As the video gaming world continues its quest for a greater degree of cultural relevance, one visible (or should I say audible?) sign of progress has been a steadily-widening “acceptance” of video game music. Much as the ubiquitous Mario and Tetris themes have grown increasingly recognizable over the years, chiptune artists and video game cover bands slowly sneak up on the mainstream; a select few compositions, most famously from the Final Fantasy titles, have even rated high-profile performances by professional concert orchestras. Your favorite stage select tune might not be upending the Billboard charts just yet, but some exciting things are definitely happening: game music, even split off from the medium which spawned it, is at last gaining the attention of once-alienated critics and casual listeners alike.
Yes, The Cheese (capital “T”, capital “C”), the overproduced, undercooked, formulaic, cynical, market-driven, mechanical, artificial, glittery, sappy, corny, laughable, forgettable, tasteless, clueless, embarrassing, jarring, insulting, lowest-common-denominator junk food for the ears that has long defined video game music (sometimes fairly, sometimes not) in the public consciousness. Scoff and harumph all you please, but remember, no matter how ludicrous or ill-conceived the end product, someone, somewhere, spent time and effort creating it, often for somebody else to perform separately: both were presumably paid for this, on the assumption that at least some of us out here would like it. Like it or not this IS a major part of our insular “history”, and open acknowledgment of how we got here is the only way we’ll ever progress any further…that is, if we even truly want to.
Just out of curiosity, how many of you belt out Verdi arias during your drive to work in the morning, as opposed to Wolfmother or some such dreck? More to the point, even if you possessed golden pipes, perfect pitch, and a degree from Juilliard, would your commute change in the least? Sure, everyone draws the line between “cheesy” and “I’d admit to listening to this” in different spots, but to some degree I think it’s safe to say that every last one of us can recognize perfectly-aged auditory provolone when we hear it. And - let’s drop the act - we’re all drawn to it.
This universality is not to be denied. Someday, mark my words, Rolling Stone will do a cover article on The Grand Digital Cheesification of the music industry, and MTV will broadcast (and re-broadcast, and re-broadcast) the most-anticipated live concert in recorded history; tickets will have been sold out decades in advance (in fact, you might want to put down for yours right now), the concession stands will move three-hundred-dollar t-shirts faster than they can be printed, and no effort or expense will be spared in the promotional and special effects departments. Every city, town, and village in Wisconsin will fiercely jockey for the right to host it. Kraft and The Laughing Cow will ruthlessly duel over a coveted sponsorship deal. Beethoven, Sinatra, and Hendrix will simultaneously rise from their graves, all rabid for a shot at a brief opening act gig.
And finally, the lights will dim. The capacity crowd will roar. And a lone, heroic figure, the tireless driving force behind this life-changing phenomenon, will slowly saunter up to that center-stage spotlight microphone, ready to grate the most colossal wedge of pixelated gouda the universe has ever heard.
Even amidst all of the impossible challenges and expectations, the night is a guaranteed success – after all, I DID take choir class back in high school.
As waves of adulation from the euphoric throngs wash over me, I briefly recall the original plan, to begin the event on a JRPG note; tailor-made kitschy opening numbers like Real Emotion and Cosmolagoon seemed like a no-brainer. In my heart, however, I knew that it just wouldn’t be right to kick off this extravaganza with anything but a song from the music/rhythm genre – heck, Dance Dance Revolution by itself has disseminated enough sugary in-house pop over the years to significantly raise global diabetes rates. The only possibility that could ever top such a repertoire, in fact, is (appropriately enough) one of its many shameless imitators. Cue the music.
Going above and beyond the base requirements for any frilly, rose-colored Track One, Your Own Miracle doesn’t just build itself around some fairy-tale, feel-good platitude about “following your heart” or “being able to do anything” – it crams ALL of them into a mere three-minute binge. Shoot For The Moon! Never Give Up And You’ll Definitely Make It! Spread Your Wings! All The Strength You Need Is In Your Dreams! You’re Beautiful and Wonderful And Need To Be Free(eeeee)! When such schmaltzy pap is painstakingly spot-welded onto a simple but diabolically infectious electronic beat, one might almost be fooled into momentarily believing, even if the words are being sung by some lumpy, awkward pasty dude instead of a curvy K-pop idol – the tone for a successful evening is thus perfectly set.
