I have a thing for camp. Anyone who knows me personally knows (and is probably annoyed by) the fact that I love The Room, Legion of Rock Stars, Neil Hamburger, late-night infomercials, and any movie starring a badly-in-need-of-a-paycheck Nic Cage. I don’t think I’m alone here. The freak success of Tommy Wiseau speaks enough to that. There is a point where “bad art” becomes “good art”, and, on occasion, “great art”.
This is a trend that you see bigger enterprises trying to cash in on, and of course, it never works. Before superhero movies became the most bankable thing on the planet, they were by and large seen as failures, perhaps because they tried a little too hard to be campy. More recently, the movie Snakes on a Plane tried to cash in on this by tailoring a movie solely to the internet crowd who ate that sort of thing up. It was supposed to usher in a new era, wherein the internet’s love of stupid memes and catchphrases could actually become a big influence on how Hollywood made movies. But it didn’t perform well, failed to garner enough “no really, this is a masterpiece” types of reviews, and now is only remembered in terms like, “can you believe people actually got tattoos of that shit?” It’s not like people stopped loving camp. After all, The Room grows in popularity every year, Birdemic (which may legitimately be the worst movie ever made) got a sequel, and the most viral video of 2011 was Rebecca Black’s “Friday”.
Looking back, this is a trend that’s only intensified over the years. If the 90’s were about how lame it was to look like you actually cared about something, the 00’s were about how cool it was to do things that you knew were shoddy but were funny anyway. There used to be a time when groan-inducing puns and intentionally bad humor was associated with uncles sporting white moustaches and bow ties. Now this sort of thing makes up about 25% of all social media interaction, and 100% of Seth Macfarlane’s movie career. Don’t think it’s funny, then fuck you, it wasn’t supposed to be funny in the first place.
This is why the question of intent is so important. It is hard for a skilled artist to suddenly appear unskilled. Think of something you’re good at, and ask yourself, “what could I do to make it look like I’m really terrible at this?” Sure, you could, but it would likely seem forced and therefore unconvincing. Hence, why Snakes on a Plane failed where The Room and Birdemic succeeded – SoaP is clearly a Hollywood film, professionally shot, well-paced, and lit, and everything clears out and goes silent so the film can deliver its famous line, with Samuel L Jackson alone in the center of the frame. And at the end of the day, those are real Hollywood actors being told to overact (and presumably getting paid well for it). Meanwhile, much of the humor in Birdemic is about how poor everything is done, how characters get drowned out by outside noise, how terrible the special effects are (due to a strict $10,000 budget), and how establishing shots somehow drag on for no reason whatsoever. The most famous lines in The Room are the ones delivered off-hand, that often have no relevance to anything (“so, how is your sex life?”). And neither one features an actor you’re likely to see in anything else, outside of a jokey cameo on Tim and Eric or something. That’s how “bad” becomes “great”.
I swear I was going to actually talk about Mrs. Miller here. I discovered this album a few years ago and have been fascinated with it ever since. For one, this thing is nearly fifty years old. That alone is intriguing, because so much more legitimately terrible art came out of that era, before there was any real money in entertainment (outside of The King himself), when terms like “quality control” or “focus group” really entered the public consciousness. It’s not like camp was some novel concept then – this was released in 1966, same year as that original Adam West Batman series, and Ed Wood’s film career was 13 years underway. But there was a particularly funny story behind this one. Ms. Elva Miller was a 59-year-old wife of a preacher, making gospel and children’s records on the side, when she was coaxed into recording an album of a pop covers by an unscrupulous producer.
And what covers they wound up being. Mrs. Miller’s Greatest Hits is an album of mid-60’s standards, but you’ve never heard them like this. Simply put, she has one of the most unrestrained vibratos I’ve ever heard, and seemingly no control over it. If Susan Boyle “sings like a songbird”, then Mrs. Miller sings like a songbird with a foot on her throat. Compounding this is her complete lack of timing or rhythm – she’s often half a beat late, and her pacing is haphazard at best, which contrasts in an often hilarious way with the professional, by-the-book arrangements and backup singers. On “Downtown”, the very first song here, she falls out of time quickly, and at one point rushes so quickly to catch up that she blows the big moment on the final chorus. It sounds like she is singing these songs for the first time, and in some cases it sounds like she’s hearing them for the first time too. You may be thinking at this point – “wait, so is this just something like William Hung?” Well, not quite – Mrs. Miller really can sing, and at one point hits a note so impossibly high that you’d swear she was a trained opera singer (“Lover’s Concerto”). Her voice is rich, and she’s got a hell of a range. Even her whistling is equal parts impressive and terrible – if you transcribed the notes she’s actually hitting, the result would look absolutely crazy.
This of course begs the immortal question, “so was she in on the joke?” Unfortunately, we’ll never know. Mrs. Miller’s account of the sessions seem to ring true – she claims the producers made her look worse than she was intentionally conducted out of time, and that only the most off-key takes were used. She certainly doesn’t seem to be playing this for laughs, only really getting out of hand when the song calls for it. But she certainly seems to be having fun doing this, and once this record took off (selling 250,000 copies!), she clearly understood why people were buying it. In fact, Mrs. Miller was a minor celebrity for a few years, even doing a USO show at one point. But alas, it couldn’t last. Like William Hung after her, album sales diminished really fast, and there is almost no record that her 3rd or 4th albums even exist. Such is the plight of the novelty artist. You really only get one Birdemic or “Friday”, and once they blow up, by very nature you can’t reproduce the thing that made you famous in the first place. Despite Tommy Wiseau’s constant promises, he’s never made a second movie, and we have to ask ourselves if we really want him to. For in the case of novelty, the work almost always transcends the artist; no one’s going to remember a thing about Rebecca Black.
Still, I know that Mrs. Miller stands the test of time. For once you hear her take on these songs, there really is no going back. I’ve heard a dozen covers of “These Boots Are Made For Walkin’”, but never can I hear it without thinking of Mrs. Miller singing, “one of these days, these BOooOOOts are gonna walk…”. Nor “Bill Bailey” without the ridiculous call-and-response she does with the backup singers. Nor “Strangers in the Night” without the warbling a capella intro. Nor “Downtown” without the off-key whistling. I can’t even remember what “Monday, Monday” sounded like without the ridiculous inflections in the verses. Part of this is the product of the songs – mid-60’s radio has gotten to the point where its vintage qualities now seem to overshadow everything else about the song. They’re still well-written songs, but they’re so worn out it’s hard to imagine them as anything but background noise today (which is indeed all they’re used for today, in supermarkets and department stores across the globe). Mrs. Miller injects such a welcome, unpredictable spark to all this, that you may soon find yourself listening to this un-ironically.
A little disclosure here – the actual album this is about isn’t available on CD, and it doesn’t include all the songs mentioned here. If this 1500-word diatribe somehow convinced you, what you really want is called Ultra Lounge – Wild, Cool & Swingin’ – The Artist Collection Vol. 3, which is about as unappealing of a title as I’ve ever seen. It contains pretty much all the songs on Greatest Hits, plus a lot more, including must-hear covers of “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail” and “Sweet Pea”, which, man, I don’t even know if I can describe properly. Before I go down a spiral of cliché, let me just say that I can’t imagine how bad things would have to get before “Let’s Hang On” would fail to make me laugh. Who would’ve thought a 59-year old church lady could so thoroughly destroy everything from Nancy Sinatra to the Beatles?