Back in New York last weekend I was privileged to catch another bizarro thought-provoking disquisition on the power of popular music by Brooklyn-based performance artist Neil Medlyn. I’d last gone to his tour de force loving/mocking deconstruction of the R. Kelly oeuvre and he was back at Galapagos, the Williamsburg bar/performance space, with his kabuki-karaoke meditative-freak outs. This time centering around the songs of the utterly unhip, but sometimes mesmerizing musician around, Phil Collins.
What Neil does–defamiliarize and recontextualize iconic pop music–is something art aspires to, which is to make us see the radical strangeness of the cultural landscape we dismissively take for granted.
I was particularly pleased that he’d chosen to center this performance around the melodramatic Phil Collins anthem “In the Air Tonight” because of a discussion I’d had with Neil a couple months ago. (I know him casually because his wife is my girlfriend’s best friend). He was talking about planning his next show around Genesis. After I realized he meant the rock group not the Bible chapter, I started praising the weird, haunting power of “In the Air Tonight” which, for me, retains its power despite subsequent Phil Collins embarrassment.
And in fact Neil’s Galapagos show was entitled “Neil Medlyn: Coming in the Air Tonight” and opened and closed with that melodramatic, charismatic pop concoction.
Where do songs like that get their peculiar staying power. Why is “cheap music” so potent as someone (Noel Coward?) said. These are the questions that in his own comic, idiosyncratic way Neil Medlyn seems to be getting at in his performances which have attracted a loyal cult following.
The problem of course with some of these songs is that once you’re reminded of them on a loud speaker system or a car radio you can’t get them out of your head. Now I can’t get “In the Air Tonight” out of my head.
Several days later I had dinner with my friend Jamie Danehey and her husband Willie (named after Willie Nelson) in Chicago and we were talking about the way U-2 has gone downhill as epitomized by their horrible simpering, shamefully saccharine, sell out Grammy-winning “It’s a Beautiful Day”. A betrayal of all that was dark and truly beautiful in “Pride”, “Where the Streets have No Name”, “Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For”, “Angels of Harlem”, and the transcendently beautiful, and carnal and spiritual fusion of “One”.
I’m sure U.N. Secretary General Bono has done much good for the world in his travels, but I think it’s time he paused long enough to pen something as powerful as “In the Air Tonight”. Or maybe “One” was enough.
Readers: tell me your guilty Phil Collins type favorites or your true-blue Bono type anthems.