What’s up with Cheese?

Several years ago, I went to see Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine.

I’d first heard of him on iTunes.  For a time, Radiohead (or their label) would not allow their songs on iTunes.  Every couple of months or so, I’d do a search on Creep to see if it’d come up.  It didn’t, but there was a version of it by Richard Cheese and Lounge Against the Machine.  Curious, I clicked on it.

And what do I hear, but a lounge act version of the Radiohead classic (think what Creep would sound like if Sinatra sang it).  Even more curious, I did a search and it turns out that they do a whole bunch of covers (Freak on a Leash, Hot for Teacher, Sunday Bloody Sunday, and many, many more). For fun, I bought several of the songs and then forgot about it.

One day I was perusing the Showbox calendar and I saw that they were coming to town.  I had to see them in real life.  Now, having seen them, I’m left wondering, are they strictly a novelty act, or is there something deeper taking place?

First of all, they open with Too Drunk to Fuck, the Dead Kennedys classic.  The Dead Kennedys are the seminal angry political punk band.  In Richard Cheese’s version, it’s a light peppy swinging number.  Assuming that he’s as serious about his image that I’m guessing he must be, if he heard it, Jello Biafra would be furious.

He segues (after saying, “this one is for the ladies”) to Nirvana’s Rape Me.  He somehow manages to turn it into a frothy love song.  If Kurt hadn’t already killed himself, he might well have wanted to after hearing this.

In a similar vein, he took a couple of hard core rap songs and sweetly crooned them like love songs, making it obvious how horribly misogynistic they really are.

He next asks us to judge the existential dilemma felt in the next song by Lady Gaga.  I’m not sure what song it was, but it was a vacuous song about getting drunk and lost at a dance club.  He sang it slow as if it was a torch song, full of feeling.  If she heard it, Lady Gaga probably would have wanted to run and hide, or at least take a creative writing course.

Is he just poking fun or is there something more to it?

Is he actually deconstructing these songs, showing how dependent upon context the lyrics are?  How all cultural meaning is removed by just swapping out guitars and kicking in a different drum beat?  Stripped of the music, what seems violent, rebellious, or sexual becomes vacuous and banal. Is he making a deep social statement or he is just clowning around?

I’d lean towards the social comment, except for the vulgarity.  Not only in the song lyrics (which is to be expected), but on-stage he makes rude, blatantly sexist comments.  At one point, he had  a well-endowed bra-less woman come up on stage and jump up and down for him.  Of course, what that says about the woman that she willingly complied is another thing (well, besides the obvious statement that she was wall-eyed drunk).

Again, is this part of the shtick or is he making a deeper statement?  Is he making a cultural back-reference to previous lounge parody singers, most obviously to Andy Kaufman’s Tony Clifton or to Bill Murray’s SNL lounge singer?  Or is he reaching even further back and actual parodying the real thing, the old Rat-Packers themselves with their suave, sophisticated manner belying their cruel, egocentric, misogynistic lifestyle?

And what about the audience?  The audience was just eating it up.  Not only the previously aforementioned woman jumping up and down, there were people (many of whom in their fifties) who were laughing, waving their arms, even as he turned on them and mocked their drunkenness.

Were they in on the joke?  Or were they themselves just a parodic manifestation of the previous Rat-Pack audiences who laughed and egged on the on-stage singer even as the singer mailed in his performance and treated them with ill-concealed contempt?

Sitting there, watching the show, I was lost in a sea of thought.  What is real and what is the irony?  Does it matter?  Was I entering some aural door of perception?

Or maybe it was just a fucking concert.

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