Archive for category Music

Aquabats and the Dismantling of Television Repetition

The season finale of The Aquabats SuperShow! completely shattered television conventions, and you didn’t see it. Here’s how The Hub’s strangest show made the Sopranos’ season finale look like a joke.

The Aquabats

To adequately explain how The Aquabats SuperShow! brilliantly yet subtly subverted television convention, it’s important to understand what The Aquabats SuperShow! is: a bizarre combination that parodies both various ’70s “children” shows – with their terrible costumes, D-list actors, and cheap sets, all surrounding around even cheaper animated shorts – and the assortment of ’70s Japanese action shows that built themselves around the same concepts, except replacing the animated shorts with poorly choreographed fight sequences. It’s in effect The Banana Splits mixed in with cheesy tokusatsu action, updated in its sensibilities, so that all the cheesiness and cheapness are now part of the joke instead of being anachronistic embarrassments.

The set up of every episode is similar: the Aquabats get involved in a weird situation and ultimately prevail in a goofy, rick-rollicking manner. All of this is mixed in with various music cues (they are a band, after all), fake commercials from “Gloopy,” and most importantly, animated shorts that star the Aquabats themselves in scenes straight out of a random Hanna-Barbara action cartoon. This is all part of the joke of the show. So what’s the big deal?

During the season finale, specifically the cartoon segment, the Aquabats meet a space-god type figure who forces them into what he calls an infinite time loop. The team is whisked away, appearing in a somewhat familiar scene: performing a song at a party by a pool. Eaglebones (oh, the names!) mentions they may have done this already, and indeed, it seems rather familiar to the audience of the show in a vague sense. Cut back to the live-action part. The team is up against a large maniac with a powerful headdress that shoots lasers. The battle lasts for a while, with the team really working together to defeat who is dubbed Space Monster ‘M’ (and oddly enough, this is a particularly dark battle, with people actually dying and what one might call real stakes). Eventually, Space Monster ‘M’ is stopped, but not without hurling the Aquabats into space. They are stuck floating inside their Battletram as they drift off into the void. And, suddenly, this looks very familiar too… because, in the case of the cartoon and the live segment, this is where viewers entered the series during the premiere. In the very first episode, the live-action portion began with them performing by the pool, and the cartoon began with them floating helplessly into space. The series didn’t just metaphorically come full circle – it LITERALLY did.

I doubt any TV show has even come close to this kind of mind-fuckery so unabashedly clever and surreal, so in-tuned to its internal trappings and mechanisms to pull something like this off so successfully. It helps that The Aquabats itself is already surreal, but it’s nothing that far removed for a number of parodies out there (Wonder Shozen, Black Dynamite, everything Adult Swim) so as to be particularly unique. And there’s nothing particularly unique about a show utilizing meta-comedy to comment on the structures and tropes of television. Animaniacs made a name for itself doing just that. Frank Grimes on The Simpsons lived it. Invader Zim’s pilot episode had a great moment upon returning from its commercial break with a “5000 Years Later” title card. Ren & Stimpy goofed a bit on it in “Space Madness.” And Louie works on those meta-levels in ways that no comedy before has done.

But The Aquabats didn’t just comment on the structures and tropes of TV; they didn’t simply satirize and parody Hanna-Barbara, the Krofft brothers, and the Super Sentai franchise. It was a direct commentary on the nature of repeats and syndication, the “infinite time loop” that has characters essentially redoing they same thing over and over again at another time or on another channel. In this case, The Aquabats internalized the gag in an almost self-defined Moebius strip, of live-action and cartoon being one and the same. The live-action Aquabats, upon finding their cartoon in various, auspicious places, are indeed watching themselves, and not just a goofy version of themselves.

Such a reveal completely changes how to view the first season, which at first comes off as a surface-level goof-fest of fun, camp, and comical excitement. Now, looking back, it all makes sense beyond comic sensibilities. The “Previously On” sequences (which mix together actual events from the previous episode with random and completely absurd shots that has nothing to do with anything) are purposely nonsensical from a practical standpoint, as these previous events rarely have anything to do with the situation the Aquabats find themselves in at the beginning of the episode. And yet, strangely enough, the Aquabats cartoon is continuous; each animated short directly connects the to next one in the next episode. It’s visual gibberish, which seems to reflect the random order of TV scheduling, whether its new episodes, repeats, syndicated shows, or marathons. Think you’ll be lost watching a random Aquabats? You will be… and yet, you won’t be. Like time-travel, thinking about it too much will probably make you go cross-eyed.

Bravo to The Aquabats SuperShow, rewarding its cult-following to arguably the biggest mind-fuck in TV history, bigger than Lost, St. Elsewhere, and The Prisoner. They somehow pulled off the idea behind La Jetee/12 Monkeys in a satirical kids cartoon on a brand new network, and almost got away with it. It will be interesting to see how things are pulled off in season two, but The Aquabats have enough freedom to pull off whatever bullshit it needs to do to escape its original trappings… and it will be awesome.


