Features | Concerts

Iron Composer: Wayne Kramer vs. Jello Biafra

By Christopher Alexander | 20 June 2005

Oh, post-modernism! You vilified and over-abused buzz word of this shallow generation! How often people invoke your name when they really mean to say “quirky,” or “hip,” or really “unconventional!” How your use has been degraded to a signifier that the user knows what s/he is talking about, and what sad irony is it that they seldom know what you really mean! Oh lamentation, oh woe!

Well, maybe I have it wrong. I’ve always understood post-modernism (and this is somewhat reductive) to describe the present state of things: nothing means anything. Nothing has any static or intrinsic value anymore, and one thing can only be valued or understood in the context of other things. Even the name “post-modern” is a reference to something else; it’s a word that can only be understood if one has a pre-existing knowledge of modern art/music/era/etc. It takes a dense and elaborate set of keys - a college education, rote memorization of Annie Hall, experience with psychedelic drugs - to truly understand, because the art reflects the bewildering social dynamic where, it seems, everything novel has been exhausted.

This isn’t to say that the concept, when applied correctly, is not as obnoxious as the prevalent misuse. Case in point: “Iron Composer,” an event put on by the gaudy Experience Music Project in Seattle that exists as a reference --- not a companion, or even a parody --- to the notoriously silly Iron Chef television series. “Iron Composer” replaces the chefs with, naturally, songwriters. Here’s how it works: Chairman Min, the nominal judge and ruler of “Music Stadium,” conducts an interview with an unwitting audience member. The substance of this interview provides the “secret ingredient” that the composers must base their songs on, exactly like the salmon in Iron Chef.

There’s more: the subsequent action is divided into five rounds of eight minutes apiece. During these rounds, the composer has access to a liaison who will relay the chord changes and musical stuffing of the song to the house band. During each round, there will be a physical obstacle that divides the contestants’ attention. There are three celebrity judges who provide commentary. All parties involved --- the judges, the composers, the band, Chairman Min and his various minions --- are to drink one shot of whiskey per round, which amounts to five shots in forty minutes. At the end of the fifth round, the composers jump on stage with the band and perform their song as best they can.

In the event this doesn’t sound weird enough, tonight’s contest is between Wayne Kramer and Jello Biafra.

When I get to this part of the story, everyone has the same question: who won? Well, Biafra, handily, by a mile, but that’s not the point. There is, maybe, eight minutes of music in about an hour-long spectacle supposedly about music. (Not counting the egregious noodling of the house band, and a weird obstacle in the first round wherein polka versions of the songwriters’ best known songs are performed for “German Karaoke.” It’s worth mentioning that Harvey Danger’s Sean Nelson bounced around in green-leiderhosen for lively renditions of “Kick Out zee Jams,” and “Too Drunch to Fuch”). The point is that two men with unimpeachable credentials --- THE MC FUCKING FIVE! JELLO FUCKING BIAFRA! --- were involved. Obviously it doesn’t devalue their past, present, or future work, but two musicians known not just for abrasive music but their outspoken and explicitly revolutionary politics are perfect grist for the post-modern mill of “Iron Composer.” Nothing means anything: in fact it adds a touch of irony (that handmaiden of post-modernism) to the whole proceedings.

It’s possible I would’ve felt differently if I had a couple of drinks (the composers themselves opted for double-shots of espresso instead of alcohol). Such as it is, this sober journalist would like to leave a final and exemplary report. The fourth obstacle was a game called “White Blood Cells.” The announcer intoned, to his great sorrow, that the two songwriters had caught “The Gay.” In order to cure them of “The Gay,” audience members had to inflate white balloons (cue the man with no shirt throwing limp white latex at will) and then attach as many as they could to the arms of the working composers. The announcer encouraged the audience (already queuing up, balloons in hand) to “unleash your disgusting homophobia.” Another hallmark of post-modernity is a sort-of deconstructive ambivalence: having your cake and eating it, too. Like when someone creates something utterly tasteless to chide other people for participating in it. It’s clever, sure, but it’s also cheap, and like well over half of the audience (in Seattle! Gay City!) it made me uncomfortable.