Showbiz Kids

“This is another new one,” Story of the Year frontman Dan Marsala announced halfway through his band’s set at the Continental Airlines Arena. “Keep it moving.” Marsala was addressing his mosh-pit minions—a motley crew that counted plenty of Jersey meatheads, as well as a skinny kid in a Winnie the Pooh costume—but he could’ve been describing the tenor of the emo-metal scene the Taste of Chaos tour has packaged for the past two years. Spectacle is in. Substance, not so much.

Nothing wrong with spectacle, of course; in pop, that’s often where the thrills come from. Yet even if recent mainstream breakthroughs by screamo groups such as My Chemical Romance mean that now this music is pop, at TOC an emphasis on showbiz slickness stifled the music’s vitality. Like the more established (but demographically similar) Warped Tour, or a random sampling of nightly Fuse programming, the show moved quickly; as soon as one main-stage band wrapped up its tightly scripted set, a side-stage act launched into its own to keep the kiddies entertained.

Stage antics often did the trick: During a drum break in one of their muscle-riffed jock jams, Story of the Year’s two guitarists did backflips. Orange County metalcore biggies Atreyu nodded to Spinal Tap with a Great Wall of amplifiers and an absurdly high drum riser. Headliners Deftones came onstage to the sweetly ironic sounds of 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love.” The fans responded to the stimuli, yet didn’t fall for everything, appearing indifferent to the night’s purest spectacle, the Street Drum Corps, a funky sort of gutter-punk Stomp.

SoCal post-hardcore stalwarts Thrice, powerful and complicated if no fun at all, paid the price for their peers’ displays. Churning through tunes from last year’s dark, textured Vheissu, they played as though they figured the music would speak for itself; for their trouble they got a pit full of bored faces screaming for old stuff. Somehow, Deftones (metal’s most unlikely success story) avoided that fate. Tellingly, frontman Chino Moreno said he detected the puffing of blunts.


Brand-New Lag

The music business is finally figuring out how to profit from the previous generation of peer-to-peer technology. Companies like Webspins and BigChampagne monitor the most-traded songs on file-sharing networks (last week’s No. 1 was Hoobastank’s “The Reason”), and record labels have noticed that unauthorized MP3 traffic is a pretty good sign of what people want to hear. Billboard recently reported how, for instance, Maverick Records parlayed the heavy trading of Story of the Year’s “Until the Day I Die” into airplay and, eventually, a gold album.

Not that the Recording Industry Association of America is grateful. On March 23, it sued another 532 uploaders, 89 of them college students; a week later, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry took legal action against 247 more swappers in Canada, Denmark, Germany, and Italy. On top of that, the RIAA has abruptly shut down its “Clean Slate” amnesty program, in which file traders could turn themselves in, delete their unauthorized files, agree not to do it again, sign an affidavit, and open themselves up to potential lawsuits from everyone else. No great loss—only 1,108 people had ever signed up for it anyway.

Meanwhile, the Justice Department formed an intellectual-property task force at the end of March. On April 21 and 22, the DOJ and FBI’s “Operation Fastlink,” in collaboration with law enforcement groups from 10 other countries, seized upwards of 200 computers involved with what John Ashcroft called “the international online piracy world.” By that, he didn’t mean college students trading String Cheese Incident MP3s, but “warez” groups, who specialize in cracked software, games, and movies.

Music geeks have been moving past old-fashioned peer-to-peer MP3 trading anyway. Audioblogs like Soul Sides and Said the Gramophone have proliferated over the last couple of months. They’re just like regular weblogs, except that every day they present a special MP3 or two (often not-yet-released or out-of-print treats), usually with extensive explanatory comments. Most audioblogs only make songs available for a week or so; few, if any, have experienced legal hassles so far, although they occasionally get asked to remove a song.

The music business may have more reason to fear two other developments that have been around for a few years but are reaching critical mass. The first is FLAC, or Free Lossless Audio Codec—a way of making sound files smaller without compromising sound quality. (Metallica are selling FLAC as well as MP3 downloads of every show on their current tour; by comparison, Prince’s online store, which sells only Windows Media files, seems positively Stone Age.)

