Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ask The A.V. Club - May 30, 2008

More Than You Asked For

When I was very young, I worked as a maintenance person at the Maplewood Community Pool in Maplewood, NJ. I think it was around '94 or '95, and a band shot a music video on the high-dive towers at the back of the pool—which meant for this entire day, the diving tank was closed. The towers (as they call the high-dive platforms) were really just a single, three-platformed structure that people could dive off of. I don't remember much from that day, but I do remember a drum set on one of the platforms, people dancing, and people diving over and over again. And, of course, a small film crew. When I asked around about the band, someone said, and I do remember this distinctly, "Shudder To Think." Oddly enough, later in life I became a Shudder To Think fan. I found out about them again after listening to Jeff Buckley, who was apparently friends with them. I wondered if anyone at The A.V. Club knows about this video (which I can't find anywhere online). Was it Shudder To Think? If not, who was it?



Jason Heller shakes his halo down:

First of all, may I commend you on your awesome taste in '90s rock? The late Jeff Buckley, of course, continues to get all the respect he deserves, but the incredible, uncategorizable Shudder To Think has slipped into obscurity since its mid-'90s heyday, if you can even call it a heyday. But take heart: You aren't the only one who remembers and appreciates the band. Cursive's Tim Kasher would probably be the first to proudly admit the influence of STT on his music, and Kasher's Omaha pal Conor Oberst even went so far as to sign STT's leader Craig Wedren to his label, Team Love. Wedren has also popped up onstage lately with everyone from The Dead Science to Of Montreal, and STT guitarist Nathan Larson is married to Nina Persson of The Cardigans. (Oh, and Incubus covers STT's "X-French Tee Shirt," but let's conveniently forget about that, okay?)


But even back in the '90s, Shudder To Think had its big-name supporters: Smashing Pumpkins, Sunny Day Real Estate, and STT's Dischord Records labelmate Fugazi all handpicked the band as tourmates. Wedren and crew, though, really didn't fit in anywhere. Mixing off-kilter post-hardcore with glam, prog, and a baffling flamboyance, STT tried and failed to ride the alt-rock wave with its major-label debut, 1994's Pony Express Record. Where the album flopped commercially, it triumphed artistically: Pony Express remains one of the most unique, poetic, and cryptically sensual rock albums ever made, and it's gathered a rabid cult following over the years. (In fact, a track-by-track examination of the album, via an interview this March with former STT [and Jawbox] drummer Adam Wade, can be found here.)

Oh, wait, your question! Funny thing is, when I read your story about the shoot at the pool, I instantly remembered that video—particularly the images of Wedren diving off a platform. But I searched YouTube and beyond, all to no avail. There are videos for three songs from Pony Express Record—"X-French Tee Shirt," "Hit Liquor," and "Nine Fingers On You"—currently on YouTube, but the only one that's vaguely similar to the scenario you describe is the saucy pirate theme of "Hit Liquor." So I e-mailed Alec Bourgeois at Dischord. He couldn't remember the video either. Eventually, I tracked down Wade on MySpace, and he cleared up your question succinctly like so: "The video is for 'So Into You' from the Pony Express Record LP. I don't know why it's not online anywhere." I double-checked YouTube, and Wade's right—there's only an audio stream of the song up, no video. So we'll just have to rely on our oh-so-vivid memories:

And yes, that's the same "So Into You" written and ridden into Southern-rock Valhalla by Atlanta Rhythm Section in 1976—certainly a bizarre choice of cover for Shudder To Think, but one the band put its singular art-sleaze stamp on. As Wade says in the abovementioned Pony Express interview, "['So Into You'] was just a lot of fun to play… I love Nathan's Rites Of Spring-meets-Jane's Addiction guitar parts on the song."


Oh, and just in case you haven't heard: After keeping busy with numerous projects and soundtracks since the group's last proper studio album, 1997's way underrated 50,000 B.C., the members of Shudder To Think are staging a full-scale reunion August 10 in Baltimore at the Virgin Mobile Festival.

