More Talk, Less Rock

Gabbing about quasi-Christian orgasms and R&B booty reduction with the music critic hosts of Garrison Keillor's newest brainchild, Pop Vultures

Pop Vultures
Sundays
10:00 p.m.
Minnesota Public Radio (KNOW-FM 91.1)
popvultures.publicradio.org

A few months ago, National Public Radio ombudsman Jeffrey A. Dvorkin wrote a column for the network's website complaining that the music reviews on NPR's All Things Considered were "too hip." Some listeners, he wrote, thought the music (Wilco, the Magnetic Fields, and Morrissey) "harsh," the accompanying commentary "incomprehensible." For him, these segments raised a poignant question: "How does NPR reach out to a younger group of listeners without irritating its older core?"

As if in answer, that very month, writer Kate Sullivan was busy taping an episode of her new weekly talk show about popular music, Pop Vultures, at the Prairie Home Productions studio in St. Paul.

"I hate Evanescence," began Hillary Churchill, Sullivan's guest and longtime cohort. "I hate all bands that are, like, quasi-Christian."

"They are quasi-Christian, aren't they," said Sullivan.

"Oh, for sure. Their lyrics are like: Is she talking about a guy? Is she talking about Jesus? I don't know! ...You could kind of go: 'Did she just have her first orgasm? Or did she see Jesus?'"

Sullivan went on to describe the "vibe" of the Evanescence song "Wake Me Up Inside" as follows: "vaguely spiritual...potentially Wiccan...And then there's the whole Enya influence, which is somehow druidical, if that's a word. Very Ren Fair, I'd have to say, but not. Not in a real way, but in sort of a McDonald's way. Like a McRen Fair vibe."

What would NPR's ombudsman make of these two female voices, so conspiratorial and casual, sharing the suppressed giggles of old friends? Sullivan and Churchill were backup singers in the short-lived but legendary Minneapolis glam-punk band the Odd. They know from trash. Now Sullivan commutes from L.A. to St. Paul, recording in both cities to host Pop Vultures, which airs on eight NPR affiliates and premieres in the Twin Cities area Sunday at 10:00 p.m. on Minnesota Public Radio (KNOW-FM 91.1). (To listen to the show online, visit popvultures.publicradio.org.) A longtime contributor to City Pages, and (I should say) somebody I've gotten drunk with, Sullivan seems like the perfect Wayne for her revolving cast of Garths--which includes Churchill; members of the Minneapolis joke band Vinnie and the Stardüsters; Sullivan's dad; and Jeff Whalen of West Coast glam-rockers Tsar. ("We just got dropped from Hollywood Records," he says, speaking over the phone from L.A. "So we're pretty excited about that.")

Sullivan sounds like a teenager in her 30s and doesn't mind explaining slang or unpacking her opinions so anyone can understand them. You can see why A Prairie Home Companion host Garrison Keillor, who conceived the show with his son Jason Keillor and producer Kathryn Slusher, might consider Sullivan to be perfect for a sort of rock 'n' roll This American Life--and someone who could captivate rather than irritate NPR's graying audience.

"The motive for starting Pop Vultures was my own ignorance," admits 62-year-old Keillor, speaking via e-mail. "I know nothing about pop music after about 1975, and thought there should be a show for people like me."

Minnesota Public Radio wasn't always so receptive to the idea. Chicago Sun-Times music critic Jim DeRogatis pitched a similar show after relocating to Minneapolis in 1996. He had already launched Sound Opinions, his rock-critic-centered gabfest, in Chicago and moved it to a local station, KSTP-AM (1500). Today he's back in Chicago, and recently celebrated the program's 300th episode on Chicago's WXRT-FM (93.1). But when it came to bringing Sound Opinions to MPR, they turned him down.

"We had some kids at MPR who really believed in this show," DeRogatis says. "So we had this big meeting with some of these MPR people around a conference table, and talk about your stuffed shirts. They were just like, 'Well, I don't think anybody will ever understand this. I don't think you understand our listeners.' And that's a problem. Look, eventually the people who listen to Lake Wobegon are all going to fucking die, and there's going to be nothing left for people on public radio."

In more recent years, MPR has approached something like the cutting edge of pop music criticism within mainstream public radio--highlighting unusual artists while staying true to the ideal of engaging a non-hip audience. Reporter Chris Roberts can somehow make a segment about a guy who records raindrops sound interesting. (To be fair, the musician in question, Mike Merz, is a great interview.)

The leap forward in Pop Vultures is the tone, which is conversational to the point of free association. When Sullivan gets together with filmmaker Garth Belcon (another regular on the show) to talk about Mary J. Blige, they topic-veer from the singer's vocal identity (Sullivan: "Unlike a lot of other women that are on the radio right now...she doesn't try to sound pretty") to her abundant assets:

Sullivan: She looks great, but she used to have kind of like a normal body.

Belcon: I see what you're saying. I think she just did her crunches and the Atkins, because the booty's there...I used to date a girl not too long ago who had buttocks. She went on a diet...and lost buttocks. Very, very tragic. That's why we're not together anymore.

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