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2004 Pazz & Jop: Freedom for Every-Which-Where!

Whine about Lil Jon and Ashlee Simpson if you want. There was still plenty of good news in popular music this year, and it’s all over the 31st or 32nd Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll, our largest ever hey hey hey. Any album list headed by The College Dropout, in which young Kanye West proved as deft and surprising a recalibrator of African American crossover as young Barack Obama, and SMiLE, in which acid casualty Brian Wilson excavated the same pivotal decade that tripped up veteran John Kerry, has its past-and-future straight. Any Top 10 that boasts three alt-minded rock bands who’ve convinced the RIAA to blingify their CDs is fighting the good fight. And if the Top 10 also reveals would-be optimists overrating good intentions and pretending small victories are big ones, well, that was 2004 for you. The Democrats gained control of the Colorado legislature November 2. Hey hey hey.

So right, it’s good that dapper Franz Ferdinand invaded and weird young Modest Mouse flowered into goofy older Mickey Mouse — good too, kind of, that each revived the venture-capital model in which major labels wager seed money on bands who are in it for the music, kind of. Congrats to the not-for-profit Grey Album, Danger Mouse’s illegal mash-up of Jay-Z (corporate honcho throws self on open market) and the Beatles (corporate keepers brandish attorneys). Thank Jack White for refurbishing Loretta Lynn and U2 for refurbishing war-is-over-if-you-want-it. The Streets’ Mike Skinner warmed up for his Booker Prize, and with input from some Texan carpetbaggers, our nonfascist neighbor to the north generated an alt-rock sleeper cell worthy of its overwrought raves. And who can fault Green Day, whose “punk opera” not only revived their sales but got nominated for an album Grammy while calling Americans the idiots they are?

All but one of these are admirable records. But I wish I could swear they belong in the same paragraph with The College Dropout and SMiLE. Maybe the Arcade Fire’s Funeral, whose unabashed loveliness and complex tone could portend something wider ranging, or just grander. But the U2 is the genial front job any reality-based assessment would predict, the Franz Ferdinand and Modest Mouse are lightweight on purpose without achieving buoyancy, and I’m not the first listener to reluctantly conclude that A Grand Don’t Come for Free, Van Lear Rose, and The Grey Album read better than they sound. And then there’s American Idiot. In a year when pop musicians politicized with unprecedented unanimity —  Nashville alone pro-Bush, many actively opposing the reactionaries and/or getting out the vote, and only a few rappers sidestepping Kerry on lefter-than-thou grounds — American Idiot was the sole Top 10 album to take a protesty tack, and got much love for it. But to my ears it founders on sodden songcraft — never mind Dookie, try the tunes on 2000’s neglected (and no less conscious) Warning — and half-congealed themes. Beyond some light name-calling (sharpest on the Japan-only B side “Governator”), the signature “Don’t want to be an American idiot” was as far as its politics went, because American Idiot is in substance an anti-political record. Ultimately, it’s about punk’s inability to change anything, even Billie Joe. That dull buildup you hear is the familiar sound of confusion taking itself seriously.

I impute this message of helplessness to the work of art, not its creator, who did also put a song on a Rock Against Bush comp. But where I’d rather get my art is Rock Against Bush itself — or NOFX’s 2003 The War on Errorism, not exactly Linton Kwesi Johnson but smarter than Green Day, even on “Idiots Are Taking Over.” Such smarts prove highly intermittent on our 2004 lists. They show up in Rilo Kiley’s CEO-targeting “It’s a Hit” and Tom Waits’s war-torn “Hoist That Rag” and Morrissey’s waspish “America Is Not the World,” in Nellie McKay’s wisecracks and the Drive-By Truckers’ worldview, in rumblings from U2 and TV on the Radio, in the hardcore rabble-rousing of Eminem’s “Mosh” and the vernacular conspiracy mongering of Jadakiss’s “Why?” And that’s about it. Odd, no? This was certainly the first presidential election in Pazz & Jop history to dominate artists’ and voters’ mindsets. Yet the election’s issues and personalities remained all but unaddressed by the music the poll honored. My guess is that this disconnect succumbs to the hoary fallacy — belied on my own list by Todd Snider, Jon Langford, Andre Tanker, Public Enemy and Moby — that “art” precludes “propaganda.” But for purposes of argument let me posit instead that it was deep-structural. All these passionate anti-Bushies kept on musicking as usual because they sensed that nothing less than the freedom to make and hear the precious stuff was at stake.

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In other words, we weren’t being “liberals,” striving to protect the unfortunate here and overseas. We were acting out of raw self-interest. Not just because plausible scenarios involving terrorist attack (remember terrorist attack?) could quickly transform our democracy into a bold-faced showpiece of postmodern fascism. Not just because some trade or currency wrinkle too boring to go into could impoverish us all. But because constitutional democracy, as conceived by those who now control its mechanisms, is being retooled to render your lifestyle and mine fiscally insupportable. Never mind Social Security, where “reform” would kick in slowly, sandbagging the young people now being told that boomers want to steal their payroll taxes. There’s a faster way to destroy the safety net, soaking states where rudiments of government for the people survive — namely, to abolish the federal tax deduction for state and local taxes in the name of balancing a budget squandered on the rich and Iraq, thus forcing blue states to slash human services and reducing their residents’ discretionary income. It’s enough to tempt your Democratic representative to add a buck in VAT to the price of every CD.

