Sometimes Mainstream Is Experimental; Or, A Few Words About Ben Lee, Woody Allen, and Tom Stoppard

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Ben Lee's new album, Ripe, was just released this week, and all you common people can finally buy it. As you know, I've been championing this album for a while now, ever since I got to wrap my ears around an advanced copy.

Attempting to go beyond the I-loved-it/I-hated-it discussion on the Ben Lee Board, I posed a heady question that few fans are willing to pursue.

First, some background. Ben's last album, Awake Is the New Sleep, is considered his most thematically and stylistically complex and emotionally resonant work, and many fans
now hold it as the gold standard when it comes to the music of Ben Lee. Ripe is strikingly different in that it's a straightforward pop-rock album with mainstream sensibilities and aspirations. Produced by John Alagia (who's helmed projects by Dave Matthews and John Mayer, among others) and featuring guest appearances by Mandy Moore, Good Charlotte's Benji Madden, and Rooney, Ripe is certainly Ben's happiest and poppiest album.

When I noticed that some fans weren't buying into the Top 40 flavor of Ripe and faulting it for not being as complex Awake Is the New Sleep, I posted this:

I admit that Ripe does not seem to be as ambitious, complex, or layered as Awake, but should an artist be faulted for aiming for something different? (Some would say "lower," but I stand by "different.") Can Ripe be great on its own terms, especially since it is so different from Awake? And because Ripe seems to be the "poppiest" of Ben's albums, does that hide the fact that straightforward, polished, well-crafted mainstream pop/rock is perhaps even harder to create than music that dares to experiement with form and style?

This is a discussion that spills over into all forms of art. After the heft of Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters and Crimes and Misdemeanors, for example, Robert always berates Woody whenever he releases something like Small Time Crooks or The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. Quality aside (Scorpion was, admittedly, awful), when Woody aims to make a light comedy nowadays, Robert and I inevitably get into an argument about whether or not that's okay.

Imagine Tom Stoppard, after penning intellectual plays such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and Arcadia, writing something like The Naked Gun, Part 4. Would it be all right for Stoppard to tackle broad comedy, or would we accuse him of selling out or, at the very least, going bonkers? Interestingly, for Stoppard, doing something mainstream would be, for him, experimental.

This issue has a personal angle as well. After writing seven new plays that typically dealt with heavy themes of race relations, identity, and social responsibility, my aim with my last play was simple—I wanted The Fabulous Adventures of Captain Queer to be one of the funniest plays ever. That's it. (Yes, that's a half-clad Donovan on the right there.)

My goal met with some resistance by some of my collaborators who wanted "more." After all, I had been known for hiding complex issues in outrageous comedies. Couldn't I make Captain Queer funny and complex? Maybe. But that's not what I set out to do. Riffing heavily off of Spider-Man, I believed that big themes would've weighed the play down. Plus, sometimes guys in underwear are just guys in underwear.

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BAMBOO NATION: Sometimes Mainstream Is Experimental; Or, A Few Words About Ben Lee, Woody Allen, and Tom Stoppard
Sometimes Mainstream Is Experimental; Or, A Few Words About Ben Lee, Woody Allen, and Tom Stoppard
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