Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ Coming Out of Their Shells (1990)

TMNTIt would be difficult to overstate the impact of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on my childhood. There was the cartoon, the toys, the Halloween costumes, the film, and the homemade wooden weapons my father made so that my brother Alex and I could hit each other. In our shared bedroom we had a multi-level cardboard city for the Turtles to live and battle in, with a PVC sewer pipe and buildings made of corrugated plastic. And there is a picture I am told, somewhere, of Alex and me in yellow Disney ponchos, watching our green heroes dance and rap in the Florida rain.

None of this nostalgia does anything to soften the blunt tediousness of this shitty tape.

I am not upset by the profane consumerism or generic songwriting. It does not bother me at all that parents, like mine, were subjected to their children’s facile interests. It does not irritate me that some songs (“No Treaties”) suggest that the only victory can be unconditional surrender, or that others (“Walk Straight”) equate heroism with heteronormative male identity. None of it even catches my attention because of its historical obviousness, because the early 1990s didn’t know any goddamned better.

What bothers me is that – in spite of my übercool hipster ironic consumption of shit content – there are so few pleasures to find here. This is cringe-worthy, but not in the good way. When I listened to this tape in my minivan (just once) I felt only THE GREAT SADNESS which unites all overreaching things, the half inch between Adam’s finger and God’s, the Sisyphean asymptote we endlessly climb until, in its inevitable course, THE (actual) END.

I can imagine a world in which it is not impossible for some person to derive genuine pleasure from this tape. But considering how my childhood could not have better prepared me to be that person, it is highly unlikely. As Splinter so presciently sings in the ballad “Skipping Stones” – “Skipping Stones, the water surrounds you/ But the times for rings has passed.” Perhaps it’s my calloused modernism that can’t find pleasure in the childlike joys of good triumphing over evil, didactic storytelling, and the comforting pace of White rap.

Cowabunga! I made a funny.

—Ghil Scraw

Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book (1972)

Wonder Talking BookFor most of Generation X and many old Millennials, we have been conscious of Stevie Wonder’s existence for longer than any other living artist. I remember Stevie Wonder singing “Superstition” on Sesame Street in 1973, and I was born in 1984. It’s very likely that Stevie Wonder is the first black person I ever saw. And yet, decades later, he remains unknowable.

Listen to the opening track, “You are the Sunshine of My Life.” It’s a simple song, you probably think you know it. But by the end of the song, as the vocals fade out, you’re left with many questions: Who the fuck are those other two people singing, and have they always been there? “Apple of my eye,” seriously? And who’s playing all that background percussion and are they going to be okay? (Daniel Ben Zebulon, please pick up a white courtesy telephone).

And while I try not to make too much of album covers, I have no idea what’s going on here. The relationship between the cover and the music inside is out of sync. Let me be ABSOLUTELY CLEAR that I am not making a Stevie-is-blind joke, but the fact remains whoever pitched him this cover did not describe what I’m seeing now: A world-class artist wearing a velvet robe messing around with some dirt. Had they said that, might he have asked for other options?

Cover notwithstanding, this record sounds better than 99.9% of everything else, is layered and textured beyond mortal comprehension. This gives it the power to get away with things other records might shy away from, most notably repetitious melodies and sentimentality. It’s an amazing record: The enigmatic use of synthesizers, buried guitar solos that lesser engineers or bigger egos would have shoved forward, background vocalists singing leads, funk made not for dancing.

Stevie Wonder makes universally accessible music from another dimension, which is the truth at the center of my inability to know him in spite of his constant presence in my life. No complaints.

—Ghil Scraw