Math being for poobahs and Harvard M.B.A.’s, I apologize for burdening you with these apparently nonmusical abstractions. But Bush’s determination to compel all of us to compete Darwinistically for our semblance of comfort — to convert every American into a mini-capitalist or a serf — has musical consequences. The relevant goals, in this context, are the privatization of progress and the curtailment of leisure by forced attrition. By withdrawing from the human services sector, the government will dare do-gooders to put their money where their rhetoric is. And of course, every increase in work hours and reduction in discretionary income starves the music and film industries — which at their crassest remain stubbornly liberal — and shrinks the arts’ material base in academia, bohemia, and the helping professions. Collateral damage is a specialty of these robbers with fountain pens.

In such dire circumstances, going on about rock criticism and its discontents feels frivolous. Slogging through comments that included extensive selections from blogs I never read, I was often annoyed by the insularity of it all. Franz Ferdinand and Loretta Lynn, Usher and Devendra Banhart, Morrissey and Elliott Smith, “Redneck Woman” and The Grey Album, Hotlanta’s “Yeah!” and Metropolis’s “Yeah” — all big and rather different stories. Us content providers — many of the younger ones serfs unless backed up by school loans or parents or spouses or actual jobs (almost certainly underpaid if they’re editorial) — are expected to exploit the discretionary income of the better-compensated young by playing these stories for all they’re worth, meaning more than they’re worth, in the desperate hope that advertisers etc. And they served this function all too well. In every case I’ve just cited, the big stories came with overrated music.

Not bad, usually. But overrated — palpably limited in ambition, achievement, or both. With due respect to the pro-gay posture I pray they stick with — which isn’t required of the fabulous Scissor Sisters, who proved everything they had to in 15 minutes — Franz Ferdinand are a cautious little band compared even to their conceptual forebears the Strokes. Lynn stopped recording her own songs because “One’s on the Way” and “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill” were truer than “Portland Oregon” or, God help us, “God Makes No Mistakes.” The once precocious Usher is a cute sex object matured into the usual conniving pussy magnet; the permanently precocious Banhart is a female-identified weirdo-on-principle whose spontaneity is already a cultivated pose. Morrissey came back — from where, exactly? to what, exactly? Elliott Smith released a posthumous album very much like his prehumous albums, which not even the junkies manqué who love him claim had much life to them. Gretchen Wilson’s high-trash Tanya Tucker tribute is as painstakingly constructed as Danger Mouse’s time-seizing ’60s update, and neither is as convincing as it swears it is. “Hell yeah!” Gretchen’s sisters chorus on cue. “Yeah!” screams a 20-on-a-scale-of-10 shorty going all up on Usher, aware without thinking on it that if she don’t Luda will ejaculate her from his Jag. LCD Soundsystem’s lead cyborg sums up the collective dilemma after his girlies intone their own “Yeah”s: “Everybody keeps on talking about it/Nobody’s getting it done.” I just wish he’d added, “Including me.”

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Given the general craving for affirmation, it’s no wonder our 793 voters ratified artists who embraced their freedom to make music. Frequent finishers Wilco and Björk, Tom Waits and PJ Harvey withdrew deeper into private aesthetics — the first pair esoteric and obscurantist, the second spare and formalist. I found all four lacking but preferred the formalists; the electorate cheered them all on, favoring the obscurantists. Sonic Youth took both routes at once as usual, drawing out and smudging up their catchiest album since Dirty; Nick Cave wrote a few songs worthy of the real Leonard Cohen (not the imposter who came in 243rd) and stretched them into a double CD. Newcomers also received concept points that divided up mod and trad, with getting it done left for a better day. Live, Akron’s Black Keys extract massive blues from a guitar and a trap set, but composing in that style is a rare knack, so Rubber Factory scored on accrued rep and improved distribution. And though Brooklyn’s unkempt TV on the Radio may someday amount to more than 12th place in a critics’ poll, I wish their boosters would admit that they get race points too. Regularly credited with a funk and soul imperceptible to the unseeing ear, they’re the first African American rock band of critical consequence since Living Colour put the Black Rock Coalition into practice 15 years ago, and while Vernon Reid’s Yohimbe Brothers (zero mentions) flow better, flow doesn’t “rock.”

Cultivating the most private aesthetic of all was the year’s major underground trend. So disdainful of the literal that it’s effectively apolitical even when it wishes otherwise, the artier-than-thou traditionalism of psych-folk is a hippie revival rooted in acoustic eccentrics I’d hoped were behind me three decades ago, from the Incredible String Band and Tim Buckley down to Essra Mohawk and I see where one site is hawking Kay Huntington, whose atrocious album may still be in my storage space (yours for $200 to the privatized progressives of my choice, folkies — how about the American Negro College Fund?). Psych-folk enrages some of my younger colleagues, but I’m too old to feel threatened — Devendra Banhart’s talent is quirkier and less pretentious than Buckley’s (not just Tim’s, Jeff’s), and the poetic acrobatics and pure brainpower of the equally arch Joanna Newsom just go to show that in these fragmented times any scene can generate a visionary.