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Accolades with an Asterick


The Black Luigi

Andre 3000’s hit single “Hey Ya!” is a gleefully hyperactive song, fusing a classic rock sensibility with a modern, funky chic. It exploded on the scene in 2003, in a strange moment, when Outkast, a duo with a string of underrated, entertaining albums from  Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik to Stankonia, decided to release separate ones. They weren’t splitting; they were exploring different things. Speakerboxx/The Love Below was the outcome. At the time, critics marveled over Andre 3000’s The Love Below’s eccentricity and random energy, and casually accepted Big Boi’s Speakerboxx. What makes this particularly weird is that Speakerboxx was inherently the better product, a fact that’s much more obvious today by most mainstream musicphiles. The Love Below is a nifty experiment, but there’s a really blatant truth here, which is most obvious on “Hey Ya,” but has yet to be quite understood: Andre 3000, while a great rapper, isn’t a good musician.

“Hey Ya” bounces and rolls with the immensity and grandeur that a great pop song can be. It works well in clubs and parties, and brightens the spirits as it bounds through its synths, basses, and fake guitar/xylophonist melodies. It’s great as a wonderful 50s-esque rock homage; not so much as a modern rock song. Andre 3000 cut his teeth as a rapper, so his voice is barely registering in this song (mainly due to the fact he can’t hit the notes, choosing to drown his voice out instead). I don’t hate “Hey Ya” (although I never loved it). It’s good, but it’s good with an asterisk.

The middle of aughts was a really, really strange period. It was around that time that Youtube REALLY hit its stride and entertainment across the board started to pick up. Artists were finding success in niches, and it seemed that executives were trying to find the formula for recapturing the splitting markets. Options? Catering to new demographics was an idea – Desperate Housewives, The Sex in the City movie. Another option was experimentation. It worked in the early 90s, when animation ripped into the TV landscape with new, bold stuff. And in desperate times, why not try it again?

Lost was such an experiment, the ABC, 6-season mindfuck that, well, didn’t turn out to be a mindfuck. A moment in time, the perfect moment for a drama to break the landscape for what could be shown on TV. It was, essentially, an art film as a TV show. Expertly acted, crafted, designed, and displayed. A buffet of skilled workmen behind the scenes, who, despite what the most hardened critics say, left viewers and audiences unsatisfied. Period.

What happened in the post-Lost TV world was, well, nothing. The real TV-game changers were The Office, Adult Swim and 24. The Office defined Thursday night comedy for NBC, and while not a ratings-smash, defined new niche comedies that a network could expunge. Adult Swim opened the niche of singular voices in animated and non-animated comedy. 24, while ridiculous, pretty much defined serial television, showcasing the ability to not possess self-contained shows to be a hit. In the advent of DVRs, Netflix, streaming, and torrents, it seems strange that television is still marred in the classic mode of storytelling. Although, it is starting to break.

The truth is, Lost did not end well. It failed to tie in its plot lines, it failed to define a followup (some people suggest Fringe, although that’s more akin to X-Files), and, well, even as a casual fan of the show, there’s no desire to go back to it. The strange thing is, Lost, like “Hey Ya,” had so much raw impact at an individual level, but came to mean nothing in the end. “Hey Ya” falls in being sung by a not-good singer on a weird but not-that-great of an album. Lost, with no strong narrative and no real endgame, failed as a TV show. Good, but with asterisk.

I also humbly submit Pan’s Labyrinth as the film equivalent of good, asterisked media. Guillermo Del Toro is an craftsman director, a visionary into the heart of creations and monsters – a modern day Henson, more or less. And while Pan’s Labyrinth had the rich fairytale rhythms and acting that hit all the right notes, it was a not-so-consistent story. The “fairytale” theme became more of a gimmick, an excuse for characters to randomly act out of character. Looking back on the question of its dream/non-dream settings, I keep wondering why and how the film managed to get to certain points without acting wildly out of sync. I can’t imagine re-watching this without a rub of the chin and a cock-eyed expression. Who has it in their top fifty films? What did we really like about this again?

The asterisk is there because I want to be clear: this is different that the typical cultural embarrassment that we’re usually engaging in. This isn’t the Macarana, 80s power rock ballads, bland raunchy comedy, 60s animation, or other forms of entertainment that was terrible content-wise AND media-wise. “Hey Ya,” musically, is solid, just as Lost was masterful television and Pan’s Labyrinth visually arresting. But as “music,” as “game-changing TV,” as “the cinematic experience,” these three mid-2000 reeked of some missing element, a lack of commitment to the real core issue – entertainment that was aggressively “forest for the trees.” In other words – Andre 3000 can’t sing, Lost failed to have an endgame, and Pan’s Labyrinth’s characters made too many uncharacteristic decisions.

