"I shouldn't say this," wrote then-Picked to Click editor Simon Peter Groebner in 1998, "but this poll has become something of a contest to determine which new local buzz band will soon vanish from the face of the earth." Indeed, City Pages' annual best-new-local-music poll, created by Jim Walsh seven years earlier, had by then come to be associated with a phenomenon called "the Curse": Bands who did well in Picked to Click tended to do worse in their careers, a coincidence so widely remarked upon that it now has its own Minnewiki page. As if to emphasize the point, '98 first-place winners the Odd, a trashy glam-rock band, broke up within 48 hours of the issue's publication.
"Our intention was fun, but I don't want to be known for singing songs about wet pussy," said departing bassist Rich Mattson at the time.
The Curse, as it turned out, works in mysterious ways. The Odd reunited for one last show, then again to finish their album, playing a couple more gigs after that. Today, keyboardist Mark Mallman says the "curse" was seeing a frivolous side project overshadow serious work—in Mattson's case, his main band the Glenrustles, in Mallman's, his solo music. "Success will destroy a lot of bands," Mallman says. "Even a tiny, tiny, tiny amount of success."
Nonbelievers in the Curse might note that five of the 16 previous first-place finishers have managed to remain on the scene: Mason Jennings ('99), Faux Jean ('01), the Olympic Hopefuls ('04), STNNNG ('05), and the Alarmists ('06). But then, believers might point out that the Olympic Hopefuls were forced by the Olympics to change their name to "the Hopefuls" after their City Pages victory, while the Alarmists, Faux Jean, and the Mason Jennings Band all went through subsequent lineup changes (in Jennings's case, after fighting off a severe case of mononucleosis).
Within days of the final count for this year's Picked to Click, the singer of "winners" Mouthful of Bees got on a plane for Russia, where he'll spend the rest of this year. "I definitely think that's part of the Curse," says guitarist Mark Risema. "He decided to go a year ago, but he could have stayed."
Second-place finishers have fared much better overall, as you might expect, with 10 out of 16 acts still extant in one form or another: Low ('94), Polara ('95), Semisonic ('96), Sukpatch ('97), Love-cars ('98), Dosh ('02), Haley Bonar ('03), P.O.S./Doomtree ('04), the Deaths ('05), and Black Blondie ('06). (Gay Witch Abortion, our '07 silver winners, can breathe a little easier.) But when Black Blondie singer Sarah White announced she was leaving the band for Brooklyn this year, the Star Tribune couldn't resist mentioning how some might blame "the City Pages Picked to Click curse."
Like Death in the Final Destination movies, the Curse kills different bands differently. At its weakest in 1991, when it was just getting started, the Curse couldn't dispose of Walt Mink and the Loose Rails right away, and each enjoyed a relatively extended period of buzz before the curtain fell. (Both groups have since reunited for occasional shows.) Walt Mink lost drummer Joey Waronker to Beck, and major-label deals proved ill-fated: On the first day of touring behind a new album for Atlantic, the musicians called the label to discover that their A&R rep had just been fired. Major-label buzz similarly sealed the fate of the Loose Rails, but before they could get a deal: "One of our members became so obsessed with success that it became miserable to play with him," says founding Loose Rail Adam Fesenmaier.
Releasing albums on Amphetamine Reptile couldn't save first-placers Hammerhead ('92) and Guzzard ('93), while V2 couldn't help 12 Rods (though they lasted 12 years, surrendering in 2004). Other No. 1s—Lily Liver, Tribe of Millions, Brother Sun Sister Moon, Astronaut Wife, and the Monarques—similarly ended amid apparent success. "I don't know why we broke up," says drummer Danny Henry of the Soviettes, who disbanded four years after taking first place in Picked to Click. "It was pretty natural. Bands are relationships, they're just more complicated because it's a four-way deal."
There are some who go so far as to suggest that there is no Curse of Picked to Click at all. "I'm not sure," says poll founder Jim Walsh, "but I think bands, incredibly, break up for a lot of reasons. The thing about Minneapolis is that bands don't even break up; they just morph into other bands. Has Hammerhead even officially broken up?"
Singer-guitarist Eric Lovold of the Alarmists shares Walsh's perilous agnosticism. "If there's a supernatural force out there, it's helping us," he says. "It's a lot of hard work to make a band work."
Others suggest—against the preponderance of available evidence—that all things must come to an end. "In my experience, just as many bands that are No. 4 and No. 53 break up as bands that are No. 1," says former Monarques frontman Nathan Grumdahl, whose previous group, the Selby Tigers, took second place in '99 before splitting up. "That's just the nature of bands. It's a precious thing that comes and goes very quickly."
Only an impudent minority goes so far as to openly mock the Curse, recklessly inviting its wrath. "The Madden Curse is way more valid," says STNNNG drummer J. Michael Ward, referring to the entirely bogus and discredited curse associated with the video game series Madden NFL. "The average lifespan of a band, anyway, is two or three years, so by the time it might get attention in City Pages, a band might already be past its expiration date."
STNNNG have six gigs currently booked through November. Instead of covering Minutemen's "Joe McCarthy's Ghost," as they do in concert, they should worry more about the ghostly presence hanging in the air above them like a dark cloud, the Curse that sooner or later comes, as it must, to all so-called victors of Picked to Click.
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