Cultural Deluge – Metallagher, The Wonder and the Dark Side of the Long Tail
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 for two reasons. The obvious: during the past six years, I have resided in households without cable, which greatly limits the utility of the remote. However, more significant was the understanding that all of my video-based entertainment consumption is intentional – I never power up the TV set without a specific viewing agenda. While discussing the final episode of The Wire with some friends, I realized why this is the case. As a youth, I wasted an inordinate amount of my life suffering through middlebrow programs like Charles in Charge or Alf for the offhanded chance that the dialogue would bring me to one laugh (specifically, within the episode where the Tanners become a Neilsen household). Unfortunately, all those nights staring at milquetoast groan-worthy crap like Who’s The Boss or Three’s Company are hours of my life I’ll never get back. For years, I tolerated the pop culture of the damned because I was unaware of the alternatives. When a modern rock station hit the central Kentucky airwaves in 1995, I sat 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 – Why yes, 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 Napster, if you wanted to hear something that wasn’t tested with whitebread focus-groups, you needed cash (CDs retailed for $16, and Garth Brooks was fighting used disc sales). 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.
A perfect example of these dark days is the phenomenon of Gallagher. For those fortunate enough to miss the time alluded to above, the great comedic voices of George Carlin, Richard Pryor, and Eddie Murphy were deemed too blue for regular TV. For comedians with perspectives that eclipsed 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 always wished for a deep examination of why 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 are spot-on, 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!! (OK, maybe not a “live” puppy). 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 (and the band – perhaps you’ve heard of their litigious past). Eventually, Gallagher discovered the spirited imitation, and instead of the proverbial kibosh, the original Emcee Hammer offered to open for them in St Paul. Or, perhaps he begged to join – a recent visit to GallagherSmash.com was met by a 404 error message, leading me to wonder if he was delinquent to his hosting service. That, or, you know, Madoff.
Twenty-five years ago, Our Suspender-Donning Hero is packing the biggest theaters in the country. Now, he’s standing near a table, posing for jokey photos, 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. Around this time, the alternative papers in Kentucky stepped up their efforts to broadcast the live appearances of these acts (including the unofficial newsletter of our own Jay St. Orts), meaning the value of a 75-minute drive to Headliner’s was optimized by our knowledge of the catalogues of the opening bands, not just the (wait for it…) headliners.
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 have eyes on creative landscape of yesterday and 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 “Wouldn’t that have been embarrassing if I had worn my goatee tonight?”, “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. It could be a product of my age (perhaps these elements of pop culture are far more meaningful in those post-collegiate, pre-marriage/career/homeownership years). 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 – say, a transcendent television program or a new digital short from Channel 101. After inexplicably missing There Will Be Blood in the theatre, the missus and I obtained the DVD for a home viewing. While we both thought it was bad-ass, neither of us has rushed to a second viewing, because NBC’s Thursday night lineup beckoned, followed by The Daily Show and the Colbert Report (thanks online TV access!), with several episodes of No Reservations awaiting. Did I mention the decades of Doctor Who? Then there’s Battlestar Galactica, and Firefly, and the past several years of The Simpsons and Family Guy, and 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, and what I was missing (I did not like the film in my only viewing). Since Tenenbaums was released in the beginning days of the new distribution model (Netflix had recently become available), I had other options for my video entertainment, and chose comedies that facilitated escape from my own real-life family drama. With a massive list of must-see movies awaiting my leisure, there was little time – or incentive – to return to Wes Anderson’s film. The massive deluge of “Best of the Decade” lists with The Royal Tenenbaums has compelled me to give it another chance, which will occur sometime next week. Ringo Starr’s penultimate album was titled Stop and Smell the Roses (yeah, I know, it was listed among Guterman and O’Donnell’s The Worst Rock and Roll Records of All Time, but stay with me) At The Brown Tweed Society, we seek to do just that. 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…