BY MIN CHEN
Pop songs, to the Residents, could be such tedious things. Not for the Shreveport four were the stultifying constructs of verse-chorus-verse, or the hackneyed sentiments of love and loss playing out across predictable two or three-minute runtimes. All together, they had wilder plans for pop. “Cut out the fat and a pop song is only one minute-long,” read the liner notes for their 1980 Commercial Album. “One minute is also the length of most commercials, and therefore, their corresponding jingles.” And then the kicker: “Jingles are the music of America!”
It’s the kind of logic that defined the faceless group’s existence and early work. Let’s not forget these were the folk who dared to deface the Beatles’ debut album cover to pass off as their own debut album cover. Their nerve went further on 1976 followup The Third Reich ‘n’ Roll, which drew parallels between Nazism and the rock industry by presenting us with atomized cover versions of songs from “I Want Candy” to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” These were demented avant-pop recreations, riven through with less disdain and more tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. Amid the record’s cacophony, just witness how the guy from “96 Tears” steps outside of his song’s confines to address the girl from “It’s My Party” (“You can cry anytime you want to, it’s cool, but you should know I too cry my 96 tears and it’s just something we all have to go through…”) in the slyest of pop cut-ups.
For all their musical sabotage, the Residents don’t hate pop; they just love the medium enough to want to make it less boring. To that end, they weren’t yet done with pop’s behemoths: in 1977, they dropped The Beatles Play the Residents and the Residents Play the Beatles, containing the heroic collage “Beyond the Valley of a Day in the Life,” which sampled and stitched together over a dozen Beatles numbers. Per Residential practice, the fat had been trimmed off these songs, saving only primo snippets—the cracking drumbeat that opens “Tell Me Why,” the echoing yeah-yeah-yeahs of “She Loves You”—for a surreal, feverish soundscape.
“Dissonance,” Theodor W. Adorno famously averred in Aesthetic Theory, “is the truth about harmony.” The Residents’ brand of vandalism likewise unveils not just pop’s orthodox structure, but spotlights the form’s inherent and essential tension—that between art and commerce. Bob Stanley, in Yeah Yeah Yeah, elaborated on this pull as that “between industry and the underground, between artifice and authenticity, between the adventurers and the curators.” Pop triumphs, he added, by “juggling those contradictions rather than purging them.” Note the Beatles’ latter-day catalog, which demonstrated a fearlessness that wasn’t immune to commodification.
That is, until the Residents came along. More than any “Revolution 9,” the collective’s Commercial Album ably straddled art and industry, simultaneously underscoring and blurring those boundaries. The record contained 41 one-minute songs, each one ostensibly a pop song, but also brisk enough to serve as a commercial jingle. These surprisingly catchy numbers unfold ominous electronic terrains (including a cameo by Brian Eno on “The Coming of the Crow”) and playful lyrical concision (“I see the sea / The sea sees me,” for instance), in ways that make them pure and pithy feats of storytelling. “The sublime,” after all, per Adorno, “is only a step removed from the ridiculous.”
Further honing the concept, the band also famously purchased 41 one-minute advertisement slots on San Francisco’s KFRC radio station for the purpose of airing tracks from Commercial Album as, well, advertisements. And because a jingle’s not a jingle without a commercial, the group also crafted short videos to go with four of these tracks. “Moisture” and “The Simple Song” were directed by Graeme Whifler, their long-time collaborator who worked on the lost Residents film Vileness Fats, and “The Act of Being Polite” and “Perfect Love” by the band itself.
Encapsulating their bloody-minded approach to commerce, these so-called One-Minute Movies played within the bounds of the pop format, while making the most of those limitations. They’re abstract, sinister visions—an alien autopsy, a lonely man succumbing to ludicrous gravity, a dimly lit ritual visited by the Residents’ signature eyeball-tuxedo livery—neatly packaged for consumption, though with no intention of being so breezily consumed. It’s almost too perfect that MTV, then-nascent and eager for content, would go on to broadcast these clips in apparently regular and heavy rotation. (In 2004, the band commissioned more of such one-minute films, 58 of which were gathered on The Commercial DVD.)
Again, the Residents have no argument with pop. Rather, on Commercial Album and its accompanying One-Minute Movies—part pop pastiches, part absurdist exercises in advertising, and wholly performance art—the band were less concerned with deconstructing pop’s form than its formula. Just as those stock three-chord, verse-chorus-verse structures were ready for exploitation, they were ripe for experimentation. And the Residents, coincidentally, knew how to do both.