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One Moment in Time: Evaluating Alanis Morissette’s 18 Months in the Sun

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 23, 2010

Did you catch Beyonce’s cover of “You Oughta Know” at the Grammys a couple weeks ago? Maybe not, since it was wedged in between two halves of a bizarrely militaristic¬† and somewhat terrible performance of “If I Were a Boy,” but nonetheless, I found the choice of cover fairy interesting (although naturally, not as interesting as if she hadn’t skipped over the “Would she go down on you in a theater?” line–boooooo.) It had been such a long time since I could remember a popular artist willingly invoking the memory of Alanis Morissette, and to see such a pop music tastemaker as Beyonce covering her in such a high-profile gig, it got me to thinking about a question I never thought I’d actually contemplate. This June, it will be 15 years since Jagged Little Pill was released back in 1995–is it finally time to objectively re-evaluate Alanis’s place in pop history?

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One Moment in Time: The 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on February 12, 2010

If there was one sporting event from the 2000s that I wish I could have seen live, this probably would be it. I don’t even mean live as in live in person at Oracle Arena–although undoubtedly that would have been especially righteous–but rather, just watching it at home on TV as it was happening. Not being much of an NBA fan at the time, I obviously didn’t see it until much, much later, by which point I had heard about it so much that I figured actually watching it so far after the fact would be extremely underwhelming. Not so. When I finally saw the 2000 NBA Slam Dunk Contest on an NBA TV marathon rebroadcast of every Slam Dunk Contest in history (God bless NBA TV for doing this every year, by the way), it still had me jumping out of my desk chair. You can take your World Series comebacks, your Super Bowl upsets, your potential Triple Crown winners. Give me Vince Carter and a windmill 360.

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One Moment in Time: Marvin Gaye Gets Loose With the National Anthem (1983)

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 21, 2008

How sweet it is

What a difference a drum machine makes. If you’ve been keeping even the loosest of tabs on our 29th Olympics (and if you haven’t, lemme sum up: Usain Bolt = Fast, Michael Phelps = Aqueous, Doubles Table-Tennis = Ridiculous), you’ve no doubt seen the commercials featuring team USA training, practicing, and generally being communal to the tune and split visuals of a particularly soulful individual’s rendering of “The Star Spangled Banner.” That man is of course Marvin Gaye, and the song is from the 1983 NBA All-Star Game, one of his last televised appearances. And evidently, it’s having the same effect on our Redeem Team that Whitney Houston’s hit rendition had on the 1990 New York Giants, since Team USA is so far undefeated and a mere two games away from claiming the Gold they somehow failed to score the last couple times out.

No surprise there, really. I’m not sure if it’s the best version of the Star Spangled Banner I’ve ever heard, but it’s certainly one that makes me wonder why more musicians aren’t musically adventurous like this when it comes to performing our nation’s bland and somewhat badly dated theme song (when was the last time you watched ramparts, much less gallantly streaming ones?). The minimal and largely unobtrusive drum track the song is built on isn’t particularly interesting in itself, but it takes enough of the pressure off of the vocal (usually expected to make up the entire song) that Gaye can afford to stretch out a little bit. And really, there’s nothing more smooth and sweet-sounding than Gaye getting loose, even with a song as tired as our National Anthem. It’s enough that I’m always hoping for the full-length version of the commercial when it airs:

Two games to go, fellers. Don’t make us resort to “Sexual Healing.”

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One Moment in Time: Putting A Hear’n Aid on a Bleeding Wound

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on November 29, 2007

They are calling you, calling you

If you watch half as much VH1 Classic as I do, you’re probably intimately familiar with this PSA–you know, the one with all the past and present metal stars (mostly past, naturally) talking about what a problem Autism is, and vaguely spurring audiences on to do something about it. I’m still not sure what the funniest part of it is–how impassioned Tommy Lee seems, how utterly bored Gene Simmons sounds (and how Ace Frehley doesn’t do anything but lend emotional support), how charismatic Dee Snider thinks he’s being, or how weird Ronnie James Dio still looks. Everyone looks either too serious, not serious enough, or just looks like they have no idea what they’re doing there in the first place.

