The Common Good
January-February 1997

In, But Not of, the Pop World

by Shane Helmer | January-February 1997

Sam Phillips' sardonic look at popular culture.

Popular culture is an intricate part of our exceedingly complex modern world. Paradoxically, it has become a blessing and a curse. Music and art, television and movies can function as legitimate means of social criticism and catalysts for change. They can also anaesthetize our feelings and paralyze our culture's progress.

Pop culture seems obsessed with its own definition of success. Money and power equate with popularity and position. Those who do not fit neatly into the equation are continuously reminded by pop culture icons, who ironically have achieved such success, that they are zeros in society.

Admittedly, "regular folk" feel powerless sometimes. But to have this perception so intricately woven into our culture's consciousness robs us of our enthusiasm for living and crushes our dreams beneath the cynical wreckage of society. There seems to be far too much whining and not enough constructive criticism. It is into this tension, this world of zero-speak, that singer-songwriter Sam Phillips wedges a truly alternative perspective.

Sam Phillips' new release, Omnipop (It's Only A Flesh Wound Lambchop) (subtitle courtesy of Mel Brooks' The Producers) is an attempt to inject some levity into what she considers an overly serious music culture while at the same time commenting on broader cultural issues. Omnipop follows the 1994 release Martinis and Bikinis—a solid rendition of Beatlesque pop that earned Phillips much critical praise. While the two albums are similar in theme, they could not be more musically disparate. If Martinis is served up dry, then Omnipop represents an express trip through the cocktail lounge.

Once again, Phillips is abetted by husband-producer T Bone Burnett. Together, with a host of talented musicians (including Burnett's usual partners-in-crime Marc Ribot and Jim Keltner), they create an evocative and diverse array of music both beautiful and unsettling. Their experimental approach probes the radical extremes with one directive in mind—to have fun.

THE EXPRESS TRIP begins with the throbbing sounds of "Entertainmen," a clever play on words referring to the way women are sometimes viewed by men: "watch me/let me be your T.V." She continues this theme on "Help Yourself." While a horn arrangement creates a film noir atmosphere, lyrics comparing women to food offer some of the most startling images on the album: "I laid down on the table/you pulled up a chair."

Phillips sets out to redefine a popular notion of success with "Zero Zero Zero!" Surrounded by a marching band instrumental, she sings, "it's hard to confuse power with love...everything that I'm not is all that I've got." She suggests that ground zero is a place to begin again rather than to sulk.

The caustic "Plastic is Forever" suggests that we mask our true feelings with possessions. Television becomes a primary target when Phillips asserts, "it keeps making everything the same size/pain is pleasure when it's televised." She also assails the entertainment industry's overnight success stories on the merry-go-round circus waltz "Animals on Wheels," sardonically charging, "famous is fast/ you don't have to be talented or do good work or be smart."

Phillips' distinctive vocal approach is demonstrated on the stunning "Where Are You Taking Me," a song about the difficulty of finding the truth in a web of obsessive desires, as well as the haunting melody "Your Hands" in which her plaintive voice is surrounded by ominous drum beats and echoing guitars. The album closes with "Slapstick Heart," a song co-written with members of REM, about the tragicomic consequences of misguided romance.

The musical landscape is so diverse and entertaining, the album could be considered as paradoxical as pop culture itself. One may not know what to make of a work so charged with the elements of pop culture, yet so cautious of the influence it has on our lives. What we are left with is an artistic impression of inner conflict. It's a good thing, too. Otherwise, Phillips' struggle and concerns might be overshadowed by what seems like arrogance. After all, there's enough on this album to offend everyone, or at least make you think. No need to take it so seriously, though. It's only a flesh wound.

Review of Omnipop (It's Only A Flesh Wound Lambchop). By Sam Phillips. Virgin Records, 1996.

SHANE HELMER is a former Sojourners intern living in Humble, Texas.

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