You know how annoying it is when you’re at a karaoke bar, and some group of three or more girls gets up on stage together and sings all the lyrics in unison? Granted, I seem to find this more annoying than your average karaoke audience member, but what may be acceptable – or at least tolerable – on a drunken weekend evening certainly ought not to be encouraged in actual recorded music. However, an analogous form of music-making was not only allowed but celebrated in the form of British girl group Bananarama, whose name sounds totally different if you actually say it with an English accent.

Unlike previous female trios in pop, who generally divide the vocal duties between a lead singer, who takes the melody, and two backup girls, who provide harmony and rhythm, Bananarama’s three singers all sing the same thing at the same time, which is either a stroke of genius or…not. The group’s individual members are only a touch more differentiated than their vocals (let’s see, there’s the brunette, the blonde and the other blonde) and astonishingly free of charisma. Even when they cover a funky tune like “Venus,” they suck all the funk out of it, leaving only a hard candy shell.

The above may make it sound like I don’t appreciate Bananarama’s colorless, insubstantial output, but spin “Cruel Summer” at a dance party and I will be the first one on the floor. Even lighter tunes like “Shy Boy” and “Robert De Niro’s Waiting” can hypnotize the listener, much like the effect Barney has on toddlers. Perhaps the greatest insight on Bananarama’s essence was provided by British comedy team French and Saunders, who spoofed the group by reinventing them as “Lalanininunu.” It’s utter nonsense that seems never to end.

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Listening to the Music Choice Channel 616 recently (“Retro-Active”), I caught “Rock Me Amadeus” (German version) and was reminded of what might be the greatest travesty in pop music obituary history:

When Austrian disco icon Falco was killed in a car accident in 1998, an NYC local news story identified him as the one-hit wonder who recorded “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Good god! I was shaken to the core. Falco deserves to be remembered not only for blending rap, Mozart and synth-pop into an immortal single, but also for the weird, tortured “Jeanny,” the sassy “Vienna Calling,” and the REAL version of “Der Kommissar” (up yours, After the Fire)! He is most certainly NOT the person who recorded the 1983 cover of the Fred Astaire song. That would be Taco.

I mean, geez, people, let’s not confuse our German popstars with our Austrian popstars, okay? Life is complicated enough.

Air Supply (1985)

Air Supply (1985)

When you want your music to do all the work for you, to provide you not only with pleasant sounds, but also with an entire set of predigested emotions, you can depend on one – or both – of these two groups. Musically they are pretty distinct: Journey is actually a full band with a rock base, whereas Air Supply is two guys (one tall one, one short one) with some really good keyboards. But the Bay City rockers and the Down Under duo have a surprising amount in common: both feature male singers with a vocal range to rival Mariah’s, singing songs about love…and love…and love.

Now hold on, you’re saying: isn’t love pop music’s favorite topic? That’s true, but every once in a while, even the cheesiest pop stars put romance aside for headier topics, like fame, money, or starving children. The men of Air Supply are way, way too focused on making sweet aural love to you for any of that, as songs like “Lost in Love,” “The One That You Love,” “Making Love Out of Nothing at All” and “All Out of Love” demonstrate. They clearly aspire to be the gentlest lover you’ve ever had, even when they are “mak[ing] all the stadiums rock.” (FYI that lyric was written by Jim Steinman, the man who gave Meat Loaf a career.) Journey has a few more moves in their seduction repertoire, from the bedroom confession of “Open Arms” to the headbanging heartbreak of “Separate Ways.” Even the songs that are not explicitly about love per se have been adopted into the soundtrack of American romantic life – like “Lights,” a sentimental ballad about San Fran that became the early-80’s theme song of high school freshmen copping a feel at the school dance.

Ironic, isn’t it, that these intensely amorous men could never, ever win the hearts of women today, being that they are homely in the extreme? (Unless they made a deal with the devil, like Kid Rock.) Steve Perry has a certain boyish, mulleted charm, but next to more recent smoove-out artists like Justin “SexyBack” Timberlake and John “Wonderland” Mayer, he looks like the weird guy who kept asking your cousin out all summer long. Even the goofy-looking singers of today have the sense to dress up and do their hair nice; post-British invasion and pre-MTV, the face of pop/rock music was, oftentimes, a downright ugly one (Boston? Toto? REO Speedwagon, anyone?). Whatever havoc Music Television may have wrought on the recording industry, at least it succeeded in getting musical dudes to shave and put on a nice shirt.

Lisa Lisa & the Cult Jam

“Can you feel the beat within my heart?
Can’t you see my love shine through the dark?”

