Apr. 20th, 2014

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"Tubthumping" is really a great song if you come at it as being a brilliant piece of social satire. "Weird Al" Yankovic would often do what he called "genre parodies," where he would write an original song in an attempt to imitate another group's sound. Of "Dare To Be Stupid," a send-up of Devo's sonic palette, Mark Mothersbaugh said, "this is what Devo had been trying to do for years – and 'Weird Al' beat us to it!" So, I can only imagine what Chumbawamba thought when their pub anthem send-up proved to be huge with the very people it was taking the piss out of.

Meanwhile, the suits at Universal were surely thinking, "do it again!" And with What You See Is What You Get (hereafter referred to as WYSIWYG), the band said, "yes and no."

WYSIWYG was released April 4th, 2000. I was at the tail-end of my second year at SUNY Potsdam. After an ill-advised semester as WAIH's chief engineer, I had been elected to become the station's music director starting in the Fall of 2000. The station's current music director had been driving me insane for the past semester because he believed that a college radio station should sound like a modern rock station. Of the albums he passed over during his waning tenure, Chumbawamba's new set was among the rejects.

The summer of 2000 was the first time since I had joined up that WAIH stayed on the air between the Spring and Fall semesters. As such, I began my term as music director earlier than expected and gleefully tore apart my predecessor's playlist and refreshed it with the glorious sound of diversity. Songs from WYSIWYG went into high rotation on my air slot.

While "She's Got All The Friends" was the only single from the album, I opted instead to introduce people to it via "Pass It Along." It was with some amusement when I heard the song used in a GM commercial. It was with further amusement when I found out that Chumbawamba had used the vast majority of the fee they were paid for the song in donations to organisations critical of GM. Of course, there's nothing particularly amusing about General Motors as an organisation. When the question is "where do you want to go today?" the answer usually isn't, "out of control into a ravine with no brakes or steering because the key fell out of the ignition." The current situation with GM is particularly sickening when you consider that their suits did a "cost-benefit analysis" and determined that paying the legal fees for lawsuits stemming from the defective ignition switches would cost less than issuing a recall and fixing the problem before people started getting killed.

My friends and I thought WYSIWYG was a great album. Fourteen years later, I still think it's a great album. Twenty-two tracks making up a total of 48 minutes of music make for a fast listen – and more like one musical piece than a collection of separate songs. It goes by very quickly, especially when you note that only five tracks exceed three minutes in length and three don't even make it to the one-minute mark. It's the perfect satirical set-up for the state of the Western World at the end of the century: shallow, glossy, interested only in instant gratification...but beneath the surface lies the rot of paranoia, corruption and oppression. "Pass It Along" perfectly encapsulates this: a soaring chorus with Microsoft's "where do you want to go today" ad campaign stands in contrast to a verse where the line, "shut out the world – it’s getting worse; save yourself, don't leave the house."

"Pass It Along" could almost be a sequel to "The Good Ship Lifestyle," but on WYSIWYG that theme of self-imposed isolation via fear of "the other" is most stridently revisited on "Celebration, Florida." Against a breezy country backdrop are sung the lines, "there's a bake sale at the school house and they're selling innocence. They're keeping out the deviants to protect the residents of Celebration, Florida." Yes, Celebration is the ultimate gated community – a municipality constructed and (at one point) wholly owned by the Disney Corporation. Up until 2010, they could even brag that the experiment was a roaring success – no murders in Celebration ever! It took until 2013 for the number of killings to go up to two. I am reminded of Edgar Allen Poe's "Mask of the Red Death" – try as you might to keep the horror of the "real world" out, it will find a way to get in. Maybe it's a better idea to try and solve real world problems then merely fortifying oneself against them?

I want to say that a lot has changed in the past fourteen years, but I really can't honestly do so. Whenever I compare then to now, all I get back to is a cynical assessment that all changes have been, at best, superficial. In fact, I'd dare entertain the notion that things are really worse. If Bill Clinton's eight years were marked by missed opportunities, then what is to be said of Barack Obama's nearly eight years? Bush II certainly accelerated the downward slide, but at least he was a lightening rod for activism. Put a so-called "democrat" into office and suddenly people fall asleep as if nothing could possibly be going wrong. What you see is what you get but a lot of people simply aren't opening their eyes and taking a good look around.

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Readymades was the last Chumbawamba CD I put on WAIH's playlist. It's follow-up, Un, was released June 8th, 2004; around a year and a half after I moved away from the town I'd grown up in to ultimately settle in Pittsburgh.

Un is a far more subtle effort than WYSIWYG, but no less searing in social commentary, for those willing to listen. Or, of course, you could just be lazy and look up what each song is about on Wikipedia. Someone there has helpfully broken it all down for anyone too lazy to read the booklet included with the CD.

Of course, if you're going to the booklet for accurate lyrics to "Everything You Know Is Wrong," you're going to be sorely disappointed.

Un opens with "The Wizard of Menlo Park," a song which begins with a sample of the Wizard himself, Thomas Edison, reciting "Mary had a little lamb." Personally, I find it interesting that the band chose to celebrate Edison's contribution to recorded media and ingenuity in general while passing over the darker aspects of his life. Edison, while clever, was the consummate capitalist. He was interested in getting things accomplished and pushing the technological envelope, but not when it wouldn't make him money. The vulgar extreme of such a personality was his war on alternating current by way of George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. In this conflict, Edison forever overshadowed his accomplishments of bringing light to the darkness with the unenviable distinction of being directly involved in the first execution by electric chair.

I think the band is perfectly back on track though with standout song (and single) "On eBay." Much has been said on the second Iraq War, but Chumbawamba tracked against the grain, as is their habit, and instead of giving us the obvious "Bush sucks," notes that with all of the lives being lost, so is the culture of Iraq. Indeed, as museums and archives were looted, one could actually purchase the stolen items on eBay. The music video is excellent too:

After Un Chumbawamba released three more studio albums before calling it quits in 2012. I'm not sure any other musician or group has as effectively picked up their mantle. If such a creature does exist, I'd be interested in hearing what it has to say.


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Seth Warren

May 2017

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