Why Do I Own This? is a column exploring the weirder pop-culture flotsam and jetsam that washes up in the lives of A.V. Club writers, the impulses that drive us to acquire such things, and the motives for clinging to them long after their ephemeral eras pass.
What is it? Although significantly diluted by years of made-for-TV duds and sub-Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker spoofs like the Loaded Weapon series, the National Lampoon brand received an unexpected shot in the arm in 2002. All it required was going back to the once-mighty satire empire’s roots: An Animal House reboot by any other name, National Lampoon’s Van Wilder was the first bona fide hit to fly under the Lampoon banner since Christmas Vacation. The slobs-vs.-snobs campus comedy launched the film careers of stars Ryan Reynolds and Kal Penn; for his valiant service as the Pinto to Reynolds’ Boon, Penn was given top billing in Van Wilder’s 2006 sequel, The Rise Of Taj.
Penn also receives prominent placement on the cover of that film’s soundtrack, the character’s zero-to-hero ascent demonstrated by his relaxed posture, triumphantly hoisted beer, and the two co-eds posed like preppy, pants-less bookends on either side of the film’s canine co-star, the aptly named Balzac. It might be hard to make the well-hung bulldog out on the booklet of this particular CD, however, because he’s partially covered by the Sharpied signature of a movie-stoner-turned-presidential-apointee. But wait, there’s more: Penn’s autograph is accompanied by the John Hancocks of two artists featured on the soundtrack: Art Alexakis, frontman of modern-rock-radio mainstay Everclear (already the band’s sole remaining original member in 2006), and Jonny Dubowsky, rock ’n’ roll dandy and leader of power-pop act Jonny Lives.
How did I get it? “Newspaper reporter” may be the worst job in the nation, but “entertainment reporter for a college newspaper” is the best in any economy—even if the pay is terrible/nonexistent and the job itself open only to currently enrolled students. It’s not just the mountains of free stuff that make the job, or the inflated sense of self that comes with a printed byline distributed across thousands of ivy-covered acres. It’s also the weird junket-interview opportunities that arise to, say, place an undergrad in a tastefully appointed hotel room with a future member of the Obama administration, two musicians on opposite career trajectories, and a British movie blogger who bore a passing resemblance to Ricky Gervais (and who has thus been replaced wholesale in my memory by Ricky Gervais). For this I dragged myself out of bed one Friday morning in November, driving roughly 80 miles to tony Birmingham, Michigan, to inform the readers of “Michigan State University’s independent voice,” The State News, of a sequel none of them had asked for and a concert being held in the neighborhood of our cross-state rival, the hated University of Michigan. (Boo, hiss.) I did it for the story, but I also did it for, you know, the story.
More than six years later, I don’t remember much about that interview, The Rise Of Taj, or the Everclear-Jonny Lives package tour assembled to promote the film and its accompanying soundtrack album. If I may drop the veil of professionalism for a moment: I never saw the movie, and only cracked the CD open to give it a listen for this feature, so any questions I asked during the roundtable discussions were softballs (or queries for Alexakis related to Everclear’s So Much For The Afterglow, a disc that got a lot of play in my off-brand Discman in the late ’90s). The image that sticks out in my mind is the assembled group seated around a long, boardroom-style table, probably not unlike the ones Penn now sits at to report his latest findings as President Obama’s Associate Director Of Public Engagement (Youth, Arts and Asian American And Pacific Islander Communities). Only, instead of talking about outreach efforts, the main topic of conversation was a bulldog with huge fake testicles.
However, I do remember Ricky Gervais asking the interview subjects to autograph a few items of swag when our time was up. Even as a not-yet-degreed journalist, I knew this was a major ethical no-no, but when the publicist asked if I wanted my copy of the CD (which I had with my notebook for only God knows why) signed, I panicked. Not wanting to seem rude, I handed the jewel case over, nervously smiled while Ricky Gervais said something sycophantic, thanked everyone for their time, and raced to the elevator, where I mopped a layer of flop sweat from my brow on the ride down to the hotel lobby. The colon-festooned, scribbled-on National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: The Rise Of Taj: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack is still in my possession, a souvenir from my pop-culture-writing salad days, an anecdote and memento both acquired from similar cases of “Why the hell not?”
What’s its cultural significance? Beyond the legacy of the Harold And Kumar films and Penn’s foray into politics, negligible. The album itself is fairly anonymous, fitting for a movie that flitted in and out of the public consciousness: Its most recognizable song, Buckcherry’s frustratingly unkillable “Crazy Bitch,” had already wrapped its run on the Billboard Top 100 by the time of the film’s release. There’s an active-rock station and/or strip-club DJ somewhere in the United States pushing that song’s impression of an un-pretentious Jane’s Addiction at this very second, but you’re less likely to come across Fueled By Ramen survivor Punchline or apparent mid-to-late ’00s soundtrack favorite The Skies Of America (led by Mr. Carnie Wilson, Rob Bonfiglio) in the wild. As for the contributions from the guys I met in that Metro Detroit hotel room: Everclear’s “Hater” ain’t no “Santa Monica” (or even an “I Will Buy You A New Life”), but the grit-and-glitter of Jonny Lives’ lead-off track, “Get Steady” could be rescued by some future curator of forgotten power-pop. The track’s video (bundled with the soundtrack as an Enhanced CD bonus) makes for a decent 2006 time capsule, featuring some ham-fisted political commentary that foreshadows Penn’s time in the White House. Also featured: Boobs, so NFSW.
Why would I get rid of it? Because it’s a physical representation of an ethical compromise I made only so I wouldn’t offend people I’d just met. Also, it’s not like it’s a handsomely packaged gatefold version of the Animal House score autographed by John Belushi and Elmer Bernstein; it’s a pop product rendered obsolete by technology and irrelevant by a measly box-office gross. In the end, the franchise that could’ve been National Lampoon’s saving grace put the brand back where it found it: The prequel Van Wilder: Freshmen Year bowed in 2009 with a direct-to-DVD release.
How much could I get for it? As of this writing, used copies of the soundtrack are selling for as little as a penny on Amazon. (Optimistic Australian eBay seller soundtrackspecialist is offering his or her advance copy for a starting bid of $20.57.) Penn’s signature, meanwhile, doesn’t appear to be worth more than a case of decent microbrew—add his Harold And Kumar cohorts John Cho and Neil Patrick Harris and the asking price jumps up into the low three figures. I’d wager that Alexakis and Dubowsky don’t have the same effect on the item’s bottom line.
What are the chances I’ll keep it? High. I’ve never shelved the Rise Of Taj soundtrack with the rest of the CDs in my collection—some of which impugn my personal tastes far more than some faceless hard-rock acts and Hanson might. (All grown-up and seemingly big into The Black Crowes, the “MMMBop” brothers take lucky no. 13 on the tracklisting with “The Ugly Truth.”) And yet it’s survived a pair of cross-country moves, filed away with other knicknacks from my State News days. As of a few weeks ago, it was in a Ziploc bag with dozens of 1-inch buttons and ticket stubs. The Rise Of Taj soundtrack might as well stay with that stuff, all of it representing college experiences real, imagined, or altered with time.