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More Than a Day Away: The Worlds Fair’s Promised Future Lives On in Queens

Touted on everything from publicity posters to a U.S. postage stamp as the “World of Tomorrow,” the 1939 World’s Fair was a showcase of modernity. Its sprawl across Flushing Meadow Park boasted exhibits like General Motors’ Futurama, a miniature city of tomorrow comprising blinking lights and hundreds of tiny, moving parts. At the fair’s center were the ultramodern Trylon and Persiphere, a pair of white geometrical structures that E.L. Doctorow wrote “filled the sky” with their enormity. The sheer blankness of their facades perhaps reflected the unanswered question in many fairgoers’ minds as they passed through the front gates: Who could bring the world, and a depressed America, into that tomorrow?

When they perused the list of exhibitors in the Fair’s Official Guide Book, visitors likely intuited an answer: large, American corporations. The 1939 fair was dominated by industry giants such as General Motors, AT&T, and IBM. The corporate presence makes sense in historical context. Since the first World’s Fair in 1851, host nations sought to design fairs that expressed their own people’s way of life. In 1939, Americans had become financially and emotionally unmoored by the greatest economic depression in their history. Corporate brands had become beacons of financial—even social—stability: Small businesses and local banks went under every day, but there would always be Sinclair Oil, which at the ’64 fair wowed the crowds with its animatronic dinosaurs.

This year marks the 75th and 50th anniversaries of the World’s Fairs, and New York is teeming with more nostalgia than usual, as institutions host events to celebrate. The Museum of the Moving Image has one of the more impartial offerings, an exhibit dedicated to films about the fairs. Mostly funded by the corporations that exhibited in 1939 and 1964, these films are as much commercial as documentary: witness Sinclair’s dinosaurs grimace and nod at smiling children in Sunday dresses and church pants. In a clip from 1939’s The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair, a clean-cut family plucked straight from the cover of The Saturday Evening Post enters the Westinghouse exhibit to watch Electro, a man-sized robot, crack wise and smoke a cigarette. The father wonders aloud at the revolutionary vision of Westinghouse.

The ’39 fair attracted millions of visitors with its promise of a dazzling future but was a financial disaster. The severe loss motivated Robert Moses, head of the management committee, to try again. His 1964 fair proved an even larger exhibition built on the same site. Like the ’39 fair, the 1964 model offered spectacles of architectural and mechanical ingenuity made possible by America’s most recognizable corporations. The IBM Pavilion featured puppets that explained the company’s data processing systems, while Du Pont sold audiences on its contributions to society through a musical pageant about the benefits of chemistry. The Trylon and Persisphere had been razed, but in their spot now loomed the Unisphere, a giant steel model of the Earth supported by a pedestal made of three impossibly thin metal prongs. The 1964 short about its construction shows individual steel pieces being welded together to form the iconic globe that still stands in Flushing today.

The ’64 fair was never officially sanctioned by the Bureau of International Expositions, and as a result, the world’s most powerful nations refused to take part. So Moses found an American way to draw the crowds: He commissioned amusement park-like installations designed by that master of mid-20th century entertainment, Walt Disney. When it opened, Moses’s second fair was less a meeting of the nations than a prototype of Disney World. (The “It’s a Small World” boat ride at Disneyland originated at the fair).

As with most nostalgia, nostalgia for the fairs is tinted with distortions. In 1993, Aimee Mann sang “Fifty years after the fair/I live in tomorrow town/Even on a wing and a prayer/The future never came around.” Mann, born in 1960, mourns the 1939 fair’s never-actualized future of individual financial security, although that is a future that neither fair, with their visions of corporate oligarchy, ever actually promised.

The clips, most cut from longer films, are shown in succession in a 30-minute loop. Except for a plaque describing, briefly, what each clip entails, the films are presented without context. The absence of commentary puts the responsibility of interpretation on the viewer: Why should these decades-old docu-commercials matter to the world of today? To sit with that question and its many possible answers is the best reason to go to the exhibit — the more we remember about the Worlds of Tomorrow, the better chance we have of figuring out why they never seem to arrive.

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The Both (Aimee Mann & Ted Leo)

Indie rock icon Ted Leo and esteemed singer/songwriter Aimee Mann have joined forces in a clash of independent music titans with their collaborative project, The Both. They may have just released their debut self-titled album, but from the first listen it’s instantly clear that the veteran solo artists combined the best of their talents with ease. Together, the underground sweethearts have forged an eloquent amalgam of classic pop/rock songwriting with tinges of folk and punk production — think a chilled out Leo and a distorted Mann — that warrants putting their respective solo careers on the back burner for a little while. So no, it’s not a midlife crisis, which they reveal in a ridiculous video interview with media coach Janessa Slater, played by SNL‘s Vanessa Bayer, where they also defend their lusterless choice of a band name. Mann had that memorable cameo on Portlandia, but who knew they both had acting talents in addition to musical skills? Either one is reason enough to catch The(m) Both on their first supporting tour.