The song’s original accompanying video, which conveniently provides any and all needed inspiration for our performance’s staging, gives physical form to everything the track is designed to invoke within the listener’s reptilian cortex: towering walls of flashing lights and pulsing speakers, spur-of-the-moment trips abroad, somehow looking cooler in nerd glasses than anyone else does, a posse of nubile, questionably-dressed young ladies who likely have no real business standing behind any sort of sound-making device, and, of course, trendy cell phones for everybody. If there’s a more appropriate way to usher in an event dedicated to the glory of skin-deep self-stimulation, I don’t want to know about it, and neither do the fans.
Of course, no performance steeped in syrupy sentiment would be complete without that all-American classic, the lounge number – the opener’s gyrating eye candy and synthesizers are wheeled offstage, replaced by a glossy black piano, a few supporting tuxedoed jazz performers, and soft, gentle lighting. Donning a feather boa and lying prone across the top of the baby grand (so vulnerable!), I now proceed to belt my heart out to a truly timeless classic:
While the surprisingly popular Katamari games have always been (non-ironically) praised for their soundtracks, even this vaunted series must pay its dues to the lounge lizards of past and present: Katamarity, Gin Tonic and a Red Red Rose, and Heaven’s Rain clearly display this devotion. Somehow, though, Que Sera Sera always stood out to me as the most iconic smoking-room crooner in all of gaming – even That’s Death is forced to take a back seat, as every attendee lacking a y chromosome (and a few others) helplessly swoon at my seductive pleas to “wad you up into my life”. Why this one hasn’t already been picked up as a wedding reception standard is simply beyond me…granted, it’s only a matter of time.
Okay, time to switch gears and return to the modern popular music era, as well as the genre upon which video games have taken a bigger, squishier, and more steamingly-ripened dump on than perhaps any other: rap. From the DK Rap to Unknown From M.E. to Stage 3 of Violent Storm, amidst countless others, gaming rap’s history is an ongoing train wreck whose mangled, smoldering ruins serve as a seldom-heeded warning beacon. As infamously awful as the aforementioned rhymes are, though, none can truly be considered iconic: by the by, what’s the first thing to pop into your head as soon as Persona 3 is mentioned? Not “Shin Megami Tensei”. Not “Atlus”. Not the battle or Social Link systems. Not Deep Breath Deep Breath, not even Burn My Dread – try again.
That’s right: BAY-BEH BAY-BEH BAY-BEH BAY-BEH BAY-BEH BAY-BEH
The stage is bathed in bright, stark purple, the brass section blares forth, and a troupe of schoolgirl backup dancers arrive on the scene to strut their stuff, keeping prop guns (at least I think they’re prop guns) pressed firmly to their temples all the while – the audience, of course, remains focused on deeper things, immersed as they are in a genuine paragon of poetry. It might seem kind of weird to adopt one’s worldview from a game whose protagonist rarely takes his earphones off, but the power of Shoji Meguro’s words can’t help but set the soul ablaze: yeah, he’s right, I should NEVER be charity! I mean, seriously, listen to they, dissin’ me, all up in my face, and they even somehow got the freakin’ moon in on it! Doesn’t that just make you want to beat on something authoritative, in turn-based fashion? Man, I swear, someday I’m gonna make SUCH BIG NUMBERS appear…but first I need to buy a few more cups of Pheromone Coffee. Which, by the way, is available at the concession stand (Individual results may vary. No refunds).
