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Back to the Basement

The "High School Rock Off" was a seven-hour jerk-off.

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Now in its fifth year, the annual "High School Rock Off" (Note: From this point on, the "Rock Off" will be called the "Jerk Off," a phrase that more accurately describes the solipsistic nature of the event) gives budding young musicians from regional high schools a chance to compete against each other for prizes. At the finals -- dubbed "Final Exams," in keeping with the high-school theme -- held at the Odeon on January 27, some 18 bands played 20-minute sets before a panel of judges for a grand prize of $350 in cash, a bunch of gear from Guitar Center, an article in Alternative Press, an interview on WMMS, and the chance to open for a national act. On a stage draped with a banner bearing the logo of every corporate sponsor involved in the affair, bands slugged it out before a sold-out crowd dominated by their respective classmates and a veritable cavalry of highly annoying "rocker moms" armed with cell phones and cameras.

Back when the "Jerk Off" started, in early January (the "Final Exams" were the culmination of six separate competitions), the Minister of Culture (a.k.a Plain Dealer columnist Michael Heaton) waxed eloquent about the event, recollecting fuzzy details from his spent youth, when he saw some shitty high-school band play a cover of Traffic's "Dear Mr. Fantasy" and was blown away. The Minister, who thinks he's cool because he likes the new U2 record, is easily amused and, after numerous detours, comes to the conclusion: "I still get enormous satisfaction from music." Yeah, the Minister has a tendency to state the obvious, and his propensity for reminiscing about the good ole days should put him in position to take PD columnist Dick Feagler's place when he passes on. And when the Minister starts blathering on about how music in general was first played at church and thereby has some connection to the divine, it becomes apparent that he's never sat through a "Jerk Off" session. Otherwise, he might've had a different perspective and come to the conclusion that music isn't the work of God, but rather the spawn of something very, very wicked indeed.

What the "Jerk Off" proved, if anything, was that today's kids have no imagination. Every other band sounded like either the moody alternative rock group Creed or pop-punksters Blink 182. OK, there were occasional references to other alt-rockers -- the singer of Jaded Era borrowed liberally from No Doubt's Gwen Stefani, and Circle of Willis tried to imitate Bush -- but none of the bands looked beyond the obvious. Devoid of hip-hop, R&B, Latin, or electronic music, the "Jerk Off" was a whitewashed snore -- we were so desperately bored, we even took to reading the back issues of Alternative Press that littered the tables at the back of the Odeon.

In the entire seven-hour event, we saw a total of two female musicians, and just about everyone was white. Even the instrumentation was predictable -- bass, drums, and guitar, all played out of tune and with a pop-punk (and sometimes metal) edge. Not that the master of ceremonies, some guy who calls himself Doc Rock, seemed to notice. Doc Rock, who found clever ways to insert the bands' names into his banter ("Did you lose your discomposure?" he asked, after the punk band Discomposure played), had a number of insufferable habits. He constantly changed his sport jackets (which varied from silver lamé to leopard print) and thanked the sponsors over and over and over -- by the end, when he was filling time before announcing the winners, even the teenagers were yelling for him to shut up. And his tendency to use the phrase "rock off" in as many ways as possible -- "we want to thank all the rock-offs who helped," "you gotta rock off," and "this crowd likes to rock off" -- was highly irritating.

The one band we did like -- the spirited punk trio Delay -- inadvertently sounded like the riot grrrl act Sleater-Kinney (prepubescent boys singing will do that). Led by twin brothers, the band was self-effacing and funny in a way that all the other acts (too serious for their youth) were not. They even brought out rubber guitars to smash at the end of their set, because they "couldn't afford to smash their real guitars." But, alas, when the winners were announced, Delay came up short. Instead, first was a tie between AAK and the Deep, second place went to Circle of Willis, and third place was won by Jaded Era. The group Lucky 13 took the "People's Choice" award, which means its fans are the most Internet-savvy and voted online for it as the most popular group.

What lessons did we learn from the "Jerk Off"? Corporate sponsorship should be embraced. Parents should accompany you to rock concerts and take as many pictures of you and your friends as possible. Stocking the audience with friends and family members makes your band really cool. When on stage, encourage the crowd by telling it, "You rock." These are not the things we want to teach to our children. Rather, the most important lesson we learned from those seven painful hours spent at the Odeon is that rocking off, like jerking off, is something you do in private, not public.

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