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Cultural Deluge – Metallagher, The Wonder and the Dark Side of the Long Tail

December 11, 2009

The AV Club, the cultural commentary wing of The Onion, recently ran an article that discussed the staff’s favorite “drop everything” movies, featuring odes to the power of oft-aired cable classics like RoboCop, The Godfather and Rudy. What was intended to be a brief moment of channel-surfing, thanks to the stumbling into one of said films, becomes a two-hour lounging session. To me, the piece read like an account of a dying phenomenon, largely because we’ve reached the inflection point where distribution models permit all of our video-based entertainment consumption to be intentional, rather than the time-honored routing of powering up the TV set without a specific viewing agenda. For years, I tolerated the pop culture of the damned because I was unaware of the alternatives. A perfect example being the modern rock station that hit the central Kentucky airwaves in 1995, where we would sit though painfully boring songs by schlockmesters like Vertical Horizon, Sugar Ray, and the Goo Goo Dolls because the only other options were:

1. Dead-horse classic rock – Is there any Kentuckian over the age of five that hasn’t heard “Gimme Three Steps” at least 45,354,958 times?

2. “Young” (read “pop”) country – It doesn’t matter how awful the songs are, as long as the people singing ’em are pretty!

Suggested slogan: “If you’ve ever answered the question ‘What is your favorite kind of music?’ by saying, ‘Oh, whatever is on the radio’, then we’re the station for you!”

3. Adult contemporary – When a station’s primary artist is Peter Cetera-era Chicago, look away, baby, look away.

4. College radio – Great! (offer good only for those who reside within 45 feet of the broadcast facility)

You see kids, prior to the wonderful world of S*ulseek, if you wanted to hear something that wasn’t tested with whitebread focus-groups, you needed cash (CDs retailed for $16). If your favorite TV program was not bringing in the required ratings, the networks would jerk around its timeslot, which meant that Freaks and Geeks or The Norm Show never had the chance to build the audience necessary to meet said ratings requirements. And if you missed an episode, fat chance catching a re-run.

The apotheosis of these dark days was the phenomenon of Gallagher. For those fortunate enough to miss the time alluded to above, the great comedic voices emerging in comedy clubs nationwide were deemed too risque for regular TV. For comedians with perspectives that eclipsed the blandness of an airport bookstore, there was no national television outlets outside of an occasional five-minute segment on Late Night with David Letterman until the late 1980s (when Night at the Improv, Half-Hour Comedy Hour and Comedy Channel – the early version of Comedy Central hit the airwaves). So our choices were limited to the hacks with bags on their heads from Make Me Laugh or the Gong Show, zany (as in “loud and obnoxious but saying nothing”) comics with names like Bob Zany, or Gallagher. If you’ve always wished for a deep examination of why the word “bomb” fails to rhyme with “tomb”, you’re in luck (or “urine luck”, as Gallagher would likely say). Last night in a downtown St Paul punk/metal venue, I witnessed a dichotomy of the limits of the past with the deluge of the present. Metallagher, a Metallica cover band fronted by a Gallagher impersonator, has gained notoriety for combining the heavy riffage of the band’s pre-Black Album period with the heavy messes of sledgehammered foodstuffs. Singer “Gallagher Hetfield” growls Jaymz-like until the numerous lengthy instrumental passages (which Metallagher absolutely crush, especially the guitar tone in “Orion”), then out comes the oversize wooden hammer to smash things. Watermelon? BOOOM! Plastic jar of mayonnaise? LOOK OUT! Live puppy? SMASH!! (I kid!). If not showering the audience with grocery shrapnel, “Gallagher” breaks out the SuperSoaker, adding some (fruit) punch to the music.[i] After touring the country for the past several years, it was inevitable that the word of this rowdy hybrid would find its way to the hack prop comic (as well as Metallica – perhaps you’ve heard of their litigious past). Eventually, Gallagher discovered the spirited imitation, and instead of the proverbial kibosh, the original MC Hammer offered to open for them. Or, perhaps he begged to join – a recent visit to was met by a 404 error message, leading me to wonder if he was delinquent to his hosting service. That, or he fell into the Madoff pyramid scheme.

