April 2011 Archives
I’ll admit that I am a latecomer to the phenomenon that is 13-year-old Rebecca Black and her viral anti-hit single, “Friday.” But I finally heard and watched it after seeing the Colbert-Fallon cover, which was enjoyable even without the original point of reference. And I’m so glad I did. “Friday” is wonderful and goofy and upliftingly wrong. As a video-song combo (with over 103 million YouTube views as of this writing), it is outsider art on a mega scale: what would have happened to the Shaggs had the Shaggs come into existence now rather than in the late 1960s.
The Shaggs were three sisters from New Hampshire whose father willed them into becoming a pop band in 1968 and underwrote the recording of their sole studio album, Philosophy of the World. The sisters, Dot, Helen, and Betty Wiggin, were not terribly keen on being musicians, but they were obeisant daughters and they produced something breathtakingly strange: unintentionally microtonal and polyrhythmic music that defies writerly description. (Have a listen to “My Pal Foot Foot,” their ode to their cat—and a disturbing snapshot of eastern New England inertia and vowel sounds in that period.)
Rebecca Black, too, had her recording underwritten by her parents, and “Friday” is equally strange and incompetent, if glossier than the material on “Philosophy of the World.” A Southern California girl whose mom and dad are both veterinarians, Black grew up plugged into the world, unlike the culturally and geographically isolated Wiggin sisters. So her video features the requisite memes of professionally made teeny-bop and hip-hop music videos: cruising with friends in a convertible, having a house party, wearing one’s hair flattened, ceding a few bars of the song to a rent-a-rapper. If Austin Wiggin, the domineering dad of the Shaggs, had had the tools at his disposal that Dr. and Dr. Black have now, he no doubt would have produced something like this.
Yet no amount of autotune or Final Cut Pro sheen can counter the fact that there’s still something very Shaggs-y—i.e., wrong—about Rebecca. Her flat affect and noncommittal vocals suggest she’s not totally up for a performing career, not a natural dynamo like the turbo-driven young guys and gals on American Idol. Perhaps, like Dot, Helen, and Betty, she was goaded into this whole undertaking.
Still, I have to admit that both the Shaggs and Black make me do something that contemporary pop singles seldom do: smile. Partly, it’s a laughing-at-them thing, which I feel a little guilty about. But it’s also a pleasure taken in the real-girl naïveté on display, the lack (for once) of precocity, god-given pipes, and golden looks. And that enunciation in Rebecca’s chorus (“It’s FRY-yee-day, FRY-yee-day”) is amazing—the unsought bridge between Liam Gallagher and Valley Girl-speak.
A couple of years ago, a young writer and comic I know named Eliot Glazer came up with a brilliant, simple idea. He created a Tumblr account called My Parents Were Awesome and invited his readers—mostly young adults, people in their twenties and early thirties—to contribute photographs of their parents before they were parents. The premise, as explained in the homepage mission statement, was simple: “Before the fanny packs and Andrea Bocelli concerts, your parents (and grandparents) were once free-wheeling, fashion-forward, and super-awesome.”
That might overstate things (many current parents have been dorks since their teens), but Eliot’s invitation brought in hundreds of wonderful Instamatic-style portraits of now-middle- and senior-aged people in the suede-fringed and granny-squared splendor of their own young adulthoods, circa the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Now this uncommonly warm and welcoming blog has become a book, also called My Parents Were Awesome, that expands upon the site by inviting contributors not only to turn in photographs, but to write testimonials to these parents and the lives they lived beyond their Mom and Dad roles.
I’m a bit old for Eliot’s contributor demographic, but he flattered me by asking if I could adapt my GQ essay on my late car-salesman father for the book, and so I did. The book, published on April 5 by Villard Trade Paperbacks, is fun, moving, and inspirational without being the scary kind of “Inspirational”: a celebration of family that doesn’t moralize to death. It might be a little heavy on Hebraic contributors—I’m one of two writers who delivers a testimonial to a dad named Seymour, and there are three contributors named Rachel—but there’s a sweet universality to the way everyone, with perspective, grows to recognize that one’s parents have led fascinating lives outside of the house, away from the dinner table, free of the minivan.