Point is, nothing makes metal guys look more ridiculous–and metal guys spend a lot of time looking ridiculous–than attempting to appear charitable. No genre of music has as little a place for altruism as classic metal–I mean yeah, maybe Iron Maiden sang about the plight of Indians every now and then, and Dave Mustaine probably thinks that there’s a message to his music beyond “singing with your teeth clenched makes you sound kind of insane,” but otherwise, it’s almost all about me, me, me. There’s a reason why the version of “Rock and Roll All Night” you hear on the radio cuts out the lines about “taking out the garbage, but not before sorting it into recycling and non-recycling”. Unless caring about others is going to directly lead to more money, drugs, sex and pyrotechnics, it just doesn’t seem feasible for metal dudes.

Take “Stars.” In 1985, Jimmy Bain, Vivian Chamberlain and Ronnie James Dio (all of Dio’s eponymous band) combined to write a metal equivalent to “We are the World” or “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” with a similarly all-star cast to back it up, to raise money for Africa relief. And to be fair, for an all-metal cast before the real height of hair metal, they got a lot of big names–dudes from Quiet Riot, Iron Maiden, Journey, Queensryche, Judas Priest, Blue Oyster Cult, Twisted Sister, W.A.S.P., Night Ranger, and too many others to name here among them–to play on the single. The supergroup was called Hear ‘n Aid, and the song was called “Stars.”

The song is a bizarre concoction. Despite being a hefty seven minutes long, “Stars” is so overstuffed with singers and guitarists that no one gets more than a couple bars at a time to themselves, making room for nine lead vocalists and 10 soloists (and I’ve only ever heard of two of ’em–how the guy from Dokken negotiated his way into a solo is quite a story, I’m sure). What’s odd about this, though, is how little you notice the staggering number of people involved–everyone ends up kinda sounding interchangeable, which I guess is what happens when you do a super-supergroup charity single with contributions only from artists of one genre.

The really strange thing about “Stars,” however, is how little it sounds like a charity single. There’s a short intro of lamentation from Ronnie (“Who cries for the children? / I do!“), but aside from that, it just sounds like your average early-mid 80s metal song–no “there comes a time where we heed a certain call,” no “tonight thank God it’s them instead of you,” nothing. The sum total of the chorus? “WE’RE STAAAARS!!!” Meaning what, exactly? “We’re stars, and we can help you”? “We’re stars, and you can be too, by buying our single and helping Africa”? “We’re stars, and we will shine the light towards the end of world hunger”?

Evidently, the public was similarly confused by the song’s message, since according to Wikipedia, it only raised about one million in a year. One million dollars? How many copies did this thing sell, 12? There were about 50 “stars” involved in this thing, so that comes out to what, 20k a piece? Most of these dudes probably spent that much on mascara, hairpsray and leather a month. Still, apparently it was enough to warrant a sequel, as Wikipedia says that it is rumored that “as of spring 2005, Dio is planning a second Hear’n Aid, and is currently writing the new song.” Maybe he’s waiting for the studio GnR’s using for Chinese Democracy to free up.

The first time I ever heard about “Stars” was when it topped VH1’s list of the 100 Most Metal Moments–still one of my all-time favorite VH1 countdowns. And though I wondered how the hell a charity single could be considered metal, I realize now that it wasn’t actually such a bad choice–“Stars” was a glorious demonstration about how not even the plight of Africa was a big enough cause to truly eclipse the personalities and egos of metallers.

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One Moment in Time: The “Grunge Speak” Scandal

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on August 27, 2007

World history, except without the plague and railway strike parts

Every year, it gets a little harder to believe that Grunge really happened. As a musical or underground movement, it makes perfect sense, but as a mainstream and pop cultural one, it’s ridiculous that it ever gained the power that it did–it’s hard to imagine a musical genre that was often so willfully difficult (musically, asthetically, even politically, sort of) ever being quite so popular again, especially considering the unapologetically extroverted musical genres currently domianating the pop charts. Now that it looks like the last of even the post-post-grunge bands have died out (and no, I don’t buy that Nickelback has any more to do with Nirvana and Pearl Jam than they do with Deee-Lite and C&C Music Factory), it’s likely only a matter of time before before the revival starts, especially considering the two-decade-cultural-cycling theory I believe in, which means it’s at most a half-decade away. But for the remaining years of recycled 80s arena rock memories (Guitar Hero Encore: Rocks the 80s, the Apatow flicks, Chuck Klosterman), Grunge continues to feel like a fading, unlikely memory.

