Thursday, December 3, 2009

PlaybackSTL: Best of 2008

Craziest Things I've Seen All Year

1. Kid next to me in the Toadies mosh pit getting a concussion from a stage diver

Since the demise of Mississippi Nights and the Creepy Crawl, it's gotten slightly harder lately to get caught in a mosh. The last place I expected to find one was at the Pageant, but damned if the Toadies didn't make it happen. During their sold out show in late July, the room reached a delicious fever pitch that threatened to erupt at any moment. I was perched against the gate at the front of the pit, screaming Todd Lewis's lyrics back into his face while being violated from behind by a surging mass of humanity, when some random goon launched himself from the stage and landed smack into the face of the kid on my right. There was a crack as the kid's head met the floor, and then he was pulled to his feet by his friends and shuffled away by security. Rumor has it that there was an ambulance idling out front during the show; I'd like to think that it wasn't even for him.

2. Heath Ledger performing a magic trick

Technically, his first screen appearance came during the opening bank robbery, but to those of us assembled at the Moolah for the midnight premiere of The Dark Knight, the Joker didn't really make an entrance until he came strolling into a mob meeting a few minutes later. After months of feverish anticipation of Heath Ledger's already legendary performance, the crowd was amped to respond to even the most simple onscreen affectation, but nothing could have prepared us for his dispatchment of a grunt who happened onto the wrong end of a pencil. To say that the place exploded would be an understatement -- it was the equivalent of Clark Gable's revealing the bare chest beneath his shirt while dropping the bomb on Nagasaki. In that one moment, Heath exceeded all of his own hype, and in the process set a new standard for cinematic malevolence that has kept us little fanboys in thrall ever since.

3. Fatal hit-and-run bike accident in Colorado Springs

The single greatest night of my southwest road trip this summer took place in the least likely place imaginable: Colorado Springs, an epicenter of evangelism located an hour south of Denver. After reuniting with a friend of mine who moved out there two years ago, my companion and I were treated to the spectacle of the New Life Church, the famed congregation from which Ted Haggard was deposed in 2006 for being a meth-smoking hypocrite. I was familiar with the Rocky Mountain megachurch from the documentary-cum-horror flick Jesus Camp, but I still found myself in awe of the sheer magnitude of the place. After nosing through its various auditoriums and atria, we decided to scoot after witnessing the end of a Christian rock concert, and thus headed up to the mountains to find an overlook of the city.

The path to the overlook was almost absurdly labyrinthine, winding through dimly lit off-roads and indistinguishable clumps of suburbia. As we traversed the narrow side streets leading up the hill, we began to notice road blocks and flashing lights. It was mere seconds before we happened across an intersection that was cordoned off by police, where through the red and blue we could make out the figure of a body on the ground covered by a sheet, with a mangled bicycle lying nearby. The scene was obviously fresh: We could still see the remnants of the accident all around. I had never seen a recent death in such close proximity, and the image seared itself into my memory. We quickly turned and found an alternate route, remarking upon the odd circumstances that had brought us to such a scene. The overlook proved well worth the trouble, providing a beautiful view of a small burg nestled under looming mountains and a starry sky, but its majesty was tainted by the bizarre events that had preceded it. I found out later that the accident had actually involved two cyclists, both of whom were killed by an elderly woman driving under the influence of barbituates and morphine. The destruction she had wrought had provided me with one of the strangest and most ineffable sights of my entire year.

4. Sidewalk party in front of Macro Sun, complete with llama and burro

Working in the Loop provides one with the opportunity to witness all manner of unusual things. During my brief stint at the Tivoli in 2002, I learned that there was no better place to people-watch than from inside the box office, where on Saturday nights one could be treated to the sights and sounds of the Hare Krishna hootenanny outside the Foot Locker. Similarly, my six-month tenure at Subterranean Books exposed me to all sorts of situations to which I might not have been privy otherwise. The greatest took place during the transition from spring to summer, when the street was filled with people and the energy was palpable. Our friends at Macro Sun decided to throw a sidewalk party to drum up business, and in doing so they pulled out all the stops. Just when I had started to tune out the sound of the belly dancer's finger cymbals, I heard the low bleating of what sounded like a goat. I poked my head outside and discovered a llama prancing about on a leash, followed closely by a burro. The confusion on my face was mirrored by the confusion on theirs, and I was left with a host of unanswered questions and a husky odor that permeated the store. The animals were tied to the tree on the sidewalk so that onlookers might be encouraged to come forth and gawk, and there they stayed for an hour or so -- never once fitting in with their environment, and yet somehow assimilating perfectly.

