In A-side/B-side, two Milwaukee Record writers tackle various city issues in an informal, crosstalk style. Insults are hurled, feelings are hurt, and everyone learns something in the end. Maybe.
Tyler Maas: A week ago, winners of Shepherd Express’ annual “Best Of Milwaukee” awards were named. While awards doled out by publications—especially readers polls, as was the case for these specific honors—aren’t exactly a flawless means of gauging the best a city has to offer, it’s never a bad thing to give positive attention to the people, businesses, charitable organizations, and “Place to pick up the Shepherd Express”s who help make Milwaukee a special place. Sure, the inclusion of some of the categories is questionable. (Congrats on the “Best Chiropractor” plaque, Monica Maroney of Shorewood Family Chiropractic!) Others—like Safe House taking home “Bar To Be Seen In” honors—were almost certainly the outcome of concerted trolling on behalf of readers. Some aren’t quite in tune with the localized theme of the awards, though I’m sure The Original Pancake House’s franchisees in the 27 other states outside of Wisconsin will be glad to know readers of an established weekly in Milwaukee like their food. And the specificity of some subcategories, such as “Best Mexican Restaurant Taco” and “Best Mexican Restaurant Burrito,” seems to soften the significance of more broad categories. Shouldn’t “Best Mexican Restaurant” imply they have a handle on tacos, burritos, and the majority of other menu items? I digress.
As questionable as their execution seems to me personally, my issue isn’t really with Shepherd Express’ “Best Of Milwaukee” awards, or any other local publication or stations’ awards. It’s giving attention and exposure that, frankly, they’ve decided to call attention to without being asked. I’m sure most recipients are over the moon to be publicly recognized for the good work they’ve done this year. Unlike many other publications (Milwaukee Record very much included), ShepEx also gives their readers the ability to anoint victors, and even adds a write-in line for the various times a worthy nominee is left off the ballot (almost always). Having said that, one particular award specifically showed me exactly how much of a joke these annual awards can be at times. Your 2014 “Best Milwaukee Rock Band” award winner is…BoDeans!
That’s right, folks. The same band who formed in 1983 when I was just a twinkle in my mother’s eye, the same State Fair dynasty band with one remaining member whose lone semi-hit was the theme song for a network drama that just celebrated its 15th year off the air, the dad band that didn’t even have an album in 2014 (or 2013, for that matter), the very act whose albums get closer to free at used CD shops with each cruel passing year is the reigning rock ’n’ roll king of Wisconsin’s largest city. When I first read that, I laughed. Hard. I know I wasn’t alone in finding humor in the choice that launched a thousand sarcastic Facebook comments and subsequent references to other washed-up default “big” Milwaukee bands of yore.
But after a while, it hit me. The readers were responsible for this choice (despite the unknown reason they were even up for vote in the first place). My laughter soon gave way to the letdown of realizing that Milwaukeeans were the ones who perpetrated the egregious error of voting the BoFuckingDeans to a title that either runner-up (Vic And Gab and Moon Curse) or even ex-BoDeaner Sam Llanas deserved so much more—not to mention dozens of other better-fit bands for the ballot. It’s embarrassing, inexcusable, and a definite reason why musicians (and artists in other mediums) eventually get fed up with Milwaukee’s laughably low levels of artistic support and patronage and eventually leave.
I’m going to take a breath and think of some more “closer to free”-related puns now, Matt. While I do so, tell me how you felt when you happened upon the “Best Rock Band” award this year, how you think Milwaukee as a whole sees its own music scene, and what (if anything) can be done to help make sure The Gufs stay off the ballot next year?
Matt Wild: Since you’re being diplomatic in regards to the worth of these sorts of awards, Tyler, I’ll be brutally honest: they’re a joke. An unfunny, worthless, cynical, awful joke. When I first learned the BoDeans had been named “Best Milwaukee Rock Band,” I didn’t even laugh. I just sighed and shook my head. (Another highlight from this year’s ShepEx awards: “Best Local Filmmaker” going to a random wedding photographer. The poor bastard who wrote the accompanying blurb signed it “Alan Smithee,” which is less a sly joke than an admission of guilt.)
The funny thing is, I actually don’t mind the BoDeans. Well, I don’t mind that Party Of Five song, anyway. I enjoy it in the same un-ironic and unashamed way I enjoy the Gin Blossoms: it’s a perfectly catchy, perfectly constructed pop song, pure and simple. (Also like the Gin Blossoms: it’s sooooo perfectly ’90s.) Should the band have been anywhere near a “Best Milwaukee Rock Band” award this year? Even taking into account a loyal fanbase and a readership that likely skews in the direction of the demographics of that fanbase, the answer is “Of course not.” But hey, they had a nice tune 21 years ago, and that seems to be good enough for some Milwaukee voters.
But is that necessarily a bad thing? I’m reminded of another ancient reference that has always stuck with me, this one from Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Just as the band was at the height of its early powers—a sensation, but not yet a time-tested one—a reporter asked Epstein what the “next big thing” would be. “The next big thing is a great tune,” he replied. I’ve always liked that quote because it shoves all questions of “scenes,” “movements,” and even “genre” aside and gets to the real beating heart of popular music: a great tune, dummy. So maybe that’s what the BoDeans thing says about the way we see our own music scene. Write a good song and we’ll love you forever! Either that or a bunch of people were seriously hardcore trolling.
I happen to like the “great tune” approach to Milwaukee music, too, though if I had voted in the ShepEx awards, I could have named approximately 8,000 more deserving songs by 8,000 more deserving local bands. “Evening Glow” by Space Raft, “Little Viking” by The Delphines, “Madness” by Bliss & Alice, “Save The Clock Tower” by Body Futures, anything off the new Sugar Stems album, and many, many more. When I compile my mental list of the best Milwaukee bands of the year (look for our actual “Best Of” lists in the weeks ahead), I don’t think about live shows, image, or national exposure. I think about songs.
As for keeping bands like The Gufs (last album: 2006) off future ballots, well, I don’t think it’s possible. As long as there are easily gamed popularity contests masquerading as “Best Of” awards—awards that may as well come complete with advertising insertion orders—there will be boneheaded winners that will inspire howls of laughter from anyone who has even the slightest notion of what’s really going on. And that’s fine. At this point, these kind of awards are almost meant to be mocked. So I’ll just continue to seek out great songs, and urge everyone else do the same. Luckily, Milwaukee has plenty.