Today’s entertainment seems to have taken the lessons ultimately learned from this and created… well, not better-quality material, but better contained material. Although if Terra Nova, the DC comic reboot, and Thundercats (more on this later) are the norm, then we may just be coming back full circle.


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What does Black’s “Friday” Say about our culture today?

It’s pretty easy to dismiss “Friday” as a shitty song – and it most certainly is. It’s also pretty easy to believe that such a song may “represent the downfall of American culture” or some other hyperbolic  sentiment on how a fleeting piece of awful pop entertainment implies the end of the essence of American civilization. I’m going to get into that on my next entry – and that one will be a doozy – but I’m here to talk about the pure idiotic spectacle that is Friday, a music video that has no legal right to see the light of day.

I’m not a music guy, to be honest; in fact, I’m kinda sorta looking for a person who knows music well but isn’t a snob; who can “bridge” the link among entertainment forms in relation to his or her knowledge of various forms of music, without overwhelming the piece into a music criticism screed. Pitch aside, I do know what I like, and I definitely know what I hate, and I indeed join the nearly two million people who “thumb down” this song.

This song and video is a product of ARK Music Factory, a “record label” that is pretty much an overwrought virtual music video machine, an overpriced version of that carnival sideshow attraction where you and your friends can overact and lip-sync in front of a green screen to your favorite songs (this was big in the late 80s/early 90s). While such an act would cost you maybe 100 bucks (20 bucks split among your buds isn’t too pricey), ARK charges $2000 – $4000 for the same thing, albeit they assist in the writing and distribution of the song too, which is inherently a sadder revelation.

Still, for the wealthy, or desperate, it isn’t an awful idea, and ARK claims it isn’t doing it for fame. In fact, if the whole thing was an elaborate joke or silly game, it really wouldn’t be that bad. Rich kids have spend a lot more on stupider things (I’m thinking of a too-young-to-drive Bow-Wow owning a lime green Beetle with an X-Box inside), so four grand on a disposable song and music video isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Somehow, though, Friday became a “hit,” and it’s a little unclear how that happened, or whether the song’s popularity is due to overwhelming, misguided enjoyment (like how young teens buy whatever pop-crap album some pop-crap artist releases) or pure hate masked as ironic approval (the same idea that made William Hung and Tay Zonday popular). It doesn’t seem as if ARK did anything extraordinary in pushing the song, other than dropping it on iTunes. Perhaps it’s just that there’s a particularly brand of awful that pervades the song that made it so notorious; even crappy garage bands put more thought into their songs than this.

But there’s also something else about Friday that’s striking. In terms of the realm of all-things awful, there’s nothing new about it. Shitty lyrics. Inexplicable moments in the video. Terrible green-screening. Clothing from another dimension, let alone decade. Incomprehensible “guest” rapper. Awful lip syncing and camera work. There’s hundreds of Youtube videos out there with the same amount of crap, with budgets larger that four thousand. But it seems that the complete combination of all those elements make Friday into a particularly infamous disaster.

And it’s not even that much different from the songs that make the billboards these days. If you heard this on the radio during a mix, would you even bat an eye? Probably not. Like most pop songs, certain moments have a distinct “likeable-ness” to them, and while this song almost has nil, I kinda enjoy the “Partying, Partying (Yeah!)” part, a line that’s essentially interchangeable in every dance single, ever.

But everything else in this song is unworldly, in the sense that it’s popularity beguiles its content. The opening lyrics:

7am, waking up in the morning
Gotta be fresh, gotta go downstairs
Gotta have my bowl, gotta have cereal
Seein’ everything, the time is goin’
Tickin’ on and on, everybody’s rushin’
Gotta get down to the bus stop
Gotta catch my bus, I see my friends (My friends)

Kickin’ in the front seat
Sittin’ in the back seat
Gotta make my mind up
Which seat can I take?

— are the lyrics your five year-old child would sing to him or herself during the morning routine before school. You know, when they sing about everything they do and see and kinda try to make it rhyme, but fail, but doesn’t let it bother them? This is what Black did, and what the rapper did as well, if one substituted “white suburbia” and “black ghetto” into said child’s surrounding environment.

In the end, though, the truth is, Friday says nothing about our culture, other than terrible things can spread quicker than expected. If we’re truly judging the world based on arbitrary pageviews on a song that is, objective and subjectively, an abomination, then we really need to re-establish how the entire judging process and really examine what we mean by culture. Because, seriously, confusion over the days of the week can’t really be what America is all about. There’s too many cute animal pictures to counteract that.