The second is Bram Cohen’s program BitTorrent. It’s a tool for “swarming downloads”: a way to quickly mass-distribute very large, popular files without using too much bandwidth from a single host. Initially spread by sites like the jam-band tapers’ mecca it’s become the program of choice for trading TV shows, movies, and concerts. Cohen has noted that using BitTorrent for illegal trading is “patently stupid,” because users can’t hide their IP addresses. (Evidently, there’s a lot of stupidity out there.)

Let’s say you want to get a copy of the Pixies’ first reunion show, the Minneapolis gig from April 13—it’s in demand right now, and therefore a likely candidate for BitTorrent. Once you’ve located a “torrent” file for it (which tells the program what it’s looking for, and is usually a few dozen kilobytes), the program seeks out a bunch of other users who have the concert on their hard drives and downloads little pieces of it from each of them simultaneously. Before too long, you’ve got the whole 27-song set as CD-quality FLAC files, and in the meantime you’re passing bits of it on to other Pixies buffs.

BitTorrent has legitimate uses for sure: A few weeks ago, Blizzard Entertainment used it to distribute a new 2-gigabyte game. But it also means that full-length, full-quality albums, with graphics, are now almost as easy to replicate over the Internet as MP3s. If the major labels are smart, they’ll figure out a way to make money from swarming-download technology—but they don’t have long.


Go Ahead, Kill Yourself

Teen suicide is regarded with romantic fascination. I read this carefully developed wisdom in a giant newspaper essay on pop music advances in home psychotherapy: In U.S.A. 2004, The Sorrows of Young Werther has been rewritten in the songs of legions of punk self-examiners. Although not quite the intellec-tual caliber of Goethe, teen punks, it is said, now have enhanced emotional range. This is empowering them as never before with the desire to reach out to one another in empathetically vibrating CDs and videos.

Take Good Charlotte. The band has reinvented Kix’s old suicide power ballad, “Don’t Close Your Eyes.” But this time they splice their hopeful tune, “Hold On,” with a public service announcement asking viewers to abjure killing themselves because it will upset family and acquaintances.

I called an expert, Iam “the Doctor” Ironbeard, who had written a paper, “Suicide—Cause for Concern,” for the Institute of the Mind at Twilli-willi-wit, and asked if “Hold On” was therapeutic. “Yes, no, maybe,” he said. Then I asked him if Fear’s Lee Ving, the nation’s king punk emeritus, would now be boycotted by screamos-n-emos (S&M’s, for short) for singing, “Let’s have a war, so you can go die!” “The Doctor” recalled how Ving had shouted, “We’re non-thera-pew-tic!” in a number about a double bill with the Angry Samoans at a Camarillo home for the mentally decrepit.

In any case, newspapers inform, it can’t be denied that today’s kids are more self-aware. Perhaps the new sensitivity stems from an extra chromosome located in the genetic supercoils, somewhere near the additional DNA coding for superior eye-hand coordination, extra-rapid-twitch video-game nerve-muscle fiber connections, and 10 percent more cerebrum because youngsters understand blogging better than everyone older than them.

Thursday’s War All the Time is alleged to be an example of the super-aware romantic delicacy in flower. This can be felt in the band’s lyric “We’ll douse ourselves in gasoline and hang our bodies from the lampposts so that our shadows turn into bright lights.” This is a line a contemporary Werther theoretically might write as he gets progressively more disturbed and desperate for his Lotte. But there’s a snag: Werther didn’t kill himself until the end of The Sorrows—not at the beginning, the middle, and all through the love-depression-suicide tale, like Thursday. War also suffers from “can’t remember any of the tunes because there aren’t any” disease.

The album has not inspired Werthermania—young men awakening to their plights and shooting themselves, left clutching papers filled with maxims and dressed in the clothing favored by their heroes. If the ancestral youths of Goethe’s time had even more soul-searing awareness, doesn’t that mean modern punks are devolving?

