solid potato salad

17Jan10

“Solid Potato Salad” — a perennial YouTube favorite — is a 1944 dance and contortion routine featuring the splendtastic harmony singing of the Ross sisters, who went by the stage names Aggie Ross, Elmira Ross, and Maggie Ross even though they were — apparently — actually named Veda Victoria, Dixie Jewel and Betsy Ann Ross.  In a recent entry at Click Opera, Nick Currie complains about what he calls the “aggressive normality” of contemporary commercial culture, a sentiment that I completely agree with.  I don’t know when the last time was that I even thought about switching on any of the music video channels, all of which seem to be regurgitating image sequences that first made their appearances almost 20 years or so ago, during the ‘heroic period’ of the commercial consolidation of music videos.  I like the “Solid Potato Salad” clip a lot because — aside from the fact that the wholesomeness of its vertiginous surreality almost verges on the pornographic — historical distance has moved it so far outside of the commercial norms in which it originated that it’s almost been transformed into a kind of avant-gardist slapstick.

And just when you thought there was nothing left to be done with this clip, since it seems to have already said everything it needs to say about itself, someone comes along and cuts it up to the tune of Powermad’s “Slaughterhouse.”



2 Responses to “solid potato salad”

  1. Hi Trane,

    Happy 2010!

    Great to find this clip, which was new to me. It put me in mind of the recent OK Go “treadmill dance” video that was an Internet phenom a year or two back. Appreciated too your take on the “aggressive normality” of today’s videos. On the other hand, I’m with you that the Ross Sisters benefit from a “historical distance” that makes them seem weirder and more ‘avant’ than they might have in the vaudville-inflected, variety show zaniness of the time. I’m struck by how much “crap pop” sounds classic to me over time, so that hits I never would’ve paid attention to when they were big in the 80s take on warmth and dimension twenty-five years later, measured against the crap of today (which, in turn, will probably sound warm and classic in twenty years.) What’s up with that?

    I tired of the OK Go video pretty quickly, partly because I got to watch it as much as I wanted via YouTube. By contrast, just 10-15 years ago, you had to wait till the video you wanted happened to play on “120 Minutes” or whatever, and then often couldn’t see it again for weeks. Is there ANY form of expression that can sustain its charm under today’s “play on demand” conditions? I guess books have been doing it forever, and music since transcription. Still, there’s something about the power of point-and-click that strips the aura away even faster than Benjamin could’ve dreamed.

    Glad for your blog!

    best,
    Rodney

    • 2 Trane DeVore

      Hi Rodney —

      Happy 2010 to you too! And thanks for stopping by and leaving one of the most thoughtful comments yet that I’ve gotten on this blog. I hadn’t seen the OK Go treadmill routine until reading your reply. Got to say that it was a lot of fun to watch, but it would have even been better if they had been wearing brightly colored leotards and violently clashing fluorescent leggings! Outfits like that would have dropped just enough 80s flashdance in to give the video the historical distance it needs to be truly weird.

      I’m glad you mentioned vaudeville — I hadn’t even thought of the vaudeville connection in relation to the Ross Sisters, but now that you mention it, it seems perfectly obvious. It’s interesting how types of entertainment that were once so central to popular culture can become historically marginalized to the point where they’re almost entirely forgotten in the public consciousness. Of course, the fact that vaudeville largely preceded the rise of ready-to-hand forms of technological reproduction probably has something to do with that. Still, one imagines that were one given the chance to see “Solid Potato Salad” performed live and in person that any of the aura that may have been lost through repeated viewings would probably end up flowing right back, with a bonus.

      I also have been returning to some of the pop hits of my youth (also primarily 80s) and have been interested in how different some of these songs sound to me now. I’m almost embarrassed to say that I find Toto’s “Africa” — a song I completely ignored when it was popular — to be weirdly fascinating. I probably never would have thought of it again except for accidentally stumbling across it on Japanese television while flipping through the stations. “As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti / I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing that I’ve become.” Are there any popular musicians coming up with lyrics that are even close to being this weird anymore?

      On a related note, I recently read a review in Harper’s of Robert Frank’s The Americans and there’s a bit where Francine Prose writes, “Our cityscapes and the landscapes are of course transformed, and one can spend hours puzzling over the reasons people looked so different then, a fact that cannot be attributed simply to surface changes in fashion and coiffure.” I think there’s something in this that applies to popular culture in general. Even though a lot of bands, for example, have adopted and even replicated some of the lost stylings of 80s popular music, the new music is instantly recognizable as NOT being from the 80s, even when it’s impossible to parse exactly why.


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