These paired hereditary bohemians represent psych-folk uncut, but other finishers are close allies, as are 52nd-place Christian Sufjan Stevens, so much prettier and deeper than 48th-place ex-Christian Sam Bean. (41–50: electronica standard-bearers Junior Boys, electronica salesmen Air, tape-eating Walkmen, Alicia “Legs” Keys, tweaker-folk Mountain Goats, party girl Gretchen Wilson, new wave popsters Futureheads, d/b/a Iron & Wine, new wave art-rockers Secret Machines, prescription-only Ted Leo.) Though the Fiery Furnaces identify rock, their roots riffs, opaque verbiage, and whimsical air cross-market them as effectively as if they’d planned it. The vaguely tribal Animal Collective muster more charm if less skill than the Incredible String Band. And Nellie McKay has nothing to do with the trend at all — except that she’s a trad-avant acoustic singer-songwriter who’s vegetarian too. It’s enough to convince you that fame-averse obscurantism is psych-folk’s essential ingredient.

Or maybe to indicate that, a few separatists notwithstanding, this wasn’t much of a year for disengagement. McKay’s hunger for a public presence counts as defiance in a state bent on repression. Of course alt-rock made a showing. A.C. Newman’s solo record outran Neko Case’s solo record; the Libertines took their falling-apart-in-front-of-your-eyes act so far that Pete Doherty withdrew from view, a confusing effect. The Arcade Fire are neither hype nor fluke, and though they could choose art-rock vainglory, they could also prove world leaders. But only Craig Finn’s Hold Steady went alt all the way — Almost Killed Me could pass for a concept album about the circuit, and although Finn’s storytelling has lost a few twists since Lifter Puller, I wish his Pushcart Prize bid well unless John Darnielle enters the Mountain Goats. But he sure didn’t write better than the Drive-By Truckers, who put out a slightly subpar album in half the time it would have taken most bands to write half the material and toured like they were the Allman Brothers, or than Rilo Kiley, who secured major-label distribution for an album keyed to catchier songs than “Take You Out” if not “Somebody Told Me.” And then there were the Blairniks of Interpol, who began their album with a hopeful “We ain’t going to the town/We’re going to the city,” only to demonstrate why exurbanites flee the city and vote Republican to keep it away from their doors. “See the living that surrounds me/Dissipate in a violent race,” their charting “Slow Hands” goes. Exactly what the exurbs are afraid of. City people dance to that? Sick, just sick.

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Nevertheless, all over a theoretical pop/semipop realm I’ll dub the Republic of Crunk Guitar, city people were dancing. Crunk guitar is theoretical not least because the guitars that color the sexist party hip-hop signified by the soon-passé “crunk” are dirty and metallic while the guitars (and synthesizers) that propelled young rockers onto the floor in surprising numbers are clean and electronic. The conflation merely insists that, no matter how loudly and justifiably their adherents and adversaries bitch and moan, for quite a while the putatively opposed worlds of hip-hop and alt/indie-rock have both been good to us. They’re often escapist and that makes me bitch and moan. But I never forget, or regret, that human beings have always treasured music for the escape it affords.

In 2004, hip-hop, consistently underrepresented in our poll and by now declared dead as regularly as rock, nevertheless produced a second straight No. 1 album. Though the voters came out stronger for OutKast, I’ll take Kanye’s guaranteed pop-soul hooks, modest flow, saving cameos, group-focused vision, and dynamite sense of humor; hip to modern serfdom and too decent to peddle thug domination fantasies, he renders nerdiness at once cute and racially credible while mocking the lie that it will get the oppressed what they deserve. A sharp dip in r&b party anthems on our singles chart suggests that as hip-hop’s commercial dominance gets old, its crassness looks worse. But we still signed off on a healthy complement of major and indie hip-hop albums. I rate Nas (59th) and the slept-on Mos Def (77th) over the belatedly beloved Ghostface, and in addition to the three worthy albums released by this year’s indie-rap fave, MF Doom (whose Madlib collab Madvillainy was No. 11), recommend the Bay Area’s arch-in-his-disgusting-way Z Man and Vancouver’s sincere-in-his-businesslike-way McEnroe. In London, Mike Skinner’s lit rode vocal dramatics that recalled without resembling the declamations of Ghostface and Chuck D, and Dizzee Rascal’s up-and-at-’em made music of the scrawny techno-dancehall derivative that is grime. I also enjoyed ex-Detroiter Eminem, who was edged out by the competing white beatmasters of NYC’s DFA.