Yet it is a big brotherhood, equal to and indistinguishable from Thursday. Great for your You Provide Me With the Fatal Instruments, Precious Lotte mix CD, rock for a quivering neurasthenic collapse is delivered via Story of the Year’s “Until the Day I Die,” Taking Back Sunday’s “You’re So Last Summer,” Acceptance’s “Permanent,” Finger Eleven’s “One Thing,” and Brand New’s “Good to Know If I Need Attention All I Have to Do Is Die.”

Simple Plan are Werther punks, too, but Canadian. Instead of a sole obsession with Lotte, which is served in “Addicted,” their big musical push is in an apology to Daddy. This conflicts with the album cover of leg/foot fetishes and a game of spin-the-champagne-bottle with bridal party girls. While the Daddy song resonates with the distraught teen, too, what these guys are often caught implying is that they wish to be brides because Dad loved Sis more. In fact, their manically-sunny-but-my-heart’s-really-really-breaking-on-the-worst-day-ever and not-being-able-to-study-enough-for-tomorrow’s-test songs could just as well be sung by Katy Rose. With women now allowed on high school wrestling teams (another affront to the young man’s fragile psyche!), No Helmets, No Pads . . . Just Balls is a perfect title. Its fizzing guitar-girl pop shows Werther rock in touch with its silly feminine side and ready for star-time in a sequel to Ladybugs.

Meanwhile, Only Kids of Nothing Star by the two guys in Five Starcle Men has been released on the Net, with the band’s Web history claiming that one of the two killed himself a while ago. Eighty percent of it is cack—cheap software chitter and silicon noises—but the duo’s mythology indicates they were dextromethorphan punks, feeling the need to dull existential pain.

Two Nothing Star numbers are rhythmically compelling. One rips off Beck’s “Loser” riff; another has a harmonica sound and the chant “Pizza Hut families transcend spiritual reality.” However, because Five Starcle Men were downers, honestly horrid, and maybe nuts, they never made a video featuring the glum faces of dysfunctional boozer parents, stealthily corrosive friends, and assorted earnest-looking made-for-TV ringers.

Nope: no big role in feel-good media examinations recommending your stuff as mental Pepto-Bismol for the troubled. No 90 seconds on the Top 10 countdown, just before the hours of reality shows making entertainment of young people visiting a variety of public humiliations and cruel tricks on each other. No nothing. Irritating, isn’t it?

[In next week’s installment: Altie-pop rockers start fighting the plague of obesity raging through high schools with musical messages on eating only wholesome foods and how nationwide fatness is driving up health insurance premiums.]


Eternal Return

No art wears its disposability so lightly as the much maligned superhero comic. Month after month these comics appear with tawdry dependability—not unlike Sue Grafton novels or Fall albums—for years on end. But while the life span of a superhero comic may last decades, the characters never age. Instead, they undergo radical makeovers every few years, when new writers or artists are brought in to trim their capes and update their attitudes.

In 1996, Alan Moore was hired to reimagine the superhero known as Supreme—part of the Awesome Entertainment stable owned by artist-writer Rob Leifeld—a character even Moore acknowledged to be a “very, very, very, very, very” sorry excuse for a superhero. Generally considered a superheroic writer himself for his work on such genre-transcending works as The Watchmen and From Hell, Moore not only completely transformed Supreme, but also made the same-only-different nature of such radical revisions the book’s underlying theme. The 22 issues Moore wrote over four years are collected in last year’s Supreme: The Story of the Year and the new Supreme: The Return. (The series ended eight issues before his planned conclusion when Awesome lost financing.)