Twenty-five years ago, Our Suspender-Donning Hero is packing the biggest theaters in the country. Last night, before he was scheduled to hit the stage, we watched him standing alone near a table with a pensive expression, waiting for people to ask him to pose for jokey photos, then eventually being rushed on stage to open for a local cover band. Translation – we don’t have to accept what the execs consider “entertainment” anymore.

Now that programming has a modern distribution model, I see no reason in wasting time by aimless meandering through channels, seeing what the programmers have deemed acceptable for us. Now I can base my selections on critical examinations of the television universe, easily located online. From childhood until the end of the last millennium, there were worlds of great TV, cinema, music and writings that were completely unavailable to me. Now that the gates of access have been crashed, I feel the irrational need to make up for lost time.

When I first discovered Pitchfork in 2002, it was like the church scene in The Blues Brothers: “Jesus H. Tap-Dancing Christ…I HAVE SEEN THE LIGHT!” No longer was I forced to page through articles about lumbering shite like Crazy Town, Creed or Limp Bizkit to find information about the burgeoning Brooklyn scene or the punk-influenced collectives from Scandinavia. Independent hip-hop that revealed Puff Daddy as the Billy Ray Cyrus of rap finally had an outpost.

Due this massive availability, obtaining the best elements of our pop culture has become a personal crusade. If there is a great band, I want to hear them. If there is a film or a TV show that is praised by people I respect, I want to see it. Unfortunately, there’s a downside to this lifestyle – how can I truly appreciate today’s best pop culture, if I am too focused on the creative landscape of yesterday (or tomorrow)?

During the dark days, our favorite cultural moments were revered because of their greatness, but also due to their scarcity. I watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High so many damn times that I could identify the exact moments where the made-for-TV version differed from the video release (for some reason, Nic Cage appears in four scenes on the TV cut, but nary a frame in the DVD). The Big Lebowski, released in the waning days of the old media distribution model, spawned a freaking festival. Anyone I’ve met that has watched Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming or Whit Stillman’s Barcelona at least one time is guaranteed to:

1. Have watched it a second, third…or tenth time

2. Lead your vernacular to include lines like “Oh, I’ve BEEN to Prague…Well, maybe not ‘Been to Prague’ been to Prague, but you know, that whole…”, “What I used to able to pass off as a bad summer could now potentially turn into a bad life”, or “Oh, shootings, yes – but that doesn’t mean Americans are more violent than other people – we’re just better shots.”

These are just a few examples – to the children of the ’70s, it appears that the general narrative allowed a longer period of appreciation for great works. However, our era of abundant creative output means that every moment reflecting on one film’s greatness serves to delay the time spent on something else. An epochal film like There Will Be Blood may disappear, joining the ranks of “that was good, what else is on?”, because NBC’s Thursday night lineup beckons, followed by The Daily Show and the Colbert Report (thanks online TV access!), not to mention a whole mess of movies from this decade that I’ve not seen…[ii]

Which brings me to the negative – we have no need to invest time into “getting” something perceived as “difficult”. I recently engaged my Facebook community in a discussion about The Royal Tenenbaums, which was released in the beginning days of the new distribution model (Netflix had recently become available). Since I had other options for my video entertainment, and chose comedies that facilitated escape from my own real-life family drama, I never gave it a second viewing, as the massive list of must-see movies immediately available, there was little time – or incentive – to return to Wes Anderson’s film. In efforts to create a new canon, we must offer a great work the space for effective evaluation. Our future generations deserve nothing less.

[i] You can’t take your eyes off the stage if you want to stay dry – I was trying to watch the bass player during “Shortest Straw” and I got absolutely doused.

[ii] Just for the heck of it, I went through the Wikipedia entry of films released this decade, seeking the best films that I either missed or need to see again. Here is a small sample: Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story; The Fantastic Mr. Fox; In the Loop; Wassup Rockers; Zodiac; Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie; Talk to Me; the Bourne Trilogy; the Last Supper; the Brothers Solomon; the Wackness; Southland Tales; Be Kind Rewind; This is England; Jennifer’s Body; Me and Orson Welles; Moon; Wall-E; Son of Rambow; Charlie Bartlett, Morvern Callar; Hot Fuzz, Harold and Kumar go to White Castle; Observe and Report; How to Lose Friends and Alienate People; Limits of Control

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