To paraphrase Dwight Okita, a poet I'm fond of, an artist's greatest responsibility is to constantly diversify, branch out, and evolve. But now that we're in the latter half of the '90s, I wonder if this decade is going to be remembered as a time when diversification and branching out became not an artistically driven responsibility, but more like something celebrities did simply because they had the money, the privilege, and the tacit approval of a public in thrall to their fame. Consider the evidence: Tortured young actor Ethan Hawke pens a novel on the subject of, oddly enough, a tortured young actor. Eighties art star Julian Schnabel directs a biopic about fellow '80s art star Jean-Michel Basquiat. One of those Party of Five kids has an album on the racks at the Wherehouse. Do you want me to continue?
It's at a time like this that a band like the Mr. T Experience really deserves a hand. It's not just that they aren't pitching Nike shoes, opening their own themed eatery, or making a special guest appearance at the Peach Pit After Dark, although these things are definitely points in their favor. What they are doing — making a consistently infectious, emotionally sincere pop-punk racket — actually seems somewhat quaint, when you think about it. How cute. Boys playing three-chord songs about girls. Aw. Theirs is a quintessential musical style that lately seems to have lost favor amongst newer and flashier contenders. But in a world where bands transform themselves in order to match whatever MTV deems Buzz-worthy — witness Metallica's “alternative” makeover or Vanilla Ice's don't-call-it-a-comeback gangsta turn — the Mr. T Experience's staunch naivete translates into a refreshing unwillingness to capitulate to the music-is-fashion-is-commerce tide. And their unflinching repertoire of boy-loses-girl riffage amounts to a pretty strong case against diversification.
They've been a fixture on the Berkeley punk scene for more than 10 years, so the Mr. T Experience, technically, have plenty of songs. But, like Hank Williams or Sebadoh's Lou Barlow, what they really have is one basic number. It goes something like this: There's this boy, and he's in love with this girl, but he doesn't know if it's gonna work out because even though she knows how sprung on her he is, she seems lukewarm, and he's sooo bummed about it, but, wait, maybe she loves him back! Their most recent release, Love Is Dead, features this song in abundance; it's in the manic shake of “Hangin' On to You,” the melancholy bounce of “Deep Deep Down,” and the barbed resignation of “You're the Only One.” (Sample lyric: “I don't wanna get screwed over by just anyone/ You're the only one I wanna get screwed over by.”) The sum effect of Love Is Dead is that of being shot at repeatedly with a Nerf-ball gun; the aggressiveness is playful, the shots enjoyably predictable.
And predictability isn't a bad word here, particularly since MTX's topic of choice happens to be one that ages well. The feeling of being crushed out on someone may manifest itself differently when you're 30 than it does when you're 15, but the pain and confusion remain the same, and that very pain and confusion is Mr. T's department. Dr. Frank, MTX's chief songwriter, revels in twisted mash notes that manage to be ironic and innocent simultaneously, without coming off as contrived. Kind of a feat when you consider that the overuse of irony seems to be de rigueur among songwriters who know they have nothing particularly original to say but want to get out of having to come up with something. As an advocate for the distrust of courting rituals, Dr. Frank occasionally sounds as if he's composing the punk-boy counterpart to The Rules — the track “I'm Like Yeah, But She's All No” sports the same brand of if-you're-chasing-it-it-ain't-chasing-you caution touted in that bible of etiquette, but this otherwise bizarre similarity just underscores the universality of the band's love-starved vision.
Their stock song has served the band well. There are lots of ways to bemoan a dysfunctional relationship, and Love Is Dead gives you the sense that even if Dr. Frank were to find himself in a relationship that didn't leave him frustrated and lovesick, he'd still devise a way to suffer for his art, to continue recasting the same scenario enough to make up the bulk of future albums. Hey, Morrissey does it, and long after his bitching and moaning have ceased to elicit the kind of sympathy they once did, he's still on top, kinda.
I'm not implying that just because they've found their niche in proffering love-is-bad-wait-no-it's-good songs means that MTX should never deviate from that rich vein of confusion. It's entirely possible that a boppy two-minute chordfest from the boys tackling the subject of, let's say, the ethics of gene mapping would be no less listenable. We probably won't ever find out, though, just as we probably won't ever see the band marketing their own Mr. T Experience fragrance line. This is a group who don't share the poet's view of obligatory diversification, and who, by virtue of this, won't someday be spreading themselves embarrassingly thin for their fans. For those of you who do buy that “artist's responsibility” line, however, there's a Dennis Rodman movie out there with your name on it.