Shtick is Yiddish for routine, generally used to describe the edge a performer gives his or her act. It's the price tag hanging off the brim of Minnie Pearl's straw hat. Camille Paglia's grinning archness. The conceptual entirety of Siegfried and Roy. Of course, through time it has also become descriptive of a somewhat repellent aspect of a person's behavior. Barrooms are full of people who rely on what they consider tried and true methods of enhancing their charm. But if shtick really worked, every saloon in the world would be empty long before last call; people would be at home getting laid.
Left to itself, music is a pretty versatile and undeniable art form, one that rarely benefits from shtick. Musical notation is its own entire language, capable of steering your emotions without any visual stimuli whatsoever. The three chords of "Gloria" represent all you need to know about swagger and sexual allure. The song clearly withstands the visual imposition that Van Morrison's complete lack of sex appeal creates. But the ability of music to be complete in and of itself is a lesson lost on a lot of musicians. Gregorian monks thought that monotone chanting would sound new and exciting. The entire concept of baroque exists because somebody thought Western classical music wasn't sufficiently ornate.
And rock and roll? If the revolving cycle of nostalgia keeps getting any smaller, we'll have to take bands to the recycling center the morning after their first show. But it doesn't always follow that if you play music from a time period other than your own, you've got a shtick. Accept the following as a blueprint: If your band played music in the 1970s -- you were a '70s band. If your band plays '70s music in 1999, you are a cover band. If your band plays a style of music in 1999 similar to that which was played in the '70s and you sport sideburns and a mustache similar to those worn in the '70s, you are shtick. By that criterion, the Northwest seems to have a stranglehold on shtick. And it's not just the '70s. From garage punks to post grungers, grrrl groups to glam rockers to rooty-tooty retro -- we are so shtick.
There are obvious offenders. Nearly everyone I talked to about shtick said, "You mean like Murder City Devils?" Well... uh... yes. Oh, to be a fly on the wall at their first practice! Which came first, a jam that inevitably slid into an MC 5 vibe or someone voicing the idea, "Hey, what if Detroit rock and '70s punk had a baby? Let's sound like that!" There's a lot to be said for their energy and enthusiasm (it's called entertainment), but the bottom line is that there's more interest in their live show than in their music. The braying and sashaying of singer Spencer Moody, honorary Devil Gabe's mutton-stache, the wall of cat scratch amplifier squall, the innumerable tattoos depicting every tough guy symbol known to mankind; they form an entertaining blend of visual and audible signals that trigger pleasurable associations in our brains. But how many people who rock out at a MCD show, stand in the front row and throw their fists in the air, ramble on in alcoholic incoherence about how fuckin' great they are, actually go home and throw their record on the turntable?
The Makers took an interesting road to shtick. Their origins as a Spokane garage rock band are barely visible any more. Although garage music is one of the more typical shtick-laden genres, the Makers of yore took a fairly orthodox approach to their retro sound, concentrating more on the music than the stylization. But somewhere between All-Night Riot and Psychopathia Sexualis, the band went glam. Singer Michael Maker began to sport furry collars and scarves, and the band began to take a more complicated approach to the basic trash sound of garage. Most garage bands would get pounded for adding such girlie, art rock touches. But somehow the Estrus Records crowd became convinced that it wasn't faggy, it was cool. The truth is that the Makers don't really need a front man rubbing his crotch on the mic stand to make "(Are You on the Inside or the Outside of Your) Pants" a great song.
Seattle's worst shtick offenders are, of course, the Supersuckers. If there is some irony implicit in having to act like a rock and roll band, rather than just be a rock and roll band, it is totally lost on me. Every one of their songs and stage moves is a replication of one we've seen made by every other swaggering rock band in the world. If a band's highest compliment is paid by a woman taking off her shirt at a show, it's rendered in false currency. Saying you are the best rock and roll band in the world doesn't make it true.
The same rationale could be applied to the Supersuckers' former label, Sub Pop. At one time they had a pretty good shtick going. But when grunge died, the label went with it. Somebody forgot to tell them that the emperor wasn't wearing any clothes.