Moore reconceived Supreme as a self-reflexive take on the archetypal superman living in that weird old DC Comics universe of magical imps, superpets, bizarre villains, imaginary stories, and multidimensional tomfoolery. Supreme is a thickly muscled, larger-than-life supreme being complete with supersister Suprema, superdog Radar, extra- terrestrial creation myth, citadel of solitude, alliterative archnemesis (Darius Dax) and girlfriends (Judy Jordan and Dana Dane), and secret identity. When disguised as mild-mannered yet hunky Ethan Crane, he draws the amusingly redundant Omniman comic among co-workers oblivious to his alter ego. “Maybe it’s just how things are with me,” Supreme says of the see-through disguise. “Maybe it’s just, like, part of my story . . . ” Omniman is just one of many comics within a comic that spawns iterations of itself like a recursive virus. Moore doesn’t just give us one Supreme or Dax or Dane—he gives us their myriad revisions as well. (Supreme’s villains aren’t even exactly evil, just “badly written.”)

Superheroes, for Moore, are contemporary manifestations of the mythological gods of yore, who reflected the tenor of their times as succinctly as contemporary pop-culture obsessions do ours. Which perhaps explains why today’s superheroes resemble hackneyed corporate manifestations of their formerly glorious selves. What makes Supreme more than just another retro regurgitation of comics’ golden, silver, and Mylar ages, however, is the dizzying felicity with which Moore juggles the various strata of superhero archaeology. Supreme is Moore’s big dig, a Möbius-strip time warp looping endlessly between superhero comics’ hypermuscular present (female breasts are bigger and better than ever before, too) and their earlier, more modest, naive, and charming incarnations. Batman 2003, for example, consists of Bob Kane’s original creation as well as the camp ’60s Batman, Neal Adams’s slick ’70s version, and Frank Miller’s bloody, hardcore take of the ’80s.

A decade ago, Moore indulged his fascination with the early-’60s so-called Silver Age of Marvel comics in the retro-without-a-cause pages of the short-lived 1963 series. Moore makes much better use of Supreme as a portal into numerous mock Supreme comics from the ’40s through the ’80s, all rendered with loving fidelity and story-moving verve by artist Rick Veitch. The eternal return of Supreme and “Pasteur of Perfidy” Darius Dax to the primal scene when Ethan Crane was first exposed to the element Supremium (a mystic molecule less akin to kryptonite than to LSD) encompasses everything from Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster’s amazing-tales simplicity to longtime Superman editor Mort Weisinger’s Newtonian rationality, Harvey Kurtzman’s Madness, and genre parodies of “Classics Illustrated” and western comics.

Jack “King” Kirby, without whom none of this would have been possible, tops Moore’s comics pantheon. Characters inspired by Kirby, whose Fantastic Four and Captain America virtually defined Marvel’s Silver Age, pop up throughout Supreme. In “New Jack City,” the stand-alone comic that concluded Moore’s Supreme stint, the superhero stumbles across a Kirby-esque hidden valley in the Himalayas. A panoply of Kirby creations—including a Bowery-kid street gang, a cigar-chomping World War II platoon, and plenty of cosmo-futurist architecture—turns out to emanate from the exploding Oz-like head of the master himself. Supreme engages Kirby in a brusque colloquy on the everyday magic of creation, Supreme returns home, and the series ends. At least until the next revision.

Apart from his fascination with the mystic ontology of ideas, Moore’s work is magical in a more traditional sense of the term. His rich yet daunting 1997 novel Voice of the Fire, featuring shamanic stories spanning a couple of millennia and set on the same patch of British turf he calls home, is reflected in the spiraling Time Tunnel in Supreme’s Citadel that offers access to all historical eras. And as a self-proclaimed magician in the Aleister Crowley tradition, Moore uses his current Promethea series as an exciting and psychedelic magical primer. Superheroes may be nothing more than reflections of adolescent wish fulfillment, but Moore views them as something nobler, stranger, and more magical than that insofar as they spring from the deepest wells of the creator’s psyche. When Supreme ponders the “central mystery of his existence,” as he does in his first Moore-written issue, he’s bellying up to the crux of all artistic creation. Comics may be ultimately disposable, but what Moore has done with the medium’s mulch guarantees lasting import.