In fairness, though almost everyone has poked fun at Persona 3’s soundtrack at some point, admit it - deep down a lot of you actually kind of like it. Go ahead, swear to the contrary as loud as you’re able, but there’s no way you’re fooling me: you SO kept that bonus CD after you upgraded to FES (“for collectability’s sake” my ass!), so don’t even TRY getting on that high horse of yours. After all, if you really want to hate on a song, you might as well select one that pretty much EVERYone hates right along with you:
Just in case the English voice acting for this game wasn’t laughable enough, Konami’s crack mid-90’s localization team decided that Symphony of the Night’s ending needed a little jazzing up – smooth jazzing, to be precise, since nothing (nothing, I tell you) goes with vampire slaying like a lost Kenny G studio session! To that end they recruited, to name but a few, Tony Haynes (who previously produced for Earth, Wind and Fire), Jeff Lorber (whose compositions are frequently heard on The Weather Channel), Al Schmitt (responsible for “Moon River”), Christian rock bassist Nate Phillips, and easy listening saxophonist Gerald Albright. Only my own magnanimous love for The Cheese could have brought them all back together again for a reunion, but here they are, my first Special Guest Stars of the evening: lower that slowly-rotating disco ball, and bask in the love! Also keep an eye out for our collaborative re-recording of Cheesy Ending Song, in stores soon: the sheer volume of pure concentrated tackiness may tear a hole in the fabric of space-time, so be sure to reserve your copy today!
My tactical show-biz mind races: after so mellow a selection a bit more…stimulation might be required to keep our momentum going. You know, something unexpected, something truly bizarre, something that’ll jolt listeners out of their seats in utter disbelief. For the task at hand, there’s only one song I’ll ever need to turn to…ah, and I can finally fill my JRPG requirement too! Time to unleash the fabled ELEVEN!
In another brilliant display of cultural clairvoyance, Mistwalker divined that a traditional classically-tinged JRPG soundtrack just wouldn’t cut it with Western audiences…well, more specifically, 99 percent of it would (these are, after all, JRPG players), but a lone, jarring butt-rock track recorded by Ian Gillan MUST suddenly pop up during boss fights, or else the game is surely doomed to failure! Everyone who played Blue Dragon unaware of this waiting anomaly dropped their collective jaws to the floor when it first burst forth in all its glory; later, Ian’s opus gained additional notoriety following its appearance in Barkley: Shut Up and Jam Gaiden. This improbable, blessed meeting of two worlds is duly reflected in this staging’s ground-breaking choreography, featuring a mix of shadow effects, fantasy animatronics, and an impromptu b-ball dunk competition during the guitar solo, with Ian himself appearing to provide occasional “WAAAAOOW”s for emphasis on particularly impressive slams (actually playing or singing anything on his part is optional). Of course, I get to make the final, backboard-shattering move to the hoop myself, with the aid of a harness and some pyrotechnics - this will easily go down in history as the Most X-Treme thing to happen anywhere, ever.
Okay, at this point I’ve kept the fans waiting long enough: you already knew that Sonic the Hedgehog MUST be in here someplace, and now it’s time for everyone’s favorite wounded, reeling animal mascot to leave his odious mark on tonight’s proceedings. So, which of his disastrous, focus-grouped assaults on the eardrums makes the cut? Believe in Myself? Seven Rings in Hand? Nope – while ol’ Sonic certainly hasn’t distanced himself from The Cheese lately (even the really stinky Cheese), for the absolute finest sampling of the blue blur’s distinct brand of “are they serious?”, we’ve got to rewind the clock just a little bit from where you might have expected.
Ah, yes, Sonic R, the almost entirely forgotten Saturn racing release which ranks right up there with Sonic the Fighters and Tails’ Sky Patrol in the “…they made that?” circular file of Sega’s storied history. One can clearly perceive the beginnings of the infamously disagreeable musical “style” which would truly begin to metastasize in Sonic Adventure, but at this point things hadn’t gone completely over a cliff yet – yeah, the lyrics and production are equal parts vapid and ridiculous, but there’s a palpable, if misguided, earnestness behind it all. From the breezy pacing to the goofy conga-style interlude, it’s tough not to get caught up in the Ferris Bueller-esque urge to just let go and wave your hands around, guaranteed embarrassment be damned: as it happens, the argument exists that an uncalled-for excess of self-consciousness is exactly what sent Sonic off the rails in the first place. No matter. I know that every soul in the stadium tonight, in spite of themselves, readily concurs with much of Sunshine’s general sentiment, for both Sonic and life in general: just think about the good times, and they will (hopefully) come back again. Incidentally, I think a marching band rearrangement of this one would go over splendidly, don’t you?
