By Ashley Zimmerman
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It's a real misrepresentation of what we're all about here on this planet -- at least I think," says Sterling LeBlanc, Ph.D., assistant director of NASA's Art Program. He's referring to the music of singer/songwriter Christopher Cross.An unlikely source of controversy to say the least, this marks the second time this year that Cross finds himself the target of heated, aesthetically driven debate -- two decades, no less, into his safe, "adult contemporary" career.
Of course, it's important to put LeBlanc's concerns in context. The Art Program's sole function is to review different forms of art and entertainment and select specific works to send on space probes. The first, most famous example of this practice was the 1977 launch of a gold "record" onboard Voyager 1, which is currently traveling at the outskirts of our solar system. Sent with an accompanying stylus in the event of encountering extraterrestrial life, the multimedia disc included music by Blind Willie Johnson, Mozart, and Chuck Berry, a written statement by then-President Jimmy Carter, and an audio greeting by then-United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim.
Following the original Voyager's example, LeBlanc and his director are two of nine scientists who pore over various print media, music, and film as well as other pop-culture flotsam such as television commercials and product packaging. LeBlanc, who is 47 and bears a striking resemblance to Jeff Goldblum's character in The Fly (only older, more strung-out, and quite possibly more deranged), is excited at the opportunity this presents for the United States to exercise one-upmanship since the December 24 disappearance of the European Space Agency's Mars probe. Christopher Cross is not his weapon of choice in the race for cultural superiority.
"I didn't like his stuff back in the '80s," he says. "Why start now? I mean, I think that entire era should be erased. It's not the reference point I would start with if I were to offer someone, another intelligence -- a higher intelligence, perhaps! -- a window into the achievements of human culture. You gonna give 'em Tears for fucking Fears?! You take a band like... uh... say, uh, Dillinger Escape Plan! Yes! Dillinger Escape Plan... that stuff is cutting-edge, man. It's so beauteously... mathematical! It speaks volumes about the state of human achievement. Or take the Glenn Branca orchestra or Barkmarket or something like that...
"I can only imagine, if extraterrestrials do end up hearing this," he says with disdain, picking up Cross' self-titled debut album, "they'll come down here thinking we're all sedate, sitting around wearing pink suits, that the whole planet is a Prozac-saturated South Florida suburb. I think that type of music might bring out the worst in any listener, human or otherwise. And with extraterrestrials, you don't know what we're going to be dealing with. They might wanna come and kick our asses -- or, even worse, they might think this planet is the place to express all their repressed effete tendencies. And I'm just not for that. From a scientific point of view, it's just wrong."
But hasn't much of the planet, in fact, become a "Prozac-saturated suburb?"
"That's a fair point," LeBlanc admits. "I mean, you gotta give this guy credit -- he was making depressive music sound slick 20 years before well-to-do white people starting acknowledging en masse that something was missing from their lives. In a way, Christopher Cross is the precursor to Prozac. It's like, if pharmaceutical companies had entertainment wings, they would have created Chris Cross eventually."
I decline to mention that, by this logic, Cross' music is strikingly contemporary. Or that Tears for Fears is a prime example of '80s production values gaining respect 20 years after the fact, though it's clear that LeBlanc is well-versed in contemporary music and would be more than happy to counterargue both points. Too well-versed for the liking of his primary opponent on the Cross vote, Matt Frasier, 28, another NASA employee working on the project.
"He's always dropping obscure band names," Frasier says. "He went to school for journalism, but his parents wouldn't let him become a music writer, so now he reads CMJ religiously and just waits for someone to test his knowledge."
"Look," Frasier continues matter-of-factly, "I make mix tapes for aliens who may never hear them. Cool, huh? But I don't take it too seriously. We're just trying to put together a representative sample, which is impossible to condense into 100 hours, but we still try. [LeBlanc] is always trying to push for the total underground stuff -- he does that with film too. At first, I thought it was a cool attitude, but now, after confronting it every day for years, it's like, 'Dude, what the fuck is your problem?'"
The as-yet-unnamed probe is tentatively scheduled for launch late next year, but the Art Program generally works ahead of deadlines. Once they cast their vote, they never change their program selections unless instructed to by NASA higher-ups. Looking at the roster of items officially decided and announced last week at NASA's Cape Canaveral headquarters, it's difficult to gauge what's making LeBlanc so, well... cross about the inclusion of Cross. Among the items: a box of Frosted Flakes, a copy of Penthouse Forum, three Power Puff girl key chains, and an Always tampon package. (Perhaps the genii at NASA fear the Puff girls might all go on the rag at the same time?)