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The Boston Phoenix Pop on the Rocks

The Presidents' swan song.

By Matt Ashare

MARCH 9, 1998:  Pop is by most definitions disposable music, manufactured and marketed to appeal immediately and uncomplicatedly to a mass audience, deriving its larger meaning from the degree to which it succeeds in the commercial realm. Rock, which the British critic Simon Frith has consistently distinguished from pop, is often thought to be serious music, an art form like any other, where artistic self-expression takes precedence over commercial concerns.

Of course, the line between pop and art was crossed a long time ago, most famously by Andy Warhol. And in music such boundaries are respected only periodically, usually when it's a useful way for successful artists -- Pearl Jam, perhaps, or Nirvana for a time -- to distinguish their meaningful rock from the meaningless pop it shares the airwaves and the charts with. But rock artists also sometimes rebel by creating pop laced with an ironic commentary on pop's disposability and/or the pretensions of rock. And that's where Seattle's Presidents of the United States of America (singer/bassitarist Chris Ballew, guitarist Dave Dederer, and drummer Jason Finn) positioned themselves three years ago, when their quirky homonymous debut was released on a tiny indie label called PopLlama.

The Presidents, who broke up just before Christmas last year and whose final CD -- a collection with three new songs, B-sides, cover tunes, live tracks, and other rarities titled Pure Frosting -- comes out this Tuesday, experienced an amazingly rapid ascent from hipster in-joke to major-label sensation in 1995. They were the band to see that year at Austin's annual South by Southwest music conference, and the hype translated into a deal with Columbia, who re-released The Presidents of the United States of America, scored three Top 40 hits with it, and went on to sell four million copies. Not bad for a scrappy little trio with no more than five guitar strings (three on one guitar; two on the other) between them. The Presidents went home with a 1995 Grammy for Best Alternative Music Performance.

As for the music on that CD, it was initially every bit as funny as it was infectious. The first big single, "Lump," which gets reprised rambunctiously on the new disc in a live version, was a short, sweet dadaist nursery rhyme set to a revved-up bubblegrunge riff -- two and a half minutes of utter nonsense, which offered both a respite from and a tongue-in-cheek commentary on the overly serious soul-searching nature of most of what was passing for commercial alternative. "Kitty" and "Peaches," the two follow-up singles, were, as advertised, little more than ditties about kitties and peaches -- which may have marked the first time ever that the words "pussy" and "peach" were used in a rock song to denote furry animals and fruits respectively.

But regardless of how much irony went into making those songs, they were quickly transformed into the real thing -- disposable pop product -- by the mass market, where the trip from amusing to annoying to downright irritating is a remarkably short one. And though I wouldn't want to place all the blame on the Presidents' shoulders, they did as much as any band at the time (Nike's cutting-edge ad campaigns did more still) to expose grunge and alternative as the scam it had so rapidly become. Needless to say, the Presidents' second album, 1996's II (Columbia), was a commercial disappointment.

It's fitting, then, that the single from Pure Frosting is a cover of "Video Killed the Radio Star," a new-wave novelty number by the one-hit-wonder Buggles, which simultaneously warned of and precipitated the encroaching video era in pop when it announced the arrival of MTV almost 20 years ago. Like the Presidents of the United Sates of America, irony couldn't save the Buggles from becoming unwitting victims of their own success and the fact that, except where Weird Al Yankovich is concerned, novelties have an inherently short shelf life. For the record, you can also find the Presidents' version of the Buggles tune on Maverick's soundtrack for The Wedding Singer.

As for the rest of the disc, well, there aren't any revelations, unless, like me, you didn't realize that the Presidents do that "Cleveland Rocks" theme song (an Ian Hunter cover) for The Drew Carey Show. There's an acoustic ditty, "Sunshine," which is, you know, a song about sunshine; there's a hook-laden rocker called "Love Delicatessen," which is about a delicatessen where people go to get, you know, love. And, well, you get the point: lotsa infectious hooks, not a lot of deep thoughts. It all ends where it started, with frontguy Chris Ballew introducing "Lump" with the a wry "Alright, here's a rock song." He might mean it to be a rock song -- in fact he probably does. But damn if doesn't sound exactly like pop.


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