The previous song has ended; the stage lights go dark. The applause slowly dies down. A few stagnant moments pass. A few more. A low, puzzled murmur gradually rises from the seats; a handful of fans stand up, squinting and craning their necks, desperate for a closer look – then, in an instant, everyone falls silent. A slight but audible hiss has caught their ears, the sound of offstage fog machines pumping clouds of dry ice onto the floor: as the mist builds, a single, low bass note emits, unaccompanied, from the speakers. Nobody is quite sure how to react…until the treble synthesizers finally kick in –
Duh-dun, duh-dun, duh-dun-duh-dun DUN DUN…
The lights have shot back up, glittering sparks shower everywhere, the requisite dancing cosplayers (including myself in Dan Hibiki garb, plus another super special guest) are out and proud, soon to wreck and dismantle the prop car waiting offstage – the overpowering reaction of the crowd, however drowns almost everything else out. And you don’t care - you’re part of it. You can feel it comin’ over you, you feel it all around you…
Of course, especially considering recent events, one can’t expect to get Mr. Burch in on the action without also setting a table spot for The Resplendent Lady Burche-Davys…come to think of it, The Reverend’s younger sis has a good amount of (rather frightening) fans too, so somehow getting her to show up as well would put even more tushes in the seats (and possibly pile them several bodies high). Now what might be a thematically-appropriate and disarmingly-cheesy song to break out for such a heavily-hyped, star-studded duet? Hmmmm….
Combining an operatic oompah-band ambience reminiscent of the Mighty Poo Song with the emblematic nonsense of the Wario Ware series, weaving this distinctive amalgamation into an Ashley/Ashly duet is a fool-proof recipe for a happening of epic proportions – of course, this also means that I’ll have to be content to step aside for this number, and assist with the backup lyrics instead (no shame in that!). There’s even a funky remix to tap if the need arises…and something tells me that one Ashl(e)y appearance won’t be enough to satisfy the crowd’s rabid fandom, or quell the epidemic of “pantalones giganticus” circulating among some of its less-restrained members. Maybe I ought to have hired on some extra security personnel after all…
Ah, now that was a welcome dose of girl power, to be sure – in the interest of keeping all things balanced, however, we need a heaping helping of musky manliness to follow. Is there a being of this earth who could ably provide such a thing? Our only hope, yet again, lies with Destructoid’s original Badass of the Month.
Assuming that I could properly perform the elaborate moonlight ritual required to summon forth the patron saint of gaming’s most under-appreciated system (all I’ll say is that the exit doors will be firmly locked for the duration), I would again be forced to abdicate my lead singer role for the ensuing song – as should be obvious, nobody is truly worthy of singing His theme apart from Segata Himself. Sure, I might have been able to handle a lesser testosterone-fueled anthem a la the God Hand’s Ending or No-Money Ranger, but not this – all of us (except Segata) have our limits.
My fellow performers and I bow deeply as He takes the stage (it’s highly suggested that the entire audience do the same, lest they find themselves beaten to a pulp for attending this event instead of staying home and playing Sega Saturn); once the orchestra has been cued up I scurry meekly into the background, letting Him do things His Way (no backup singers needed; Segata can voice all required parts simultaneously. Honestly, even the instrumentation is overkill). Once His magnificent hymn to 32-bit corporal punishment has concluded, He leaves us to thunderous applause, wandering into the night to continue His one-man war against His only possible rival.
If any of you out there have never played Rhapsody: A Musical Adventure, then I would strongly advise you to…well, just leave it alone, since it’s not all that great (not to mention that at least one fellow DToider fears that it’s turning him gay). One thing’s for sure, though: few, if any, titles contain a treasure trove of hackneyed audio tripe that can BEGIN to compare with Rhapsody’s. It’s immensely difficult to pick just one of its track to perform live, but it had to be done.
