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Macaulay Culkin and the Pizza Underground's Layered Appeal

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The Pizza Underground | First Avenue | Saturday, November 1
When Macaulay Culkin's pizza-themed Velvet Underground cover band surfaced last fall, we all assumed it wouldn't be long before they were cast aside with the likes of "Chocolate Rain" and philosoraptor. But the joke was on us -- the Pizza Underground's bizarre blend of novelty has kept them blipping the radar steadily since their bewildering debut last November, and now they're bringing their stuffed-crust Lou Reed impression to First Avenue this Saturday.

The show, which is in support of locally raised oddball treasure Har Mar Superstar, comes two weeks shy of the Pizza Underground's one-year anniversary. With them en route to playing Minneapolis's flagship club, we have to ask ourselves: How did the Pizza Underground manage turn a shtick into something that sticks?

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Having erstwhile Home Alone star and Ryan Gosling T-shirt inceptor Culkin as your kazoo player is a good start. Add in the fact that they're thumbing their noses at hipster rock royalty, and the Pizza Underground was guaranteed to get sucked up into the hype machine.

"We hope [The Velvet Undergound] liked pizza as much as we do," says the band, who refuse to be interviewed separately or about any topic other than pizza. "But we doubt they liked calzones or p'zones. Those are not pizza, they are pizza-adjacent."

The Pizza Underground isn't far outside the scope of Culkin's other attempts at amalgamating pop culture, but they've become a sensation in their own right. They're a conflation of novelty, irony, and controversy -- veritable blogger catnip. Repurposing rock 'n' roll standards as odes to New York City's signature drunk food has gotten them on a 32-date national tour, but is it a sustainable foundation for a career?

"Memes have a shorter life cycle, generally," says Boston Magazine's Eugenia Williamson, "maybe it's not supposed to sustain."

The Pizza Underground seem to have a strategy for staving off their twilight -- aloofness.

Their comically standoffish PR philosophy (in addition to the interview restrictions, the Pizza Underground also aren't issuing press passes for the tour) is a lighthearted mockery of the Velvet Underground's detached attitude toward fame. But the controlled exposure also keeps the joke from going stale too soon. It's career Saran Wrap.

Though Williamson recognized this when her interview request was answered with an edict to keep the conversation centered on pizza, she couldn't help but rib the absurdists right back with this sarcastic takedown.

"Their reply to my and everybody's interview request is super tongue-in-cheek, they can't be serious with that," she says. "Their publicist got really upset with the demeanor of my questions, but as far as I know, the band didn't."

This self-preservation instinct also doubles as a style point. In their response to my strictly pizza-centric questions, the band jokes about playing shows so secret and exclusive that no one shows up to watch. Très chic and typical Brooklyn. The appeal is goofy, referential, and James Franconian. What's cooler than not giving a shit?

Only one thing. Pizza.

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Pizza is the Pizza Underground's champion cool factor. It doesn't need to be dissected and argued over like irony. It's a universal symbol.

"There's no 'acquired taste' period with pizza, nor is there a time when you stop considering it an option," says the band. "Cheese is a real glue, you know."

In 2014, pizza has become a renewed cultural phenomenon. Not just in the scope of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboots and Tumblr memes, either -- pizza has become a prominent, albeit hokey, staple in the music community. Everyone from Boston band Free Pizza to the Jonas Brothers are making songs about the crusted Italian foodstuff.

"I feel pizza is a common denominator between all people," says Chicago rapper ShowYouSuck, who bills himself as the One-Man Pizza Party. "I want my music to be colorless, ageless, and bring people together, and nothing brings people together like pizza."

When asked whether Culkin's Dadaist art project is behind pizza's pop culture resurgence, ShowYouSuck can only chalk it up to the power of the pie. "Not sure why it's such a phenomenon because I've always been devoted to the slice life," he says, "but I'm glad the rest of the world has caught up, and I'm glad to be part of that."

This communal appeal is something the Pizza Underground work into their act. "Our tradition is to to find a local pizzeria to provide pies which we share with the crowd," they say. "It's great to support local business and fans are excited about their hometown slice being a part of the entertainment."

The music is, ostensibly speaking, not good, not in a traditional sense, but pizza is unfailing. People eat it graciously, even if it's covered with irredeemable toppings. To take a riff on the old adage, even when it's strange, it's good.

The Pizza Underground. With Har Mar Superstar. With Toby Goodshank and Ripper. 18+, $15, 8 p.m., Saturday, November 1, First Avenue. Tickets.

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