Thu., May 1, 8 p.m., 2014

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The Both (Aimee Mann & Ted Leo)

Indie rock icon Ted Leo and esteemed singer/songwriter Aimee Mann have joined forces in a clash of independent music titans with their collaborative project, The Both. They may have just released their debut self-titled album, but from the first listen it’s instantly clear that the veteran solo artists combined the best of their talents with ease. Together, the underground sweethearts have forged an eloquent amalgam of classic pop/rock songwriting with tinges of folk and punk production — think a chilled out Leo and a distorted Mann — that warrants putting their respective solo careers on the back burner for a little while. So no, it’s not a midlife crisis, which they reveal in a ridiculous video interview with media coach Janessa Slater, played by SNL‘s Vanessa Bayer, where they also defend their lusterless choice of a band name. Mann had that memorable cameo on Portlandia, but who knew they both had acting talents in addition to musical skills? Either one is reason enough to catch The(m) Both on their first supporting tour.

Tue., April 29, 9 p.m., 2014

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Aimee Mann

In the title track of her latest album, Charmer, singer-songwriter Aimee Mann contends that the world doesn’t know “that secretly charmers feel like they’re frauds.” If that’s the case, Ms. Mann will have to learn to cope with her insecurities, because over the course of her solo career she hasn’t lost one ounce of the stuff. She likely knows that, too: Take, for instance, the video she made for the album’s other single, “Labrador”; in it, she and tonight’s opening act, Ted Leo, recreate the video she made with new wavers ’Til Tuesday for “Voices Carry” in ’85. It’s a fraud worth buying.

Sat., Oct. 27, 8 p.m., 2012

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Aimee Mann

Aimee Mann isn’t just good at cleaning the Portlandia crew’s house and putting on a cozy show in their living room—though admittedly, it is precisely her soul-baring sound that begs for such intimate settings. One of the inventors of Acoustic Vaudeville, a mix of stand-up comedy and singer-songwriter type tunes, Mann has built a name for herself in her 30 year career, churning out album after album of everything from Christmas ditties and conceptual pieces to somber affairs, all wrapped in that wistful acoustic aesthetic that never ceases to draw people to her music.

Fri., Jan. 27, 8 p.m., 2012

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A HAZY SHADE OF SUMMER

Why were Paul and Art so hot for the 59th Street Bridge? Ain’t nothin’ over there for them. City Parks Foundation brings the action to the Manhattan epicenter with The 25th Anniversary Summerstage Gala: The Music of Simon & Garfunkel, a fully stocked tribute concert of duets by Aimee Mann, St. Vincent, Loudon Wainwright III, Joan Osborne, and many more singer/songwriters. The duo could have worse bookends to their grand career, rooted so long in New York—and this lineup suggests a lovely evening for old friends.

Tue., June 8, 8 p.m., 2010

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Aimee Mann

An upscale wine bar (with seats) is definitely the way to hear Aimee Mann these days: Though last year’s @#%&*! Smilers featured no shortage of witty lyrics and well-crafted melodies (Mann’s stock-in-trade since she left ‘Til Tuesday nearly 20 years ago), its handsome folk-pop arrangements weren’t exactly overflowing with energy. Take a load off and enjoy, in that order.

Mon., July 13, 8 p.m., 2009

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Dour Divas Douse Christmas Classics

Though it’s liberally frosted with cozy wine- bar piano and features obligatory renditions of seasonal staples such as “The Christmas Song” and “Winter Wonderland,” Aimee Mann’s One More Drifter in the Snow is as much an interrogation of the cash-grab holiday album as it is an example of the form. Singer-songwriters don’t come much icier than Mann, Hollywood’s appointed chronicler of thinking-class disillusionment, so it’s hard to buy the warm-and-fuzzy sentiments here at face value when we’re so used to expecting wan detachment—she hardly seems like one of these year-round grumps who melt at the sight of a kid in a reindeer costume. Instead, she illuminates the skepticism nestled beneath her tree, as on “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” wherein she couldn’t sound less excited about getting there.

There’s no such distrust on Sarah McLachlan’s Wintersong, which tends toward pious upper- crust fare like “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “In a Bleak Mid-Winter.” But McLachlan and producer Pierre Marchand do create a luminous fantasy-folk vibe that similarly resists stocking-stuffer schmaltz. In their take on “I’ll Be Home,” the singer sounds resigned to the fact that her reunion might take place “only in my dreams.” Bummed, but resigned.


Aimee Mann plays Town Hall December 12 and 14, the-townhall-nyc.org.