On the production end it was a bit difficult to track down a chorus of singing cats with questionable choreographic skills to handle the refrain, not to mention squeeze myself into Marjoly’s g-string, but I always leave that stuff up to the special effects department anyway. As I serenade (and deeply disturb) the crowd in attendance with NIS’s paean to comedic not-quite-pedophilia, it might interest (or at least distract) you to know that Rhapsody could also go down in history as the only video game to list a credit for “Lyrics Sweetening” – seriously, check the instruction manual, one Carrie Gordon Lowrey earns the nod under the “Special Thanks” subheading (presumably she’s also responsible for the in-game song “Amazing Pirates”, which includes the lines We hunt for sunken treasure in the ocean/When we get sunburn we put on lotion.) And believe you me, this is a mere hint of the sheer glory that awaits when you pop Rhapsody into your PS1 (which comes with a bonus soundtrack!) or DS - on second thought, yeah, one song is more than enough.
Being the locally semi-infamous shmup fan that I am, some listeners might be wondering how I’ve yet to include at least one shooter-related tune in the evening’s lineup: never fear, I have not forgotten my beloved scrolling blasters. In fact, there’s no way I can fit this next segment into one song: at long last, it’s Medley Time. EXTRA-MANLY Medley Time!
Like Katamari, the Cho Aniki games are actually lauded quite frequently for their music, along with their meaty rippling pectorals – once again, though, even gaming’s more highly-regarded composers are powerless to resist the heaving, sweaty embrace of The Cheese (though I guess it gets a bit harder when you’re involved with a series centered around flying bodybuilders with laser cannons in their heads). Anyway, it’s time for everyone – on stage, in the crowd, and at home – to DO THE MUSCLE! Whip off that shirt, chug a container of protein powder (straight up, of course), strike a pose, and grunt as loud as you can: synchronizing your studly actions to the song’s rhythm earns bonus points (not motivated? Just call them “Achievements”)! Of course, if Cho Aniki brings a bit too much buffness for your comfort, you could cuddle up with something like PaPaPa Love from Muscle March (though that one technically appeared in Taiko Drum Master first, so it’s not quite as “pure” an experience. But you knew that). This portion of the concert is brought to you by the Steelworkers of America.
At last we come to our closing number, and in the name of good will towards all cheesy gaming music it’s time for me to bury a long-standing hatchet. I shouldn’t have to tell any of you by now that I’m not a LocoRoco fan, but I’ve gotta admit – for a cornball way to send off the festivities, the little chirpy blobby buggers simply can’t be beat.
Seriously, have you seen the end credits for the second game, which uses a remix of this song? How perfect a visual setup would that be – platforms rise from below the stage, featuring the names of the people who appeared in and worked on the show? Meanwhile, all of our Special Guest Stars reappear to voice the separate parts, take one last bow, and ride the “credits” up and away for their final exit? The words, of course, make absolutely no sense, but somehow they’re still a lot of fun to tickle the ears with (and can easily be faked if any of us forgets our lines) – as surprised as I am to hear myself say it, this is truly the ideal way to conclude our concert. Not You Are Dead. Not even The Splode Beneath My Splosion. A LocoRoco song. Things have truly come full circle, and we’re all one step closer to the end goal of world peace through shared cheese.
To all of you who made the trip out here tonight, I call upon you to fully enjoy the savory bits of cheese in YOUR life, and bid you good evening – everyone drive home safe!
The performing area goes dark, but the explosive din pouring forth from the seats refuses to die down – an uninitiated crowd might have been fooled, but not this bunch. Down to the last attendee, they all know: what good is any super-cheesy performance without an abrupt and totally unexpected CURTAIN CALL ENCORE?
