitive by today's standards. However, that's exactly how I like my music video.

In general tems, I love those early videos that were cheaply-made, long before anyone realized that there was a market for them. I most enjoy those simple clips of bands lip-synching in front of an artsy backdrop, usually created on a budget of $6.98. I really get something out of the visual ambiance of brightly-lit videotape or grainy 16 MM film. These technical shortcomings gave these videos a certain outsider art quality befitting the "do it yourself" ethos of most post-punk bands. They seemed more honest and mesmerizing than the productions of today.

By early 1983, that magic started to fade. I really started disliking videos when their production became too slick. With the possible exception of "Thriller," which appeals to my love of Psychotronic horror films, I really cannot stand any attempt at a "mini-motion picture." I do not care for videos that try to tell a story with distracting dialogue and outside actors. Even though they are often attractive eye candy, choreographed dancers are just too showbiz for me. Add in perfectly-shot 35 MM film, and the slickness factor is far too much to overcome.

That being said, personal favorite early videos include:

"You Might Think" by The Cars (1984)--shot entirely on videotape with primitive computer animation, the effect is a very amusing series of stylized vignettes on sexual paranoia and stalking.

"Dumbwaiter" by The Psychedelic Furs (1981)--A very disturbing song given an even more abrasive visual treatment. Grainy black-and-white footage of The Furs playing a formal event, slow-motion, and overlaid with colored geometric shapes that echo the cover of "Talk Talk Talk." I never did hallucinogenic drugs, but this is how I imagine the experience to be.

"I Got You" by Split Enz (1979)--Cheap videotaped heaven. Singer Neil Finn over-acted, wore too much makeup, and pranced about the most cliched set imaginable...a minimalist version of a Victorian mansion, complete with sheer curtains blowing in the breeze. Oh, yeah, who can forget the singing mural?

"Goodbye To You" by Scandal (1983)--The archetypical early video. A simple clip of the band miming their song, shot on tape, and overlaid with 'sixties-inspired op art visual effects. A prime example of how many new wave artists tried to turn public taste back to a British Invasion-era "mod" aesthetic.

"Left Of The Dial" by The Replacements (1985)--Grainy black-and-white 16 MM shot of a teenager crashing in his bedroom, with the camera fixing on a stereo speaker for the remaining 3 minutes of the song. The perfect anti-video.

Kudos should also go to Madness, whose grainy 16 MM romps made every new song a truly nutty and fun experience. David Bowie almost always came up with something visually strange but very appealing. Also deserving of special mention are the likes of The Pretenders, Kim Wilde, Blondie, and Missing Persons, who always looked good on brightly-lit videotape, regardless of minimal production budget.

But alas, that was 25 years ago. MTV has since grown up into something that no longer resembles it's wild and exciting youth. Music video is only a small part of the programming day, with the majority of air time being filled by reality shows, documentaries, and other cultural fluff. Too bad. We will never again see anything as magical and original as the early days of MTV, and those who remember it will cherish it always.