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[whitespace] Sound Reasons

From Labor Day to the holidays, the music never stops

By Gina Arnold

I can still remember how the music used to make me smile. In fact, sometimes it made me laugh out loud with a mixture of hilarity and disgust. Take the time I went to see Iron Maiden. They played on a stage made to look like an Egyptian pyramid, arrived in personal sarcophaguses and finished the show by battling a giant mummy.

Such Spinal Tap-esque antics were laughable in 1985 but not anymore: instead of deriding such foolery, I now look forward to it with all my heart. Bring on the dwarves and monkeys, I say; the dancing bears and concubines; the veiled women and well-hung men; the bread and the circuses. In short, bring on Madonna's Drowned World tour (which reaches Oakland on Sept. 5). Bring on Janet Jackson (Compaq Center, Oct. 8 and 10). Bring on the Backstreet Boobs, I mean Boys (Oct. 15, Compaq Center).

The more costume changes the better, is both mine and the world's cry--and judging by reports of these artists' shows in Europe and on the East Coast, there will be plenty.

I, for one, can't wait. Somehow, during the 15-year interim between Iron Maiden's show and now, attitudes toward such silly antics have changed, so that what was once considered high rock buffoonery is now considered high art. Audience expectations haven't just changed, they've mutated, so that we no longer expect a rock show to be solely about music.

Nowadays, it doesn't disappoint or disgust us to see our artists making absolute asses of themselves: indeed, we look forward to it. But it wasn't always thus. Back in the 1980s, performers wore jeans and T-shirts and emoted, a la Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. Indeed, the most theatrical moment I recall in that era was Bono lifting a kid out of the audience and letting him play his guitar.

Apparently, something has happened between then and now to rob us of our blind trust in musicians. And it is fitting that Madonna would epitomize the change, since I consider her partially responsible for what I call the Broadway-ization of rock & roll. Ever since she made Evita, hip arena-rock shows have become more like extremely expensive operas or Broadway shows (with similarly high ticket prices).

The biggest acts today all feature massive light shows, dance extravaganzas, pageantry, skits and ever more absurd set pieces. Think of Tommy Lee in a drum set that flew across the arena and spun him head over heels; Garth Brooks' Peter Pan act; Prince with his purple sunset and ejaculating guitar; ... GWAR.

Of course, not every act needs to buttress its music with theatrics and makeup, but plenty of them do it anyway, and no one does it better than Madonna, who raised the stakes sky-high with her Blonde Ambition tour in 1990.

Although that show wasn't the first rock show with props by a long shot, it was the first one I ever saw where the theatricality enhanced rather than detracted from the music. The pointy bras, the male slave dancers, the backup singers dressed in black Muslim burkas--every image had a point to make about feminism, Madonna and the world at large. Indeed, Madonna is the first, and possibly only, great artist I never want to see play acoustic, in a nightclub.

Is this a good thing? Well, I don't exactly know. It's just a thing--a '90s thing, that will be remembered like dotcoms and email. But now that we're in a new millennium, it may start to seem as dated as tie-dyed T-shirts, Mohawks and wah-wah guitar solos. Besides, there is a theory that hard times, economically, always signal a return to singer/songwriters, and according to reports, record companies are already searching the world for stripped-down acts, like the pseudo brother-sister duo the White Stripes, for instance, or this year's big thing, the Strokes.

These are performers whose music signals a return to plain-old rock & roll and whose theatrics, such as they are, remain physical, rather than prop-oriented. They aren't selling out Shoreline yet, but who knows? One thing is for certain: the over-the-top theatrics of acts like the Stones, the Spice Girls and the Backstreet Boys were at least partly spurred on by the boom times of the '90s, because the artists could afford to indulge in theatrics, and the audience could afford to pay the high ticket prices these shows demand.

But those days are over. There have been a number of canceled tours this summer, including those by Ted Nugent, Poison, Lou Rawls, Suzy Boguss and the Pet Shop Boys' Wotapalava tour of gay and gay-friendly acts.

According to tip sheet Pollstar, concert ticket sales are down across the board. According to published reports in the New York Post, the Stones have officially been advised not to launch a 2002 world tour, and no other artist of any stature would dare.

Besides, judging by the state of rock today, it will be another decade before there's an artist big enough to tour stadiums. And, when that happens, the band might not feel a need to bring a giant inflatable dragon, penis or castle along with it.

Weezer, which plays San Jose State Event Center on Sept. 11, is a good example of the type of band that derides staging and even costumery. The members wear jeans and T-shirts and figure that will be enough.

Then there are acts like Nick Cave and PJ Harvey. (Cave and Harvey are at the Warfield on Sept 21-22 and 18, respectively.) Their music is as melodramatic as any ever written. They sing highly personal dramas of death, suicide, drugs and self-destruction.

Cave affects the look of a cadaver who recently saw an Elvis Presley movie, Harvey is an anorexic Jane Russell in spandex, and Jane's members are the epitome of glam-rock stars, whose apparel often looks like it was stolen from Frederick's of Hollywood.

But the buck stops when the music begins. Giant mummies--or hypodermic needles--aren't needed to heighten the drama of a song like "Jane Says." And Cave's "The Mercy Seat" would terrify if it were sung in the pitch dark, by an angel.

In short, rock & roll still has room for the minimal sound. For audiences bored by the idea of theatrics, there will be solace in shows like the WATCHA Tour, featuring Los Amigos Invisibles, Kool Keith and Molotov, at the San Jose State Event Center on Sept. 9. Or locals Slow Gherkin and Attention at the Los Gatos Outhouse (Oct 6).

Meanwhile, Madonna's stage show has set itself up for failure, for our artistic and material expectations are high, high, high. Admittedly, Madonna has defied most pop clichés, dictums and expectations: not only is she not a drug addict (or former drug addict), but her current music is as vital and as popular as ever. (Could the two things be related?)

She hasn't suffered the creative slump that most rock stars experience, so her latest tour won't just be a greatest-hits machine, but it also might not be exactly ... well, relevant. Perhaps relevancy is too much to expect from rock shows in this millennium--but one can dream.


Critics' Picks: Belle and Sebastian, Björk, Bridge School Benefit, Nick Cave, dredg CD Release, Bob Dylan, Janet Jackson, Ozma, Pledge of Allegiance Tour, ResFest2001, Sex Mob, SoFA Street Fair, Watcha Tour , Weezer

Fall Music: A high performance guide to Bay Area concerts.

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From the August 30-September 5, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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