Besotted with Franz Ferdinand’s No. 1 single, some might argue that r&b party music was undercut by DOR — dance-oriented rock, kids, so abbreviated well before Duran Duran glitzed their way into your impressionable sensoriums. But the singles chart reveals dance music from every-which-where, with DOR just one component: the Killers’ brazenly mechanical “Somebody Told Me,” the Scissor Sisters for the moment and Gwen Stefani forever, some count “Float On,” and let us not forget those Blairniks. Rather than danceability, what distinguishes our rock albums is chart clout. Of course Pazz & Joppers always like bands that sell a little, and here’s hoping if not predicting that they’ll always have Hold Steadys to get hot for. Rock radio continues to die, too. But the Franz Ferdinand–Green Day–Modest Mouse trifecta constitutes an uptick. Teenpop having given way to American idolization, which will also run its course, the surviving megalabels are pursuing saner long-term musical investment strategies on a playing field where indies are entrenched, prices have fallen, and downloading is a progressive force. If the world wasn’t coming to an end, this might equal reason to be cheerful.

Admittedly, it makes me feel a little better anyway. But there’s only so happy you can get about the Killers. So allow me to promote more far-ranging escapes — starting with, of all things, a longshot country finisher. Big & Rich are a bit wet for my tastes; though they usefully exemplify the varieties of Christian experience, that Jesus song is just too corny. But their irreverence and appetite are such a relief in a Nashville that’s gynephobic and xenophobic when it’s rowdy at all. Gretchen Wilson is lucky to have met them, and not only that — you just know they’d appreciate Piracy Funds Terrorism, the 23rd-place bootleg mix Floridian-Philadelphian Diplo imposed on the forthcoming album by Sri Lankan–British singer-toaster M.I.A. M.I.A.’s eighth-place bhangra-dancehall-grime “Galang” is only the most explicitly every-which-where of dance singles that include crunk lite from a peripatetic Army brat, ragga lite from Queens-based Puerto Rican–I-think twins, trash lite from queens doing their Elton John impression, blues-rap featuring an avant-garde trumpeter doing his Muddy Waters impression, fragile Norwegian-blond Europop, Blairniks, and DFA. Eclecticism/internationalism has long been dance music’s way, but it intensified in 2004, and I trust its timing will keep getting better without further encouragement or explication from me.

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Sometimes, however, explication deepens enjoyment as well as enlarging the mind. I’d love the Diplo boot more if it raided the Middle as well as the Far East, the way Hispanic/multiracial hip-hoppers and 1998 Pazz & Jop finishers Ozomatli did to jump-start their mysteriously-or-maybe-not 208th-place Street Signs. That’s why I was so pleased that Youssou N’Dour’s Egypt finished 34th. Always Islamic, N’Dour knows he’s heard as merely African by the Americans and Europeans whose musics he’s assimilated. So as a political act, the Senegalese Mouridist claimed Muslim by recording in Cairo. This uncommonly pointed one-worldism sinks deeper when you read not just the notes but the linked info at the Nonesuch website. The most gorgeous album of N’Dour’s career celebrates an Islamic culture more humane than any fundamentalist one, or than the secular compromises putative liberals like Thomas Friedman pump. It’s more humane than Nashville’s culture, too — and, sometimes, NYC’s.

In part, I know, my pessimism about America reflects my age. At 62, I had my expectations primed back when the goal of a humane society was axiomatic, and at 62, I deeply resent the prospect of spending my golden years battling goons who hate everything I’ve lived for. So it’s salutory to replay The College Dropout — a record I once foolishly feared would wear thin — and hear Kanye’s kiddies wickedly chorus, “We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25/Joke’s on you we still alive.” That’s how it goes with social disasters. They get worse than the crack epidemic, but not so’s the end of the world is actually the end of the world — not even after a suitcase nuke, or the worst-case consequences of dumping the Kyoto accords. All year I remembered Ned Sublette’s Cuba and Its Music, where slaves jamming their stinking barracones and then blacks crowding their overtaxed barrios musick defiantly anyway. Keeping it real f’real, West’s songs import that impulse into modern African American life — music is a dream that waxes and wanes, something folks will steal because it’s something folks live for. His good cheer assumes his people will get squeezed half to death, and won’t stop won’t stop anyway. Politically, he shows more smarts and better instincts than any finisher except N’Dour and the Drive-By Truckers.

Brian Wilson’s good cheer proceeded from a deeper sense of entitlement yet proved deeply fragile — he broke down well before the ’60s did. But the luck of career development impelled him to re-examine his own flowering, and though my aversion to ’60s nostalgia knows no bounds, his political timing couldn’t have been better. Nostalgia is for the weak-minded, but history is forgotten by those who find out too late why Karl Rove name-checks William McKinley. Smiley Smile was always wonderful, and psych-folkies may want to know that it’s more eccentric than SMiLE. But SMiLE is a history lesson, one that’s only rendered more vivid and persuasive by how silly it is, and also by how worn Wilson’s voice is. The beauty it achieves regardless — the apotheosis of the Beach Boys’ trick of respecting and undermining their music lessons simultaneously — defines the cultural space where the freedom to make and hear precious music was and remains unquestioned if not uncompromised. As in all works of art, that space is a fiction, or anyway a construction. But it’s worth battling for.