Who's That Girl? (Or Guy)

I've always been curious about how people who write about films directly associate an actor with their past work. By that, I mean that any time I read a DVD box and get the film blurb, it'll describe the plot and then point out other films that an actor has been in, such as "Samuel L. Jackson (The Man, Snakes On A Plane) and Robert Downey Jr. (Gothika, Weird Science)." I wonder how they pick which films to reference. Do the people who write the blurbs use the same system as film critics? When you guys do this, do you just pick whatever film strikes your fancy? If it were me, I think I'd be unable to help myself from referencing the worst possible films (as my example above may illustrate).



Tasha Robinson doesn't always give in to temptation:

Film critics and blurb-writers generally aren't using the same system there, Jess, because their intentions are different. A blurb-writer sending out a press release or writing copy for a DVD case is generally trying to sell a film, sometimes to a very specific intended audience, and will pick past films accordingly. For instance, the press packet for Iron Man prominently notes that star Robert Downey Jr. is the Oscar-nominated and BAFTA-winning star of Chaplin, and was in the Oscar-nominated George Clooney film Good Night, And Good Luck—even though Chaplin was 16 long years ago, and he's had a number of more prominent and more recent roles than the one in Good Night, And Good Luck. That's because the press-release writer is specifically trying to sell a big blockbuster film, and is seizing on the roles that make Downey sound most like a big, important, award-winning actor. And also because Downey doesn't have a history of starring in summer action blockbusters; you can bet that if he had even minor supporting roles in, say, Transformers and The Phantom Menace, a DVD blurb would mention those roles instead of the award-winners, because publicists are trying to sell Iron Man to roughly the same big-action-movie-fan audiences. Basically, a blurb-writer is looking for something, anything, that might cause a casual fan looking at the back of the Iron Man box to go ahead and pick it up. The best films to cite would be ones that Iron Man fans already flocked to in droves. Failing that, there are the award-winners, or films that were at least successful with some audiences.


Film critics, on the other hand, are usually not trying to sell you a film. They're far more likely to be trying to jar your memory and remind you who a given actor is. You'll note that The A.V. Club, at least, doesn't do that with all our reviews—we assume you already know who Robert Downey Jr. and Samuel L. Jackson are. But since you might not instantly know who, say, Hanna Schygulla from On The Edge Of Heaven is, we'll reach back to another memorable role she had (in, say, Werckmeister Harmonies) to remind you. There's a mental balancing act that goes on there, as we try to figure out which Schygulla role might mean something to the largest number of readers: What has she been in most recently? What has she had the most prominent or memorable role in? What movie was she in that might itself have been prominent enough to have reached a large audience? What have we ourselves seen? (We might wind up citing a lesser Schygulla film if we aren't up on her most recent work and don't want to risk citing something that might turn out to be a poorer example of her work.)

Of course, it has been noted that critics can expose some of their own prejudices, or just re-emphasize the gist of the review they're writing, when picking the movies they use to ID an actor. Someone who really likes the latest Halle Berry movie is far more likely to remind readers that she's the Oscar-winner from Monster's Ball, while someone who hates her latest project is probably going to be the one to cite her as the star of Gothika, Catwoman, Perfect Stranger, or Swordfish. It probably varies according to individual critics whether this is a conscious attempt to make Berry look better or worse, or is just a reflexive choice based on personal attitudes. But critics tend to be an analytical bunch by nature, so you can bet a good number of them are giving into that temptation you mentioned, to cite the worst-case scenarios from someone's checkered past.


Also, You're Free To Wear Sunscreen

I actually have to give a speech for graduates this year, and I was thinking about referencing a movie I'm pretty sure I saw as a junior-high-schooler. Of course, my recollection of it is vague, which is why I need your help.


The gist of this movie was to take advantage of your high-school and college years because these are the greatest years. I believe the theme song even had a chorus singing "These Are The Greatest Years" as an outro. The entire film was probably less than an hour and consisted of this guy doing stand-up, or telling stories about growing up. I want to find this and see if it holds up or if it sucks.

Dave From Rochester

Kyle Ryan holds it up:

I saw the same film at an assembly my freshman year of high school. If memory serves, the guy kind of looked and dressed like Dave Coulier from Full House, but I remember him being slightly funnier. Still, it was 100 percent cheese.