5. Black man being elected President

I wish I had stuck around Meshuggah for the party. Supposedly, Delmar exploded when the election was called. Instead, I spent the evening at my mom's house in Dogtown, where my pithy noisemakers were the only sound on the whole street.

Best Comebacks

1. Idealism

I have long lamented the complacency that defines my generation. Having grown up in the sunlight of the Clinton administration, when the economy reached unprecedented highs and pop culture was defined by irony and apathy, kids my age never seemed to have a defining issue around which to convene, let alone any impetus to rebel. During the long slog that was the Bush regime, there were some brief flashes of discontent, but even these settled down once it became clear that the war wasn't going to end just because a few protestors camped out in Crawford. It took an unapologetically liberal, half-African senator from Illinois to finally galvanize the youth base, and in doing so, he rejuvenated the electorate as a whole. The presidential election of 2008 often resembled a bad sitcom, with every week providing more absurd late night material, but Barack Obama's relentless adherence to his message of hope remained a stalwart rallying point for millions of disillusioned Americans. His epic sweep into the history books proved definitively that times had changed, and that the morning in America which Reagan had promised might finally come to pass.

2. Portishead

After eleven long years, Geoff Barrow and company finally released their third excursion into the depths of trip-hop. Bearing influences as diverse as Edith Piaf and Silver Apples, the album (simply titled Third) did its best to make sense of an electronic landscape that had been transformed by the likes of DJ Shadow and Radiohead. Its crackling industrial moments bore little similarity to the lethargic Portishead of old, but the band's trademark gloomy romanticism (courtesy of lyricist/siren Beth Gibbons) remained prominent. Portishead's return to the fray may have met some expectations while dashing others, but after such a long absence, a completely satisfactory product might well have been impossible. When all was said and done, it was nice just to have them back.

3. Robert Downey, Jr.

In 2008, having spent the better part of the decade making up for his five-year lost weekend, Robert Downey, Jr. finally reclaimed his rightful place at the top tier of the Hollywood gentry with a trio of hit movies. When he ushered in the summer blockbuster season with the spectacular Iron Man, it seemed only fitting that the fallen wunderkind should portray a boy genius forced to fight his way back to his former glory. His subsequent roles in Charlie Bartlett and Tropic Thunder were met with less acclaim, but the die had already been cast: Chaplin was back, and he was all out of bubblegum.

4. Futurama

In the pantheon of great shows cancelled before their time, only a select few garner exhibition in the main hall: My So-Called Life, Freaks and Geeks, Arrested Development...and Futurama. Matt Groening's paean to the grand clich├ęs of science fiction elicited instant adoration from a minute but devoted audience, but its brilliance and significance were lost on studio execs expecting another out-of-the-box smash like The Simpsons. 20th Century Fox pulled the plug after four exceptional seasons, but the success of the rejuvenated Family Guy and the tireless appeals of the Futurama fanbase resulted in a trio of straight-to-DVD feature films released sequentially. The show's writers took advantage of the lack of constraints imposed by the 22-minute episodic format, crafting epic stories that dealt with everything from Fry's millennium-long love for Leela to a rip in the very fabric of the universe, but the show's diehard fans still bayed at the door for its return to TV. Who knows? Maybe they'll win. It worked for Stewie.

5. Thermoreactive clothing

During the convergence of glitz and grunge that occurred as the ‘80s gave way to the ‘90s, there was a special brand of cool that could only be attained by having someone leave their handprint on your shirt. Hypercolor tees were the textile equivalent of the Swatch: An oddball confluence of high concept and mass appeal, with enough of an edge to play just as well on MTV as in Peoria. Alas, like their eye-gouging cousin the snap bracelet, Hypercolor clothes were doomed to obsolescence. Following a class-action lawsuit filed by Japanese consumers who were left with irreparable changes to their skin tone on account of thermochromatic underwear, Hypercolor manufacturer Generra was forced out of business in 1993, leaving behind a legacy of miscolored clothing that never quite looked right but was nonetheless cooler than tie-dye.

Fifteen years later, with the ‘90s revival beginning to bloom, thermoreactive wear is making its way back into public consciousness. In classic ironic fashion, however, it's now being touted as haute couture, with designers such as Henry Holland charging hundreds of dollars for the privilege of dressing up like a mood ring. American Apparel has released a more economy-aware variant of the classic Hypercolor shirt, which in all likelihood will never attain the iconic status of its predecessor; nevertheless, the mere fact that you can once again ruin your clothes forever by simply ironing them should be cause for celebration.

