If You Are the One … and only

Up to 50 million Chinese regularly tune into the country’s most popular dating show, If You Are the One (Fei Cheng Wu Rao), 非誠勿擾, or by its literal translation ‘If not sincere, then do not disturb.’

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And therein lies the fascination for Western audiences in gaining greater insight into Chinese popular culture.

While the excessively blinged-out chrome set looks like Fountain Gate shopping mall crossed with a Hillsong Rock Spectacular, its scratch-the-surface-get-more-surface appearance and absurd sound effects, epileptic lighting and biliously mawkish 90s pop can be somewhat deceiving.

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Because whether it’s the lone male suitor doing his best to impress the panel or the 24 single women registering their interest or otherwise at their personal podium, none seems the slightest bit inclined to sugar-coat their responses.

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As a female contestant famously retorted to a smitten bachelor who suggested they go on a bike ride, “I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the back of a bicycle.”

In its earliest incarnation around 2010, If You Are The One’s young professional contestants became increasingly obsessed with annual earnings and material possessions.  One male contestant even went so far as to present his bank statements to the audience.

It was around this point that officials from the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television stepped in to regulate the show, claiming it was spreading the wrong values and in so doing curbed all references to financial wealth and sex.  Regardless of The Party’s efforts towards the taming of the shrewd, If You Are the One remains one of the country’s most popular shows, with contestants enjoying fame and on occasions infamy as a result of their one-off appearances.

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Curiously there is also an Australian connection. The show was based on the presciently named Taken Out, which was axed by Network Ten in 2008 after just a month, only to have its format re-imagined and successfully exported to 19 countries including China.

Before Taken Out was, er, taken out.

Before Taken Out was, er, taken out.

The irony is that it bombed in Australia because it was deemed thimble-deep in terms of character and plot development.  Instead Australian audiences have chosen to delude themselves that The Bachelor, Beauty and the Geek and The Farmer Wants a Wife deliver greater depth and gravitas.  So it’s intriguing that what was dismissed as too low brow for Australians is in truth far more sincere, transparent and insightful than any of the televisual navel fluff we choose to pick over here.

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If You Are the One is both a juggernaut and a genuine conundrum; populist life writ large while simultaneously charming and strangely modest.

Perfect matches don’t occur too frequently, with the male suitors more often than not leaving empty-handed. Yet when a coupling does eventuate, the grand prize is usually no more than a pair of shoes.

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And for losing males, If You Are the One’s equivalent of the diamond-set memento is to have his email address splashed onscreen at the end of the show.

As avid watcher Jonathan Rowbotham noted ‘It’s macabre, scary, awkward, touching, trite, profound and the best introduction to modern Chinese culture ever. I think the clincher for me is the way it can transform from the trite and shallow to soft and profound in a nanosecond.’

Amen, Jonathan.

If You Are the One (SBS2, 6.30pm most nights)

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This post is dedicated to Jonathan Rowbotham, who regularly read my blog and suggested this show as a subject for it.  ‘If you haven’t seen it and you like The Shaggs and Jan Terri, then I think you’ll like this.’  Indeed I do. Thank you and goodnight.

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The Shaggs: Best worst band in the world

The late American rock critic Lester Bangs described the Wiggins sisters’ one and only album, Philosophy of the World as ‘a landmark in rock and roll history’, Frank Zappa apparently declared them ‘better than the Beatles’ and Kurt Cobain put the album at number five in his all-time Top 50, well ahead of the Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bollocks, Sonic Youth’s Daydream Nation and REM’s Green.

the Shaggs

It’s true that people tend to be passionate about The Shaggs … one way or another.  In the opposing corner of the ring, Rolling Stone magazine described The Shaggs as sounding like ‘lobotomised Von Trapp Family Singers’, The New Yorker as ‘hauntingly bad’ and another reviewer was sufficiently traumatised by the listening experience to state he’d ” walk across the desert while eating charcoal briquettes soaked in Tabasco for forty days and forty nights not to ever have to listen to anything Shaggs-related ever again.’

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Rocking out at the local town hall

The fact that this seemingly inconsequential curio of an album could engender such extreme reactions is one of the many delicious aspects of The Shaggs’ enduring appeal.

Their story features some archetypal themes, including a domineering father from Freemont, New Hampshire, hell-bent on realising the American dream of his daughters’ fame as a three-piece band, foretold by his mother in a palm reading. In the relentless pursuit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, Austin Wiggin hauled them out of school and made them practice endlessly until they were, by his reckoning at least, match fit to record an album..

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Austin ‘Shaggs Svengali’ Wiggin with his wife.

As weirdestbandintheworld.com notes, at first listen, Philosophy of the World seems like an absolute mess; the drums are arrhythmic and out of sync; the guitars are often out of tune; the sisters’ harmonies are childlike and spookily dissonant. The lyrics make Rebecca Black’s “Friday” sound like Emily Dickinson; songs are about such profound topics as Dot’s pet cat (“My Pal Foot Foot”) and how awesome the Wiggin parents are (“Who Are Parents”), although they do also try to get deep on the title track: “The skinny people want what the fat people’s got/And the fat people want what the skinny people’s got/You can’t please anybody in this world.”

But, as many musicians and critics have pointed out, there’s a consistency to The Shaggs’ music that suggests they actually knew exactly what they were doing. During the recording sessions (at which the engineers would have to mute the control room so the Wiggins couldn’t hear the howling laughter), Austin would often stop the girls midway through a take because “they made a mistake” The engineers were shocked, considering what they heard sounded like nothing but mistakes.

Either way, The Shaggs sounded unlike any other band on the planet but there’s nothing to suggest it was a contrivance on their part. They were just being who they were (and for the most part that meant supremely untalented), but as Bangs pointed out, the beauty of it was that ‘they wrung out every ounce of whatever talent they did have.’

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The Shaggs reunite at CBGB in 1999.

the Shaggs stage musical June 7 2011

The New York Theatre Workshop’s production of The Shaggs musical in 2011. Dakota & Ellen Fanning are also said to be planning to star in a biopic as two-thirds of the band.

Whether you consider them banal or brilliant, more idiot than savant, gratingly simplistic or intensely complex, syncopated or constipated, The Shaggs certainly put the sing into singular.

Visit The Shaggs website here

Give it up for the one … the only … JAN TERRI!

IMDB chooses to mock Jan Terri as ‘the endearingly bad Italian-American singer/songwriter; plain, dumpy with a gratingly nasal off-key voice, uproariously awful songs and astonishingly low rent music videos’.

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Yet I consider Jan Terri a rock goddess of singular persuasion and much prefer the description afforded her by the Dangerous Minds website; that of ‘legendary outsider’.

I first crossed paths with Jan some fifteen years ago when music industry notable Matthew Donlevy shared her seminal ‘Journey to Mars’ video with me.  I was smitten from word go.  Jan was intense, confident and brimming with chutzpah.  As Matthew said, “I liked her glamour and how serious she was with her act. I believed what she believed.”

Janice Spagnolia was born in 1959 in Chicago, graduated from Columbia College with a degree but ended up a limousine driver while simultaneously blending her kick-arse songwriting skills with a performance style that is best described as ‘having an argument with your own song’.  Because stylistically Jan’s dogged musical approach could be said to put the Terri into terrier.

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http://youtu.be/hLqvQUoxLFI

Back in the 90’s before viral meant anything other than medical, Jan’s music gained an underground cult following amongst the music industry, with Marilyn Manson taking a particular shine towards her, so much so that he booked her for a birthday gig as well as an opening act for a number of his Chicago shows in the late 90’s.

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But after an appearance on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show in 2000 Jan Terri all but disappeared off the scene, purportedly to look after an ailing mother.  That is, until Dangerous Minds reported in 2011 that Jan had recorded a new holiday ditty called ‘Excuse My Christmas’ which inexplicably starts with Jan yelling ‘Where’s my Fatino Lamp?’.

So where is she now?  As it turns out I’ve chanced upon her recently launched Kickstarter funding effort to complete ‘No Rules’, which is to be her final album.  Jan’s scraped together enough cash to record its first single, called Skyrockets, which is already on high rotation in my head thanks to some compelling lyrics such as ‘Skyrocket to hell, for taking my love for granted’.  Positively anthemic stuff in my books.

Jan’s Kickstarter fund has a short window of only 30 days, closing on November 8. Her target is $4,000. So far she’s received $130.  I’ll be kicking the tin myself and encourage you too, given she’s prepared to accept donations of just $1 or more.

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/janterri/no-rules

Jan Terri is one unique package and a beacon of individuality. Jan’s more introspective lyrics sometimes feel like a distant relation of the Wiggins sisters. And like The Shaggs, Jan has played by her own set of rules in the most compelling fashion.

That is a splendidly noble pursuit, one that I find thoroughly inspiring and which I believe warrants more of our interest, attention and concern than Miley Cyrus ever did.

https://www.facebook.com/JanTerriOfficial