Up flies said curtain, and the combined jazz-orchestra brass engulfs the arena in sweepingly melodramatic swells once again! We simply couldn’t end without at least one over-the-top J-pop/Broadway fusion (as opposed to all the quiet, understated ones, of course), courtesy of the New York Combat Revue! Inspirational victory speeches on American exceptionalism, a hot biker chick/lawyer, giant robots launched from building-sized crossbows, Lady Liberty striking a disco pose – this game (which none of you bought, for shame), and by extension this song, truly has it all. It’s international cuisine at its best, courtesy of a legion of underpaid groupies (and if that’s not what America is all about, I’ll eat my hat) – short of all-female Phoenix Wright musical The Truth Reborn, nothing of its sort has ever truly been tried before. Well, more awards for me! As a courtesy to those less intimate with the console scene, arcade-centric fans can indulge in the rockin’ theme song from Game Paradise instead…but then again, why not take both?
“One more?” I cheekily breathe into the microphone – the reply is loud and clear, and I’m ready for it.
Yeah yeah, it’s not a “true” video game song, and yet another fellow DToider will forever have me beat when it comes to Mario-style dancing, but that’s not the point – the point is that a whole lot of us used to rush home from school to feast our eager eyes and ears on this very display. It was, bar none, the coolest thing in the world. We’ve inevitably grown and changed since then, but somewhere deep down we’re the same naïve little buggers we used to be: no matter how old we get, at times we can’t help but sorely miss the days when we didn’t even know what “cheesy” meant when it wasn’t being used to advertise processed pasta products. Still, we’re far too sophisticated for this sort of thing now, at least according to most everyone else. We know better.
Well, tonight, most everyone else is not here. You are watching a pudgy nerd in a badly-tailored pair of fire-engine overalls and a fake moustache (worn over his actual facial hair) busting some of the whitest dance moves since Elaine from Seinfeld. It’s not Captain Albano himself, by a long shot, but it is a heartfelt tribute to what he represents to so many: the memory of an era when having fun didn’t have to be dignified, sanctioned, or scripted for majority approval. That all-too-brief age, of course, will never return, but for one special evening a bunch of honest people have a chance to light a candle for it, together. All of them, perhaps for the first time in ages, are given permission to smile, in a way that says to the innocent, blush-inducing indulgences of the past, “How’ve you been? I miss you, but I’ll be in touch.”
With this final mission accomplished, our festivities are now truly complete.
I raise my hands to the sky one last time – “Goodnight, paisanos!”
As the stage fades to black, for real this time, my thoughts have already turned to the future – so, so much more video game cheese remains to be heard by, and glorified for, the masses. So much remains to be done. But that’s all for another day.
The evening’s many memorable sights slowly vanish into the night, but its sounds won’t fade away for a long, long time.
If you’re still here, you’re probably wondering why in heaven’s name I would ever fantasize (and occasionally hallucinate) in such a manner, not to mention why I’m drawn so irresistibly to “lowbrow” compositions even as video game music finally “comes into its own”. Honestly, apart from the role that my own innate goofiness plays, I perceive this, ironically enough, as a latent form of indignation, if not rebellion, against the increasingly vocal Johnny-come-lately crowd which has only now begun to acknowledge video games (or at least their various individual components) as “legitimate” things to waste one’s time and effort on.
So, you’ve finally decreed, in all your wisdom, that everything’s just A-O-K, huh? I mutter under my breath – The art gallery exhibitions, the seminars, the occasional New York Times writeups…THEY’RE what it took to earn your lofty attention after all these years? You know what? Screw that – gaming was just as awesome while you were looking down your nose at it, and even the “distasteful” parts of it are STILL more than good enough for me. Suck on THAT!
Am I acting self-important and childish? Heck yes. Unnecessarily bitter and divisive? Certainly. Unfairly generalizing? You betcha. So will I change my tune? Not anytime soon. It’s very true that, while this month’s theme is “More Than Just Noise”, the music I’ve chosen to feature here just barely qualifies for that moniker – for me, though, it’s impossible not to perceive a little bit of inherent artistry in the ability to slice this distinction so tantalizingly thin. I readily and happily acknowledge the strides that video game music and the medium in general have made of late, but this doesn’t change the fact that sometimes, against your better judgment, even when truffle-encrusted filet mignon is on the menu, you still crave a big ol’ hunk of gooey, rubbery, neon-colored cheese. No matter one’s age, background, or position in life, it just makes that life a little more worth living.
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