Anyway, the film came out in 1981 and was called The Greatest Days Of Your Life… (So Far), and the comic was Mark Sharenbroich. Unsurprisingly, Sharenbroich went on to have a successful career as a motivational speaker. He's the founder of something called the "Nice Bike principle" that "connects management to the front line."

Sharenbroich's website claims the video was seen by more than one million people—probably all of them trapped in similar school assemblies—and earned him Golden Apple and Silver Screen awards.


I couldn't find any YouTube clips, but there's an audio clip from it—featuring an inspirational rock song!—on marktheteacher.com.

You Have Only The Right To Remain Silent

I almost hate to admit it here, but I do regularly watch American Idol. Only this year have the contestants been given permission to perform songs by The Beatles. Also, there was some controversy this week about David Archuleta's overzealous stage-dad getting his boy to change the lyrics to "Stand By Me," which the producers said he shouldn't do because then they'd have to pay for permission to use the other song's lyrics he borrowed. My question is this: since any radio station can play pretty much any song they want, and any band can cover other artists' songs, why do bands suddenly get veto power if the song is to be used on TV or in a movie? I'm also thinking about the erasing of pop songs from WKRP in Cincinnati and Led Zeppelin's famous refusal to grant permission to most uses of their songs. What gives?



Tasha Robinson again:

I started to knock off a quickie, behind-the-scenes response to your letter, Taiwanjason, explaining that you're just framing the problem incorrectly because your assumptions are way off. But then I realized I was overreaching my knowledge, so I consulted with someone I know who happens to be the business manager of a record company, and who deals with these kinds of rights issues and fees on a regular basis. He let me know that my assumptions were off too. Here's the brief digest of what he told me:

Commercial radio stations can't just "play whatever they want"—at least not for free. They have a legal blanket permission to play songs at will, and don't have to seek out permission for each song, which would make commercial radio a bureaucratic nightmare. But stations do have to track everything that they play and pay licensing fees back to the songs' publishers, which (supposedly) pass that money on to the songwriters. And bands can play what they want to play live—probably because there's no easy way to track, say, who's playing "Freebird" on a given night—but venues cover the cost of licensing the performed songs by buying licenses from performing-rights organizations like ASCAP and SESAC, and unlicensed venues face fines and possible shutdown. ASCAP—the American Society Of Composers, Authors, And Publishers—is aggressive about protecting musical copyright, and made history by going after performers who played covers of songs solely on the Web without paying ASCAP fees. The organization even threatened to sue the Boy Scouts for singing ASCAP-licensed songs without paying fees in advance.


And that's just for playing a recording on your radio station, or singing the song in public. If you want to actually record or transmit a cover of a song, you pay a different set of fees. If you want to cover, say, a Beatles a song on your CD, you pay a statutory rate to the publisher, and you have the legal right to record the song without getting specific permission. But if you want to perform that same song on DVD, it's considered the equivalent of television performance, and you have to get special permission in advance in addition to paying a fee.

But it's possible from the wording of your question that you already understood all this, and were just being a little flippant, and what you really wanted to know was why all these different types of rights are regulated in such different ways. Well, that's because they're overseen by different organizations in different ways. And the laws regulating different types of song use and performance were made at different times, have become separate areas of law over the years, and were influenced by groups with varying amounts of power, depending on the time. (ASCAP, for instance, arguably had its era of greatest power in the '30s, when it was setting the radio rates, and before rival organization BMI was formed as competition.) If you really want to get into it, you might start with Wikipedia's page section on music royalties, which explains, for instance, the difference between mechanical rights (recording on CDs), performance rights, digital rights (through Web streaming and the like), and so forth. It also gives the actual fees, in case you want to know, say, what it would cost you to cover a song on a CD, and it gets into the origins of some of these types of rights. It's a big, complicated field with a long, complicated history.


But one way or another, it isn't free and unregulated. If you're making money off of someone else's work or incorporating it into your own for-profit artwork, you're generally obligated to pay them in one form or another, according to one set or rules or another. Hence all the recent flap about sampling, and whether "fair use" principles would let artist A use a snatch of Artist B's music songs without getting permission or paying fees. Tempting, isn't it, to have a shot at avoiding the whole mess altogether?

Next week: When media privilege becomes a burden, and when it doesn't. Send your questions to asktheavclub@theonion.com.


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