High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Telecommuniculturey: Tiger Beat Edition

Last night, I did something that some might construe as crazy: I volunteered at the Old Town School of Folk Music's Teen Open Mic Night. To be accurate, when the volunteer coordinator sent out the list of available events, I chose several dates for which I was available, and told her she could assign me to things she was having trouble finding people for. She responded, wary but excited, asking if I really didn't mind doing the teen open mic.I guess that's hippy for 'Be afraid. Be very afraid.'

Don't let it get around, but I don't actually mind teenagers. Or, rather, of course I mind teenagers, because you'd have to be nuts not to mind hyperactive, nacissistic hormone bombs who don't have enough experience behind them to understand that this, too, shall pass. Everyone hates teeangers (ed.---yes I caught this tyop, but it was too delicious to edit.), especially teenagers. Armed with that knowledge and acceptance of all its implications, they're not so scary.

In addition to my zen-like, mother-horrifying attitude toward the next generation, volunteering for teen open mic night is high-profit in volunteer terms. I forget the exact point value, but it's equivalent to a concert ticket and then some or about 1/3 of a member-discounted class. This is, in part, because it's hard to draw adult volunteers for it (with my whopping two volunteer experiences, I was the most experienced volunteer save the head volunteer and another guy who comes every week with his daughter). That I knew, and see above. However, I did not realize that it's not just hazard pay, as it were, but also overtime. The teen open mic lasts from the 5:30 call time to 10:30 (a usual volunteer stint is about 3 hours). That I did not know, being a dumbass whose reading comprehension abilities, once the pride of St. Mary's Star of the Sea, have gone completely to shit. So, my plan of taking the train up and then coming up with a plan that would induce my spouse to meet up with me for some more sophisticated form of entertainment, like Terror of Mechagodzilla fell through. Such is life.

I had very little idea of what to expect, but things started to take shape immediately as the head volunteer started giving us the rundown and led with, "The maximum capacity has changed. We can now only have 180 people in the auditorium at a time, so we need to keep an accurate door count. Also, there is now no reentry after 7 PM, for any reason." O . . . kay then, so popular. Later, K (the guy who comes with his daughter), told us that in the dead of winter, when there's really nothing to do, they'll have kids lined up 100 deep in the freezing cold on the off chance that they might get in when someone leaves. Thinking back to when I was their age and remembering how, so frequently, there was precisely fuck all to do at that age, particularly if you were low on cash and/or mobility, I don't know why this surprised me.

A, the head volunteer, had repeatedly stressed to us that the teen volunteers and the rest of the kids do a lot of self-policing. That was certainly true last night. There were a few rolled eyes suggestive of the fact that I was seriously violating some core Civil Liberties by insisting that they exit the auditorium from the side door, rather than the main doors, which opened into chaos; however, other than that and asking a few people not to block the stairs, there wasn't much for those of us with one foot in the grave to do. Of course, the peak of my evening was when I went into the office to get my bag at the end and looked out the front windows to see a long line of these hooligans sitting on the sidewalk smoking as they traded off duties loading the hearse (yes, an actual hearse) with equipment.

A fashion report is always in order when examining teenagers en masse. As threatened in the issue of Variety I was accidentally forced to read while being girlified before the wedding, the ghost of the 80s has returned. Microminis and capris with keds, vans (ew), or chucks (cooler than us, I don't remember these being big in My Time), and lots of studded belts and big jewelry were in evidence; matching perms were not, thankfully. I also spied a number of very wide-necked (either by nature or design) Flashdance sweatshirts.

Among the young gentlemen there was the faintest whiff of Flock of Seagulls hair, and the skinny tie seems to be making a minor comeback. There was also a denim vest with sleeves ripped off and perhaps the only G-rated Distillers art on the back. This was paired with linked rubber bracelets (my girls know the ones) and the kind of punk hair that I think I could get on board with (I am speaking only from the standpoint of required care and feeding [I have no moral or aesthetic objections to punk hair]. This looked like a low-maintenance do.) and green Doc Martens, which I spent the night trying not to steal. There were loud suit jackets and goofy hats. One girl with long, blonde hair had a fedora dipped strategically below one eye and walked more carefully than your average Beefeater so as not to dislodge it.

And, of course, there were plain old jeans and shorts and concert t-shirts, etc. Also an Inka Kola t-shirt. Will no one rid me of this troublesome carbonated beverage? In general, one thing that struck me was the fact that, fashionably speaking, things genuinely seemed to skew toward the thrift-store end of the spectrum, rather than being "predamaged with love by Abercrombie & Fitch." Given the demographic from which, I am pretty certain, most of these kids are drawn, that surprised me. I have the feeling that my ultrasuburban niece, who was somewhat traumatized by the Belmont neighborhood, would not be caught dead in most of the things I was seeing. Of course, she's younger and less autonomous clothingwise, so she may yet get there. Please FSM.

