Sunday, October 12, 2008

Rule of Three: HorrorTown Genre 1982-1984

Anyone who was ever really into academic bowl in high school or college (NYU college bowl president, 2004-2006) will likely understand where I'm coming from. For those of you whose only exposure to hardcore, moderated, team based, buzzer pressing action was that episode of Saved by the Bell where Zack and the gang compete against a bunch of ugly nerd caricatures from rival Valley; all I ask for is for you to keep an open mind.

For the benefit of those unfamiliar, a standard round of academic trivia consists of two teams of four being asked a ten point tossup question by the moderator. At any point in the question, any member of either team can ring to answer it; at the risk of getting it wrong, losing five points, and giving the other team sole control of answering the question. Once a side has correctly answered the tossup they will get and series of exclusive bonus question worth 30 points which they can confer and answer family feud style. The format of the bonus questions in terms of number and value could be anything: a trio of 5-10-15 point questions, a pair of 15 point questions, questions of declining value from 30-20-10, etc. The most popular format, however, are three questions of 10 points each. If this explanation has somehow perversely peaked your academic bowl interests you should check out Ken Jennings' "Brainiac" or Andrew U.'s disturbingly thorough analysis of buzzing techniques.

After four years of college answering countless 30 point bonuses (and having to write more than a few myself) I developed a sort of mental proclivity towards groups of threes. Many times I or my old college bowl friends and I would find ourselves talking about some esoteric pop culture topic and then notice that there are at least three examples of them (i.e. Drifter's hits about being somewhere: "Up on the Roof", "On Broadway", and "Under the Boardwalk") and deem them enough for a "bonus" or lament the fact that a category is one short of a "bonus" (i.e. biopics about Steve Prefontaine: "Prefontaine" and "Without Limits"). In my mind, a piece of overly specific pop culture trivia reaching that particular standard of the rule of three has now earned a sort of "bona fide" status. Something specific happening once is obviously an isolated incident. Something specific happening twice is a mere coincidence. Once something specific happens three times, it's a movement, a category, a series, an era, a period, trend, or in this case: a genre.

While I doubt there's any real literature to attest to it, under my rule of three, there was an incredibly brief but wildly successful subgenre of Pop R&B that I will officially coin as "HorrorTown", an early forerunner for the more legitimate "Horrorcore" hip hop subgenre that would emerge over a decade later. As the next three songs and videos will show, essentially this sound could be characterized as a blend of 80's contemporary Motown style pop R&B mixed with elements of the occult, death, darkness, the macabre, and the bizarre. Fittingly enough they all involve Michael Jackson as well.

With that totally false statement, the HorrorTown genre was launched in a most spectacular fashion. The Citizen Kane of music videos, which to this day continues to influence a whole new generation of pop stars, Filipino prisoners, and reenactors at the Village Halloween Parade who never fail to annoy me, lays out the fundamental blueprint for the entire genre: monsters, disturbing imagery, paranoia, unrelenting darkness; all done with a grand eye for the cinematic...and featuring Michael Jackson. It also carries on the HorrorTown trademark of having a completely accessible, fun, danceable, pop sound that is completely the opposite of its lyrics and theme. There's also the big twist ending, which is a common feature of HorrorTown videos.

Rockwell - Somebody's Watching Me (1984)

For me personally, this is the probably the scariest of the HorrorTown videos (whether that makes it more definitive of the genre or less, I'm not sure). Once again, the random disturbing imagery (floating head, demonic dog, blood, etc.), paranoia, sense of evil, Michael Jackson vocals are all there. Most people will say based on the theme of the song and the shower references, that there's a distinct cinematic tie to "Psycho" with the video, but I find it more like "The Shinning". It's obvious that Rockwell didn't know what he was getting into being the caretaker for this modest two story condo which may or may not be built right next to a cemetery. The video also definitely had the best HorrorTown twist ending with the undead mailman. Aside from the song and video, the fact that Rockwell was Berry Gordy's son gives this single the distinction of having the strongest of ties to the Motown sound. Although I've never seen the music video for his second "hit" "Obscene Phone Caller", based on the words and music, how could it not be another HorrorTown classic?

Jacksons - Torture (1984)

Like the ephemeral splendor of a blazing firework, the spectacular run of the HorrorTown genre eventually ended with the Jacksons' swansong Torture. It's amazing to observe how far the genre had evolved in the mere two years since "Thriller". The HorrorTown video had moved from merely creating pastiches of traditional movie elements to drawing its own completely original artistic visions. In a wholly created nightmarish dimension worthy of Lovecraft the Jacksons find themselves in a truly disturbing universe of giant eyeballs, grotesque spiders, and dancing skeletons; torn between sick pleasure and twisted pain. A true masterpiece of the form if there ever was one. Although Jackson and like minded artists would casually exhibit HorrorTown-like projects from time to time, the classic era died with "Torture".

1 comment:

  1. due to my strong personal convictions, i wish to stress that i will not be commenting on this entry.