by carl wilson

Rare Crate Digger's Classic: Wanda & the Cupcakes


Last weekend, as previously announced, I did a talk and workshop at the Centre for Culture and Leisure No. 1, around the bend and across the street from me in beautiful downtown Parkdale.

The game was this: I talked for about 10 minutes about participatory culture and Toronto's notorious "Bad Bands" - offering the Barcelona Pavilion, who were playing after me, as the original Bad Band - and then told the audience that they were all going to experience this for themselves, as they were about to become a bad band. Borrowing a leaf from local Bad Band, Dollarama, I brought out a table full of $1 musical instruments - pie plates, toy tambourines, noise makers, baby rattles, and a few ringer instruments (a Casio keyboard, a toy saxophone, a melodica) that I borrowed from friends. We got three volunteers to be the lead singers. Everyone had been asked to make up a band name and write it on a slip of paper, and we drew one at random - it turned out to be Wanda & the Cupcakes. Which made the next part tricky, as the next step was to derive a "band concept" from the name. The rules were: 1. All songs are about cupcakes. 2. Everyone in the band is named Wanda. 3. Vocals at all times. (Except perhaps for No. 3, these are exceedingly unpromising band concepts.) I broke the crowd down into smaller groups to write lyrics in about five minutes. Then we came back together, "rehearsed" and then "performed" the resulting "song," managing immediately to violate all of our rules.

If nothing else, it demonstrated that being a Bad Band is perhaps not as easy as it looks. After the performance, I asked Barcelona Pavilion to serve as the critics (deliberately messing with the roles of audience/performer/listener/critic in the participatory-aesthetics spirit), and they proceeded to denounce the exercise in stern ideological terms. Then they played and we drank.

Overall the event would be kindly termed an "interesting failure," I think. I hope the majority of people had fun. At the least, it was good experience for me in leading group activities, which I have not done since I taught summer camp or tried to direct plays, all of which was a very long time ago. I'd like to do more of it, even though the whole terrifying effort causes my soul to leave my body and not return for a couple of days.

You can listen to the results via CCL1 co-proprieter Brian Joseph Davis's downloads page: Here is the rehearsal and here the performance. Each take has different virtues. But in either case they are few. In case you feel the impulse to sing along, which is doubtful, below are the lyrics.

Lisa Foad is My Hotrod

She's half Jewish, half gentile
And the gentile has prevailed
She grabs a matchbook,
Drops to her knees
This is a girl who clearly never sleeps

(Chorus) Photographic naturalism
I'm out of it as a guy
Lisa Foad is my hotrod
Not even in the case of Jasper Johns
Aaaaannnnd she wears glasses

Cupcakes are my wolfsbane
And honey, I'm a wolf
But everybody wants something
They will never give up
They will analyze
You are so pretty

| Posted by zoilus on Tuesday, December 05 at 5:26 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (20)



I don't think that clears anything up and I call your bluff that Bad Bands is anything other than Toronto's GrungeSpeak. You can hamfistedly scrobble together a heap of shambles from wherever and call it International Bad Bands but the thing still remains an emblem of Toronto's Great Rolling Over. Also the "British Music Tabloid Mindset" is baloney and not good enough anymore. Any revolution painted with such broadstrokes betrays the laziness of its instigators. Toronto's Side Effect might be a better name for Bad Bands.

Posted by benstimpson on December 14, 2006 8:18 AM



2 quick clear ups:
- Bad Bands are popping up faster OUTSIDE of Toronto than within, probably because of lingering British music tabloid mindsets within the city itself. This will be reflected by the upcoming Bad Bands International compilation, with bands from all over the place on it.
- Calling it reactionary presumes that revolutionary attitiudes within art are still possible without a significant technological shift. We have been offered no significantly different political philosophy since the industrial revolution, and, as such, art discourse has suffered similarly, with an ever-growing ass of historical and self awareness - contemplating a place within history is anathema to revolutionary action (as the colossal failure of every idea since world war 2 has shown us).

Posted by Matt Collins on December 12, 2006 6:34 PM



(which, in the end, isn't really that much of a criticism leveled against BBs, who have every right to keep trying of course!)