Some bands subscribe to a more subtle form of shtick. By definition, shtick implies an avoidance of sincerity. So you can't really say that Seattle label Tooth & Nail has a shtick; it's more of a specialty: Jesus. With a distribution system that goes wherever God's word does, they have a pretty sweet deal. Ask a jaded hipster who MXPX is -- they'll gaze at you uncomprehendingly. Ask any white, 12-year-old public schooler who they are, and you'll find out that they're Christianity's answer to Green Day, and sell nearly as many records. The band, who has parted ways with Tooth & Nail to sign with worldly A&M, is one of many groups who combine Bible totin' with a punk aesthetic. Seattle's Pedro the Lion sound like shoe-gazers singing about world-weariness and girl problems, but upon close inspection, they are stumping for the Lord Jesus Christ.
Tooth & Nail's most "famous" band (in the eyes of the secular media) is also their strangest. The Danielson Famile may be entirely sincere in their love of God, but they also happen to be, in the tradition of all good cults, totally weird. The members of the band are the real-life younger brothers and sisters of singer/guitarist Daniel Smith. Smith, who sings in a bizarre falsetto (a combination of Mickey Mouse and James Brown), created the "band" for a college assignment. Dressed in nurses' uniforms and scrubs, the seven-piece ensemble engages in the kind of performance usually reserved for high school musicals or Las Vegas reviews. They represent a special kind of showmanship that has so many layers of shtick they have graduated to the next level of self-promotion: spectacle.
Some bands achieve shtick, others have it thrust upon them. Sunny Day Real Estate, who got their start in Seattle's mid-'90s emo-core scene, had an original sound that employed the basic emo structure of soft, complicated guitar ballads lashed together with loud, ringing interludes. They played frequently, garnered tons of fans, and put out two excellent records on Sub Pop. Suddenly the band vanished. Somewhere along the line, the rumors began to focus on singer Jeremy Enigk, creating a lore that altered the perception of Enigk from a soft-spoken Eastside nerd to a mystical, musical prodigy. Reuniting last year, the band became their fading label's big white hope. However, one thing had changed when the band came back to life: They believed the hype. The bombastic orch-pop overkill of 1998's How It Feels to Be Something On signifies a complex form of shtick that doesn't necessarily have a performance component. It's simply a case of a band putting forward a grandiose notion that they are genius, when in fact, they are merely a good band.
Sometimes, though, a shtick will stick, and transcend itself. Tacoma's Girl Trouble has no problem being exactly who they are: trash-culture-lovin' residents of Tacoma, Washington, who play roots rockin' music with big boss beats and sizzling guitar leads. Singer K. P. Kendall never fails to toss cheesy souvenirs to the crowd, and on a good night can motivate an entire room full of people to frantically frug. They've had guest appearances by a geriatric go-go dancer and motorcycle-helmet-wearing beauties. It is clear that they are referencing '60s pop culture with every note they play and sing. It's shtick, but it's totally sincere. The music they have been making for a decade relies upon the fact that the four members of the group are completely satisfied with what they do. As for Kendall's penchant for fancy, long-stepping moves and dance contests, it's in his blood. He's a total ham.
The Tight Bros from Way Back When play music that could be described as being stylistically similar to '70s metal. Twin guitar leads; a singer with a wailing falsetto; abrupt, crashing stops and cheering choruses? They didn't invent that. Most will agree that the progenitors of this style were the Australian metal band AC/DC. But the Tight Bros' homage to AC/DC ends with a love for their music. Singer Jared Warren might have some wicked sore vocal chords after a show, but he hasn't worn them out singing about big American thighs. His themes are good times, respecting each other's weirdness, and getting off people's backs. No one in the band has said that they wish their guitars had vaginas so they could have sex with them, as AC/DC guitarist Angus Young was once quoted. Their bag isn't to be roguish and brash in the manner of a loud and lewd metal band. They wear jeans and T-shirts. Their stage moves are limited to a few guitar swings. They're honest. And thankfully, they are self-confident enough to know that honesty doesn't have to be a foreign concept to rock and roll.
Einstein postulated that there are no new ideas, and maybe that's true. But there are ways for a band to add some original touches to old ideas that don't require the nudge and wink of sarcasm to broadcast their implied awareness of irony. Who knows what would happen if musicians gave up on shtick? Maybe it's the one thing keeping the collective world audience from slitting their wrists in ennui. But before you give up the ghost, answer this question: Isn't music enough?