In September 1996 in Manhattan, I saw a rock band called Yum-Yum perform as part of the alternative rock industry's biggest showcase, the College Music Journal Convention. The band's label, an affiliate of Atlantic Recordss (part of Time Warner), had pulled out all the promotional stops. Label flacks inched their way around the croded room, shoving Yum-Yum stickers and other paraphernialia into everyone's hands.
The band, which included a mini-string section, played a set of sad, pretty pop love songs. They emulated the sound and approach of old Burt Bacharach records or the Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys, without those masters' level of compositional complexity. I enjoyed the set, as did some other music 'zine writers at my table. Later, I even bought the record.
That made me part of an exclusive crowd. Though the Atlantic hype machine successfully placed articles about the band and its singer/songwriter, Chris Holmes, in the trifecta of Rolling Stone, Billboard, and Spin, fewer than 10,000 people bought the album. In L.A. music stores I saw the sure signs of a record promoted beyond its audience: used promo copies littering dollar CD bins, just months after the album's release.
This commercial failure was predictable. The type of smart, sensitive, string-laden pop Yum-Yum made hasn't been commercially viable for a very long time. Nowadays it is the music of record-collecting pop fanatics. Yum-Yum's bomb was just one more example of a major label getting overly excited about its newest find--Chris Holmes had been a bigwig in the Chicago underground music scene with his earlier band, the "space rock" Sabalon Glitz--and failing to make the rest of the world take notice. Yum-Yum toured a while, then faded from sight and most people's memories.
Holmes, a wealthy University of Chicago graduate, returned to Chicago--none the worse for wear, suggests rock journalist Jim DeRogatis, who wrote about Holmes in Rolling Stone. "Trying to be a rock star for Chris would be like spending the summer in Europe after graduating," DeRogatis tells me. "He can always fall back on teaching political philosophy at some good school." Holmes was a man of contradictions, DeRogatis suggests; while he liked to brag about being a rich kid, he hated it when writers described him that way.
In February, a new buzz about Yum-Yum started on e-mail listservs and phone lines among people who both knew the band and read Harper's Magazine. The March issue of Harper's contained a 10-page feature story about Yum-Yum, written by Chris Holmes's childhood pal and former roommate Thomas Frank. Frank is a rising leftist intellectual star who edits The Baffler, a magazine of cultural criticism, and writes critiques of advertising and big business.
What made this obscure failed rock band of interest to Harper's? Frank had a theory about the band, one with which almost everyone who had independent knowledge about Yum-Yum disagreed. The Yum-Yum record, Frank postulated, was not intended as a sincere work of popular music. It was instead an ironic gesture, an attempt to "fake fake itself" (his italics). Pop music was the "fake" being "faked." The album was, Frank asserted, a "critique" of "the pop-music industry" even as it was a product of it. Thus, the story fit well with the main mission of Harper's: helping middle- to highbrow intellectuals confirm their inchoate contempt for the modern market order.
Holmes didn't really like the kind of soft pop the Yum-Yum record represented, Frank asserted, referring to Holmes's "supposed" fondness for Bacharach and his "farcical" proclamations about his craft (such as "it's such a pleasure to work with" strings). According to Frank, Holmes chose the "strategy" of "claiming that his love of the lowbrow article in question [string-laden pop] is as heartfelt and genuine and un-ironic as that felt for it by the demographic for whom it was originally made."
Frank's article reads like a depressingly typical tale of failed would-be pop stardom. The only distinguishing factor is the random sprinkling of "ironically" or "tongue-in-cheek" as adjectives. Holmes goes on a package tour sponsored by Seventeen magazine; he writes a guest column for Sassy; he banters with the audience in a not-entirely-sincere way; he crafts a press kit from which rock journalists repeat details without checking them.
Frank follows Yum-Yum on tour to a Fort Wayne, Indiana, bar and stares agog at badly dressed and groomed Midwesterners who "had honed and refined their hedonism to an edge far sharper than what one finds in the larger cities. Their Midwest wasn't about prayer or hard work....It was about drunkenness, cocaine, and copulation"--all unknown, apparently, in the "larger" and presumably more refined cities. There, I suppose, people are merely convivial, use conversation-enhancing stimulants, and make love. To Frank, the irony in which Holmes swims arises inevitably from the sick failures of capitalist modernity: "Fake earnestness, earnest fakeness...[are]...both of them equally cozy within the market order and between them represent...all the options left to us anymore."
By the time I got my copy of the March Harper's, I had already heard, via e-mail lists or phone calls, complaints about the story's dubious premise from about a dozen Yum-Yum-conscious Harper's readers. The executive editor of Spin magazine, Craig Marks, was peeved enough to write in The Village Voice that he found Frank's account "bafflingly misguided." Marks suggested the real story was probably that "Holmes, too embarrassed to admit to his hard-ass buddy that...he actually liked girly-pop...fed Frank a steaming plate of cred-saving bullshit. And Frank bought it....Now that's ironic."
Peter Margasak, a rock critic with the alternative weekly The Chicago Reader who has covered Holmes's career, says he "was just stunned" by the article. "No one in Chicago would believe for a second" that the Yum-Yum record was not a sincere and seriously intended shot at rock stardom.
Darcy Vaughn, Yum-Yum's viola player, acknowledges that it's difficult to do some of the things pop stardom involves, such as getting dolled up and posing for promo shots, without an inner chuckle. Still, she insists that Holmes never behaved with anything less than utter sincerity about the music he was making. In the studio, Vaughn says, he would solemnly relate how certain lyrics came to him in a dream after a breakup with a beloved. The album consisted of sweet, open-hearted, string-laden love songs, and Vaughn recalls that Holmes always professed a genuine affection for that kind of pop--"especially with prospective girlfriends."
In his Voice piece, Marks called Holmes one of "the schmooziest musician[s] I have ever encountered." Margasak, the Chicago Reader critic, knew him as someone who went around town bragging about what a huge rock star this Yum-Yum record would make him. The consensus of those who know Holmes is that he badly wanted to make it big and that the Yum-Yum record was a sincere attempt at doing so.
It appeared to most of these people that Holmes and/or Frank had in effect pulled something over on Harper's. Margasak says Frank discussed interviewing him for the story but never followed through. Vaughn remembers talking with Frank when he accompanied the band for three days of touring but says she had no idea that irony would be a central theme of the story.