Featured Music: Wednesday, December 19, 2002
Sweet Child of Ours

The age of the sincere ironistis upon us — New Yorker-via-North Texas Corn Mo knows.


Most music lovers ’round these parts have undoubtedly heard of Corn Mo. Denton’s golden boy, according to local lore, at one point accounted for at least 75 percent of Fort Worth’s Scene: Anywhere you went, it seems, you would run into him, seeing as he was part of nearly a dozen bands at once. His ability to monopolize the local bandwidth probably said as much about an anemic environment for live local music as it did about Mo’s m.o. There was enough spotlight to go around here, what with Big D clubs attracting most of the above-average talent, and Mo (a.k.a. Jon Cunningham) — ever the industrious, consummate showman — didn’t need to have his arm twisted to bask in any available electric rays. After basically conquering Tarrant County by the end of the 1990s, Mo then promptly descended on New York City to flummox the rabble there with his Tin Pan Driveway shtick. The Wreck Room, receding in the rearview mirror. Next stop: Brooklyn.

You gotta give a little bit to Mo, though; he recently won a big one for kitsch — and for anti-terrorism. On TRL, in front of a studio audience, he performed Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine” on his instrument of choice, the accordion. The crowd was made up mostly of members of that particular societal group whose entire aesthetic intelligence seemingly revolves around the absence of sincerity, teens — they ate Mo’s stuff up. Mo had been invited to the show a day earlier by a TRL staffer he had run into in Times Square on the way out of a repair shop, accordion in hand. This image of a young Thor, togged up in his signature retro duds and toting a folk instrument, was probably enough to let the TRL dude know that wise-assin’ was still a part of the pop-artistic lingua franca, that it hadn’t died along with the masses at Ground Zero, as reported. Whether Mo meant to or not, he showed us through his prime-time gig that it’s still OK to laugh at an in-joke, even if the yuks come at an artist’s expense. Mo was such a hit with the TRL youth that he was invited back the following day to lovingly render Limp Bizkit’s “Rollin’.” He happily obliged.

This year marked the beginning of the age of the sincere ironist. The man who got it all started was Andrew W.K. The Gen-X’er released an album, on a major label, of oft-maligned ’80s hair metal. I Get Wet was a coup of style over substance. Critics and fans looked at Andrew W.K. as if he were a rebel, a real confrontation artiste: Here was this young white guy, reintroducing a largely white-bread, largely masculine sound to the multicultural public. What could have been more avant-garde? When a roomful of British music journalists later criticized him for allegedly using the most offensive musical style he could find merely to make a name for himself, Andrew W.K. whipped out his bio sheet, which included true tales of playing metal in coffee bars for tips, and a sharp object — with which he began slicing himself up, apparently to prove his sincerity to making good-timey metal. Does this sincerity come through on polycarbonate disc (because, ya know, none of us really has the time to sit around with the makers of every piece of pop-cult ephemera we listen to, look at, or read)? Well, despite the deliberate poses, Andrew W.K. does give you the impression that he really believes the blather he’s singing (... um, shouting). Earnestness is manifest in the machismo.

Corn Mo’s sincerity is manifest in melody. Mellifluousness flows throughout The Magic is You!, his rousing second full-length effort and latest c.d. (“Sweet Child of Mine” and “Rollin’” are, unfortunately, not included). The golden boy’s accordion has taken a back seat to a piano, and the highfalutin’ instrument not only accentuates his memorable melodies, it heightens the comedic irony — “Goin’ to L.A.” would be a pretty dreary, intense tune if it weren’t for Mo’s knowingly overdramatic delivery of the saccharine lyrics. The song, like the entire c.d. and like Mo’s agreeing to perform on national tv, is a capitulation of sorts to the times, but the work is genuine, and you don’t need to read any newspaper interviews with Mo on the subject to discern as much. All it takes is a c.d. player.

The best tracks here do their fantastic dirty work in the vicinity of flat-out silliness. “Lollipop” is a Brechtian fantasia in oompah-pah time. “I’ll Be Your Platypus” finds Mo employing his sweetest, most anguished voice to limn the boundaries of desire over what is simply an arcadian, breathtakingly melancholy melody. “Bananas” is just an exercise in frivolity, but you will chuckle your ass off listening to Mo calling and responding with a frickin’ kazoo. (Mo begins a knock-knock joke, the kazoo answers — brilliant.)

Mo alienates people who are not related to him and thusly bound by familial love to comment positively on every single track the moment he begins beaming beneath that silliness hat of his. “I Like to Daydream” is a romp with a sore knee through a chaotic scene in a bad Broadway musical. And there’s just something about hearing the word “poop” coming from a grown man who’s trying to make you laugh (“Baloney”) that smacks of a grown man trying too damn hard. (Apparently, the only creature that can get away with talking shit is Triumph the Comic Dog. Thankfully.)

Corn Mo, like Andrew W.K. and, in literature, Dave Eggers, Neal Pollack, and the rest of the McSweeney’s crew, understands that the fine ironic wink is forged not in the fiery kilns of anger but along the windswept grasses of (sigh!) love. Mo’s favorite references come from that time that’s just far enough in the past for us to now look back fondly on it: the 1980s. If being reared by tv is the reason most Gen-X’ers expect their lives to turn out as brightly as any Cosby child’s, then it’s also the logic behind creating art that connects us Gen-X’ers to one another. Every person who hasn’t been living in a cave over the past 20 years will surely get a kick out of “Busey Boy,” Mo’s deranged paean to that famous ’80s-era actor Gary Busey. The song is as wonderfully plump with in-jokes as it is witty on its own terms. In a perfect postmodern world, Gary Busey would come out of retirement or wherever he’s hiding and add some backing vocals to the tune or sing the song in a movie about retired/hiding ’80s actors (Being Gary Busey?).

So, OK, there’s nothing in The Magic is You! that would ever catapult the c.d. into the Billboard Top 200. Mo’s music is more A Chorus Line, less Appetite for Destruction. Take note, however: The day “Robert Holiday” receives steady rotation on, at least, college radio will be the day this writer starts firing off checks to college radio stations. The song is, frankly, stupendous — in the show-stopping sense of the word. No hook on commercial radio this year can compare with “Robert Holiday”’s chorus: Over a mid-tempo, up-and-down, ascending-and-descending piano riff, Mo sings, “His name is Robert / And he wishes too hard / His voice is too shrilly / And his wave is too large / When he speaks he ends his sentences / With variations / Of the word / ‘Holiday’ / And when he eats / He looks at his dinner and says ...” And then the piano lingers steadily on a single short, dramatic theme, bubbling beneath the surface like a shark waiting to attack. Mo goes on, speaking in a devilish tone as Robert: “Hi, my name is Robert / And I am going to eat you / Holidayyyyyyy!!!” And at the moment Mo sings this last word, which he holds for a few beats, he slams the piano back into the main riff, singing, “My name is Robert / Holidayyyyyyy!!! / My name is Robert / Holidayyyyyyy!!!” Plainly, someone needs to get Mo either into therapy or into a Broadway director’s office.

Sadly, it would be impossible to market this genius to the people who would appreciate it most — Gen-X’ers — without selling it as “performance art,” as something “not remotely accessible or enjoyable but good for you.” The gods of pop-record categorization allow no room for pastiche. And, surely, even the most hippie-fied thirty-something knows when a product is being pitched to him as Art-with-a-capital-A. There’s really nothing Mo can do to traverse these dangerous alleyways other than try and win over new, enthusiastic listeners performance by performance, direct c.d. sale by direct c.d. sale.

The good thing is that this might sound harder than it actually is for a workaholic like good ol’ Jon Cunningham.

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