In the summer of 2002, Panther thrashed Pioneer Square. An absolute sneak attack: On a Sunday afternoon, Panther, a.k.a Charles Salas-Humara, slips into the plaza toting some pretracked electronica, a 75-watt amp and a small video crew. It was a simple guerrilla mission to "'entertain' the business people," he says. His assault of manic busted soul left behind a square full of (hopefully) scarred-for-life children, confused tourists, annoyed cops and instant fans.
Last Saturday night, on MTV2, Panther pulled the prank again. But this time, instead of a summer lunchtime crowd on a Portland plaza, he thrashed whatever audience was sitting at home watching the cable music channel at 10 o'clock. Granted the show, Subterranean (your source for "the latest, coolest videos"), is about as underground as TV media gets, but the videos it airs are still cruising to the "top" with a tankful of cash. Multiple k's of dollars are spent on the visual candy that surrounds Panther. Crews, actors, hotel rooms, giant cameras that ride around on tracks: Such is the state of the underground on cable television.
The video that possibly blew your (or your neighbor's) kid's mind on Saturday night was made with a cardboard box. Filmmaker Rob "Whitey" McConnaughy built Panther an elaborate fort, complete with cardboard cell phone, cardboard turntable and, most important, a cardboard microphone. And for four minutes the former The Planet The frontman thrashes about the room, falsetto wailing into that microphone a barely intelligible song about, um, losing your hair. Or something.
When Panther's lyrics do mesh into some sort of coherency, they only reinforce Salas-Humara's ongoing prank. Or perhaps, given the R&B perversion coursing through his recent debut 12-inch, Yourself, a line like "White mama/White daddy/Black baby" pushes the whole thing into overkill.
Which is, of course, the point.
The temptation is to slip Panther into the "smooth mutherfucker" subgenre of electronic music, i.e., a white kid with crazy laptop skills and a voice slick enough to make the crowd swoon. Think Jamie Lidell, Bobby Birdman or Hot Chip. Salas-Humara excludes himself from this group, boasting, "Those guys stay within their singing ranges, whereas I go further." Take one of those guys and lock 'em in a cage with a shoebox full of amphetamines and a record of Muzak-processed R&B, and Panther's what you might wind up with. A funhouse-mirror version of the "smooth mutherfuckers," a performer searching for the category's edges.
Panther howls like Peter Gabriel snared in a bear trap. And it hurts to listen.
Oddly enough, it ends up not making much difference whether Panther's a joke, or whether it hurts to hear him. He's a spaz with some passable beats and a couple of rough synth hooks, but that was enough to snag more than a few innocent bystanders at Pioneer Square. Who knows how many Panther snagged on Saturday night, how many were singing along to a song whose lyrics consist mainly of vocal beeps. It's a safe bet it was enough to make damn sure the joke's on us. Maybe it's time to take his word on it: "This shit is highly serious."
Panther opens for Jamie Lidell, Tussle and Copy, Friday, May 26, at Holocene. 9 pm. $12. 21+.
See the video at www.whiteyfilms.com/panther.html.