Other than clothing and hair that has changed or not changed, they were teenagers: loud, insane, goofy, crude, and kind of fun to watch. There were numerous declarations of love for one another (between guys, this was always paired with an over-the-top hug and joke about being gay, but 'twas ever thus). They seemed more touchy-feely than I remember us being at their age (but that may be my pathological introversion coloring my perceptions). Most were obviously in their element, although there were a few who looked supremely uncomfortable and out of the loop, but stuck it out anyway.

As for the artistic content of the evening, from what K told me, the teen open mic began about 5 of 6 years ago, largely at the instigation of members of Still Not Sexy (who were the second of two "featured bands" last night). Nowadays, the coordinator at the Old Town School assigns performers to slots on a first-come, first served basis (more or less; K indicated that there is some deliberate fudging of that standard if, for example, a group shows persistent interest in performing, but never gets in among the first responses). The number of acts determines how long each set will be, but in general it's a pretty loosely regulated evening with the music beginning at 7 and ending at 10:30 PM.

Last night, just a hair after 7, order (mostly) emerged out of the chaos with little interference from outside forces. The chant of "TOASTER" went up, which briefly befuddled my dumb old fogey mind before I realized that one of the numerous "teen volunteers" had taken the stage along with Lady E (K's daughter). Toaster is a stand-up comedian and was the de facto emcee last night (no idea if this is his usual gig). He and Lady E, along with the coordinator and one of the house managers, ran down the list of acts that would be playing. I lost official count somewhere in the anarchy, but I think somewhere around 10-12 ended up playing with some serious unravelling of events at the bitter end.

Although K informs me that there's often spoken-word stuff and comedy (from Toaster and others), last night was all musical. There was a lot more original material and fewer covers than I expected. Likewise, most of the acts comprised unique members, rather than being rearrangements of the same 10 people in different configurations. At least last night, there was a serious dearth of females. I saw only two the entire night (one bassist and one keyboardist).

Of the acts that I saw (I was inside the concert hall until 8:30, then outside for ther most of the remainder of the evening), each had some redeeming qualities, which sounds like I'm damning with faint praise. I don't mean to, but realistically there are going to be limitations on and strange fits within most groups formed under the auspices of adolescence. Some of the original stuff certainly crossed the line from homage into derivative, but more of it showed promise and personality. Some songs had certain sections nailed, but really rough transitions, which is far from fatal. And obviously, some musicians and vocalists were just more skilled, practiced, or talented (or to my tastes, natch), than others. What I didn't see was any group that nothing to recommend it, any group that wasn't fully committed to performing with remarkably little self-consciousness or embarassment, or any group that had gotten up there deliberately to make fools of themselves.

It's probably inevitable that an event like this would bear the stamp of a popularity contest. Yeah, there was some of that. For example, there was a ska band that struck me as being of very uneven quality that had a HUUUUUUUGE response. (It's worth disclosing, however, that one of my fellow volunteers commented on how good they were, so perhaps it was just me.) In contrast this kid's acoustic set was really great, but the conversational din had to be toned down by special request of Toaster and Lady E, despite the fact that the response to each song was quite effusive. In general, the audience was as serious and supportive as were the performers (and, of course, with 12 acts, much of the audience is performers; still practice of the Golden Rule among teenagers should not go unremarked).

Early on, S, my cov-olunteer, inquired as to whether I was feeling really old. Kind of yes, kind of no, I told him. There were certainly some kids on the young end of the teenage years who looked like tiny little babies to my aged eyes. But truth be told, what wigged me out were the guys who turned out to belong to one of the featured bands, Boys on Trial. They were hanging around, futzing with equipment very early on. My age-meter kept pegging them at within 10 years of me, maximum, which is well out of the teenage range.

When they played, they were much more polished than most of the other acts (punk, fun stuff; I was sorry not to be inside to see them), so I started working on a pretty serious inferiority complex. I was relieved to learn that they are not, in fact, teenagers, but I remain baffled (but not displeased) along with everyone else as to how they wound up among the acts.

Still not Sexy, which was the other featured band, has moved beyond the teenaged years as well, of course. I see from their website that they include a standard apology when they play over-21 clubs. But hey, they're playing over-21 clubs, and some of the bigger ones in Chicago (they're scheduled for the Metro in November), so the fact that they come back to the OTSFM so often has serious "I knew them when" potential, which is cool.

Anyway, it was an interesting and largely fun, if long and loud, evening.

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