By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
Nothing's quite as depressing as watching someone waste her musical talent in humiliating ways. Well, okay--sometimes it's sort of funny, too. I mean, you enjoy the Mariah-doped-up-on-prescription-pills photos as much as the next Entertainment Weekly addict, right? And why shouldn't you? There's something about rock star self-indulgence carried to the absolute extreme that almost satirizes the culture that created it--all of which makes for guaranteed good fun, in a this-society's-going-straight-to-hell sort of way.
For proof, just look at the new Trans Am record. These former Oberlin College students have bordered on self-parody in the past, decorating their fairly straightforward low-budget synth-rock with a predilection for Pete Townshend guitar-god moves. But even that playfulness doesn't explain TA's dumb cover--a supposedly ironic collision of Eighties metal art with classic Master P stylings, enlivened by closeups of the studly Trans Am dudes in white suits.
Like its cover, much of TA's music is enjoyable in spite of--or sometimes because of--its ineptitude. "Cold War," for instance, is an electro-rock concoction underscored by a pleasantly Kraftwerk-esque synthesizer. But there's a stylistic dilettantism that renders the whole thing hollow--like an exercise in homage rather than actual songwriting. Same goes for "Run With Me," which pulls a couple of hard-rockin' Bryan Adams moves but forgets that the real Bryan Adams does them so much better. The worst offender, however, is the truly execrable "Basta," whose weak-like-wet-paper beats fry up a "Mexican-flavored" rap song in the same way that Taco Bell cooks up "Mexican" food. TA finds Trans Am trying on a whole entourage of musical styles in a way that would like to scream, I have a hip, offhanded understanding of recycled popular culture, but really ends up looking kind of lame--like, uh, actual Eighties popular culture.
There was a time, maybe only a few years back, when this kind of pseudo-ironic posturing was all the rage in indieland, when Stephen Malkmus's off-the-cuff witticisms were considered cutting-edge rather than irksomely collegiate. Perhaps Trans Am are guilty only of sticking around too long. But in this post-Nineties, post-ironic marketplace, their music is no longer bitingly sarcastic. It's quaint.