This distance makes bizarre occurences like the “Grunge Speak” Scandal of 1992 seem even stranger in retrospect. Though ’91 might have been The Year Punk Broke, ’92 was the year that the mainstream really started to take notice–when Nevermind and Ten peaked on the charts, when Cameron Crowe’s Seattle-set romantic comedy Singles first came out, even when the flopping of 80s superheroes Def Leppard’s much-anticipated Adrenalize made explicit rock’s changing of the guard. By the end of the year, the genre’s “Big Four” (Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden & Alice in Chains) had been established, flannel and long johns were sweeping the country, and it was time for the press to take notice.

And so the New York Times sent reporter Rick Marin to get the inside scoop on the grunge scene. Her search for the scene’s perspective led her to Megan Jasper, a sales rep for Sub Pop records, the genre’s flagship record label. Jasper gave the Times just what they were hoping for–priceless info on the subculture from one of its key players, in the form of what eventually became a sidebar titled “The Lexicon of Grunge”: a series of slang terms specific to the Grunge scene, unknown to the rest of the western world, advertised by the NYT as “coming soon to a high school or mall near you.” The actual article is pictured above, but in case it’s hard to read, here’s the full list of the terms prosented (from the Wiki page, obviously):

  • bloated, big bag of blotation – drunk
  • bound-and-hagged – staying home on Friday or Saturday night
  • cob nobbler – loser
  • dish – desirable guy
  • fuzz – heavy wool sweaters
  • harsh realm – bummer
  • kickers – heavy boots
  • lamestain – uncool person
  • plats – platform shoes
  • rock on – a happy goodbye
  • score – great
  • swingin’ on the flippety-flop – hanging out
  • tom-tom club– uncool outsiders
  • wack slacks – old ripped jeans

Tom Frank, a reporter for Chicago cultural criticism mag The Baffler, realized that something was up with the sidebar, and eventually Jasper’s vocab lesson was revealed to be a sham–made up on the spot to punk the NYT, whom Grungesters like Jasper didn’t necessarily appreciate encroaching on their llittle subculture. Then, as Gen Xers were wont to do at the time, the article eventually became embraced ironically as a sign of Seattle’s media over-exposure and the inherent dangers within. Mudhoney even made a T-shirt out of it.

The funniest thing about this little sidebar (nicknamed “Grungegate”), aside from the fact that it actually got published, is the fact that anyone would believe it in the first place. I’m not saying that the Grunge scene was above a little semi-self-conscious ridiculousness, but these buzz words make the grunge scene sound as if it’s populated solely by the cast of Beverly Hills, 90210. “Lamestain”? “Harsh Realm”? “Swingin’ on the flippity-flop”? Did Marin picture conversations between Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell like

“So Layney, you bound-and-hagging it tonight?”
“Yeah, well Jer, just getting bloated, swingin’ on the flippity-flop, you know how it is.”
“Score. Well, rock on, you cob nobbler.”

Tempting as it is to picture Alice in Chains members gabbing like schoolgirls in between smack injections, it seems sort of improbable. But, in a way, this proves even moreso just how unbelievably huge the Grunge scene really was getting this point. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine Seattle folks like Soundgarden and Screaming Trees as anything but humorless, perpetually dour artist rocker types, but at the time, the mainstream press could just as easily have seen them as part of another rock scene (which, just like any other, would invariably be full of hanger-ons, teenyboppers and egomaniacal stars). Maybe it actually was, who knows.

The whole debacle is even funnier, though, when viewed in conjunction with the release of Robert Lanham’s The Hipster Handbook a decade later. Though largely satirical in nature, the book’s main selling point was a glossary of hipster terms for the education of non-Williamsburgers, like “deck” (cool), “bust a Moby” (dance), and “getting the cush,” “picking the berries,” “waxing Oedipal,” “parimony,” and “changing the diaper” (all getting a check from your parents). The influence of grunge speak on The Hipster Handbook is undeniable, marking a unique case of an article becoming more artistically influential after being outed as a fabrication.

Sort of have to wonder what happened to Rick Marin as a result, though. Can you get fired for not being cool enough to know when scenesters are lying to you?

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