Artists of the Year

The Langley Schools Music Project originated with Hans Fenger, a 29-year-old grade school instructor whose unorthodox methods involved using then-current AOR hits to teach music to his largely rural student body. Backed by Orff xylophones, a single-string electric bass, Fenger's own guitar, and a kid with amusingly itchy trigger fingers on the cymbals, his nine-year-old students lift their voices on classic-rock-weekend standards ranging from "Space Oddity" to "Band on the Run." Sure, the disjunction between the songs' stadium-scale aspirations and the pint-size singers produces some laughs--as on "Space Oddity," where the overeager cymbal player becomes an outright loose cannon. Listen more closely, however, and you hear a direct (albeit unintended) critique of rock 'n' roll as a never-never land that fetishizes youth.

I suppose you could argue that adopting rock into one of the stodgiest of all institutions, the education system, only parallels the music's corporate neutering. But what I hear is the power of the music rescued from empty rebellion, and the truth that at some point every nine-year-old is Brian Wilson singing "In My Room" (and vice versa). I also hear a reminder that album-rock faves never sounded as sweet as they did coming from my kid brother's garage band.

Listening to these recordings after 25 years, with the singers frozen in the innocent joy and melancholy of their youth, brings back with a rush how it feels to bob your head to the radio on the school bus. This unique record shows, after all this time, that rock 'n' roll can still stir our protective impulses.

Jim Ridley is a staff writer at the Nashville Scene.

 

Thora Birch
By Leslie Dunlap

 

Thora Birch is real--or at least she's our current best hope in a world where retrofitted chain stores pose as genuine "neighborhood" institutions while wiping out every trace of the local, the ethnic, and the eccentric. As Ghost World's Enid Coleslaw, Birch stalks her way through a maze of ersatz diners, sports-bar-style blues clubs, and Western-themed convenience stores--and finds something authentic in the artificial.

The young actor has negotiated this terrain before, as the disenchanted cheerleader daughter in American Beauty. But in 2001, Birch reconstituted the teen heroine as a geek-girl who proudly skewers preppy high school drama queens, bohemian impostors, multiplex managers, and creepy comic-book collectors alike. Trying on identities like outfits, this pomo poster child fashions herself out of kitschy collectibles retrieved at garage sales and adult bookstores. Yet Birch's natural curiosity tempers her character's cynicism: The looks she delivers are as wide-eyed as they are withering. Her Enid treasures odd girlhood relics (including stuffed animals and the dress she wore when deflowered), and claims losers and weirdoes as her own.

At the same time, Enid embodies the countercultural cravings of her creators: underground cartoonist Daniel Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff (Crumb). If Ghost World is this pair's screed against the decline of modern culture, Birch's character is their adolescent antidote to consumer anomie. Improbably, Birch transforms an oldfangled male fantasy into a fresh portrait of the spiritual and sexual kinship of teenage girls and menopausal men: Between eye-rolls and harrumphs, bitchy banter and dyspeptic disapproval, Birch endows her heroine with a wisdom beyond her years--as well as the crotchety demeanor of an old codger swinging his cane at passersby.

Of course, even as we speak, strip-mall chain stores are busy selling copies of Clowes's cult graphic novel and the unlikely teen-beat soundtrack of Zwigoff-approved blues: Call it the hegemony of homogeneity. Yet, via Enid, Birch suggests a route out of the corporate cul-de-sac.

Leslie Dunlap teaches history at Willamette University and is a contributor to City Pages.

 

System of a Down
By Jesse Berrett

 

In the aftermath of September 11, I got an assignment to write an article that involved calling up a bunch of music-industry celebs and academics to discover what they thought would happen next in the world, or at least in the world of music. Surprisingly, Sheryl Crow, David Crosby, and Ahmet Ertegun didn't possess crystal balls any clearer than mine. (Though I'm pleased to report that Sheryl was nice to me over the phone--apologized for the mouthful of chips she had to finish munching.) The journalistic returns weren't promising: I found myself slouching that Saturday night in front of MTV, watching an endless parade of sad-sack metallists whining lamely about lost love, as if self-pity both collective and individual were the only appropriate response to what had occurred.

But one discovery endowed me with some small faith. Assigned to interview demi-celeb Serj Tankian, lead singer of alt-metal band System of a Down, I listened to his band's strange new album and liked it a whole lot more than I expected to--clearly the best politicized Armenian-American hard-music collection ever, I'd say. I hadn't paid much attention to metal since my two-month flirtation with badassitude as a college freshman, but the unapologetically quirky weirdness of System's skittery snarl gave me hope that some useful American art could come of all this. This is music to mosh to, think about, and even dream with, sliding from blustery roar to folky acoustic guitar. It deals out unapologetic hippie shit ("peaceful loving youth against the brutality," goes the song about anti-globalization protesters); angry lefty agitprop ("drugs are now your global policy," goes the anti-prison song); unclassifiable psychedelic earth-mothering ("her discourse is the source of all creation"); and that great, weird mystico-religious-thrashy kebab that is "Chop Suey!!" ("I don't think you trust. In. My. Self-righteous suicide").

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