March 11, 2013

JACOBS: The Appeal of Tampa, Fla.

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As a native New Yorker, I struggle to write this, but the city with the cultural output I am most excited by this year is not my own. Rather, it is Tampa, Florida — home of the Buccaneers, the Florida Aquarium and, recently, the Republican National Convention. Somehow, this mid-sized city nicknamed the “Big Guava” (according to Wikipedia) has become home to some of the most boundary  — pushing movies and music you’ll see and hear this year.

Tampa first received its moment in the spotlight last year, serving as the backdrop for auteur director Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper epic Magic Mike. Based on leading man Channing Tatum’s real life experiences shaking it in the city, Magic Mike was an aesthetic and allegorical masterpiece, brilliantly written, directed and, especially, acted. In the film, Tampa is the embodiment of the modern day ills of capitalism, a not-quite-Gomorrah that is fertile ground for sex, drugs and stripping.

This week, Tampa has surfaced in cultural discussion again. On Friday, another visionary director’s journey to the Sunshine State will be opening: Spring Breakers. The latest movie from Harmony Korine was filmed in adjoining St. Pete Beach but bears all the signs of good ol’ fashioned Tampa debauchery. Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine play a group of neon, bikini-clad friends who join forces to have the most kick ass spring break ever, taking to gun-toting crime to finance their fun. (I’m going to assume the promotional build-up to Spring Breakers marks the first time a Disney star has been on the cover of French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema.) Down in Florida, they hook up with a cornrowed rapper (James Franco, he of this past weekend’s biggest movie) and a drug dealer (Gucci Mane, making his film debut). It’s a hedonistic journey into the world of teenage indulgence, all soundtracked by Skrillex.

I’ve written about both of these movies in this space before, but I hope I’m not coming off as repetitive. On their own, I find Magic Mike and Spring Breakers extraordinarily interesting and radical — one being, potentially, my favorite film of 2012 and the other the one I’m most immediately excited about in 2013. It’s worth noting that they were filmed 30 minutes away from each other in a state I primarily associate with Ultra Music Festival, voter suppression and my grandparents (who are considerably cooler than both Ultra and Florida politics). The simple fact is that at least two well-established and acclaimed film directors are finding inspiration in the madness of the Tampa Bay area.

But Tampa isn’t all about excess. It’s also home to restraint, exemplified in the music of Merchandise — definitely one of my favorite bands currently putting out music. Merchandise’s sound is dark, sometimes difficult, yet somehow uplifting. It can sound like a mix of Depeche Mode, The Smiths and modern indie music, but not really like anyone in particular. It’s standout songs go well over the three-minute single mark, and “Become What You Are,” which is potentially its best one, is over 10 minutes long. But it is still the band I’ll play when I’m hanging out with friends, partially because I’m selfish, but mostly because I truly believe this is a band that everyone can appreciate. There is an easy universality to it’s more recent music (I mean this in a good way), especially songs like “Time” and “Become What You Are” off of last year’s Children of Desire EP, and new track “Anxiety’s Door” from upcoming April release Totale Nite.

However, the band wasn’t always like this. The duo formed in Tampa’s hardcore scene, hardly the place to nurture an inviting aesthetic. Speaking to Pitchfork last July, songwriter Carson Cox told the website, “The punk scene was not a friendly place. People were not welcomed.” If you think all male strip clubs or bikini babes packing heat aren’t intimidating, I challenge you to go to a hardcore punk show. I promise you’ll see there some scary shit going on down in Tampa.

Merchandise is different though. It’s songs are mature and introspective, both musically and lyrically. It’s a Tampa band, for sure, but it’s not the Tampa of Magic Mike and Spring Breakers. The odd duality of the city makes it one of the most interesting places to watch, and I can’t wait to see what else it can produce this year.

Original Author: Peter Jacobs