Most Overrated Pop Culture Phenomena

1. Twilight

As if the 'tween market weren't grating enough, Gen X alumnus Stephanie Meyer saw fit to unleash a florid melodrama that wed the gothic window dressing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer with the vacuous intrigue of The O.C. Released just as the core Harry Potter acolytes began to deal with hormones and acne, the Twilight series took middle academia by storm, selling millions of copies worldwide and providing a new unattainable ideal for lovelorn teen girls everywhere. In a definitive usurpation of Hollywood's reliable 14- to-19-year-old male demographic, the Twilight movie dominated box office receipts upon its release in November; suddenly, vampire kids were everywhere, "stupid lamb" had entered the national lexicon, and Robert Pattison had become an overnight sex god. And everyone who wasn't in love with Edward Cullen found themselves wishing they could drive a stake right through his heart.

2. The Olympics

From the moment Chinese officials decreed a change in the toilet facilities throughout the Olympic village to accommodate Westerners who didn't want to stoop over the can, it was clear that the 2008 Summer Olympics would be an entirely different animal. The games provided China with a chance to air out the stink of their deplorable human rights record by hosting emissaries from all over the world in the name of unity, and they made it clear during the opening ceremonies that they weren't messing around. But their nationalistic spotlight was hogged by an amphibious Baltimorean named Michael Phelps, who dominated the swimming events, broke every Olympic record in existence, and managed to cure cancer in between laps. For the better part of the summer, the national dialogue consisted almost solely of Phelps' flawless physique and superhuman caloric intake, and he quickly found his way onto Wheaties boxes and SNL. But to those who couldn't care less about athletics, the Olympics were just another minor diversion from China's ongoing dismissal of international law.

3. "Pay What You Want"

Downloading media content for free has been the national pastime since the advent of Napster in 2000. The rise in peer-to-peer programs opened a Pandora's Box of illegal delights which the RIAA, MPAA and FBI have tried desperately ever since to extinguish, but as the trend grew more ubiquitous and media conglomerates more out of touch with the times, the artistic community learned to utilize the online network for their own ends. The underground success and mainstream assimilation of such flagrantly illegal musicians as Danger Mouse and Girl Talk proved that the market had changed since the litigation-happy days of John Oswald and Negativland, when the record industry still had the clout to squelch even the slightest affront to its Draconian system of copyright law. With a perfect storm brewing, it was only a matter of time before the major players took part.

Radiohead found themselves in a unique position in mid-2007. They had just completed their seventh studio album, In Rainbows, but their contract with Capitol had been allowed to expire. Thus, they were offered the option of signing to another label for the album's distribution, or doing it the old-fashioned way and putting it out themselves. When Wilco was faced with this decision in 2004, they chose the former. Radiohead chose the latter. Their official website became a portal for their new music, allowing fans the chance to download it directly from the band; the gimmick, however, was that they offered a business model in which those who partook of the music could pay whatever they wanted for it. To an outraged record industry, still reeling from Prince's free distribution of his most recent album, Planet Earth, it was tantamount to treason. But for Radiohead fans, long familiar with the band's interactive online experiments, it was a natural progression. The band also offered a box set with bonus goodies for those willing to cough up real cash, but the main event took place online. The album was only available for a short while before being removed from the servers in preparation for an official release, but the damage had already been done. Subsequent releases by Nine Inch Nails and others further impacted the potato Radiohead had stuck up the RIAA's tailpipe, but it was In Rainbows that made the press. Alas, everyone who had benefited from the peer-to-peer revolution knew that this day had been a long time coming.

4. Sarah Palin

Not since Dan Quayle had a vice-presidential candidate provided such sublime late night fodder. With her Marge Gunderson drawl and supreme telegenicity, Sarah Palin sashayed her way into the annals of political serendipity with unprecedented hubris and panache. The press went wild for Caribou Barbie, but the truth was that there was nothing of substance beneath the bouffant. Her disastrous interview with Katie Couric and subsequent embarrassment at the VP debate validated suspicions that she was nothing more than a cynical ploy by the Republican party to snap up the female voters they supposed had been disenfranchised by Hillary Clinton's defeat to Barack Obama, and her utter annihilation at the hands of Tina Fey destroyed any chance of her being taken seriously as a politician.

There were a few scary weeks in which the spectacle of her evangelical convictions governing world policy seemed all too possible, but the election results made it clear that the majority was no longer going to be swayed by the Republicans' usual tactics. If she doesn't succeed in furthering her political career, then hopefully Palin will retreat to her outpost in Wasilla, where she can keep an eye out for Russian bombers while teaching little Tripp Easton how to shoot them down.

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