It's a real misrepresentation of what we're all about here on this planet -- at least I think," says Sterling LeBlanc, Ph.D., assistant director of NASA's Art Program. He's referring to the music of singer-songwriter Christopher Cross. An unlikely source of controversy, to say the least, this marks the second time this year that Cross finds himself the target of heated, aesthetically driven debate -- two decades, no less, into his safe, "adult contemporary" career.
Of course, it's important to put LeBlanc's concerns in context. The Art Program's sole function is to review different forms of art and entertainment and select specific works to send on space probes. The first, most famous example of this practice was the 1977 launch of a gold "record" onboard Voyager 1, which is currently traveling at the outskirts of our solar system. Sent with an accompanying stylus in the event of encountering extraterrestrial life, the multimedia disc included music by Blind Willie Johnson, Mozart and Chuck Berry, a written statement by then-president Jimmy Carter, and an audio greeting by then-United Nations secretary-general Kurt Waldheim.
Following the original Voyager's example, LeBlanc and his director are two of nine scientists who pore over various print media, music and film as well as other pop-culture flotsam such as television commercials and product packaging. LeBlanc, who is 47 and bears a striking resemblance to Jeff Goldblum's character in The Fly (only older, more strung-out and quite possibly more deranged), is excited at the opportunity this presents for the United States to exercise one-upsmanship since the December 24 disappearance of the European Space Agency's Mars probe. Christopher Cross is not his weapon of choice in the race for cultural superiority.
"I didn't like his stuff back in the '80s," he says. "Why start now? I mean, I think that entire era should be erased. It's not the reference point I would start with if I were to offer someone, another intelligence -- a higher intelligence, perhaps! -- a window into the achievements of human culture. You gonna give 'em Tears for fucking Fears?! You take a band like uh say, uh, Dillinger Escape Plan! Yes! Dillinger Escape Plan That stuff is cutting-edge, man. It's so beauteously mathematical! It speaks volumes about the state of human achievement. Or take the Glenn Branca orchestra or Barkmarket or something like that
"I can only imagine, if extraterrestrials do end up hearing this," he says with disdain, picking up Cross's self-titled debut album, "they'll come down here thinking we're all sedate, sitting around wearing pink suits, that the whole planet is a Prozac-saturated south Houston suburb, like Clear Lake or something. I think that type of music might bring out the worst in any listener, human or otherwise. And with extraterrestrials, you don't know what we're going to be dealing with. They might wanna come and kick our asses -- or, even worse, they might think this planet is the place to express all their repressed effete tendencies. And I'm just not for that. From a scientific point of view, it's just wrong."
But hasn't much of the planet, in fact, become a "Prozac-saturated suburb"?
"That's a fair point," LeBlanc admits. "I mean, you gotta give this guy credit -- he was making depressive music sound slick 20 years before well-to-do white people started acknowledging en masse that something was missing from their lives. In a way, Christopher Cross is the precursor to Prozac. It's like, if pharmaceutical companies had entertainment wings, they would have created Chris Cross eventually."
I decline to mention that, by this logic, Cross's music is strikingly contemporary. Or that Tears for Fears is a prime example of '80s production values gaining respect 20 years after the fact, though it's clear that LeBlanc is well versed in contemporary music and would be more than happy to counterargue both points. Too well versed for the liking of his primary opponent on the Cross vote, Matt Frasier, 28, another NASA employee working on the project.
"He's always dropping obscure band names," Frasier says. "He went to school for journalism, but his parents wouldn't let him become a music writer, so now he reads CMJ religiously and just waits for someone to test his knowledge."
"Look," Frasier continues matter-of-factly. "I make mix tapes for aliens who may never hear them. Cool, huh? But I don't take it too seriously. We're just trying to put together a representative sample, which is impossible to condense into 100 hours, but we still try. [LeBlanc] is always trying to push for the total underground stuff -- he does that with film, too. At first, I thought it was a cool attitude, but now, after confronting it every day for years, it's like, 'Dude, what the fuck is your problem?' "
The as-yet-unnamed probe is tentatively scheduled to launch late next year, but the Art Program generally works ahead of deadlines. Once they cast their vote, they never change their program selections unless so instructed by NASA higher-ups. Looking at the roster of items officially decided and announced last week at NASA's Johnson Space Center, it's difficult to gauge what's making LeBlanc so, well cross about the inclusion of Cross. Among the items: a box of Frosted Flakes, a copy of Penthouse Forum, three Powerpuff Girl key chains, and an Always tampon package. (Perhaps the geniuses at NASA fear the Puff girls might all go on the rag at the same time?)
"Ironically, all of LeBlanc's ballyhooing might end up helping [Cross's] career," Frasier says with a chuckle before calling Cross's earlier controversy "a case of indie rock snobbery exposed for the utter hypocrisy that it is." It was none other than notoriously opinionated producer and self-proclaimed antipop stalwart Steve Albini who first thrust Cross back into the spotlight when Albini was caught speeding in an exclusive Chicago suburb at 3:30 a.m. -- while blaring Cross's 1983 sophomore album, Another Page. A misunderstanding ensued between Albini and the arresting officer, who thought Albini was trying to bribe him to drop the speeding/public disturbance charge, when in fact Albini simply didn't want word to get out that he was listening to Cross.
Albini was cleared of bribery in court, but the indie rock establishment was scandalized. For months, tortured Albini supporters across the country have searched their souls to see if they could, in fact, accept that Cross was now hip or if the Reverend Albini had merely slipped. Either alternative was unthinkable. "Perhaps he was just studying how antithetical that music to his approach really is" was the typical accompaniment to sobs oft-overheard at dimly lit nightspots and record stores. At his trial, Albini was pounced upon daily on the steps of Chicago's Municipal Courthouse by a throng of music journalists. For once in his life, Albini appeared penitent -- and at a loss for words.
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The real twist to this story, though, came when an alarmingly high number of musicians came forward to defend Cross's music, among them Kid Rock and Slayer's Kerry King. (The Slayer song "God Hates Us All" also made it onto the Art Program's list.)
"Dude," King says, "you ever played that stuff backwards? When we went out on the Reign in Blood tour, we were gonna use 'Sailing' as our intro music, really whip the fans into a frenzy, but we thought they'd start fucking shit up, and this was before all the problems we had with property damage. We didn't have the balls to do it at the time -- mainly because Rick Rubin nearly had a cow and we were kinda scared of him then -- but now it's like our wish comes true. The fact that aliens might hear 'Sailing' and 'God Hates Us All' on the same tape, it's just sick, especially if they come down wanting to kill us because of it. I think it's just a lethal combination."
It is Kid Rock, though, who speaks with the most reverence.
"Actually," he says, "'Minstrel Gigolo' is the first tune that gave me the right idea about how to treat groupies" -- starts to sing, painfully off-key -- "'All the young and lonely girls wait for you / They're by the backstage door / hoping to be the one.' I had a revelation with that shit. From that moment, I was hooked. I like the menace under that squeaky-clean image. You just know he knows how to smack 'em around. Motherfucker's hard-core! I love to close my eyes and imagine the girls he's singing about are all underage. Man, he was on his way to becoming the next fucking Sinatra! I already want him in my next video, with him playing me and vice versa. I wanna rock in that pink outfit on the inside sleeve of Another Page. Hell, yeah. It'd be the two of us backstage, with all these underage Japanese schoolgirls in fishnets climbing over each other to get in the door. You think he'd go for it?"