March 17, 2011

Rebecca Black & American Idol “does” Nirvana

Some people love ketchup. I am not one of those people. However, I will admit that ketchup is food. Last night, I finally caught up with the two phenomena I’d been behind on: Rebecca Black’s Friday (6 days late to the meme party) and season ten of American Idol, who “broke ground” last night when top 12 contestant Casey Abrams became the first to perform a Nirvana song. Both Black and Abrams present themselves like music, but both were not music.

Not Music

Rebecca Black’s video Friday is awful. This seems to be the consensus, and add me to the pile of high-minded self-righteous lefty writers who seem obsessed with blogging about this girl. If you haven’t watched the video, please, do it now. Please.

Most likely you have watched (the official video has 11 million youtube hits) the 3 minutes and 48 seconds of a vacant video faces, partying without alcohol, and observances and metaphysical quandaries such as “Kickin’ in the front seat/Sittin’ in the back seat/Gotta make my mind up/Which seat can I take?” Rebecca certainly has a lot on her plate—or bowl, as her first decision in the video is to eat cereal—and now she’s more famous for being a joke. As a joke, she’s much more Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road? than she is Justin Bieber.

There are so many obvious jokes in this song, and the easiest target is Black’s recounting of the days of the week: “Yesterday was Thursday, Thursday/Today is Friday, Friday/Tomorrow is Saturday And Sunday comes afterwards” that unless this song and its video were written, produced, directed and distributed entirely by 13 year old savants, there is no way Friday is not an adult deconstruction of that THING that makes Justin Bieber a music celebrity. It’s sort of what bands like Bush did to Nirvana. Or Weird Al Yankovic did to Nirvana. Or soldiers in basic training do to guns. Break it down, show the component parts, and then build it back up to show you know exactly how it works.

Though it has already received multiple parodies on YouTube, my gut tells me that it is itself the parody. A respectable friend of mine thinks it’s no worse than anything Justin Bieber is doing, but in its coyness, it is worse. Being put in the position of defending Justin Bieber is not a case I take lightly, but even O.J. Simpson has lawyers. Black’s Friday is much worse for not tipping its hand (yet) and telling us how to watch. Pop music, even “bad” pop music has never needed a legend to tell us how to read it. That said, I understand that men in their 30s are not Rebecca Black’s target audience, but I still need to know what’s ketchup and what isn’t, so that I can avoid it. So I grapple. And maybe, you are still reading.

Rebecca Black is not “so bad it’s good” because it is so bad, it’s scary. In six days, it has entered the category of Macarena bad. It’s Wrath of Khan earwig bad, burrowing into the brain, feasting, feasting…Rebecca Black’s Friday will likely kill us all if it is real. But it can’t be real. It just can’t be. Please, let this be an exercise in the vein of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds or Joaquin Phoenix’s fake breakdown. Let the joke be on us, and let us get the joke…soon.


And then there’s Casey Abrams. Ryan Seacrest’s twitter account had pre-announced that a contestant would be “taking on Nirvana” on Tuesday night’s live American Idol. The show saw the top 12 singing a song from their birth year, and Abrams was born in 1991, so you guessed it: Smells Like Teen Spirit. While it's still an active link....

Now, I recognize the place Nirvana had in the world of my fellow white people born between 1971 and 1980, but they’ve always been ketchup for me. If you asked me what the defining moment of 1994 was for me, it wasn’t Cobain’s death, it was that I had finally made out with a girl and that Quiz Show was released.

Part of my somewhat cool Nirvana reception has always been the borderline fanaticism of Cobain fans, that if he was as cool as his fans believe (which he probably was), he would hate the reaction. Cobain fans are like Bieber fans. Cobain fans are like Dave Matthews Band fans. It’s not really the music that’s the problem, it’s the way in which the musician is worshipped that becomes the problem. By all of my other musical standards and tastes, I should love Nirvana. They fit right into my musical map. But I’m getting off topic here. The point is not to slag Nirvana. They are not a-musical.

American Idol is not a-musical either. The people can sing. Abrams, who in watching his promo seemed like the funny guy, can sing. He also played a bass on stage, has a beard, and is the only top 12 contestant not whitening his teeth to the molars. He is 1993 quirky. But Nirvana fans are having none of it. More common tweets when Abrams was singing Smells Like Teen Spirit were “Kurt Cobain would come back to life and shoot himself in the head again” and “He’s ruining my youth!” But for whatever reason, perhaps it’d be considered my shortcoming, I don’t agree with those who think American Idol cannot touch Nirvana. If Weird Al and Tori Amos can do it, we aren’t treading on sacred ground here.

American Idol contestants should continue to do songs they shouldn’t. It’s interesting. It’s maddening. It’s what good television drama is. My problem with the Abrams’ “doing” Nirvana was that it wasn’t particularly good. This is not because it was on Idol, and this is not a critique of a 20 year old song which is at least as good as any other rock song that year and definitely better than Rebecca Black’s Friday. Abrams certainly took on a big song, but unlike my unproven Rebecca Black Theory, there was no breaking it down and building it up. He sang the song, but he didn’t quite show that he knew “how it worked,” and that’s not to suggest that I do know, but hey, I’m not on American Idol. This year at least.

But Idol doing Nirvana is, in effect, a joke I know how to take. It is ketchup, but it is food.

Rebecca Black as truth scares me. It is calling itself ketchup, but I worry about what its consumption will do to my insides.