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‘Til Tuesday Grad Boxing Album a Challenge to Dropkick Murphys’

In Aimee Mann’s world, happiness doesn’t come easy: Every morsel is a negotiated deal, a temporarily won battle, a fleeting drug. It’s amazing that she’s been able to mine this territory for albums twice in a row, starting with Lost in Space—the law of diminishing returns should have set in. But the songs on The Forgotten Arm are too engaging to dismiss their familiarity, and the only diminishing returns are those experienced by her characters John and Caroline as they search for and run from themselves.

Mann’s junkie boxer and the hard-luck woman who loves him are by turns inarticulate—”baby” their only syllable-filler term of endearment—and marvelously poetic as they stumble through the ruins of faded Virginia fairgrounds. She gives them dignified musical backdrops, her melodies as effortlessly lulling as ever. “She Really Wants You” is as close to a hit single as Mann has written this decade, but “Goodbye Caroline” is the peak, a touching expression of ambivalence from someone who knows no other reaction to stimuli.

As for that forgotten arm: It’s Mann’s term for “the knockout punch [that] you never see coming,” but it also applies to a fighter who only recognizes the power in his arm when poison’s entering it. And despite John’s threat to throw in the towel after a clean Christmas, Mann knows he’ll stumble on, continuing a steady diet of cigarettes and ready veins.


Aimee Mann plays Roseland June 10.

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The Naked and the Cred

Letters and Sodas

By Joshua Clover

There are many stories where someone tries to apply strict rational methodology to art; Komar & Melamid’s composite paintings are a recent example, based on polls about favorite colors and shapes, etc. Such experiments are often funny for the same reason they also carry a lot of pathos—because the whole deal with art is it’s not science, it’s not a finite set of knowable moves. That’s why Marcel Duchamp quit and spent his last years playing chess.

Liz Phair’s record is unbearably sad, and a little funny, for similar reasons. The qualities identified with her genius—aw, you know what they are—are present in sufficient quantity. It should add up to something, but in this case there’s no hot white sum. Math won’t get you anywhere.

Pining for the anti-aesthetics of yore, Matadorks will grumble that the lifeless feeling comes because the record’s too processed, too smoothed—especially knowing it was sent back to the drawing board more times than Bart Simpson. True, Liz Phair is riddled with production and co-writing credits for the Matrix, the studio slickers who made Avril Lavigne the great Canadian she is today. But previous outing whitechocolatespaceegg was no slouch in the gloss category; it sounded a lot more like a jagged little pill than an exile in guyville. And it was made after Phair went major-label, married and mared, and bought a white picket fence—all the usual suspects of selling out to the man. It was also a magnificent record.

So how can you explain the pandemic nonmagnificence of Liz Phair? David Kahne (the guy who rejected Wilco’s Pazz & Jop-winning Yankee Hotel Foxtrot) once said Phair was a poster child for the cred/ambition paradox: “Indie bands want to sell a million records, but they want to sell them to 50,000 people.” Liz Phair, with its stiff anti-indie bids for radio superpresence—like lead single “Why Can’t I?”—is more likely to sell 50,000 records to a million people.

“How does it feel to be back on American soil? Here ain’t no blood for oil,” she sang on a basement demo a Gulf War back. “When they tip me over, they better tip me well, cuz free love is a whole lot of bullshit. Hello, sailor.” This is the kind of juice once found in her provocations, right alongside “Blowjob Queen.” Now, natch, there’s a song called “Hot White Cum.” But it doesn’t sound like provocation, or brazen honesty. It sounds like filler.

As with early Meat Puppets, Phair once didn’t seem to know how songs worked; tracking their unpredictable advance was sweet as watching baby’s first steps. If they pitched down the stairs, well, that was kind of fun; they weren’t real babies with tender fontanels after all. Now the songs pretty much snap into the Matrix. From “Extraordinary” to “My Favorite Underwear,” the choruses show up like clockwork, and if you want to take it to the bridge, you always know where to go. It’s not a record you’ll get lost in or surprised by. You’ll just find, repeatingly, the kind of slight melodic pleasure you can get—with less social apparatus—from Anggun or Shakira.

I’ll always leave the light on for Liz; listen, Neil Young’s made about 20 bad records, and we still love him. But it’s grievous to be confronted so abjectly with the fragility of art-making—how all the elements can still be there, all the signs of genius, but no amount of calculation can render them vivid and compelling. It’s enough to drive you to chess.


