Nihilist spasms, burning spears, and fabulous stains: "revolution rock" as the Clash used to call it. The second annual edition of "Sound Unseen"--already a rebel yell for cramming three dozen movies, several live gigs, and a pair of panel discussions into nine Twin Cities venues over the course of a single week--highlights the subversive side of music making in the era of media consolidation. Among the "Unseen" events is a trio of live excursions into the art of "plunderphonics": that is, sampling copyrighted sounds and assembling them anew--stealing from the likes of Charlie Rich to give Poor Righteous Teachers a run for their money.
As we've been hearing so often lately, This is war. But why not fight with tape and vinyl rather than lead and mortar? In the concert movie Wattstax (screening Monday, October 1 at Oak Street Cinema), filmed at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum in 1972 while another battle was raging, the Rev. Jesse Jackson preached the need to shift from "Burn baby burn" to "Learn baby learn." In that spirit Money for Nothing: Behind the Bu$ine$$ of Pop Mu$ic and Vinyl (see "On the Record," below) take stock of the corporate monopoly over music making and the more perverse politics of the collector. Also fighting the power--and suffering the consequences--the unreleased cult feature Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (see "Staind," far right) hints at a lineage from 1981 to the grrrl-power movement that would follow, more than a decade later. Bringing it all back home is the hip-hop doc Elements of Style (see "Digital Underground," right), which catches Twin Cities performers in the act of making their own scene.
With so much going on, the "Sound Unseen" festival practically represents a scene unto itself. To find out more, check www.soundunseen.com for information about screenings at Oak Street and Bryant-Lake Bowl; live shows at First Avenue, the Uptown Bar, and Sursumcorda; panel discussions at Oak Street and Walker Art Center; and parties at the Kingman and Mosman studios.
On the Record
Money for Nothing registers the compound evils of the music industry;Vinyl scours the racks for the meaning behind the collector's madness
by Rob Nelson
say what you will about MTV's Carson Daly: He's the Dick Clark of the new millennium; he looks great in DKNY; he crams more sales figures into a single sentence than an auctioneer; he cares deeply about the fate of our great nation. But Daly's TRL has got to be one of the most insidious acts of mass deception ever perpetrated against a television audience--and I say that as a fan.
It's not just that this 90-minute daily showcase for popular videos and seemingly idle chatter finds a way to boost the available ad space per square inch and split second on a network that's already devoted to offering ads as entertainment 24/7. (That the rear of the set is a huge window overlooking Broadway in Times Square extends global visibility to countless billboards, whether of the Nike swoosh or, even more in fashion, the stars and stripes.) No, the true brilliance of TRL--that's Total Request Live for us old folks--is in making the same corporate-controlled playlist appear to be democratically determined by viewer vote. Never mind that a show about freedom of choice seems to chain its young and beautiful studio audience to the "applause" sign: The kids love it. And why wouldn't they? "We're gonna appreciate that we still have the freedom to choose to play music," proclaimed Daly on his first post-Trade Center broadcast, "and not feel bad about it."
Our complicity in forking over cash to four or five conservative-minded media conglomerates--and not feeling bad about it--is the subject of Money for Nothing: Behind the Bu$ine$$ of Pop Mu$ic (screening 7:00 p.m. Wednesday, October 3 at Oak Street Cinema). Produced by the nonprofit Media Education Foundation, and populated by everyone from media-studies guru Robert McChesney to Chuck D and Ani DiFranco, this earnest, intelligent, and rather boring 50-minute documentary hits all the major points: the media giants' monopolistic hold on the music industry; the incestuous relationships between producers and purveyors of product; the legalization of payola principles; the aesthetic conservatism of parent-company bean counters; the de facto censorship of retail chains; the rampant licensing of songs to advertisers (Nick Drake stumps for VW from beyond the grave!); the inevitable co-optation of authentic innovators by marketing interests; and the constant threat of stock-market pressures to talent development, all contributing to the dangerous homogeneity of music in particular and culture in general.
