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Sparks

A lesson in being uncool from the legendary LA duo

by
Armin Rosen
February 09, 2022
Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Richard Creamer/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
To read more Tablet LA coverage, click here.
To read more Tablet LA coverage, click here.

Since they began making albums together in the early ’70s, LA natives Ron and Russell Mael of the experimental pop group Sparks have lived in a world where popular taste simply doesn’t exist. Their music is a self-referential mashup of disco, glam rock, opera, show tunes, vaudeville, genre parody, chamber pop, and other nerd shit that coheres into a sound-world that’s entirely and only theirs. But the glory of art is that it brings other people, or in this case several thousand other people, into the wildly individual. I’m pretty sure that a chunk of the audience was crying through the majority of the show, or at least were crying during “I Married Myself,” while a couple of youthful elderly Jewish dudes and five virtuosic backing musicians blew the horrible inverted ski slope of a roof off of Frank Gehry’s illogical and gimmicky Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Perhaps the essence of the Sparks experience came late in the set, during the cosmic arpeggiated drum breakdown in “The Number One Song in Heaven.” Ron, slight and balding and dressed all in black, got up from behind his synthesizer and did a sort of jerky old-man dance across the stage, joining a transcendent soundscape to the most cheekily lame visual imaginable. His brother Russell wore highlighter yellow pants and glow-in-the-dark sneakers under jet black hair dye, a get-up connoting neither excess nor good taste that served as a relatively staid contrast to his still-powerful and hyperexpressive falsetto.

It was only late in the show that I realized something the Sparks brothers figured out roughly 50 years and two dozen albums ago: that true glam doesn’t come from aesthetics but from the music itself, which will override and recontextualize the aesthetics. It doesn’t matter if your hair makes people call you “that Hitler guy.” It doesn’t matter whether the music gets called disco or lounge or chamber pop, or if together on stage, you look like the male technicolor version of the ladies from Grey Gardens. If the music is fabulous enough, then Edgar Wright will make a documentary about your work, and fellow musicians will testify to your surpassing greatness. In retrospect, the look is always only a reflection of the artist within.

So stop trying to be cool, my people. Jews aren’t cool. Jews are defined by uncoolness, as the novelist and Tablet contributor Dara Horn has written—it’s both the reason we’re historically persecuted and the reason we’ve made it this long.

Sparks, like the rest of us, made it by trusting in their deepest selves and rejecting the tyranny of fashion. Now they’re making movie musicals with Adam Driver and ending shows in their image-obsessed hometown with one of the longest and most grateful standing ovations I’ve ever seen during my two decades as a concert-goer. Less than 40 hours in town, I thought, and no one’s at a better party in LA than I am.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.