Synth Pap

New York’s revival of ’80s pop produces the worst album of the year.

Forty years ago, in her famous essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’ ” Susan Sontag mapped the contours of something in the air, an outré sensibility: a private code, even a source of identity. Camp, she wrote, was unnatural, an embrace of the artificial and exaggerated—but a generous, loving embrace. Crucially, camp was unintentional, unaware of itself. It might be “bad” art—it was, by definition, undignified, not serious—but it was not knowingly bad (its intentions were dead serious). Bad camp was knowingly camp, intentionally camp, and thus slick, forced, heavy-handed, tone-deaf, and often contemptuous.

Fischerspooner’s debut album, #1, is bad camp. It is also, in its expensive manufacture and expansive hype, a signal act of bad faith. It is the expression of an exhausted New York art world still clinging (since the ‘70s!) to notions that self-reflexiveness and any sort of bringing to bear on pop culture the tired critique of postmodernist theory represent bold, original acts of transgression. In sum, #1 is an extraordinarily bad recording—in the interest of expansiveness, a shoo-in for worst album of 2003.

Fischerspooner is Warren Fischer, who programs the music, and Casey Spooner, who sings, sort of. They met in art school and first collaborated on video pieces and such. A couple of years ago, in downtown New York, they began performing live in hip clubs and galleries and developed a cultish art-world following. Spooner would lip-sync, in a calculatedly obvious way, and prance onstage in a pink dress or a big turban, often with four or six or eight women swirling around him, all got up like deconstructed June Taylor dancers. Some nights there would be lots of fake blood. Other nights it was wigs and makeup. Always, there was excess and studied bad taste. Meanwhile, Fischer confected a synthesizer-drum-machine dance groove that was one part Kraftwerk, one part Giorgio Moroder, one part early ‘80s English electro-pop—if you happen to have passed a night in a Soviet-bloc disco just before the Wall came down, you may feel nearly as knowing as Fischer no doubt imagines himself. The overall effect was judged interesting, which is pretty much the only judgment the contemporary art world is capable of making these days, and that might have been that.

But then, last winter, a dance-music nano-trend dubbed “electroclash”—yet another ‘80s revival—seized Williamsburg, Brooklyn (and London and Berlin and Los Angeles, too), and Fischerspooner sounded enough like that stuff to not only get themselves lumped in with that scene, but to get themselves carefully understood as its spearhead. They weren’t simply performance artists anymore. They were, you know, New York art-pop musicians, the next Velvet Underground or Talking Heads. They landed a big record deal in trend-happy England (as much as 2 million pounds [$3.1 million], according to the London Times) to record the Next Big Album. Imagine the possibilities for post-structuralist subversion at the Top of the Pops.

Alas, #1 failed to sell in England when it was released last year—despite the feverish publicity and the outlandish and exorbitant performance events—and not long after, Fischerspooner’s label, Ministry of Sound, went belly up. Capitol released the CD here late last month into a moment in which electroclash might have already come and gone. And even at the height of the Fischerspooner hype-fest, no one could have (or should have) believed this music could stand on its own, in somebody’s iPod, without that fabulous floor show. All by its self, #1 is absolutely desperate for the emperor’s (empress’s ?) clothes.

There’s the monotony: Nearly every song begins with a half-minute or more of synth bleeping or drum-machine sputtering. It’s like sitting through a Spandau Ballet sound check, circa 1980. Fischer, it would seem, has listened to old Human League and Depeche Mode recordings but not carefully enough: He has no idea how to create an ingratiating hook or build to a climax by layering electronic textures. (Human League and Depeche Mode: Now they’re great camp!) His bleeps and beats simply pile up midsong, like third-rate prog-rock guitar jams. The lyrics to the songs, which are mostly about the lives of the young and fashionable, range from the Theory Reading List mode (“Hyper-mediocrity” is a refrain of the album’s single, “Emerge”) to the South Park vulgar (“Mega C” is a song that seeks its giggles in and around an anxious woman’s colon). And poor Spooner cannot sing worth a damn—he sounds like a lousy singer trying to sound “lousy,” which more or less encapsulates Fischerspooner’s talent and drive.

Among the most provocative of Sontag’s “notes” on camp are several devoted to the sensibility’s peculiar affinity to and overlap with the gay culture of the time—the projection of theatricality (connected to the forced masking and role-playing of gay men), the emphasis on playfulness (rooted in a desire to remain boyishly youthful), and the embrace of an aristocratic, aesthete hauteur (adopted by so many gays in the belief, as Sontag remarks, that promoting the aesthetic sense would be their means to integration into society). Fischerspooner is camp in these ways, from the dresses and wigs to the cheesy, goofy disco beats and Spooner’s grating way of overenunciating. But what is the point, exactly, of summoning a set of responses to prejudice and lack of freedom when those conditions, and gay style, have so drastically, thankfully changed? Or, as the Fischerspooner crowd might have it, why reify when the signs no longer signify? Put another way: Who is laughing at what in Fischerspooner’s “queer” minstrel show?

All of which is to say: Beyond the bad music and bad faith and bad camp, Fischerspooner is a bad idea.