Posted by andrew on December 7, 2006 9:41 PM



re bad bands as (a way of) fighting back against the passivity inherent in mass pop culture:

I'm skeptical about BBs as useful for that sort of project. It seems to me that the 80s-DIY-scene-EXPLODED that myspace and cheap recording technologies represent brings much broader participation in the "audience" than BBs might ("don't wait for vacation!!!"...). Really, BBs best contribution is as a way to re/consider what a music performance can be w.r.t. band-on-stage-in-club vs. participatory event (which is I suppose the angle you're going for, Carl?). One fear with such projects is that so many people have knee-jerk eye rolling reactions to anything that smells faintly of conceptual-driven rock/pop music, which can sort of poison the whole thing.

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that while the critique implicit in a BB-type project is much more radical in what it's trying to overturn than goals of DIY 2.0, its chances of spreading that critique (i.e. chances of success) are a lot slimmer.

Posted by andrew on December 7, 2006 9:40 PM



I am glad to see Ben's thoughts articulated in writing. I disagree with him about Bad Bands but agree with him about The Barcelona Pavilion. We should practice more, too.

Posted by Kat C on December 7, 2006 8:28 PM



Sigh. Yeah, a lesson I should have learned from one of the Trampoline Hall cardinal rules: No passing things around while the person on stage is talking. I should have gotten the bucket back before I started.

Posted by zoilus on December 7, 2006 7:23 PM



I couldn't hear a lot of what you were saying because everyone around me was sniggering about funny band names from the bucket, which might serve as a lazy metaphor for the Bad Bands in general but it would be pretty lazy. Plus, there were some pretty funny band names in that bucket.

Posted by benstimpson on December 7, 2006 7:05 PM



Interesting comments from all. I want to pick up on Carl's point about recording technology annihilating pop music's participatory spirit: It did the same thing to classical. Before records, a huge percentage of classical fans played the music too, at home. And, many classical commentators have noted, classical used to be much more "popular" too.

My grandma was a piano major and taught music in elementary schools, so she doesn't really count, but I was psyched to find a 4-handed-piano arrangement of Beethoven's 6th Symphony in her stuff at my mom's house last year. Made me wish I'd heard her play it, and made me wonder whom she would have played it with.

100 years ago Sousa worried that records would put musicians out of work. He was right to worry.

Posted by john on December 7, 2006 5:38 PM



Both Ben's and Brian's points are well taken - there is a level of reaction (or, the artists involved might say, corrective intervention) in the Bad Bands vis a vis "Guitars and Feelings," which I would not call a Toronto phenomenon specifically but a syndrome in rock in general and indie rock in particular. I don't happen to find it the most compelling aspect of these projects. But Ben's right that it might have been good to give that context, too, as it would have given the crowd a better feel for what the conceptually defined bands are *not* going for. Even more so, I wish I'd brought along some music samples of what the Bad Bands are doing, and talked to a few of them about their conceptual underpinnings so that I could give more concrete examples.

What I did talk about, some, was the way that pop music in general, as a product of the age of recording and mass reproduction, is anti-participatory. There's a performer-audience relationship in which the former is active and the latter is mostly passive, and the listener is meant to identify with the singer as his or her representative (and/or object of desire). Whereas, before recording and broadcast became dominant, popular music was more of a participatory folk activity. Throughout pop history, there have been reactions against that imbalance, to lower the audience-performer barrier, and Bad Bands are more interesting as part of that lineage than they are as intramural indie-rock beefing. I acknowledged the insularity Ben's complaining about, and said that amping up the participatory level would be a way of countering the hermetic tendency. Which led directly to this exercise.

