Taking the Sleighride to Artistic Hell With the Trans Siberian Orchestra

I'm not normally one to chuck stones at the tastes of an entire population, but I feel more comfortable doing it when I'm a member of said population, in this case a white Midwestern American (returning from the west coast for Thanksgiving) wanting to do something special with family to kick off the holiday season.

In most cases, I subscribe to the That's Why They Make Menus school of aesthetic appreciation. I'm not a fan of fois gras, for example, but you may be, which is awesome for you (though problematic). I don't like turnips, but you can like them if you want.

If, however,  someone suggests that we roast a Golden Retriever, I'm gonna say something. It's necessary in a Democracy to speak out when The People have stooped below a certain level. In this instance, I feel compelled to be the citizen with his hand tentatively raised, saying, "Um, excuse me. I have a small concern."

I'm talking about the Trans Siberian Orchestra,

born in New Jersey and recently performing across America (you just

missed them in Anaheim, dummy). TSO, as their Parrotheads call them,

has been touring America for the past decade to packed arenas. They've

sold millions of CDs, each its own concept album with Christmas at its

center (the band is emphatically Christian in its delivery; they won't

be releasing a Kwanzaa or Hanukkah CD anytime soon). They perform these

Big Arena Rock shows from October to January each year. Last year TSO

earned $21 million, despite the fact that most in the music biz long

ago stopped caring that they exist. (The New York Times did a great profile of TSO a few years ago.)


exactly, do they do? I'd describe it as a Holiday Hair Metal

Extravaganza With Awesome-ish Light Show. The act was created by Paul

O'Neill, former member of Aerosmith's and the Scorpions' management team, and producer whose

pre-TSO outfit was Jersey mid-80s heavy metal act Savatage. After

Nirvana and indie killed off that entire genre, O'Neill started

planning this beast of a production called Trans Siberian Orchestra.

After a two-year gestation, it debuted in 1998, striking a chord in the

hearts of (majority) white people of a certain generation and value

system: those who like dueling guitar solos, big-ass double bass kicks,

cheesy keyboards played by leather-clad Heather Locklear lookalike,

eight backing vocalists, concept albums,  Flying-V violins -- and, most

important, a trio of electric guitarists with a mile of long L'Oreal

hair among them, exuding big smiles and bigger solos. 

This is

the second time I've seen them. The first time was maybe seven years

ago, also in St. Louis. That time I went with a kindred friend curious

about all the hooha. We smoked a fattie and enjoyed the hell out of it

in our front row seats. Over the next two hours the band turned in such

an absurd performance of Hallmarkian/Rockwellian/Cirque de

Soleilian/Santa/Jesus obviousness that you couldn't believe the whole

thing wasn't a put-on. I halfway expected mini Stonehenge to drop from

the ceiling. At one point I think the lead guitarist saw us laughing

and glared.

This time I went straight, with my sister and her husband, my

seven-year-old nephew, and a friend, and after five minutes I was

already horrified that I'd dragged loved ones (including my Jewish

brother-in-law) to this dead-eyed anti-stravaganza, the musical

equivalent of KFC's "Famous Bowl," which comedian Patton Oswalt has

accurately described as "a failure pile in a sadness bowl." 


fear I damaged my nephew Leo's musical taste mechanism, to boot. He's

still learning about how there's good taste and terrible taste and how

most people's fall somewhere in between. He loves music with an

unrivaled passion (a trio of Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Trout

Fishing in America) and I hope this doesn't turn him off to live

performance wholesale. 

Here's the deal: 

A narrator

in tuxedo with tails introduces the proceedings in deep, storybook tone,

begins the "once upon a time" evening with something about a lost Christmas and a the appearance of Jesus to help

find it or something. It's in "Twas the Night Before Christmas"-style

rhyme scheme, simplistic enough for four-year-olds to digest. Then the

band plays pretentious progressive/lowest-common-denominator classical

music Christmas songs while lasers and spotlights quiver and flash. A

Bo Bice impersonator is the icing. Think Simpsons holiday parody.

