Taking the Sleighride to Artistic Hell With the Trans Siberian Orchestra

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Mon, Dec 1, 2008 at 9:02 AM

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.)

What, 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.
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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." 

I 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).

Now, 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.  
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Which, 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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