Alas, with its cheesy animated graphs worthy of Sixties educational films (The product flows from corporations through "gatekeepers" to us consumers, see?), and a dazed-looking Thurston Moore obviously reading his narration from a TelePrompTer, the film fails to engage the enemy on its own slick turf. (Thank goodness, at least, for the Fair Use clause of the Copyright Act of 1976, which allows the makers of such critical endeavors to use clips from movies and music free of charge.) It's perhaps no surprise that Money for Nothing should lack the resources to look like TRL, although that doesn't mean it ought to feel like--ugh!--school.
but back to the subject: What does the post-Napster music lover do to fight the power? Vinyl (9:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 3 at Bryant-Lake Bowl), director Alan Zweig's Hi-8/lo-fi portrait of obsessive LP collectors, argues that plunking down a few bucks for, say, a used vinyl copy of Neil Young's Harvest--as opposed to Universal International's latest CD reissue of the artist's once-ragged glories--registers a blow to the corporate labels whose consummate greed consigned a groovy technology to the cultural trash heap. (Thus, Vital Vinyl is to Best Buy as Tatters is to the Gap.) And yet Zweig, a self-described "bulimic" vinyl consumer who admits on camera to having spent years regretting the day he purged himself of a Curtis Mayfield platter, has made a film that's more personal than political, more psychological than scholarly--and more neurotic than reasoned. Relate to it at your own risk.
For the Toronto-based director and several of his subjects (most of them pudgy male geeks who appear seated before endless stacks of their fastidiously catalogued fetish objects), the rampant accumulation of vinyl is a ritualistic means of treating narcissistic injuries felt since childhood. (It's also a seemingly safe expression of love stemming from a deep-seated need for stability and control.) Whether or not one interviewed collector is correct that many of his ilk are survivors of child abuse, a number of these men prove intimately familiar with the paradoxical nature of vinylphilic pursuit: that obtaining an elusive platter simultaneously brings a near-erotic sort of excitement and, being that it's the end of the affair, another sort of loss. Indeed, the more rare and exotic the treasure (Zweig's own Holy Grail is the Louvin Brothers' Satan Is Real), the more profoundly it fails to fill the larger void.
Suffice it to say that these are melancholy people. One compulsive aficionado reports having had friends who "died of collecting"--the actual cause being a symptom of a much bigger disease. Another laments that he'll never have time to hear some of the records he most adores. Another claims that, in order to reach his bed, he has to spend ten minutes every night clearing a path through all the vinyl. Another, Toronto Star film critic and recovering vinylphile Geoff Pevere, admits to having left 2,000 of his records in a dumpster--"so that they would ever belong only to me." As for Zweig, his delivery to the camera of some extremely painful bits of advice--including "Get a life!"--are nearly unique among documentaries for their degree of naked self-deprecation. (Zweig is the Albert Brooks of nonfiction filmmakers.) So, too, this single-minded homebody dares to venture beyond the topic at hand even as he keeps to himself--feeding a last supper of pepperoni pizza to his dying dog, and relishing his talent for trapping mice "near the easy-listening section."
Clearly, Zweig could stand to get out more. But to the extent that he uses vinyl (and Vinyl) to collect his thoughts about things that have more to do with human nature than records per se, he's as well-rounded as the objects of his desire.
All it takes to mythologize the local hip-hop scene is two college grads,
a digital-video camera, and less cash than you'd think
maybe it's true that local hip hop is one video away from national massiveness: a Mystikal cream sequence short of universal bootoriety, a Jurassic 5 flight scene short of Box hegemony. Give Young & Da Restless some computer-generated animation and Sandman squib effects and you've got hits rather than rumors on disc. Give Lil Buddy the Eyes Wide Shut treatment and you've got a sex symbol rather than a human-interest series in The Source.
But give them money first. While the economy is in a post-September 11 autumn, music videos still cost more than Ivy League degrees. Back in Sub Pop's heyday, Minneapolis video makers Phil Harder and Rick Fuller were cranking out videos for as little as two large a song. Today, their MTV Video Music Award-nominated work for Incubus was budgeted at $200,000--and that was perhaps a tenth of what 'N Sync spent on "Pop" to beat out Incubus for Best Group Video. For comparison's sake, Lil Buddy's latest video, which got a limited run on BET, was rumored to have run him between ten and twenty grand.
So here's a better idea: Why not capture the slow cultural revolution of independent hip hop through the even slower cultural revolution of digital video--the cheaper, easier 16mm? DV home auteurs would seem natural allies for do-it-yourself hip hoppers. They need the glory, and they have that same hunger. And sometimes, as in the case of producer-directors Cody Hanson and Joshua Bell, they also have talent. This duo's feature-length documentary, Four Degrees Project Presents: Elements of Style, may be the first of an emergent genre: local hip hop on digital video. Debuting Friday at Oak St. Cinema to kick off the second annual "Sound Unseen" film festival, the video captures a small sampling of the Twin Cities community in action: break-dancers the Battlecats; DJs Andrew Broder and Abilities; the graffiti artists behind Broder's Lifesucksdie magazine; and rappers I Self, Slug, and Eyedea.
