I Snark the 80s

VH1 may have gone to the well too many times. Mo Rocca and Joel Stein are so impressed with their snark that they simply don’t care if they have their facts completely wrong.

Someone needs to do a snarky show on snarky shows. And that someone is me. Please contact me through this blog, and we’ll work out a date for taping. References available on request.

Love, hate … nah, I love Tori Amos

I listened to an XM Artist Confidential with Tori Amos (when, oh when, will XM make its shows available on demand online?), and it was a reminder of why our favorite piano-playing redhead can be so amazing and yet so infuriating.

Of all the musicians who account for at least three songs in my iPod, she probably leads in the dubious category of “Absolutely Unlistenable Songs.” Sure, Throwing Muses/Kristin Hersh have cranked out some off-the-wall stuff in their day, but they’ve never recorded a full-blown sonic insult like the output you get when Tori is in screech mode.

And she often says things that make you think she wandered out to the mental space inhabited by Stevie Nicks at her New Age height, then kept right on going into the great beyond. (Actually, we could blame other things.) When asked on the XM show about her creative process, she said something about magical pixies — OK, not the exact words, but my brain was simply unable to process what she was saying — who floated around with songs. So her job was to capture them and bring them to light. Or life? I have no idea, but if I see any little pixies trying to inflict the song Ieeee on us, I’m getting a flyswatter.

Then she turns around and says things that are so charming (she is indeed Southern, more or less), down-to-earth and witty that you wonder if all the pixie-ish stuff is an act. Or maybe just two sides of a person whose brain waves would flummox a supercomputer.

And she’s so, so good on the piano. Listen to a couple of her live efforts on To Venus and Back, where she leads her capable band — propelled by omnidimensional drummer Matt Chamberlainthrough some reworking of her older songs. She dances around with the hooks on Cornflake Girl and Precious Things like a jazz legend who happened to write Tori Amos songs.

Everyone wants to record and tour with Chamberlain these days, and yet he plays with Tori. That should tell you something.

So with Tori, I’ll take the bad with the good. She may record one horrible album, then turn around with something that has 2-3 brilliant songs. Can’t complain about that.

The fine line between clever and stupid

Perhaps music video director Samuel Bayer has become the Stravinsky of our day. He’s taking artistic risks, to be sure, and some people are acclaiming him as brilliant.

I am not.

Love them or hate them, Bayer’s videos for songs from Green Day’s masterpiece, American Idiot are landmarks. He has raised the ante with each one.

I respect that. I don’t like what he’s done, and I think it’s worth discussing why.

First up is Wake Me Up When September Ends, well reviewed at About.com. (OT: I’m impressed with the work Bill Lamb is doing at About.) I like the idea of setting the song to a story of a young kid going to war while his girlfriend frets back home, but the scenes between the couple are as overwrought as a Lifetime movie.

Next up: Jesus of Suburbia, not just a curiosity (a nine-minute punk song??!) but the heart and soul of the album. And Bayer has created another epic that is sure to get some critics swooning. (See it at MySpace if this link remains intact.)

The basic story is this:

  • Kid is a punk.
  • Kid’s friends drink and smoke a lot, as magnified by Bayer’s typical trickery with fast and slow action.
  • Kid has no trouble getting laid. (Memo to women like this: I know someone else has asked this, but why is it that so many well-meaning guys are sexually frustrated while guys like this kid just need to show up wherever there’s beer and drugs? Really, we don’t want to encourage these guys, and you’re just one accident away from letting this guy’s genes persist for another generation.)
  • After this goes on for a while, we see Kid at home. He and his mom don’t get along. Something about the fact that she pauses in every conversation to take a dramatic drag on her cigarette and the fact that he’s a complete and utter jerk.
  • Kid has a lot of Green Day posters on his wall.
  • Kid writes a lot of graffiti in a room in a convenience store.
  • As if we needed less reason to sympathize with Kid, we see him shopping and tossing things all over the store, making a big business.
  • Kid finds out the woman he slept with earlier (was it just one? I got confused) is sleeping with someone else. He gets mad, screams at her, cuts his hand, leaves a bloody handprint at the convenience store.
  • Kid goes home, grabs stuff, gets hug from Mom in between her nicotine fixes, pushes her away and leaves. Other kids in local punk community look sad. Or indifferent. Or stoned. Who the hell can tell?