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Top 10 Albums of 2004

1. Kanye West: The College Dropout (Roc-A-Fella)

2. Brian Wilson: SMiLE (Nonesuch)

3. Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose (Interscope)

4. Franz Ferdinand: Franz Ferdinand (Domino/Epic)

5. Green Day: American Idiot (Reprise)

6. The Arcade Fire: Funeral (Merge)

7. The Streets: A Grand Don’t Come for Free (Vice/Atlantic)

8. U2: How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (Interscope)

9. Modest Mouse: Good News for People Who Love Bad News (Epic)

10. Danger Mouse: The Grey Album (djdangermouse.com)

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Top 10 Singles of 2004

1. Franz Ferdinand: “Take Me Out” (Domino)

2. Jay-Z: “99 Problems” (Roc-A-Fella)

3. Usher featuring Lil Jon and Ludacris: “Yeah!” (Arista)

4. Modest Mouse: “Float On” (Epic)

5. Britney Spears: “Toxic” (Jive)

6. Kanye West: “Jesus Walks” (Roc-A-Fella)

7. Snoop Dogg featuring Pharrell: “Drop It Like It’s Hot” (Doggystyle/Geffen/Star Trak)

8. M.I.A.: “Galang” (XL)

9. Yeah Yeah Yeahs: “Maps” (Interscope)

10. U2: “Vertigo” (Interscope)

—From the February 9–15, 2005, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.

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Stiff Little Fingers+The So So Glos

For every avid music fan, the John Cusakc film High Fidelity, (or I should say, the Nick Hornby book) is a turning point. Dysfunctional dudes and their broken hearts have been the topic of indie rock forever, this narrative humanizing the experience as much more than just exclusive garbage. There’s a scene where Dick, the soft spoken record clerk, flirts with a girl by telling her Green Day has a lot to owe to Stiff Little Fingers. He’s not wrong, of course. In fact, he’s very right: the band is the shot that started the pop-punk we’d all grow to love. Check it out for yourself with hometown heroes So So Glos. Hear that? It’s the sound of a million power chords.

Sat., Sept. 20, 8 p.m., 2014

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Despite Fiery Performances, Broadway Idiot Feels More Like DVD Extras Than a Documentary

Broadway Idiot is less a documentary than a video souvenir playbill. Apparently intended only for audiences who caught American Idiot, Green Day’s Tony-nominated musical, during its yearlong run at the St. James Theatre, the film surveys the gestation, life, and death of the pop-punk opera without ever explaining the show’s story.

It’s hard not to feel cynical about Broadway Idiot: It’s a documentary celebrating a musical based on an album, probably made to maintain “awareness” for the inevitable movie adaptation of the play. (Tom Hanks has already optioned the film rights.) Broadway does nothing to dispel that cynicism. It contains more praise than insights, and, chopped into several sections, the documentary could easily become a series of featurettes in the “Extras” section of an American Idiot DVD. Yet Green Day frontman Billie Joe Armstrong still commands the screen.

Rocking a bottle-black mop atop his acne-scarred baby face, he’s a total humble-bragger, but you want to give him a hug anyway, especially when he confesses that commercial success cost him a lot of friends. “Which is fine, you only need a few,” he snorts in his reedy, petulant voice, licking his wounds, before marveling at the camaraderie he found in the theater world. For a few weeks, Armstrong played St. Jimmy, an id figure, during the Broadway run, and the 30 seconds highlighting his performance are the film’s most riveting. He’s ferociously, mischievously alive, his face as alert as a rat’s. It’s American intoxication.

 

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Blink-182

For about six years beginning in the late ’90s, Blink-182 were the snottiest, most puerile trio to emerge from the wake of Nirvana’s and, by proxy, Green Day’s punk kerplunk, whining about “All the Small Things” and asking “What’s My Age Again?” on MTV. They seemed unstoppable—at least until Good Charlotte came along and ruined everything for everyone. They’ve since broken up and reunited, and tonight, they’re giving back, playing a 9/11 charity show. I guess this is growing up.

Wed., Sept. 11, 8 p.m., 2013

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American Idiot, Sondheim on Sondheim, Promises, Promises Lack Luster

My muse, Marian Seldes, who in June will receive a Lifetime Achievement Tony Award to match the Lifetime Achievement Obie Award she already possesses, is a critic’s daughter. So as I traveled last week’s lengthy odyssey of theatergoing, which included three media-heavy musicals, the news of her honor made me think of something her father, Gilbert Seldes, had said in one of his later works, an early-1950s volume called The Great Audience, which focuses on film and the then-new medium, television.

In effect, Seldes asserted, Hollywood’s success has been based on the population explosion: Instead of catering to a mixture of tastes to satisfy varying degrees of maturity, the industry fixed its marketing eye, in every decade, on the younger generation’s prevailing taste, cutting the old and the nonconforming adrift. Hence, for him, American film never got the chance to grow up; he was openly fearful of the same thing happening in a new medium of television’s unprecedented power.

Undoubtedly, Seldes oversimplified. Where he saw a procession of identical films, we’ve learned to distinguish a multiplicity of approaches, with a few masterpieces tucked among them. Television has achieved some remarkably good effects, along with some that are deeply detrimental. And Seldes could hardly have predicted the disorienting complications of our latest revolution, in which not only movies and television, but every aspect of public and private life, have all become grist for the perpetually grinding mill of the Internet.