Admittedly, this is a narrow slice. "There are lots of people who should be included when the history books are written about the local scene, but aren't in our film," Hanson says. And while I was only able to preview parts of the movie, which Hanson was still editing on a Mac in his apartment during our interview, these portions seemed to center on the members of Atmosphere. In other words, it looks like the doc may well be spending a lot of time with Eyedea, Slug, Abilities, and producer Ant, whose blip on the local and national media radar already gives them the unusual distinction in local hip hop of being overexposed. (For evidence, see page 157 of the latest Vibe--or, for that matter, the article archive at www.citypages.com.) Even so, Elements of Style is an important work for the entire community: It demonstrates how mythmaking can now be done on the cheap, relatively speaking. With 40 times more footage shot than used, the cost of making the feature still only came to somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000--an amount of money that might produce five finished seconds on a typical Hollywood picture.
Sitting in front of his computer, and near the turntables where he mixes records in his spare time, the 24-year-old, goateed Hanson admits that he's a hip-hop fan first and a filmmaker second. Both he and Bell grew up in the Twin Cities, but neither knew the other until they attended too-hip-to-live Reed College in Portland, Oregon, where both majored in English. Hanson had attended high school at St. Paul Central with members of Abstract Pack, and he remembers the long bus ride to buy Fear of a Black Planet at Har Mar Mall when he was a kid. But Minnesota hip hop didn't seem important, much less worth documenting, until he began to appreciate it from afar.
Hanson and Bell decided to make the documentary a year ago last March and moved back here to work on it, taking day jobs to fund the project. There was little question that they would focus on Atmosphere, whom they considered the best-known and most charismatic local crew, and shoot googobs of live footage. Bell toured with the group, using one camera for the whole project ("Thank God it didn't break," says Hanson). His partner focused on studio interviews and editing, eventually going through four warranted hard drives on his Mac. "It's a big project," Hanson says, "and we're trying to do it with the cheapest hardware we can. That's hip hop in a nutshell."
The resulting scenes are best when getting right in Atmosphere's face onstage, revealing bulging veins and all. The most memorable live moments belong to DJ Abilities (who may soon get an additional boost for appearing on Zach de la Rocha's forthcoming solo CD). When Abilities cuts up Cream's "White Room" by applying elbow to turntable, he has the kinetic energy of Pete Townshend windmilling over his fret board and leaping in the air. The documentary also suggests how Slug and Eyedea might be A Hard Day's Night away from their own national massiveness. Both have Lennon's mocking mutual-admiration society with the camera. "We just got signed to Jive," deadpans Slug, hanging out on the beach in Santa Monica before a show. "We're gonna go get 40s and some crystal meth, and we're going to go look for vampires tonight to celebrate me selling my soul to the devil."
These scenes occasionally make the mistake of letting the clowns toot their own noses: Artists should never, ever explain why their music is good. Hanson also admits that there was no time in the feature for examining such topics as why Atmosphere draws an overwhelmingly white audience, or why so few women have emerged as team leaders in the game. "We're sort of torn between trying to address [sexism] and not feeling like we can do it adequately with the amount of time we have," Hanson explains.
Which means that Elements of Style has left girls and women the chance to pick up the digital camera for themselves and generate their own hip-hop atmosphere.
It took a flawed film likeLadies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stainsto reveal
the taint of punk imitation
so you wanna be the next Sex Pistols? Well, take those aspirations literally: Become your representation of genital slang! Or as Corinne "Third Degree" Burns--lead singer for the titular Eighties punk girl band in Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains--explains to the lead singer of a male punk band, "I'm everything you wanted to be."
"A cunt?" he says, spitefully.
"Exactly," she responds, grinning.
Make no mistake: This is no feminist reclamation of anatomical terms. For Burns, a teenage DIY guitarist from a poor family, to be a "cunt" is to identify with the working-class Brit-rocker movement who used this language. (For many less sincere musicians in the Eighties, uttering the word was simply a chance to cop the Brits' accents in exchange for punk credibility.) "Cunt" is a name for safety-pinned girls and boys alike, all of whom compete to be the nastiest bottle-shattering, profanity-spewing, offensive-riff-playing bastards in the place. Music is a ruthlessly competitive business, Corinne seems to say. And you gotta be a cunt to succeed. This is punk, fer chrissakes! Or, more precisely, this is an imitation of it.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains (which screens at 7:15 p.m., Saturday, September 29 at Oak Street Cinema) is not an original take on the cunts in punk--though like certain platters of the Pistols, it enjoyed the dubious honor of being financed and then spiked by an entertainment conglomerate. In 1981, when the film was made, it had been about half a decade since Johnny Rotten and Co. first brought anarchy to the U.K. Punk was turning into new wave in the States. Former punker Blondie was holding a spot in the Top 40 charts, the Go-Go's would soon replace the Slits, and you could finally buy your ultra-red hair dye in any hipster shop instead of resorting to cherry Kool-Aid. (Wait a few years and you could use it to style your hair like Cyndi Lauper.) In other words, punk was already becoming a cliché.
