Yearly Archives: 1980

The Complete Lack Of Sincerity It Takes To Be Successful (The Commercial Album)

Whoa, is that Adele Dazeem?The most surprising aspect of the new Residents album is that it does not contain a cover version of “Woman In Love.”
I expected as much when I saw that Barbra Streisand graces the sleeve.
But I have been hearing that song far too much lately, so I can’t honestly say I am disappointed with the omission.
I imagine the original idea for this album was to repeat what had been done with The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll, only this time focus on modern songs.
The artwork here is similar enough to bear out that theory, and perhaps was commissioned with that original concept in mind.
But somewhere along the way, possibly from fear of creative stagnation, the contents of the album changed dramatically.

The Residents decided to challenge themselves to write 40 different songs for their new album.
But did they meet the challenge?
There are 40 songs, yes, but many have a similar sound and at times it’s difficult to tell them apart.
40 songs, but not necessarily different from one another.
This could be the creative stagnation coming back, but I think it’s a deliberate choice.

Again the eyeball-headed figures are featured, so again we’re dealing with a commentary on our culture.
The Residents might be saying that all popular music sounds the same, but the evidence doesn’t support that.
Along with Miss Streisand the radio has been filled with Queen, Kenny Loggins, and DEVO, so there is definitely variation in the performers and music.
Instead, as demonstrated by the fact that this is a pressed record – an artifact that will remain unchanged – The Residents are lamenting that when a song hits the top of the charts, it tends to stay there a long while.
Every week we hear nearly the same top 40, with only minor changes from week to week.
And every time we play this record we will get exactly the same 40 songs.
The Residents would rather live in a world in which music is constantly changing.
Case in point: this new record bears a significant Gary Numan influence.
The previous one was disco.
Before that, it was wind.
The Residents certainly practice what they preach.

Despite this, the songs are not throwaways.
Many feel like seeds that could be grown into some truly wonderful full-length compositions.
But they have opted to leave what could be their best work unfinished.
Are we to gather from this a sense that popular music isn’t reaching its full potential?
Do too many songs leave the listener with thoughts such as “yes, that’s nice, but what happens next?”
According to The Residents, the answer is an unqualified “yes.”

Most of these songs are vignettes with themes that can be (and have been) explored in countless ways, distillations that remind the listener that much of popular music is about finding love, losing love, or remembering the past.
Some, such as “Ups And Downs,” seem like the eerie openings of stories that would easily find a place among the many Poe imitations.

But “Loss Of Innocence” stands out as a complete story.
It has a protagonist, an action, an emotional arc, and even a post-modernist lament.
While some of the other songs have a feeling of closure, this is the only one that is satisfying in terms of a piece of short-short fiction.
Its title should not be lost upon the listener; the only complete song in this entire collection of simple songs (indeed it is followed by “The Simple Song”) drives the point home that popular music is largely immature and only scratches the surface of the human condition.

But we mustn’t discount it entirely.
Popular music is, after all, popular, mostly because it is fun.
And The Commercial Album is fun, and though I’m sure it was difficult to write and record, the joy in creating it is quite evident.
The Residents are very pleased with this album.
It may or may not get them their 15 minutes of fame, but that is immaterial.
This is their eternal Top 40.

Infant Tango Is A Dance For You (Diskomo / Goosebump)

Finally, a record for the richies.I don’t have the disdain for disco that some have. I do agree that it is a simpler form of music intended solely to temporarily entertain the masses (not unlike nursery rhymes, which I will return to shortly). However, it accomplishes what it sets out to do, and I’ve never dismissed it entirely because I have hoped an artist would someday use it as a vehicle to deliver ideas to a broader audience. And now The Residents have attempted this by reimagining their Eskimo album as a disco tune.

But while this may inspire some disco fans to seek out the original album, the material will be completely wasted on them. Without the thumping beat, they’ll move the needle ahead, searching for when the song they expect finally begins, only to find it never does. The record will get trashed with hardly a listen, and the liner notes and cover will certainly not be contemplated. The more likely scenario is that they will mindlessly dance to this record and never consider the source material, let alone what it says about the world.

It’s possible this is a crass marketing ploy on the part of The Residents, an attempt to sell more records by giving in to the baser desires of the public. But the flip side indicates another motivation. If they were really trying to sell more records, “Diskomo” would be paired with “Disco Duck Stab,” a danceable version of their Duck Stab album. Instead, they appropriate nursery rhymes and bend them to fit into their own mold. It’s the same action as taking Eskimo and changing it into a disco song. In both cases something simple is meshed with something difficult, the only difference being which one plays host to the other. So if they are not trying to educate the discotech regulars, nor are they trying to take their money, then what is the purpose of this release?

It’s an extension of the ideas put forth by Eskimo. Again we have the eyeball-headed figures, which have become a symbol indicating a critical look at culture. We first saw them accompanying a sampling of San Francisco’s music scene, then again on an album dedicated to revealing America’s insecurity with its place in the world, and now we find it on a distorted version of that same album.

One theme of Eskimo is the unwillingness to accept another culture on equal footing, preferring instead to create a false version that can be readily dismissed. The Residents have taken their own brilliant thesis and reformatted it into the dismissible form of disco. This is not a retraction of their ideas, but a strengthening of them. For not only does America disrespect outside cultures, but it also treats dissenting opinion among its own people the same way.

On the second side they have done just the opposite by taking familiar nursery rhymes and reformatting them into the uncomfortable form of Residents music. On one hand it’s a retaliation, a way to say “now do you see what you’ve been doing all this time?” But on the other it’s a call to action: we can take back what’s been buried and bring it out for examination or even celebration.

(Now, these nursery rhymes are mostly British, which weakens the argument concerning America, but enough generations here have grown up with them that they are now part of the culture. Or we can broaden the scope to all of Western culture. Or for that matter we might broaden even further to human nature, because nothing brings people together as strongly as mutual ignorance of another culture.)

And by using nursery rhymes – played on toy instruments, no less – the message is implicitly directed at children, or at least those who are still receptive to new ideas. And those are the people you want to target if you want to enact change in the world. Anyone else is a lost cause, marching to their disco beat and unable to hear anything else.