So they packed some gold

Myrrh and frankincense

On some old camel

With some fancy tents

Closed down the house

Set the servants free

And three kings rode

Into history

That's from the spoken-word piece, "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo," which they

performed in St. Louis. It's part the "Christmas Eve and Other Stories"

cycle. Each song is an excruciatingly long exercise in obvious rhymes

and obviouser Christmas melodies ("Nutcracker," "O Holy Night," "God

Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen"). One part tells the story of a little girl

who may or may not be a real life angel sent from Heaven, her

appearance in a bar to a drunk, a random act of kindness and a lesson

learned that adds Meaning to Life. Think Thomas Kincade painting come

to life (though I have a soft spot for Kincade).


you might say that TSO is an easy target, and if I was going to protest

I should have done so in 1999. Perhaps. But TSO last year did something

that I don't believe has ever been accomplished in the history of rock:

they have multiplied into two. (Someone please correct me if I'm wrong

-- and Mini Kiss and Tiny Kiss

don't count.) There are this year dueling 14-piece Trans Siberian

Orchestras simultaneously traveling the country, all part of the same

machine. It's possible, in fact, to see TSO in two different cities on

the same day if you've got the frequent flier miles. Two bands, same

name, same concept.

But what that means for the future of

O'Neill's endeavor is worrisome to us cynics and haters. He already

misses entire performances (though he has been known to play one 3 p.m.

show, hop a plane and gig another 8 p.m. TSO show in another city), so

it stands to reason that in all likelihood the act(s) will outlive him

in the same way that both the Count Basie Orchestra and the Mingus Big

Band still tour a half century or more after their formation -- without their founders. Extending the horrifying notion of America's future with TSO

even further, it's possible that these concept concerts -- there are a

half dozen different stories that TSO performs -- will become holiday standards.  


honestly, would be fine if the 20,000 people seeing this show seemed

excited by it. I'm cool with people losing themselves in music that I

find reprehensible. And, admittedly, I'm a frickin' snob about music. As art critic Dave Hickey wrote in his amazing

treatise on Liberace, "Diamond as Big as the Ritz," "Bad taste is real

taste, of course, and good taste is the residue of someone else's

privilege." I understand the desire to hear stories delivered via

music. It's as old as the ages. We like stories, and some of them are

kinda silly. (For further reading on taste, I urge you to read Carl Wilson's Let's Talk About Love, which wrestles with the popularity of Celine Dion.) 

But what concerns me is the total ambivalence

that these Americans seemed to feel toward this performance, and the

stories. We had tenth row seats (courtesy of TSO's very generous publicist, who hooked us up big time), which is a section that almost always

feels electrified before a sold out show, be it Mini Kiss, Celine Dion,

Cirque de Soleil or Clay Aiken. But when the lights dropped and the

band arrived onstage for the first time, there was but a mere cordial

applause, and this from people who paid between $35-$75 for tickets.

Everyone remained seated throughout the performance (though I imagine

they stood at the end -- we left fifteen minutes early). There was no

chatter. A few ladies bounced their heads, some dads nodded along to

tasty guitar licks. But between songs, the applause was merely cordial;

and at times there was an awkward silence after the applause died down

but before the next song started.

"These are people that never go to concerts," my friend Susan said as

we were leaving, by way of explaining the sadness we felt. And I think

she's right. This is a crowd (and I'm aware that I'm leaping into the

dangerous realm of generalities here, so please forgive me) whose

pleasure is derived elsewhere in their existence, with their families,

with their church groups, with their television, with their backyard

BBQs and high school football games. They are not music lovers. Music

lovers lose themselves in the moment, pine for that unpredictable rise

in the heart rate when spontaneity overcomes a musician, when spirit

infuses itself into a performance -- not when the Spirit is being

pounded into the heads of its audience. Music lovers want an original

experience, want the so-called Shock of the New, the Holy Crap!. They

don't want a performance so bankable and predictable that it merely

fills a hole in the holiday checklist, nor two different bands

replicating a note-for-note performance with perfectly-timed Fake

Snowstorm and Obligatory Automated Fire-Related Stage Event (both of

which elicited much more joy and real-life enthusiasm than the music

being performed onstage).

Do they?

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