Friday, December 21, 2007

2007: The Year Where Idiocracy Got Its Start

About a month ago I stumbled upon a film called Idiocracy on one of the 67 HBO channels I get through digital cable. It’s a Mike Judge film that barely got released but found some second life on DVD (sound familiar?) and now has a tiny cult following. Luke Wilson plays an average guy who takes part in an army experiment only to wake up 500 years later to discover he’s the smartest person on Earth. Judge’s vision of a truly stupid society is one of the funniest things I saw on the small screen all year. Imagine Planet of the Apes played for laughs and satire, but it’s just a planet of stupid humans. The second time I saw the film I laughed just as hard until a disturbing thought raced across the neurons in my brain:

This could actually happen.

Seriously, this may have been one of the stupidest years of all time. Look at this list of seriously dumb things people reported and talked about in 2007: Paris Hilton went to jail, yet Phil Spector didn’t; baseball players got raked over the coals for steroid use, yet the press barely yawned when plenty of football players got caught; Britney Spears shaving her head is worldwide news, yet Al Gore winning the Nobel Peace Prize for trying to save the planet doesn’t even get a mention in the New York tabloids. I’m not absolving myself from this—I wrote more about stupid things bands did than ever before because that’s what radio stations like to talk about. I started asking questions of bands hoping to get them to say stupid things. And anyone who’s ever been in my office for more than 30 minutes would know we are a bastion, a castle, nay, a secret bunker of all things stupid.

There’s a lot of money to be made in smart people playing dumb. Look at the recent film careers of Vince Vaughn, Will Farrell, Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson and writer/producer Judd Apatow. These guys have made millions playing (or writing) characters that are likeable yet not that bright. The biggest selling rock album of the year came from a band led by a fourth place finisher on American Idol. And lesser “reality” TV programs (ratings-wise I mean) show plenty of people who are stupid, yet smart enough to scheme their way into 10 minutes of fame. (Andy Warhol would probably shorten his estimate down if he were alive today. He’d also be scratching at the inside of his coffin.) The question is this—when doing we stop pretending that we’re being dumb and actually become dumb?

I don’t know, it’s probably all Bush’s fault. Or maybe Chaney’s. And I’m sure Karl Rove had all the water the U.S. spiked with some stupefying drug.

Fortunately not all music was stupid this year. There are quite a few songwriters in the following pages who wrote smart, literate tunes that also happened to be very pleasing to the ear. Okkervil River’s Will Sheff explored the life of a rock and roll band and the connection to their fans and popular culture with a set of very cinematic songs. Bruce Springsteen once again wrote about average Americans and their everyday battles, disguising his political bent in a bunch of big hooks. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy yearned for a simpler time and wrote tales of acceptance and hope. All three of these guys didn’t make me feel dumb when I listened to their works of art in 2007.

There were some artists who surprised me by releasing some incredibly bad albums. We’re not talking someone you’d expect to be bad (like Fergie or Nickelback). These are artists whose last albums I really enjoyed and couldn’t wait for the follow-up. The main offender was Rilo Kiley. Their Under the Blacklight has made plenty of critics’ year end lists—and these people are all fucking morons. When I took the CD out of the drive after playing it, I swear my computer made a sound like it had just thrown up in its hard drive just a little bit. Under the Blacklight reeks of contractual obligation—the songs sound half baked, the only halfway decent track is a rip-off of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord,” which in itself a rip-off, and frontwoman Jenny Lewis somehow decided that the way to commercial success was wearing shorter skirts and hot pants and singing about sleazy sex and break ups. Ugh. Honestly, it was the most heartbreaking album of the year.

Australian teen punker-turned mid 20s poppy songwriter Ben Lee had a decent sized breakthrough in the U.S. two years ago with Awake is the New Sleep. Lee crafted a batch of smart and humorous pop songs for that disc. The title of his new album, Ripe, was more than appropriate as it stank. Every song screamed, “I want to be on Top 40 radio!!!!” Well, except for “American Television,” which screamed “I am very similar to that John Mellencamp song you hate from those Chevy ads so you’ll be able to sing along by the second time the chorus rolls around!!!”

I suppose I should write something about Radiohead’s idea to let fans name their own price for a download of their latest album In Rainbows since every other critic has chimed in. Let’s see, I paid exactly the same price as I have for every other Radiohead album (zero dollars) and for the first time I felt like I wanted my money back.

I also wanted to mention another disturbing trend happening in what’s left of the music industry—the extra or bonus track. Labels have been trying to double milk consumers by repackaging albums a few months after their original release with deluxe editions that have a few added songs or videos. To quote John Wayne, “it’s getting to be re-goddamned-diculous.” It makes the artist look like a money-grabbing prick to their fans, and those fans feel like suckers for buying the original album in the first place. The worst example of this took place in early November when the Eagles, with their lovely partners Wal-FuckOverYourWorkers-Mart, released a special edition of the album Long Road Out of Eden one week after its initial release.

One week. I think someone needs to re-record “Don Henley Must Die,” stat.

One more thing about this proliferation of bonus tracks—some of the extras (especially iTunes bonus tracks) are better than the songs on the original album. My favorite song on The ShinsWinching the Night Away isn’t actually on the album—“Nothing at All” was available only if you pre-ordered the download through iTunes. Okkervil River’s The Stage Names had different bonus tracks for iTunes and eMusic, and both are just as good as if not better than the nine tracks on the disc you’d buy in stores. The same could also be said for the Bright Eyes song “Susan Miller Rag” on the iTunes version of Cassadaga. I’ve always been a sucker for B-sides and I dig that these songs are such high quality. But holy crap, I’m getting tired trying to track down which places have the most extras.

And don’t get me started on how Neil Young had six different bonus tracks for six different retailers with Chrome Dreams II.


All in all, 2007 gets a B grade, stupidity included. I saw a bunch of great shows. I got my favorite band in the world to play at my favorite bar. I played songs I co-wrote on stage in front of people I knew and didn’t know. One of those songs went over so well that someone (not me, mind you) blogged about it. I sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” on my birthday with my band. I sang Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” with my band in Asbury Park, New Jersey. I danced my ass off at a couple of parties and didn’t care who saw me. I sang Justin Timberlake’s “Rock Your Body” in a Santa Claus suit. The Red Sox won the World Series. Roger Clemens was proven, once again, to be the world’s biggest scumbag.

And most importantly, Natalie Portman and Marisa Tomei both got naked in films. When that happens, a year like that can’t be all bad.

No comments: