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Eat ‘Em and Smile by Roberta Buiani

This text by ROBERTA BUIANI is published alongside KATHLEEN HEARN‘S Eat ‘Em and Smile exhibition.

I was in my early teenage years when the hard rock band Van Halen released Jump. It was 1984. Immediately garnering worldwide recognition and a Grammy nomination, the song played non-stop at dance parties, on the radio, and on that new cool TV channel known as MTV. There, I could see with no small wonder (and a bit of repulsion) the big hair, the racy moves and the high kicks of then young and athletic David Lee Roth. Listening and dancing to the song was already exhilarating, but watching the video unfold on the small screen right before my eyes was a truly captivating experience. Not only could I admire the star perform without having to attend any concert, but I could see him really close, as if he was standing right there, in my living room. Instantaneously, each of my rocker male friends started playing innumerable versions of Jump, inserting their favorite instruments and their own creative virtuosities, adapting the music to their musical styles and imitating David Lee Roth’s clothes, style and moves.

Fast forward to 2009. Gone are the days of the staged edginess, the provocative behavior and the big hair that characterized the hard rock bands of the Eighties. A new generation of nicely shaved and preferably cute, wholesome individuals has made its way to stardom, thanks to TV shows like American Idol and Who’s got talent. This new generation of stars does exactly what my friends were doing back in the Eighties: they entertain their audience by rearranging and re-interpreting past top chart hits. Unlike my friends, they now do it on TV, after having passed several rounds of auditions that measured their talent not on their originality, not on their edgy aspect or provocative behavior, but on their capability to please a TV audience. Their fame is guaranteed by virtue of their very appearance on TV, while their performances increasingly obey the standards dictated by an audience and a handful of judges that have all the power to cut their TV airtime at any given moment. The advent and the popularity of MTV might be partially responsible here: initially functioning as an opportunity to guarantee extra exposure to singers and artists, it has encouraged a whole culture that sees in TV visibility THE necessary condition to achieve success.

The type of music star emerging from this culture offers herself as no more than a product to be consumed. On the one hand, she is caught in a cycle that literally forces her to become hostage of the audience in exchange for a few minutes of fame: give them what they want and you’ll be famous. Break the rules and you are likely out of the game. On the other hand, she is encouraged to play it safe. By maintaining a certain consistency in her image and style, the star is guaranteed popularity. This is particularly true in the case of re-arrangements of old successes. Neither the audience, nor the star likes to be surprised by unfamiliar melodies and unconventional twists. The former tends to identify a given song with a particular rock star or a specific image and style, and she assumes that any re-arrangement of that song be faithful to the original, that it re-produces, or preserves all the power and charm of the original. In turn, the rock star doesn’t want to disappoint the audience. In addition, by maintaining her rearrangement faithful to the original, she pays her own personal respect to it.

David Lee Roth has been re-arranging his hit Jump for the past 25 years. In a sense, he has demonstrated an impressive ability to adapt to the new American Idol cultural standards of re-arrangement and its new singing rules. Prompted by an audience that knows him sometimes only for his single hit Jump, he satisfies her requests by continuously proposing different versions of the original song. The song has become a trademark and the signature of the star. Out of need, but also to adapt to the current trends, he has substituted his tight pants cum suspenders and big hair with a sober look more appropriate to his age and his 2009 audience. Recent footage shows him aged, barely jumping (although still trying) and sporting a definitely more conservative haircut. Despite these sometimes inevitable, sometimes well-calculated changes, he has managed to keep afloat in the circus of stardom, eternally singing slightly different versions of the same song.

While mirroring today’s rituals of fame, David Lee Roth’s persona projects a deep sense of nostalgia for an idealized and glorious past. This nostalgia involves both the rock star in the way in which he still cherishes the memory of his shiny past and tries to revive it, as well as his struggle to repeatedly reinvent himself, and yet never disappoint his fans, who are still seeing in the aged star his flamboyant persona. While seemingly coming to an end with a continuous, sad repetition of an old refrain and the recollection of a fading past, Roth’s re-arrangements are in constant transformation: as the gestures, the tropes and refrain that guarantee the recognition of his song stay unchanged, the new re-arrangements of Jump inevitably reflect the processes of transformation of today’s musical culture.

By choosing to feature three young artists and their creative rearrangement of Jump, Hearn’s work is far more than a simple tribute of David Lee Roth’s persona and to his trademark-song. First, her installation manages to capture the nostalgia for, as well as the transformation of, an iconic artifact, through the very process of rearrangement purported by today’s culture. In this piece, past and present are located side by side, converging into the same platform: the featured arrangements not only pay a tribute to the original, but they also incorporate the melodic style and rhythms of contemporary pop/rock music. The original song was rendered as a ballad, the melody dramatically changed and re-interpreted by the protagonists to the point of non-recognition. It is only halfway through the performance, that the audience comes to the sudden realization that what she is listening to is Jump. The refrain resounds like a buzzword to unlock the audience’s recollection. Even though the lyrics constitute all that is left of the original, the refrain occupies such a vivid place in our collective memory that we are still able to identify it.

Second, Hearn’s triptych effectively reflects on the culture of fame and stardom, evoking both the flavor of today’s talent shows as well as the symbiotic relation between the rock star and the public. One by one, the singers line up to execute their rearrangement, only separated from each other by a few eternal seconds, as if they were attending an audition. The tension, possibly enhanced by the empty, dark background against which the singers are performing, is palpable. A mix of narcissism and anxiety fills the few moments that precede each performance: how will the audience judge it? How will the arrangement be received?

Like in any audition, expectations are rising on both sides of the camera. While the singers are concerned about the effectiveness of their execution, the audience tries to anticipate the tune that will follow in a matter of seconds. Standing before the implacable eye of an immobile and emotionless camera, the singers establish a direct, intense and intimate relation with the audience. On the other side of the camera, an anonymous audience is compelled to watch, its voyeuristic appetite now insatiable: as soon as the singer starts captivating the audience, the audience voraciously consumes the singer.

In a sense then, the selection of the title, Eat Em and Smile could not be more appropriate for this installation. It conjures up the relation of reciprocity existing between the performer and its audience as a relation where both parties are equally exploiting and relying on each other, especially emphasizing the vampiristic quality of today’s consumeristic relation with stardom. Finally, the title credits a David Lee Roth’s album carrying the same name. In the end, it is this tragic hero stuck in the eighties that has the last word: his greatest hit may have devoured him to the extent that it has become almost a curse, as it now functions as the very condition upon which his stardom status is based. However, had the song not followed this fate, had the song not been re-arranged, re-mixed, inspired countless artistic appropriations, David Lee Roth would not have been able to preserve his star status.

ROBERTA BUIANI holds a PhD in Communication and Cultural Studies (York University). She has enjoyed writing about artworks that engage with topics in popular culture. She published in Parachute, Public, and Fibreculture.
She grew up in the Eighties.