Seeing Queen maestro Brian May return to infrared astronomy and complete his Ph.D. thesis on interplanetary dust after 35 years of the music business has bolstered me to return to my abandoned heliostatic theories on pop music and its shrinking impact on our solar system. For years, I've been loath to share my findings with you, noble readers, for fear of being labeled a doomsayer, a gloomcaster, a Nostradamus on Benzodiazepines. But that all changed when this drabbest of assignments hopped out of my inbox — discussing which of these punch lines best deserves your entertainment dollar this week, Candlebox or Saving Abel.
And since this dullery came bundled with a word count that I cannot hope to satisfy without going into a long discussion about how the Kardashians are ruining everything for everyone, I am ready to share these pop music postulations with you now.
Pop music, when at its best, cannot exist in a vacuum. It can only thrive when people are paying close attention to it. And that generally occurs only when there is a universal supernova of an act that forces people to pay attention, its brilliance sending out shards of light to its neighboring acts, much as the sun illuminates planets, circling moons and galactic debris. These heavenly bodies all gain strength from their near proximity to the supernova, shining their reflected glory as if they too are brilliant, thus giving the illusion that there's a lot of interesting shit going on in our pop universe.
Thusly, in the '50s and '60s and partially through the '70s, when artists were forced to put out several records a year, the speed at which they were forced to create resulted in almost constant combustion between the supernova and its lesser lights. And there were once a lot more supernovas. In that ideal pop universe, where you had an Elvis, a Beatles, a Stones, a Dylan, a Zeppelin, a Marvin Gaye, a Sly Stone, a Stevie Wonder, a Michael Jackson, a James Brown and a Curtis Mayfield, all creating at the same time, it was easy to view such neighboring acts as the Dave Clark Five, Herman's Hermits, Three Dog Night, the Marvelettes, the Dells and Little Anthony & the Imperials as supernovas of equal importance, even if their brilliance never extended beyond the singles format.
But that was light years ago. Since the late '80s, when hair farmers and boy bands proved how low we had yet to devolve as a culture, our pop universe has essentially been orbiting around a dying sun. Sure, there've been little explosions of brilliance, but nothing we as a planet could universally get behind. Rock historians will tell you Nirvana was the last band the whole world championed like a supernova — basking in the glow of Nirvana's rapid rise and flame-out you had Candlebox, a band summed up by Courtney Love as "the worst nightmare that any of us Northwest natives could ever have had. A band that moved up here, literally, with flat hair to get signed during my husband's band's media craze." Their opportunist's migration to Seattle achieved the desired effect — the band signed in short order with Maverick, Madonna's record label. It is altogether possible that Ms. Ciccione, suffering one of her worst career doldrums ever, might've hoped accruing some secondhand indie cred on the buzz generated by Nirvana might sell some extra copies of Bedtime Stories.
With the entire ensuing hype going around, about Seattle and flannel, Candlebox was temporarily able to convince the general public that it was the real deal, grunge without the stomach cramps and a predisposition to suicidal thinking. Three million people bought into Candlebox's debut album, released during the nail-biting months of anticipation between Nevermind and In Utero. When Kurt Cobain stopped Nirvana's career cold with a fatal gun blast, he also advertently killed Candlebox's chances for any further reflected glory. The band released a second album called Lucy, which, unlike America's favorite redhead, nobody loved. In fact it just barely went gold.
But Cobain's death hasn't stopped Candlebox from still trying to glean some cred by association. Google "Candlebox" and "Kurt Cobain" and you find dozens of repostings of this phrase from the band's Wikipedia page: "One of [Candlebox's] early detractors was Kurt Cobain of Nirvana." Since the Wiki entry is about the only noncritical overview of Candlebox online, you can be sure that it was penned by someone in the band's camp. I was unable to produce a quote from Cobain showing the band the same contempt his wife did while he was still alive, and yet the band seems to be wearing this dismissal as a badge of honor. Are they insinuating that Cobain was an early detractor who came around to like the band, or that he was the first to recognize the band's ability to suck all the life out of grunge and make it palatable for Wal-Mart shoppers? Had he lived, might've he also have been a "late detractor" as well? At any rate, it's a dubious distinction, in the same way accounts of President James Garfield's two months in office have only "shot by disappointed office seeker" as the lone highlight.
Candlebox reunited in 2006 and put out one of the more reprehensible rock videos in recent times with "Stand." The video remakes Van Halen's "Right Now" clip, omitting any cutesy or whimsical factoids like "Right now Ed is playing the piano" instead supplying us with more dire pronouncements than Mother Jones and Weekly World News combined, like "1 out of 5 Americans is without health care" and "Each U.S. citizen's share of the national debt is $30,804.98." Neither of which should make you want to shell out $15.99 for a Candlebox CD. As singer Kevin Martin puts it, "Fuck you, consumption!" Indeed!
Saving Abel is operating under a bigger handicap than Kevin Martin and company — given what a drought for rock the '00s have been, the only supernovas Saving Abel can draw energy from are Nickelback, Staind, Shinedown, Puddle of Mudd, 3 Doors Down and a reunited Candlebox! If you dropped a bomb on that last sentence there'd be no hope ever for a Buzz Cuts 2! These bands — and Candlebox was among the first — are what's known as "post-grunge," which means they filtered out anything that was good about original-formula grunge and fortified it with extra-strength suckitude.
If you've never heard of this Mississippi band, you could be forgiven for mistaking Saving Abel for one of those Christian rock bands you hear not so much about. Rest assured, lead singer Jared Weeks didn't pluck the band's name from his nightly Bible studies, but rather by Googling the story of Cain and his goody-goody brother. This Abel is all about telling you how much women are ripe for the plucking, as best heard in the band's most popular song "Addicted"— "I'm so addicted to all the things you do when you're going down on me." Quite a reversal from grunge's low-sex-drive-because-of-heroin-use blueprint.
Ditto for the group's more recent salute to mister and misogyny, "Stupid Girl (Only in Hollywood)," which the group defensively says isn't a putdown because the chorus clearly says, "You're not a stupid girl." Yeah, but the title clearly says she is stupid.
So far Saving Abel (whose name anagrams into "A Snivel Bag" for those of you who require such Freudian slippage information) seems to want it both ways: to make sure the women know they ain't no homos while they're on the road, but to pad the album with ballads wimpy enough to make them think they just might be husband material when they're off the road. The saddest thing about the incredible shrinking pop music pie and the expanding law of diminishing returns is that when Candlebox's second album only went gold in 1995, it was considered a huge failure. For Saving Abel in 2009, it's a raging success. Aww, fuck you again, consumption!
Serene Dominic routinely writes satire for Metro Times. You can reach him are of [email protected]
Both bands will play the National Music Stage at Arts, Beats & Eats on Friday, Sept. 3; Saving Abel at 7 p.m., Candlebox at 8:45 p.m. See artsbeatseats.com for more info.