Hello, Norman!

Mind Driver/Rich Bensons
Chain Reaction
Monday, Dec. 17

And now comes the time for us to take a journey, a journey to a world at once eerily familiar and grossly alien, a world in which everything we know still feels right but is deeply wrong, a journey to a world that is the world of the High School Pop Punk Band. You knew you could not escape it, not even through the rituals of senior prom, Grad Night at Disneyland and Mothers Against Drunk Driving Presents “The Mock Death of All Your Friends in a Tragedy Involving Rum, Involuntary Lobotomy and the Crash.” You live in Orange County, and you go to shows and sooner or later, like a perennial infection contracted in Huntington Beach or whiplash at Magic Mountain, it would happen to us, and then it suddenly wouldn't seem so funny anymore.

There once was a science-fiction writer named Philip K. Dick, and he ruled, if you didn't know. And before he died of a stroke in a Santa Ana mental-asylum-type place, he wrote a final novel set in a seemingly normal Orange County that concealed unspeakably incomprehensible evil beneath its sunny streets. We can relate (and not just because of the whole Nixon thing—and not just because of the Santa Ana mental asylum thing, either) because High School Pop Punk is the sound of the streets around here—granted, only certain streets, like nice big wide ones with functioning streetlights and well-maintained lawns—and, well, it's kind of evil, in a beige sort of fashion.

Sure, it's punk in, um, a way, in that it's kind of fast and the bands employ vocabulary and concepts possibly frowned upon by their high school administrators and youth pastors—”fuck,” “shit,” whatever—but then it's totally devoid of, well, irony and threat and artistic innovation and stuff that you sort of come to associate with punk once you get out of high school. But then again, people actually dance to High School Pop Punk Bands (instead of just scowling desultorily, which is what they do when they discover irony), so you can't say they're doing everything wrong, can you?

And so Mind Driver. We can't say they sucked. They were tight. They were catchy. They were very polished. They had a guitar tech. They gave out candy canes and made the audience—a bunch of kids still sporting actual baby fat; could we have looked more like a pedophile?—squeal for them and worked the room with all the unctuously calculated charm of those people who used to make regular visits to our high school who want to make selling subscriptions to Redbook and Popular Science to your dad's harried co-workers seem really, really cool! And they wrote sort-of bad songs (but hey, keep throwing in ska breakdowns because in about six more months, ska's gonna flip from lame to retro-kitsch!), but they wrote them very well: working within a medium we consider incomprehensibly vacuous, they were always adept at their diabolic craft. The problem with High School Pop Punk is that it sounds so, well, high school, a soundtrack for shopping at the mall or playing Tony Hawk 2. Or, more correctly, it sounds like music to a commercial: perky, predictable, boring and inoffensive.

But that's our prejudice—you kids in your strange alien High School Pop Punk world seem to like it okay. And so we can't say Mind Driver sucked because even though they're doing something that makes us break out in throbbing facial boils, they do it pretty well.

But the Rich Bensons? Well, that's another story—indeed, perhaps the suckiest story ever told. This was wallpaper music: if it was suddenly gone, you might notice, but otherwise, it just fades. They had neither the charisma nor the chops of Mind Driver, making up for it with . . . with . . . well, their singer looked kind of like a Backstreet Boy, which was entertaining for as long as it takes to look at someone and decide they look like a Backstreet Boy, and after that, it was just wham-bam-we're-so-bland. Teach an infinite number of monkeys an infinite number of power chords, and you'd hope to get the Ramones' first album or something, but really, you'd probably get this kind of tepid pop punk, served up with all the wit and vigor of those hair-netted ladies in the school cafeteria who dollop orange meatloaf on your plate like they just grudgingly pinched it out themselves. But you know, they're young, and they seem like they're still in that stage where it's not so much a chance to make music as an excuse to push merchandise (“Thanks!” they concluded their set. “Buy our shirts!”), which lots of people never grow out of anyway. Besides, we saw some people who must have been their parents, and they seemed pretty proud. And in the scary phildickian world of High School Pop Punk, that's a very important thing.

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