I didn’t catch much television this summer, but I caught about ten minutes on two separate occasions of Fox’s Gong Show-esque 30 Seconds to Fame. All of the contestants were given 30 seconds to show off their own unique talent, and if the studio audience picked them above all other contenders, they got to move on to the next round. If the audience did not like what they saw, the boos started in pretty quickly.
It was sort of a low-rent version of American Idol, and the contestants all could have been Idol rejects. There was an obese housewife who could sing like Aretha Franklin, a man who could make his eyes nearly pop out of their sockets, a stand-up comedian and a guy who’d invented a piano that he played by juggling balls. The guy who did the thing with his eyes was my favorite. There’s something morbidly appealing about the notion that a man or woman could become famous solely because of a genetic abnormality. It seems a message that, for all of our advances in societal diversity and how we think of individuals with, shall we say, special qualities, we could still be reverted to the age of circus sideshows thanks to the Fox Idiot Box.
20 Oct 2002: Irving Plaza New York
As I watched Clinic literally race through their headlining set at the Irving Plaza, I couldn’t help but think that the band that’s currently one of several toasts of the indie music world wouldn’t have lasted 15 seconds on 30 Seconds to Fame. A band named Clinic that plays their entire set in O.R. scrubs and surgical masks? Puh-lease. That is, like, so Devo.
Yet, nobody seemed to mind that the band obscured themselves for the sake of a gimmick. And why should they mind? After all, aren’t gimmicks what pop music, mainstream or otherwise, is all about? Where would we be without Devo’s funny hats, Bono’s wraparound sunglasses, and Elvis’ studded jumpsuits? And what about Madonna? Sure, she can’t pop her eyes out of their sockets, but she’s made a pretty decent career for herself by adjusting her gimmicks every couple of years.
Nah, there’s nothing wrong with a gimmick. Nothing at all. In fact, after nearly a decade of seeing bands wearing jeans and thrift store t-shirts, it was nice to see at least one band treat the evening as a show rather than just a concert.
There’s nothing wrong with thinking that they wouldn’t have made it through 30 Seconds of Fame. Actually, we should be rightly suspicious of anything that can make it through a program that so blatantly caters to the base instincts of Middle Americans. Who wants the support of some comptroller from St. Louis who still pines for the Bob Saget years of America’s Funniest Home Videos? Certainly not Clinic. These guys are serious musicians who are seriously making a statement about how music is in the post-post-post-modern world, how everything is sanitized, how we simply don’t like anything that has not been cleaned and packaged anymore. And the way that heartline behind the drummer kept jumping all over the screen, symbolizing the life that was coming out of the music being played right there, right then—nice touch, guys.
There’s likewise nothing wrong with sounding like the Pixies, especially since it’s just a passing similarity. I don’t recall the Pixies ever incorporating a melodica into the core of their sound or playing a mini-Moog for its retro effect. Yet, when Clinic cut into some of the bouncier numbers, some old Pixies riffs kept screeching through my head—throw in a dash of Dub Narcotic Sound System for goofy effect and the Fall for that British-indie sheen. And whenever lead singer Ade Blackburn mumbled through the slit in his mask, you got a distinct sense that his was the voice of Black Francis without the insanity: his was the rock and roll whine that never comes unhinged.
Finally, there’s nothing wrong with the fact that the whole thing, about 15 songs total (including an encore), was over in about 50 minutes. What can you say, the songs are short. Blackburn kept the downtime to a minimum by rushing to his instrument for the next song before the last was over, as well as limiting between-song banter to a few “Cheers” and song title introductions. This Clinic was a well-oiled machine that would do the folks over at E.R. proud.
Yep, there’s nothing wrong with any of these things by themselves. Put ‘em together, though, and something’s wrong. It’s O.K. to have a gimmick if A) you’re willing to follow through on it, and B) it’s not boring. It’s fine to sound like another band, but make sure you don’t take from the dull elements and leave the exciting ones on the shelf. It’s hunky-dory to be fast—actually, these days my aging concertgoer legs appreciate a group that doesn’t dilly-dally—but don’t rush so quickly that we can close our eyes and imagine the money we could have saved if we’d stayed at home.
I was one of those who wholeheartedly jumped on the Clinic bandwagon when I first heard them, but they haven’t stacked up very well to repeated listenings. They’ve gained some attention for being on that same post-dot-com euphoria return to ironic rock that the Strokes have cornered the market on (in fact, it appeared that several members of the Strokes were in attendance), but it seems likely that unless Clinic is willing to branch out a bit, they’ll be as expendable as a pair of latex gloves. Like a friend of mine described it: Clinic are way too easy to start liking, which means they’re way too easy to stop liking. Damn, that 30 seconds of fame can be a cruel bitch when you stop short of wringing everything you can out of it.