Lisa Lisa – the New York-bred boriqua so nice, they named her twice. I heard once that she graduated from the same high school as Lauren Bacall. One alma mater, two showbiz icons: from Betty Perske to Lisa Velez, a tradition of beautiful broads who are pretty sure they don’t need you.

Don’t get me wrong – Lisa Lisa isn’t made of stone. Though she may be best known for the bouncy, Latin-y beats of “Head to Toe” and “Lost in Emotion,” LL also gives voice to the deep shit that homegirls suffer at the hands of trifling men. Don’t know whether the decision to lighten up was due to a change for the better in Lisa’s life or just the friendly suggestion of a record exec, but something was definitely lost when the extremes of “All Cried Out” (“Apology not accepted, add me to the broken hearts you’ve collected!”) gave way to “Que sera que sera!” If the above lyric from “Can You Feel the Beat” – sung in LL’s lowest register, with big, fat beats pounding away beneath it – doesn’t give you a dance-floor shiver…well, I don’t know what to say to you.

Like Miss Jackson, Lisa’s not a prude – she just wants some respect. In the same musical moment that saw Salt-n-Pepa inviting – nay, commanding – the guys to “Push It,” LL is telling them to hold up: “I wonder if I take you home/Would you still be in love baby?” S-n-P may have made more money (and ended up on their own VH-1 reality show 20 years later), but it’s Lisa Lisa’s music I’ll be putting on a Sweet Sixteen birthday mix for my future daughter.

Why? Because I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear.
Because I went to London and died.
Because the life I’ve had could make a good man turn bad.
Because I want to catch something that I might be ashamed of.
Because pretty girls make graves.
Because heaven knows I’m miserable now.
Because if it’s not love, then it’s the bomb that will bring us together.
Because that joke isn’t funny anymore.
Because now I know how Joan of Arc felt.
Because I was bored before I even began.
Because you must stay on your own for slightly longer.
Because she could have been a poet or she could have been a fool.
Because there is a light that never goes out.
And you could meet somebody who really loves you.

Happy birthday to me!

Is there anything John Lydon won’t say “Sod off” to? Let’s review:

– Sex Pistols’ infamous “nonexistent” Number 1 record, “God Save the Queen” = SOD OFF, ENGLAND!
– Playing “No Fun” in San Francisco (“Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”) = SOD OFF, USA!
– Burning the last letter written by Sid Vicious to ashes = SOD OFF, FANS!
– Reuniting with the Pistols on the “Filthy Lucre” tour = SOD OFF, MYSELF!
– Refusing to lip-sync and dancing with the audience on “Bandstand” = SOD OFF, DICK CLARK!
– Appearing on “Judge Judy” = SOD OFF, DAYTIME TV!
– Failing to appear at the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame’s induction of the Pistols = SOD OFF, INDUSTRY!
– Missing his scheduled trip on Pan Am Flight 103, which blew up over Scotland = SOD OFF, FATE!

And this is really just the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps the greatest middle finger of all is the fact that after changing the fabric of the musical and cultural universe with the Sex Pistols, Johnny Rotten actually started a real band. While Public Image Ltd. didn’t arouse the kind of passions that got Lydon mobbed and stabbed in the streets of London during the Silver Jubilee, it continued his lifelong “Sod off” project by packaging negativity in a thoroughly musical package.

Lydon never runs out of bullshit to expose and ways to expose it. Other pissed-off rockers of old – that is, the ones that aren’t dead – have become mature and mellowed out (paging Bono!). In spite of many changes of haircut and style, Lydon seems every bit as ready to bite your head off as he ever was. Believe in love? No! (See “Flowers of Romance.”) Depend on good friends? No! (See “Disappointed.”) Have hope for the future of the human race? Fuck no! (See “Careering,” “Rise,” and “Home,” for starters.) But once you give up and prepare to sink into the slough of despair, you realize Lydon won’t even allow you that measure of comfort: this shit is actually compulsively danceable as well as hateful.

The final irony? In spite of three decades of publicly venting his spleen, Lydon is possibly the healthiest, best behaved punk on earth – no drugs, no arrests, and only one wife. He’s so punk, he’s gone through punk, turned it inside out, and come out the other end. To be or not to be? Sod off!