Soaking in It

By Jane Dark

Seasons change, you’ve got to rearrange. In 2001, Britney crossed the border into skeezy-ville, and I could barely remember Christina, so it felt like P!nk came to my emotional rescue. She was the exclamation point of life from Winter into the next Spring, but there’s something not entirely serious about her. Sometimes you’re bitter and confused, as opposed to sarcastic and boppy. And there’s something Autumnal about the name “Avril,” plus she’s not like a conservatory girl trying to be cool like Vanessa and Michelle. Still, fall turns to summer once again, and that’s where Liz Phair comes in, as a kind of Avril Lavigne with more adult lyrics. I don’t buy the “Xbox” name-dropping, but when she says “We’re already wet and we’re gonna go swimming,” well, I’m ready to soak up the sun (though I wish she didn’t say “We haven’t fucked yet but my head’s spinning” a minute later—overshare, I got it, OK?). The best song is called “When You’re in Love With Me,” involving a heroic journey to “the dirtiest apartment you could find.” Even that turns out to be a love song, pretty adorable—she has this blended way of singing, like there’s a romance-making turbine inside her matter-of-factory. I can’t quite tell if “Hot White Cum” is supposed to be for real, or is mocking beauty tips from magazines, but as I have reached the age where ambiguity is even funner than double entendres, that’s OK. Ambiguity is the new maturity.

It feels like I’ve moved from singer to singer in a natural development, not at all like a vast machine has laid out a long series of compact discs like bright stepping stones leading me across some nameless river toward who knows where. I’m just telling you how it feels.


Shining Some Glory

By Robert Christgau

Many are scandalized that Liz Phair “turned to” (the correct verb, as in “a life of crime”) Avril Lavigne producers the Matrix for her first album in five years. As someone who likes the idea of Avril Lavigne but finds her music too slow and mushy for faux punk, I was worried, not scandalized—and more worried to learn that Phair had also turned to Pete Yorn’s producer and Aimee Mann’s husband, who’ve yet to give the world a “Sk8er Boi” between them. But I wasn’t scandalized then either. Artists will sleep with anybody they think is good for a ride. With Liz Phair, that goes double.

So then I played the advance and stopped worrying. Liz Phair may not be her best album, but don’t bet on it. For sure it’s the one I want to hear right now, next month, all year. It includes no bad songs—at worst a couple of dubious or uninspired ones—and four or five every bit as indelible as “Flower” (which, Christina fans, is where Ms. Phair famously aspired to the title “blowjob queen” a decade ago). Unfortunately, my promo didn’t indicate who oversaw what. So just for fun I guessed. My reasoning on the five great ones, in ascending order:

• “Extraordinary”: lead track IDing Phair as “average everyday sane psycho supergoddess.” Unrequited love lyric with nice audience overtones (“Stand in the street, yell out my heart/To make to make you love me”), also “So I still take the trash out/Does that make me too normal for you?”), big mushy catchy pseudoheavy verse, chorus catchier than that. Definitely Matrix.

• “Favorite”: compares old lover to “my favorite underwear” in over-the-top metaphor (“leave you lying on the bedroom floor,” “thought we were falling apart”). Themewise I’d say Yorn’s guy Walt Vincent; also, would the Matrix risk her naked voice enunciating “You’re like my favorite underwear” or closing with “Slipping you on again tonight”? Quite possibly—radio eats up the risqué these days. And the loud drums-guitar-voices intro-chorus sounds hitbound, theoretically. Matrix again.

• “Hot White Cum”: official title “H.W.C.” Cross-collateralization notwithstanding, Capitol wouldn’t waste Matrix bucks on the line “All you do is fuck me every day and night.” Strummed intro, clear unaugmented vocal, cheery electro-handclaps behind “Give me your hot white cum” chorus, harmonica solo. Could be Michael Penn, but Aimee Mann couldn’t rock this hard on a motorized hobbyhorse. Make it Vincent.

• “Little Digger”: Liz’s kid finds her in bed with guy not his dad. Classic Phair—spare instrumentation, wavery pitch, strange melody precluding the Trisha Yearwood cover the lyric deserves. Zero Clear Channel potential. Note awkwardly repetitive (hence emphatic) directness of must-quote verse: “I’ve done the damage/The damage is done/I pray to God/ That I’m the damaged one.” What Mann (also womann) oughta be. Penn.

• “Rock Me”: Liz screws a piece of young stuff more senseless than he was when he started. Not the lead single only because everyone’s chicken to find out that Phair’s bid for the gold didn’t work. The chorus rules; its “rock me all night long” evasion has been radio-ready for half a century. The blowjob queen’s most sex-positive song yet. Gotta be Matrix.

Scandalized? How dumb. I can’t explain the technical stuff, but I’d describe the Matrix’s sound with Lavigne as “generalized.” No matter who produced what (which since I did get all five right must mean something), that’s how this album comes across—keybs everywhere, voice big and in tune. Only with Phair, this generalization—while definitely ambitious, tsk tsk—is also an act of love (toward Christina fans and such) and a reaffirmation of the sexual appetites she’s indulged since she was exiled in Guyville, a sobriquet she devised to insult the indie world oh so long ago. Five years later, she put in quality time as a matron-artiste; now, single again at 36, she further insults the indie world by successfully fusing the personal and the universal, challenging lowest-common-denominator values even as it fellates them. You want her to express herself? She just did.