Seldes, among the first writers to treat American popular entertainment seriously, was no snob. He simply believed that popular art should be enriched to unite the generations, not niche-marketed to divide them. He would not have expected his great love, the theater, to stay immune from media incursions; he knew that the theater, like a magnet, picks up whatever is in the air around it. I went to my media-centric experiences bearing that in mind.

American Idiot (St. James Theatre) is the stage animation of the rock group Green Day’s popular album. (Read music editor Rob Harvilla’s piece on the show, “On Green Day’s Vivid, Lurid, Somewhat Vapid American Idiot Musical.”) I am not—I doubt that any theater critic is—this show’s target audience. I claim no expertise in its music: For me, unplugged always equals better, which sets me apart, not from the younger generation, but from my own: Amplification came into the theater in my childhood; it’s not going away. I can live with it, and I lived peaceably enough through Michael Mayer’s production of American Idiot, a lot of which held my attention.

What I can’t live without, in the theater, is drama, of which American Idiot, like many previous album-based shows, provides only the slightest wisp. Three trapped suburban kids dream of escaping to find fame and fortune in the big city. One (Michael James Esper) never even goes; another (Stark Sands), numbed out by urban-culture shock, escapes into the military and gets wounded in Afghanistan. The third (John Gallagher Jr.) louses up a potentially good relationship by sliding into a drug scene. All three end up, ego-bruised, back where they wish they didn’t belong.

So what? We never learn enough about this trio to care for them as individuals. And Green Day’s songs, though sometimes effective in striking general attitudes, don’t do much to make these guys seem contemporary quintessences, either. Only one song, the mournful “When September Ends,” lingers in the mind. Mayer’s design team blankets this thin slice of life in cascades of projections, always apt but predictable. His astute casting pays off: His three leads, who’ve all proven their skill in nonmusicals, give these straw figures solid presences. An elaborately choreographed flying effect, when Sands hallucinates in his hospital bed, ranks with the most inventive such stunts I’ve ever seen. I didn’t come away cursing, or bored, or feeling that I’d wasted my time. But I also didn’t feel satisfied. And I couldn’t help savoring the irony of artists who critique the system by, literally, plugging into it. It’s the influence of mass media, rock included, that keeps such non-hero types from becoming themselves. If only they’d joined a community theater group instead.

Sondheim on Sondheim (Roundabout Studio 54) is a kind of Broadway-level community-theater event, half lecture-demonstration and half end-of-season party, with our era’s presiding writer of theater songs, now 80, discussing his life and work in a barrage of video clips. A generational pyramid of performers, with golden-age (and still golden-voiced) Barbara Cook at its peak, renders examples of what Sondheim-on-screen says. This makes the video tail seem to be wagging the live theatrical dog. And the two occasionally go out of synch, as when Sondheim explains that “Ah, But Underneath” was written because Diana Rigg, unlike previous Phyllises in Follies, wasn’t a dancer—at which point Vanessa Williams, all lithe-limbed gorgeousness, does an ultra-dancy version of it.

Some numbers, too, are just oddly matched to their singers, or flat-out oddly conceived. The evening is full of high points that evoke, as such a show must, the broad panoply of Sondheim’s gifts. Leslie Kritzer, Norm Lewis, Euan Morton, and Tom Wopat all make significant contributions. For a climax, Cook sings “Send in the Clowns.” By rights, there should be nothing to complain of. Yet the show feels puzzlingly lackluster, like a last-minute birthday gift originally purchased for somebody else. I guess you might say it’s the thought that counts.

Promises, Promises (Broadway Theatre) never counted for much to me. This 1968 musical version of Billy Wilder’s The Apartment replaces the movie’s painful undertow with push and gags (often ingenious ones, by Neil Simon). Skilled acting, by stars not inherently comic, restored the pain for that original production. Rob Ashford’s new revival, frenetically aerobic and sleek, stars Sean Hayes, so busy knowing he’s funny that you never believe the hero’s suffering, and Kristin Chenoweth, the Teflon actress, to whom no emotion ever sticks. Two awkwardly interpolated Bacharach-David hits from the period demonstrate what second-rate stuff (excepting “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again”) the team turned out for the show’s actual score. In supporting roles, Tony Goldwyn and Dick Latessa inject some momentary reality into the metallic gloss.

mfeingold@villagevoice.com

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

On Green Day’s Vivid, Lurid, Somewhat Vapid American Idiot Musical

Fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck, goes the Green Day musical. Fuck this, fuck that, fuck me, fuck you. Like mall-punk Mamet. The 10-pound curse words are voluminous from the garish, manic onset of American Idiot, the curtain rising on a phalanx of pretty, vacant coed youth, grunged-up and homicidally disaffected, who bark out the title track amid an epileptic tirade of strobe lights and further hypnotic sensory overload via a couple dozen televisions embedded in the walls at jagged angles, MTV-style. The onslaught ends with our three putative male heroes all face-down on couches, the screens broadcasting upside-down American flags, the Friday-night crowd’s sustained applause impressively riotous.

