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.
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
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
Here's the deal:
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
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
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).
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