And before anyone even started filming, so was The Fabulous Stains, albeit a deliciously kitschy one. Both the film and the real-life story of its production, chronicled in Sarah Jacobson and Sam Green's "Stains: Behind the Movie" (which screens before the feature), illustrate the misguided distinction between trend-setting and style-following. Perhaps the point of confusion between the two is what caused director Lou Adler to get belatedly hip to the girl-punk scene in the first place.
In the hypervisual MTV dawn when The Fabulous Stains was created, style taking precedence over substance was not a rare phenomenon (Bananarama, anyone?). Suddenly, rock stars could play badly, as long as they looked good. Appropriate to such an era, The Fabulous Stains sees Burns (Diane Lane), her sister (Marin Kanter), and cousin (Laura Dern) learn that being a punk star is all about visual gimmicks: translucent blouses with no bras, white stripes in black hair, pink lightning makeup over the eyes. When a newscaster praises the Stains for their bold new look, they spawn a wave of dress-alike followers, or self-proclaimed "Skunks," who scream the Stains' personal mantra at their shows: "I'm perfect but no one here gets me, 'cause I don't put out!" Yet the fashion was created by punk photographer Caroline Coon, who had seen it played out years earlier while photographing covers for punk albums of the Seventies. Polished up and displayed on the big screen, even the tired-out styles of street punks from previous years could be sold dubiously to the public as original Hollywood vogue.
The fact that Adler (Up in Smoke) was an old man in a young girl's world is painfully obvious in the film--and, as Green and Jacobson's doc suggests, it was obvious on the set as well. In Nancy Dowd's screenplay, the writer (who had earlier won an Oscar for Coming Home) took care to expose the double bind of women in the music industry. For Corinne to attain the glory, skill, and sex that her male cohorts have, she's expected to accede to--and even embrace--the demeaning way they treat the women that throng to the front of the stage and the tour bus. But after a cameraman thought it would be funny to simulate the focusing of a camera lens by groping Dowd's breasts, she quit, taking her name off the film and allowing the director more creative license. (Dowd's name was replaced in the credits by a male pseudonym, Rob Morton.)
Initially, Adler used this freedom to illustrate what happens when one group falsely adopts another's culture. The climax of the film comes when the lead singer (Ray Winstone) of the punk boy band the Looters (played by Steve Jones and Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols, and Paul Simonon from the Clash) chastises the Stains' fans for copying the rockers' style and being more interested in merchandise than in thinking autonomously. The movie's message: No matter which part we play in the entertainment industry--musician, manager, or fan--we're all nothing but selfish cunts whose sole aspiration is to be cooler than our friends.
Of course that same desire is also true for filmmakers and moviegoers. Test markets suggested that The Fabulous Stains was a rerun of an old style--not a promising indicator for the teen audience. (Paramount claims this is the reason it was never released.) As a last-ditch effort to save the film, Adler tacked on a happy ending. Forget about the film's commentary about music's quest for authenticity! he seems to say. Let's end it by dressing the Fabulous Stains like the Bangles and watching them perform on MTV! It's a cinematic enactment of the real-life segue from the punk anti-mastery of the Seventies into the professional glamour imagery of the Eighties.
Since then, The Fabulous Stains has been relegated to the B-movie sanctuary of USA's "Night Flight," sharing the station with other guilty-pleasure band films like Justine Bateman's Satisfaction. Despite its trend-suspicious nature, it has become a hip film to namedrop. Courtney Love, Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill, and even Jon Bon Jovi have sung its praises in interviews. Young girls, wanting to imitate their favorite stars, watched it on late-night TV. And over the years, it's become a cult classic. How ironic that our yearning to imitate rock stars has been reflected not just by the Skunk groupies onscreen, but by the fact that we'll go to see a film about this imitative impulse because the lead singer of Hole told us it's good. And, how ironic that such manipulation can be good entertainment! So who's the skunk now?