And then it’s time for some swearin’. Opening line: “I jerked off into oblivion last night.” The putative male heroes introduce themselves, wave around a few middle fingers, greet each other (“Cocksucker!” “Shitbag!”), crack a stepfather = motherfucker joke, and prance off to the 7-11, deep in the throes of the multi-suite teenage-riot rant “Jesus of Suburbia.” Stage direction: “Johnny challenges his friends to give a shit.” The phalanx reconvenes, chanting, “I don’t care if you don’t care” en masse. Stage direction: “They all trash the place.” Bus tickets and packed bags materialize: “Take one last look at this shithole, ’cause these are our tickets outta here!” One of the dudes is held back by his knocked-up girlfriend, plops down on the couch, and pretty much stays there for the whole 90-minute, intermissionless duration, which, given that his wobbly falsetto is entirely at odds with the snot-nosed dominant vocal aesthetic here, is probably best for everyone involved; the other two prepare for an arduous, emotionally tumultuous journey to . . . the other side of the stage.

This show is not a terrible idea. Green Day’s original 2004 American Idiot is pretty much mainstream rock’s one and only credible album-length riposte to The (Fucking) Bush Years, not so much blatantly political as just generally bewildered and enraged in a way that still put the Berkeley boys light years ahead of the shock-and-awe curve, plainly re-energized by having something to sing about other than jerking off into oblivion. The musical, directed by Michael Mayer, he of rock-on-Broadway phenomenon Spring Awakening (itself notably verbally uncouth during such crowd-pleasers as “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally Fucked”), has plenty of ammo song-wise, a perfectly adequate onstage band cherry-picking as well from nominal 2009 sequel 21st Century Breakdown and offering one back-catalog mega-hit as an encore. (One guess.) Better these guys than, like, U2.

But the result, though vivid and lurid and imaginatively depraved, is also somewhat inarticulate, spraying its boilerplate discontent at no one in particular, with a lotta standard-issue bitching about The Media and The Man. At least the Spring Awakening crew had onstage clueless grown-ups to rebel against. Of the two dudes who actually get off the couch (seriously, the third one spends the whole rest of the show there, literally drinking bong water, his girl and their newborn baby eventually fleeing in disgust), Johnny (played by breakout SA star John Gallagher Jr.) gets hooked on drugs and does the usual hooked-on-drugs stuff, while Tunny (the excellently named Stark Sands) is enraptured by a charismatic, all-American, media-saturating beefcake dude into joining the Armed Forces and heading off to the Middle East, where he immediately loses his leg and does not-at-all-usual lost-my-leg-in-the-Middle-East stuff—namely, a Peter Pan–style, cable-assisted midair ballet tangle with a nurse who strips off her burka to reveal Princess Jasmine’s outfit from Disney’s Aladdin. To the tune of “Extraordinary Girl.”

Like American Idiot‘s best moments, that part is just ludicrous enough to not be disastrous. Johnny’s arm-tying rubber-tube wrestling match with his love interest, Whatshername (yes, really) also qualifies. The tunes (20 in all, leaving almost no room for dialogue, though that’s better for everyone involved, too) work best as either full-cast shout-alongs (the pummeling, angst-radiating “Holiday” is surprisingly great) or solo turns for Gallagher Jr, who ably strums an acoustic guitar and makes the slower, cornier, more maudlin stuff (welcome back, “Wake Me Up When September Ends”) sing. But anything in between, any tricky four-part-harmony stuff, crashes and burns. These arena-punk songs aren’t built that way; these particular singers, even less so.

“Totally Fucked” would have fit remarkably well into this show, too, actually—the conclusion is super-bleak, our putative heroes choosing between complete inertia and isolation, a prosthetic leg, or lovesickness and a goddamn office job. A wanly ambiguous closing statement—”And that was that, or so it seemed. Is this the end, or the beginning?”—can’t hope to leaven cynicism that absolute; nor can a post-curtain, full-cast, 19-acoustic-guitar encore of, you guessed it, “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life).”

American Idiot is far from the debacle it might have been, but it ain’t that, either. Everyone and everything is out to get you, apparently, and there’s not much to be done about it except . . . cuss louder.

rharvilla@villagevoice.com

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VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Anti-Flag

Politi-punks Anti-Flag became your little Chomksy-reading nephew’s new favorite band after he decided that Green Day actually kinda blow. These malcontents, still donning their ‘hawks, rail against the WTO, neocons, and environmental negligence (for starters) with lots of old-school, group-sung “whoooa-oh-ohs.” With Aiden and Cancer Bats.

Thu., Feb. 4, 6:30 p.m., 2010

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Blink-182

This isn’t so much ’90s nostalgia as turn-of-the-millennium nostalgia, ’cause both of these acts got big as this decade started. Blink’s return is well timed as their progeny comes up short (McFly??) and former tourmates Green Day return to the limelight. It’s nice to see that they’ve patched up their differences too. While there are no details as to when a new album might appear, this nice, not-so-little reunion tour should suffice for fans, who will no doubt enjoy moshing to whatever bawdy lyrics are in their old tunes.

Wed., Aug. 26, 6:30 p.m., 2009

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VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES Where To

Green Day

The best sign that Green Day is well on their way to becoming Springsteen-style rock royalty: The set list for this tour leans heavy on the new stuff, and no one leaves to get a beer. The chiming, cheerfully existential 21st Century Breakdown is the second triumph in a row from a band who were already legacy artists. And they’re still somehow punk enough to keep ticket prices under $50. See ’em now so you can annoyingly prattle to your kids about it someday. With Kasier Chiefs.

