Ladies, gentlemen, children of all ages, step right up. See the circus that is downtown Orlando. The place has undeniably taken on a carnival-like dementia in recent months, turning up financially viable spectacles of absurdity where once music stood tall. Blame the voyeurism proffered by Anna Nicole Smith and America's favorite dysfunctional family, the Osbournes. Blame the post-Sept. 11 economic slump and the resulting entertainment-industry blues. Blame it on whatever you want, because there's no denying the trend: Spectacle sells.
It's an old story, really: the quality of the material and flash of the presentation battling it out for the entertainment dollar. In the absence of any current musical niche movement -- be that an indie-rock slouch or a punk-rock liberty spike -- promoters are rushing headlong to the "show" end of the spectrum, all the way to knee-jerk slapstick.
As evidence we present Friday, Aug. 9. That night two of our largest live-music venues simultaneously dropped their pants in crowd-pleasing schtickery: The Social, with an air-guitar contest, and Back Booth with midget wrestling. Both houses were packed.
"What every bar wants is for everyone to show up at 8 o'clock and then leave at 2 a.m.," says Ryan Marshall, Back Booth promoter. "When you do any kind of novelty, everyone gets there kind of early. Everyone likes to show up and talk about it beforehand." And presumably stay thereafter.
Marshall admits that the curse of the novelty promotion is the shortened attention span. His sold-out Corey Feldman show last month cleared the place by the fifth song, even though they turned away 200 people at the door.
But schlock doesn't always backfire. The midget-wrestling event had an opposite effect, drawing a rougher, outskirts crowd and keeping them painfully there all night long.
"We didn't recognize hardly anyone in there," says Marshall. "I mean, we lost control of the bar at one point. There was this big drunken mob of guys that just got way too excited. And there are no consequences, because they don't `usually` come to downtown, and they're not coming back. If they get banned, who cares?"
What Back Booth and other downtown entertainment establishments are discovering is that they can't simply book music and expect people to show up.
Increased competition for fewer patrons and burgeoning scenes blossoming in parking-friendly suburban climes are wringing downtown dollars dry.
The bars have got to pull people in somehow, and giving them bang for the buck seems to work. Nonetheless, they're apprehensive about going too far down the road that leads to Lowbrow.
"It's dangerous a little bit. You do Corey Feldman, and the whole month before it, it's hilarious," says Marshall. "You go on the next week, and you hear, 'I can't believe they fucking did that.'"
But the squirm factor of watching the washed-up does promise easy promotion. After all, you already know their names. "The only reservation is that there's a point where you can do it too much," says Marshall. "Everyone says, 'Oh they're just silly' or 'just being smart asses,' and it loses any kind of the little bit of validity that was there in the beginning to give everybody a good time. You're just trying to prey on everybody's novelty-obsession."
Not so for The Social, according to promoter Michael McRaney. Over there the air-guitar contest was just an anomaly, he says, something that a co-worker picked up on a visit to Europe and decided to bring home. The appeal?
"Who knows," says McRaney. "Maybe it has something to do with this tired-ass reality TV vibe, where everybody wants to be famous for 15 minutes."
If that's true, if we're all tired of listening and watching, and now want our own crack at the stage where others will worship us as demigods -- or on the other hand, we demand a freak show to satisfy our basest instincts -- what future is there for any kind of live music?
Perhaps our own little scene is instructive.
Four years ago, Florida was a hotbed of major-label scouting. Going out made you feel like you were part of something; bars literally swelled with the anticipation of the next big thing. That particular guiding light proved false, but it gave the music scene a reason to coalesce.
Flash forward to the present. Drained by the manipulation of the boyband industry and the saccharine opportunism of Creed and matchbox twenty, Orlando feels spent.
Meanwhile, in New York, Electroclash is kicking the teeth out of industry apathy with cocksure New Wave revisionism, fresh on the heels of The Strokes ripped-jean, guitar-kick cool. Here we knock back drinks, watch midgets beat each other bloody and pine for the good old days.
But it doesn't have to be. Cue The Legendary JC's (the newly renamed Joint Chiefs), a local band that still knows the value of showmanship. Lead singer Eugene Snowden dons a signature, pimped-out suit for every performance, and then kicks his searing soul revue into a sweaty grind. It's a small detail, maybe, but something nonetheless grand to separate the stage from the rehearsal space. Crowds howl, lose themselves and clamor for more at virtually every performance. Because, well, there's something to watch.
And let us not forget local glam-hounds, Zoa, fresh off their introductory role as Hedwig's house band in The Parliament House production of Hedwig and the Angry Inch. They're already making the natural transition to straight-up concert spectacle, writhing subtle Bowie-isms into the pop-rock ether.
Even almost-novelty acts like Bithlo Mullet Revival keep its irony in check with real performances of real compositions, winking and nudging at the audience and not so much at each other.
"You just can't say there's no music scene," says Jim Faherty, who co-created The Sapphire (now The Social) in the '90s and consequently the rush of Orlando music successes of that era.
Just like you can't say the air-guitar scene is the death knell of live music. The town has potential, just like it always has. It's something that's our job to send up and your job to knock down, if you so choose.
Either way, it's not worth giving up. Think of the options.