I knew there was a reason I continue to watch Jeopardy!:

Unless you were raised in a commune, you probably watched Sesame Street as a kid.  Those of a certain age should remember the Amerindian song stylings of Buffy Sainte-Marie, who, like John Denver, was part of the Henson folk-music crew.  This would be enough to earn anyone a special place in the hearts of children raised on Free to Be…You and Me and “Disco Pooh” – but Buffy’s achievements go beyond hangin’ with Russell Means and playing guitar with Big Bird.  She is an Oscar winner!  If you’ve ever found yourself watching An Officer and a Gentleman on cable on a lazy Saturday, or imitating Joe Cocker and/or Jennifer Warnes in the shower, then you appreciate the significance of Buffy’s contribution to Gen-X culture as the co-writer of lite-radio staple “Up Where We Belong.”  I am humbled.  I am awed.  I am definitely getting tickets the next time Sainte-Marie plays the Highline Ballroom.

From time to time, when I’m walking down the street or shopping in a store, I hear “You Spin Me Round” being played on the radio. This makes me chuckle to myself. I wonder whether people think it’s a Culture Club song – after all, it is sung by a drag queen. I suspect its enduring appeal has as much to do with the tongue-twister chorus – and the satisfaction people get from mastering it – as with its musical qualities.

As is often the case, the greatest hit of a marginally successful group only tells part of their story. On the same album that gave us “You Spin Me Round” one can also find “My Heart Goes Bang,” representing the flip side of Dead or Alive’s disco goth persona. “Spin” is the beginning of an affair; the operatic cry of “I want your loooooooooooove!” sounds like Tarzan calling Jane (or Cheetah) from the other side of the jungle. In “Bang,” the seducer has become the seduced: “Doctor, doctor, give me the cuuuuuuuuuuuure!”

The comparison of lust to an illness is hardly original, but what Dead or Alive lack in creativity, they make up in sheer intensity. If their lead singer has ever smiled in public, I have never seen it. Even when singing a song as inherently silly as “Brand New Lover,” his pancaked visage remains impassive. This may be a sign that he is the stupidest human alive…or just the most bored. But he’s got the solution…he’s leaving tomorrow. (With his eyeliner.)

They knew you were gay before you knew yourself. Even if you are as hetero as they come (and I doubt you are…), the fairy godfathers of Pet Shop Boys sprinkle magic dust on you, like Tinker Bell grudgingly did for the Darling children at Peter Pan’s direction – making you queer just for a little while. Then you fly away to Neverland on a blast of flirtation, shame and impeccable taste.

A longing for acceptance poignantly blended with a fierce self-indulgence is not just for gays anymore. Infiltrate, then conquer: as soaked in queer remorse as “It’s a Sin” may be, it gets all the fun-lovin’ kids to boogie like fools on the dance floor. Of course, the Boys let their rainbow flag fly more and more openly as they aged; their earliest hits seemed less concerned with sexual orientation than with class warfare. Between the idiotic call to capitalist arms “Opportunities” and the fuck-you to Thatcherism “West End Girls,” you’d think those Pet Store Men were commies. What has any of this to do with being gay? Aside from that fact that the West End girls might in fact be boys, subsequent songs trace the connection between shallow consumerism, instant gratification, and post-Stonewall queer culture, from “Rent” (“You dress me up, I’m your puppet”) to “For Your Own Good” (“Why don’t you stay/With the lover you need and not the devil you pay”).

Pet Shop Boys’ enjoyed their last Top 10 hit on the US pop charts over 20 years ago (weirdly, it was that Willie Nelson cover), but continue to score where it counts – in dance clubs. There in the dark, with lights flashing over their heads and alcohol providing a nice, warm buffer, gays and those who envy them work out the layers of desire and terror that make just walking down the street every day a test of strength. Anything could happen: when you throw a bunch of art queens, club kids, and college dykes into a sweaty room together, all bets are off. But not to worry: those Pet Shop blokes will make sure you get home in one piece.

I know I don’t have to tell you why the game show classic “Match Game” is something whose like we will sadly never see again…but just like Jesus, it needs to be given its due at least twice a year. One of this weekend’s reruns on Game Show Network gives us the perfect opportunity by combining the usual display of C-list celebrity smarminess with bona-fide performance art. The highlights include:

Gary Burghoff, in wide lapels and out of his trademark “Radar” specs, clowning around with his fellow panel members – truly painful to watch. Gary, no one has ever or will ever care about you as a person. Will someone go back in time and inform him?

Charles Nelson Reilly (a.k.a. my personal savior) wearing a T-shirt with glitter letters spelling out “AGITA”. Later holding up a response card to alert the show’s producers to the fact that a comedy bit they had forced the panel to attempt had tanked: “It didn’t work AT ALL!”

That set: it’s not just me, right? It does look like a Confederate flag…?