Mon., July 27, 8 p.m.; Tue., July 28, 8 p.m., 2009

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CULTURE ARCHIVES MUSIC ARCHIVES

On Green Day’s Dystopian, Prophetic, and Extraordinary 21st Century Breakdown

With 2004’s resounding, career-reviving smash American Idiot—and now, the superior 21st Century Breakdown—Green Day have not so much evolved as been completely reborn. Even their name seems to have transformed, from a J-smoking lazy-afternoon joke to maybe something environmental.

This is not simply because the zeitgeist changed, but because the band itself appears to have swapped affiliations: Billie Joe Armstrong may be 37, but on Breakdown, he sounds like a member of the current generation instead. The album, an epic, bombastic, narrative-rich treatise about young adults contending with the institutions of contemporary America, sounds younger and more naive than Dookie did 15 years ago. It’s not like Blink 182 cynically singing about being 16, either; whereas Tom DeLonge sounds creepy reminiscing about hitting on girls at the Warped Tour, Armstrong’s evocations “of forgotten hope and the class of ’13” sound almost prophetic.

More so, despite some occasionally vague lyrics, Breakdown is one of the most fervent and intense mainstream political rock statement in decades, dancing between mid-’70s self-annihilation punk and idealistic cause célèbre recruitment. The former finds voice on “Horseshoes and Handgrenades,” in which Armstrong sings, “Demolition, self-destruction/What to annihilate?” Later, he announces, “This is a standoff/A Molotov cocktail/On the house”: Green Day as C-4 poets.

Elsewhere, though, they play progressive recruiters. On the leadoff and title track, Armstrong opens with “Born into Nixon/I was raised in hell/A welfare child/Where the teamsters dwelled,” and then refracts John Lennon with the defiant (and momentarily heartbreaking) admission, “My generation is zero/I never made it as a working-class hero.” That sentiment transforms Breakdown from a simple re-enunciation of ’60s politics into something very contemporary and relevant. Whereas Lennon found dignity and revolution in the working-class experience—playing Karl Marx’s role of the enlightened bourgeois artist teaching the proletariat how to protest—Green Day only see alienation and disenchantment. Their lyrical persona is as trapped and desperate as they imagine their listeners to be. “We are the desperate in the decline/Raised by the bastards of 1969,” Armstrong cries out, and then challenges any musician who claims to lead the revolution: “Scream, America, scream/Believe what you see from heroes and cons?” They don’t trust anyone over 30—including themselves.

Remember, of course, that Green Day are as major-label as they come, and this will undoubtedly be one of 2009’s bestsellers—Breakdown is pure capitalism even as it repudiates it. They aren’t exactly pulling a Radiohead/Girl Talk trick and offering the album for free online, either. Yet despite the skepticism and self-derogation, I detect triumph and the kind of radical sentiment that pumps blood toward political engagement, not away from it. “She’s a runaway of the Establishment Incorporation/She won’t cooperate/She’s the last of the American girls,” is a reactionary statement, nostalgic in its dream of a pre-corporate moment. But it’s radical in its gender politics and sense of protest. Same with “She’s on a hunger strike/For the ones who won’t make it for dinner,” or the Beckett-esque “She will come in first/For the end of Western civilization/She’s a natural disaster.” If visualizing the destruction of civilization isn’t a form of resistance and protest, then what is?

Despite lacking the pretentious medieval conceits of Joanna Newsom or the Decemberists, Breakdown is also mindful of history, both literary and musical: “I walked for miles ’til I found you,” from the gorgeous ballad “Last Night on Earth,” speaks to U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking for”; “She puts her makeup on/Like graffiti on the walls of the heartland” turns urban dystopia into prophecy just like Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” Most notably, “¡Viva la Gloria!,” with its Brechtian cadences, sympathizes with a “Runaway/From the river to the street . . . There is no place like home/When you got no place to go,” evoking some of the greatest rock songs in history, from Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” to the New York Dolls’ “Frankenstein.” There are too many echoes of the Boss, in chords and words alike, to count.

Considering 2001’s Warning as the preamble (with its own Brechtian “Misery,” as well as “Minority,” their first real flirtation with political consciousness), Green Day’s work on American Idiot and now Breakdown cements them as the greatest political rock band currently selling records. Considering Breakdown is not just politically conscious, but also catchy, assured, lyrically clever, and packed with hooks, we’re dealing with possibly the greatest rock album of the past decade. I don’t know if anyone (especially these guys) still believes a rock album has the power to change the world—we’ve been too often burnt by songs full of radical promise that never deliver. But this is pop culture that engages with the zeitgeist, and there’s power invested there, too. “What’s the latest way that a man can die/Screaming, ‘Hallelujah’/Singing out, ‘The dawn’s early light’/The silence of the rotten, forgotten/Screaming at you,” they cry out on “The Static Age.” I hope they sell a gazillion records, and everyone hears that scream: an anthem for nihilistic, downtrodden, alienated kids looking for heaven. It’s practically fucking Milton.

Green Day play Madison Square Garden July 27