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Five Degrees Below Zero 

Subterranean Observations of Pop Culture

Pop culture is fickle and omnipresent. While its meaning(lessness) evades us, it continues to rain down its barrage of goods and services, sights and sounds, noises and images. This monthly column seeks out those droplets that tasted different on the tongue ... observations of subterranean phenomena presumed lost in the thunder-and-lightning show ... vignettes discovered in the fluid expanse--five mercurial sips for those still thirsty after the saturation.

1º--Bob Dylan Live on the Oscars, ABC, Sunday, March 25
Leering in a close-up shot as he performed his Oscar-nominated song, "Things Have Changed," live via satellite from Australia, Bob Dylan looked like Salvador Dali placed in one of his own surrealist paintings. With a pencil moustache above his bolo tie and black eyeliner sloping down to the bags beneath his gaze, Dylan sang, "I'm in the wrong town, I should be in Hollywood." But his voice suggested something different, something more like the title to his 1989 song, "Everything is Broken." As Dylan's giant owl eyes and craggy face peered out from the huge billboard video screen, looming incongruously over the audience of beautiful, glamorous, hair-gelled celebrities, his voice sounded like the ugliest rusted metal rake ever dragged across a cemetery tombstone; it sounded like death itself rattling skeleton bones through the microwave transmission.

Yet after finishing the chilling performance and winning the award in what Caryn James called in The New York Times an "act of nostalgia by the baby-boom-dominated Academy," Dylan instantaneously stepped out of musical character, becoming Bobby Zimmerman, the actor who only plays "Bob Dylan." He declared in a bright, cheery voice, "Oh good God, this is amazing ... I'd like to thank the members of the Academy who were bold enough to give me this award for this song. It's a song that doesn't pussyfoot around or turn a blind eye to human nature.'' So the question remains, as perhaps it always has: Who is this Bob Dylan? Where is he going? Are we with him? Has he or his audience become "the one with the moustache," the character in Dylan's own 1965 surrealist masterpiece "Visions of Johanna" who declares: "Geez, I can't find my knees"?

2º--Dump, That Skinny Motherfucker With the High Voice? (Shrimper)
Dump, aka James McNew, bass player for indy-rock stalwarts Yo La Tengo, carries on indie land's obsession with Prince, an obsession begun by fellow moniker-takers Smog (Bill Callahan) and Bonnie "Prince" Billy (Will Oldham). Callahan's great 1995 song, "Prince Alone In the Studio," pictured The Purple One at dawn, choosing the sensuality of perfecting a guitar solo over the pleasures of the flesh. Oldham, also the owner of various pseudonyms ranging from Palace Brothers and Palace Music to just plain old Palace, paid homage to Prince's ever-mutating persona with his own unfixed identity as Bonnie "Prince" Billy.

But McNew tops them all with an entire album of Prince covers performed in classic indie lo-fi style. Set in a mildewed bathtub of murky reverb, the album is the sound of a fellow musician mulling over the enigma of Prince, revealing a mixture of appreciation, jealousy, and a kind of deadpan awe. It's just plain weird: '80s pop transformed into homemade folk music. The highlight is McNew's version of "Raspberry Beret," in which our beloved Dump tells us about putting that girl, who--when it was warm--wouldn't wear much more than her hat, on the backseat of his bike. In Prince's version, it's a motorcycle; in McNew's, it's an old, thrift-store Schwinn. But the crush is just as intense, and almost as sexy. Let's just hope we don't get to see the rather husky Dump in those famous buttless pants Prince once wore on the MTV Music Awards.

3º--Wayne Thiebaud, "A Paintings Retrospective," The Phillips Academy, Washington, D.C. (closed April 29); The Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City (opens June 28)
Hugely under-appreciated postwar painter Wayne Thiebaud is most famous for his Pop Art-like birthday cakes, candy dispensers, pinball machines, and diner cases featuring sandwiches, salads, and pies--all painted in gloopy, sickly-sweet colors isolated against blank white backgrounds. The exhibition actually makes a big deal about not confusing Thiebaud with Pop Art: He's sincere and appreciative of the consumer objects of postwar mass culture, while artists like Andy Warhol deployed them for irony's sake. But something more complicated is going on, too.

1963's "Cream Soups," for instance, is a portrayal of eight soup bowls in a slanted row, illuminated starkly against a white background by artificial spotlights. Four are filled with orange soup, four with green. Since Warhol's famous Campbell's soup can silkscreens had been made a year earlier, this painting seems like a wonderful, irony-tinged comment on Warhol as much as a loving, if slightly bizarre, appreciation for cream soup. The best parts of the painting are the thick brushstrokes of white paint that encircle each bowl's saucer and the distinctive shadow cast by each bowl itself. Thiebaud's painting suggests that each object within the world of mass consumption might reverberate with its own significance, its own sustenance. Yet let's not forget the painting's insinuation of the emptiness and isolation felt within a world of vast repetitions. Now if that's not a good, supple, subtle use of irony, what is?

4º--Art Ensemble of Chicago, The Spirtual (1969; rerelease on 1201 Music)
Self-exiled in Paris, this pioneering quartet of "Great Black Music," their term for the avant-garde jazz they had been developing and exploring as part of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) collective, released nine albums--in 1969 alone! This offering is full of tooting horns (car horns, mind you, as well as instruments), shakers, rattles, sirens, whistles, harmonica, harpsichord, banjo, chants and curious vocal commentary. Which is to say it's full of space, humor, intrigue, touch, delight and the blues. The music flows by, blending into and out of the very air, breaking the silence to which it returns: a gurgle of grace moving through the swirl of existence, zooming into the future, receding into the past, settling in place for a moment, spraying sound that splits walls even as it evaporates into nothingness.

5º--Harry Smith, Heaven and Earth Magic (Mystic Fire Video)
Perhaps more famous now as the quirky founder of the mystical school of folk music appreciation, the creator of the much-celebrated "Anthology of American Folk Music" also pioneered a technique of hand painting animation onto film. This black-and-white voyage into Smith's bizarre world of alchemic symbolism is like a Monty Python animation segment that forgot to be funny. But the film takes on a beautiful, austere, meditative breathlessness.

Set to a soundtrack of musique concrete, symbols transmute and reappear: a dancing man, a magic hammer, a watermelon, a salamander, moving machine wheels and levers; a house with feet, two boxers who eventually embrace each other in hugs, a man's head that becomes an eyeball, and a woman dressing and undressing in Victorian Age finery. Supposedly this film was originally over six hours long, and a viewer is tempted to fast-forward even through this one-hour version. But drop in anywhere in its magical frames and it feels like you're putting on X-ray glasses, seeing behind everyday appearances into the universe's truly mysterious shapes, figures, connections and essences. EndBlock

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