Maybe we’re not passive, addicted consumers of the “celebrity feed” after all, but its masters, in a very real economic and creative sense. It is our disposable income that finances the lurid real-life show, and the show answers to our ancient narrative hungers; so we are the storytellers – or at least the creative consultants – as well. The celebrities themselves, then, are our culture toys: animatronic pets. We dress them up and down; grow them tangled beards, seclude them in Greek Island villas and encourage them to say crazy things about Adonis DNA. Then we clean them up and present them at banquets; feed them drugs and amuse-bouche to keep them slender; pair them in love and in battle; mate and breed them and raise them to a troubled maturity in our lush flat-screen terrariums.
We bid them tell all the stories that we like to hear, especially the one about love. When our fascination wanes – which is usually, but not always, synchronous with the decline of elasticity in their skin – we sell them off at a fraction of their original value in boxes of loose extremities, heads and headless torsos: the quarry of the collector class. Then we make new ones. And it’s all okay. It’s our right, in fact, protected by New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and justified by reams of impenetrable cultural theory that we can all go pretend to understand at New York University.
It is, I suppose, kind of refreshing to view ourselves, in the collective, as the makers of the Big Stupid rather than its manipulated victims; but we lose something in the deal as well. When you embrace the idea that all is culture-play, you’re forced to relinquish your most deeply held distinctions between what is pop garbage and what is, like, real art. In the pure postmodern mind, well-defended value judgment is quaint and moot. The act with the most eyeballs is perforce the most vivid and relevant thing going.
A particularly lively and smart celebrity-play ritual goes down every sixth Saturday at Market Market, Rosendale’s hip Brooklyn-import restaurant and music club. It is called the Tributon, and, well into its third year, it has become legendary. A Tributon is an evening-long, multi-performer musical event devoted to the work of one famous recording artist (with some variations in format lately, like Motown or one-hit wonders).
While there are many Tributon regulars, there’s no particular consistency to the lineup: An evening might include active local performers like Kelleigh McKenzie with her banjo and stomping board, Skip Piper with his corrosive electric guitar blasting through a tiny amp or Chris Tanis and his ukulele. Established and ad hoc bands perform interpretations running from radical to fastidiously faithful. One band actually got kicked off the stage for doing a long fusion jam that seemed to have nothing to do with the celebrity subject. So there are some ground rules. Sometimes the subject/singer might be an especially challenging one to channel, like Freddy Mercury; but that is why God invented Jude Roberts.
There might be costumed musical skits led by Julie Novak, John Cox’s trivia contests and an appearance by the Altar Egos, a husband-and-wife, rabbi-and-nun-fronted unit that cherrypicks songs with religious implications. The spirit in the small house is conspiratorial, lavishly supportive and, hopefully, not too insular for a newcomer. On a good night, performers do not outnumber all other patrons. Most of them are good nights.
There’s an unwritten rule of pop-culture theory: The more pop the subject, the more obtuse, difficult and theoretical the theory. Call it the Madonna Axiom: Is it yet possible to get a PhD in Madonna Studies at NYU? Ms. Ciccone was the first Tributon target, and that night, the theater was high. The next subject, however, suggested the beginnings of a change in direction. Everyone knows that Prince Roger Nelson is a high-end icon, the man for whom even one name is too many. But he’s also a pretty wonderful musician.
Next came Bowie, and the transformation was fully underway. David Bowie is as iconic as any rocker could be, and he toys with his fame with ten times the nuance of your average Madonna. But he is a rocker first, make no mistake. The Bowie Tributon was packed to the proverbial rafters. Performers who could not squeeze through the front door set up on the patio and played for an exterior audience of 30 or 40 under a light February snow while the tribute proper rolled on inside. It was nuts. My life changed that night. Market Market was onto something.
From there, Market Market donned the nerd spectacles and called Elvis Costello, cementing this shift in orientation from pop brand to rock band, from winking, savvy culture-play to a real musical workshop that drew distinctly different crowds for each celebrated subject: the Kinks, T. Rex, the Pretenders, P. J. Harvey, the Clash, Queen, the Pixies, the Stones, the Velvet Underground and eventually the Beatles. (People had been wondering whether Market Market had been avoiding the Beatles for a reason.)
About seven or eight Tributons into the series, the venue’s married owners, Jenifer Constantine and Trippy Thompson, revealed the secret history of the Tributon, its hidden motive. Their original idea had been to organize a casual night of homage to one relatively obscure act that was meaningful to them: the wonderful ‘90s indie band Guided by Voices. But, fearing that few would come out for that, they built the series up first with the Big Names, transitioning gradually to a context in which Guided by Voices would make sense. Then, once the momentum was unstoppable, they had their GbV Tributon: a smaller but passion-fueled event. I believe that it may still be the only Tributon at which the owners performed.
In retrospect, it was an inspired strategy, culturally and commercially: leveraging the iconic celebrities first to build an audience, and then using that forum to celebrate the underground and cult artists who comprise an oppositional economy and culture, the alternative to McDonna. As I said, it’s a smart, lively place.
At the next Tributon, on Saturday, March 24 at 10 p.m., Market Market will orchestrate a gloomy, angst-ridden standoff that has been waiting to happen for years: the Cure versus the Smiths. Market Market is located at 1 Madeleine Lane in Rosendale. Visit www.marketmarketcafe.com. There is no cover charge at Tributons.