It’s interesting, yes. A lot of people would argue that the kid is only a total and complete bastard because he’s from, as the song’s last line says, a broken home.

But that distills a brilliant, complex song into a simple, questionable concept. In the song, we feel the guy’s frustration, but we have no reason to hate him. We can empathize.

The video kills all empathy. The kid feels no empathy for anyone around him, and we’re given no reason to empathize with him. Bayer’s direction implies that we’re supposed to root for the kid against the mom, but we’re given no reason at all to think that way. The mom has provided a rather comfortable home for this kid, which probably means she has sucked it up after her own problematic past and is working hard for what’s left of her family. (Either that, or Dad pays a ton of child support.)

The result is that Bayer has divided the audience. The brilliance of American Idiot is that everyone has had a reason to take it seriously. It’s recognizably Green Day, but it breaks a lot of neo-punk rules. It’s a strong collection of songs, no matter what you think of the genre. Bayer’s video embraces the most anti-social wing of the punk movement, the folks that use suburban boredom and bumbling parents as excuses for everything they do.

And when it comes to using circumstances and upbringing as an excuse for anti-social behavior, the bizarre comedy Repo Man said it all (thanks again, IMDB):

Duke (dying after being shot in a robbery attempt): The lights are growing dim Otto. I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am.

Otto: That’s bullshit. You’re a white suburban punk just like me.

And just like this kid, to whom everyone but his long-suffering mom would gladly say, “Good riddance.”

Today’s tribute

For a late civil rights leader and for a great show …

Isaac: Apologize.
Dan: Why?
Isaac: Because it’s the way things are done.
Dan: Well, sitting on the back of the bus is how things were done until a little old lady decided to do something about it. Frankly, I’m not impressed with the way things are done, Isaac.
Isaac: Danny, you know I love you, right?
Dan: Yes.
Isaac: And because I love you I can tell you this: no young rich white guy has ever gotten anywhere with me by comparing himself to Rosa Parks.

(Thanks, IMDB and Aaron Sorkin)

Ow, my ears …

Which SNL performer committed a greater transgression against music — Ashlee Simpson using a backing tape or Franz Ferdinand’s apparent inability to tune guitars? Someone should assassinate their guitar tech.

(Andy by assassinate, I mean fire. Not looking to set off four years of trench warfare here.)

What part of "closest to the price without going over" don’t you understand?

They’re called “Price is Right rules” for a reason. And they’re especially applicable when you’re playing … The Price is Right!

Price is Right is essentially a game of luck, aside from a few of the on-stage games in which people who play close attention to the grocery-store prices have an edge. When you’re on “contestant’s row,” you’re just guessing, unless you happen to have authoritative knowledge of the comparative value of various saunas and grandfather clocks.

But strategy matters. A lot. And it’s sooo freaking simple that it’s infuriating when people don’t know it.

If you’re the last person to bid, you have a huge advantage. You’ve heard three bids. Then you get to pick a range of prices while simultaneously eliminating one person, unless that person got it exactly right.

Let’s say you’re the fourth person, and the other three bids are as follows:

1. $950
2. $600
3. $700

If the number in your head was “$850,” stop. Do NOT bid $850. Bid $701.

It’s incredibly simple. If you bid $850, you win ONLY if the price is between $850 and $949. If you bid $701, you win if it’s $725, $745, $770, etc.

Yet more than half of the people on contestant’s row just don’t get it. A lot of people understand the strategy of bidding $1 when they think everyone else has bid too much, but not that you should always bid $1 over one of the bids.

This week, I saw the worst bid I’ve ever seen. And it wasn’t some young kid — this woman had a T-shirt claiming she’d waited 53 years to be on the show (longer than its actual run, though not by that much). She had the last bid. She paused and asked what the last person bid, which is perfectly valid. The answer: $850. Her bid … $849.

Yes, $849. Either she was really, really sure of that price and wanted to get the bonus money out of Barker’s pocket, or she really screwed up.

The person who bid $850 won, by the way. So yes, karma exists.