Posted by zoilus on December 7, 2006 5:19 PM



Point taken Ben, especially the point that this discussion is tantamount to reopening the discussed at length already discussion regarding the validity of the Bad Band concept. To put it in specific terms, what I, as one of the organizers, hoped would be achieved by the evening was a dialogue about thinking beyond, as you so eloquently put it, the “aggressively local and localized to the vanishing point between community and hermeticism” idea of Bad Bands to reach the wider issues that Bad Bands raise. For example: “professionalism” (that killer of scenes both visual and sound based) vs. conceptual rigueur. But maybe that’s for another day and another event…

Posted by Brian on December 7, 2006 5:14 PM



Yeah it's totally a bold position to take and defensible to an extent but Bad Bands as it exists in Toronto is aggresively local and localized to the vanishing point between community and hermeticism. I know this is a dead horse to some extent and I'm months late with my flogging implement and it's tiresome and all that but aligning Bad Bands with Relational Aesthetics is to my mind over-dignifying things. It's hard to take Bad Bands out of the vacuum because of the initial insistence on self-identification (even if it was jokingly), which kind of precludes positioning it outside of these local barroom conditions. I'm not taking issue with Carl's talk or his experiment, both of which I thought were worthwhile even if the latter was winceworthy. Also, I'm not really in a position to call bullshit on ad hoc ideological justification for form-over-content bands but I'm hoping that internal conflict about these things might make The Barcelona Pavilion more interesting keep redundancy at bay.

Posted by benstimpson on December 7, 2006 3:54 PM



Sorry I sounded so cheerlessly (& ungrammatically) dogmatic in my earlier comment -- too hasty, tossing off a comment in the middle of doing other things. The event sounds kicky; would have loved to have been there.

Posted by john on December 7, 2006 3:50 PM



In Carl's defense I believe he was taking a wonderful risk in his attempt to position "Bad Bands" in way that foregrounded its affinity with a larger aesthetic development (Relational art) instead of accepting it as a phenomena of local barroom conditions.

Perhaps it's the curse of the two-word genre designation (New Wave, indie rock, bad bands)? Is there a better, vague (single) word for these production conditions we’re all trying to describe?

Posted by Brian on December 7, 2006 1:47 PM



Wanda and the Cupcakes was a failure because the restrictions were rigged in the wrong direction: the exercise would have been more effective if the guidelines had reflected the fact that Bad Bands by nature are reactionary rather than conceptual. If you had managed to channel the small-mindedness and adolescent petulance of the bad bands idiom then the whole thing might have worked better. Maybe if you had played a song by one of Toronto's more celebrated Guitars-and-Feelings bands and said, "Do the opposite of that...", a more dynamic song and band would have materialized. Bad Bands are like Toronto's answer to GrungeSpeak, a kind of sustained recalcitrance in the face of invasive large-scale scrutiny. To this extent The Barcelona Pavilion is both the original Bad Band (reactionary) as well as the city's anodyne against Bad Bands (ideologically opposed to myopia, regression and monoculture), hopefully. I think if we can actually manage to use that as a fulcrum or a dialectic for performance, then our shows would be good again.

Posted by benstimpson on December 7, 2006 10:01 AM



Failure? Only if people were disengaged and irritated. If people dug into it -- and it seems than it did -- it can only be judged a success. Aesthetic criteria are irrelevant. This is to be judged by the quality of the experience of the participants.

Posted by john on December 6, 2006 11:57 PM



From my perspective it was a great BP show and entirely keeping within the contexts of the evening.

Carl, you forgot to list the "inspiration" source material for the lyrics, if only for the future 33 1/3 book on Wanda. (Those sources are: You'll never Eat Lunch in This Town Again by Julia Philips, Televisionaries: The Red Army Faction Story, and the Life After Pop issue of Art Forum).

Posted by Brian on December 6, 2006 11:11 AM



No way, guy. Remember NYC with Les Georges Leningrad? We learned a valuable lesson about abusing Sparks that night. And the show was waaaaaaaaaaay worse.

Posted by Kat C on December 5, 2006 11:22 PM



we sucked so bad it hurt. seriously: worst TBP show since montreal with !!!

Posted by Steve Kado on December 5, 2006 9:23 PM



sounds like a super awesome huge amount of fun!

Posted by sean on December 5, 2006 8:37 PM



It is admittedly difficult to rebut the BP's criticism of imposed band concepts when a bad band should come up with such things on their own; however, I still thought the show was fun, partly because of your obvious discomfort at actually conducting it. That, at least, was in the spirit of things.

But that was some catharsis!

Posted by chris randle on December 5, 2006 8:03 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson