I saw The Shaggs at Playwrights Horizons, a new musical about a band that I've been obsessed with since I was a teenager. For the uninitiated, The Shaggs were three teen sisters in New Hampshire whose father pulled them out of school and forced them to start a band, squandering the family's savings in the process. The band never went anywhere and was relegated to obscurity until the early 80's when radio djs began to play the record as a joke.
It's a really sad story, and it made me glad that these girls didn't record their album in the world of today, with youtube and social networking everywhere. In that regard, they were spared.
But not everybody laughed at The Shaggs. Frank Zappa really loved them. So did famed music critic Lester Bangs. And so do I. And no, not ironically. Sure, they weren't the best songwriters or musicians but, then again, neither were The Ramones. The Shaggs managed to capture the innocence and sadness and anger and mystery of being a teenage girl all at once, and watching the play made me think of The Virgin Suicides and how that novel felt to read. This felt similar. There is something special and weird and wonderful about their music, but also something mysterious and dark too.
I was disappointed to read Isherwood's review in The New York Times. Not because he didn't like the play per se, but because of his glib dismissal of The Shaggs themselves. EDIT: I just read The wall Street Journal review, which is entitled"How Do You Create A Musical About A Terrible Band?" Sigh. I know I'm being sensitive, but The Shaggs mean something to a lot of people, myself included. It made me think about taste.
When I was thirteen I was obsessed with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Like, really, really obsessed. it had just been played on television for the first time in history for its 20th anniversary, so a lot of kids my age were seeing it for the first time. And, mostly, the kids at school didn't like it. It was gay and weird and cheap (all the things that make it great) and the dumb kids at school just didn't get it. It hurt my feelings, but then it also became a barometer for me. A litmus test. I was simply unable to respect somebody's taste if they didn't like it. That, to me, was 101 shit.
When I was single I couldn't date anybody who didn't like rock and roll music. Why? Because it's just too important to me. Music and movies and plays and art are the most important things in the world to me (after friends and family.) I'm reminded of a quote from High Fidelity: "I agreed that what really matters is what you like, not what you are like... Books, records, films -- these things matter. Call me shallow but it's the f****n' truth." It struck me, reading Isherwood's review, how protective I am of these offbeat little things I love.
I remember seeing a play in the marathon at Ensemble Studio Theatre a few years ago and loving it so much that it's basically my favorite short play I've ever seen. I re-read the script all the time when I need a pick-me-up. I was shocked to discover later that this particular play upset people so much they complained or even walked out and I still fight people about it to this very day. (Later it really hurt my feelings when a few people acted the same away around my play, The Sluts of Sutton Drive. Hell, it was probably the same audience members.)
On the flipside, there have so many things that are universally loved that I just detested. How could anybody sit through Forest Gump? Who on earth would be seen in a Juicy Couture tracksuit? I'm constantly frustrated by other people's "common" taste. And you know what? That makes me an asshole.
This is a lesson I've learned over and over and over in life, but it never quite sticks. To quote my granny, "It takes all kinds." Not everybody can like The Shaggs or Rocky Horror or punk rock or the plays I write. Sure it'd be nice if they did, but they won't.
I don't want to call out Isherwood. I almost never agree with the Times, as their taste, to me, always seems a little stuffy and unadventurous. I don't want to argue the merits of this particular musical, either. I enjoyed it and found it moving, but who cares what I think?
All I want to say is this: let's be our own taste makers, yes? Let's all protect what's precious to us, advocate for the art we love, and follow our own taste. It's really the only way to find a gem.