Jeff’s NXNE2014 – Night #2

First, Navi, ambient performers playing parts of their upcoming album ‘Derelict__528’ in a cool, tiny Kensington office/event space. A projector shone from behind a piece of wood with a pattern of cut out circles. They played piano, guitar, voice electronics, tape ambience, and kalimba.

You need to be prepared for an ambient show, because the music is always more chilled than you are, and it takes time to adjust. In that dark studio with the windows blacked out, the only light being the trippy patterns shining through variously-sized holes, it was as close to being on shrooms in a cave as you can be without taking shrooms in a cave. This tells you more about the feel of the music than its sound, and that’s the point of the music. But the music was stylized dissonance, the harmony and rhythm artistically tense, staggering the on and off beat. You felt a pull, yet it wasn’t overwhelming for being so slow and spaced out. It’s hard to play atonal music with such irregular rhythms. Respect.

Then things got crazy. I have never laughed so hard as I did Thursday at Lee’s Palace, seeing Macaulay Culkin’s “band,” The Pizza Underground.

Pizza Underground

(via Pizza Underground Tumblr)

The Pizza Underground is an incredibly funny joke, a living indictment of contemporary culture that is unashamedly derivative and values popularity over quality or integrity. They’ve been written up a bunch lately, but some background if you don’t know who they are.

Culkin started a band where every song takes a Velvet Underground song and changes the lyrics to be about pizza. Example, Take a Bite of the Wild Slice, where “doo–doo doo–doo doo” is replaced by “chew—chew chew–chew chew.” A guitar player plays basic chords in simple fashion, there’s a tambourine, glockenspiel, Culkin plays kazoo and a woman treats a pizza box as a percussion instrument (they play a local pizza box wherever they play, “Each box has its own nuanced sound that represents the pizzerias from where they came”). The band is not stupid, nor are they terrible musicians aspiring but failing miserably to be acceptable—they are very much in on the joke. Of course they are.

People have extreme opinions of this group. That they got booed offstage and had beers thrown at them didn’t deter people from filling up Lee’s Palace, proving the old adage there’s no such thing as bad press.

Many hate them, claiming they’re terrible musicians, and resent that they’re becoming popular despite having no substance. The band implicitly asks this question: why is viral culture acceptable online (and if it’s viral It’s not just accepted, but by definition popular) but not offline? Maybe people watch stupid viral videos because it’s done from home and it’s free, but resent when it costs them time and money. But people do waste huge amounts of time on viral videos, and time is money. The Pizza Underground is a serious but funny joke aiming to put the stupidity of viral online culture into painfully sharp relief by transferring it to the offline world.

And The Pizza Underground is a viral video living in real life: the initial hook, the reason it can take off, is Macaulay Culkin’s presence, but after this it’s a conscious, crude fusion of everything viral, filtered in turn through things popular and derivative—pizza and the Velvet Underground.

This is explicitly their method. The set featured a segment called “Pussy Joel,” where a screen shoots rapid-fire through pictures of cats to the verse of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” of course altered so the lyrics are simply the names of the cats. They even say on stage, the only thing more popular than pizza is cats. A band member sits on the edge of the stage watching the video, taking pictures of his band’s own performance. A Kurt Cobain look-alike sings “All Apologize.”

Taking bona fide popular nostalgia but changing it a bit is unabashedly modern, and so is their promotion, which is choreographed to look spontaneous and sincere. They have pizza parties after some shows, as if they love pizza so much they need to share it when really it’s a calculated investment to get people spreading their name—branding. My friend took a picture of the band on Instagram and, shortly after the show, Macaulay Culkin himself liked it—social media. Ryan Gosling wore a t-shirt of Macaulay Culkin wearing a t-shirt of Ryan Gosling wearing a t-shirt of Macaulay Culkin…and on and on. This gets categorized as news by media outlets reporting this as if it were a story, not just pure promotion. Everyone, from corporations to politicians, deliberately blurs the line between advertising and reality, making the advertising seem natural and unselfconscious, by having a third party do it.

The Pizza Underground shines a light on how dangerous this can be by showing how successfully it can work, even on something as flagrantly ridiculous as themselves. Though the danger from the ploy is gone when it’s used for something harmless, like a bunch of people making an elaborate joke. If they became popular but were kind of good musicians writing actual songs, the joke wouldn’t work and the point would be lost. They need to become popular by being extremely modern and brutal.

If you’re pissed you paid $15 under the impression you were seeing music, I get that. NXNE expanded comedy, perhaps this act was filed in the wrong category. Only I think The Pizza Underground should be disorienting. Their point, that even the stupidest thing can become popular if you just follow the right formula in its execution and promotion, is felt more strongly if at first you aren’t sure what the hell you’re watching. But any speculation would be useless if they weren’t actually funny, and they are.

Following them was a tight group from California called Shannon and the Clams. They were actually really good, the guitar sweep picking surfer riffs up the neck, the bass player holding it down hard. I was feeling it, but it was had to come down from that Macaulay Culkin mindfuck and see actual music. I was still laughing!

Next we ate pizza then saw Odonis Odonis at the Garrison. They were good, hard screaming rock, and there was a bit of a mosh pit, but more respect than love. But next was the coolest soul DJ I’ve ever seen. He wore a gold suit and a frilled shirt and each song he played was better than the last. There was a formal dance competition, with numbers on people’s backs and everything. The floor was going wild.

Yes, but I’m just glad Macaulay Culkin’s career is on the rise. I understand he has overcome serious addiction troubles, like a lot of people get when they receive too much money and attention too soon have, and I wish him nothing but the best of both continued good health and luck with his new wonderful outfit.

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Read Night #3->

About Jeff Halperin

Jeff Halperin was a city hall reporter at the Toronto Standard, but his writing has also appeared at Maclean's, the Grid and elsewhere. He also writes on literature, Leafs, music, chess and more. Jeff's website is [here] For other PP posts by Jeff click [here]