Candy corn

Or: What do cake walks, the Backstreet Boys, and Jon Cunningham have in common?

Irony doesn't seem to exist for Jon "Corn Mo" Cunningham when he's onstage, in the moment, looking like he just got back from a photo shoot for Styx's Grand Illusion as he dramatically delivers his silly songs about Gary Busey and bananas. Imagine Tommy Shaw with an accordion and "Weird Al" Yankovic's cellular phone number. It may all be a joke, but Cunningham never gets to the punchline, never lets on that he's been in on it from the beginning. Each song is offered up with a straight face, whether they be Mötley Crüe hits and Bon Jovi misses, or odes to Sportatorium heroes and teenage girlfriends named Angel. But it's not all an act: Cunningham doesn't play the hair-metal hits because they're easy targets. He does it because he likes the songs.

No surprise, then, that Cunningham would be drawn to the wave of disposable pop that new kids on the block such as 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys and surgically augmented kewpie doll Britney Spears are riding into bank lobbies across the country. If you think about it, Bon Jovi's "Always," a frequent visitor to Corn Mo sets, isn't all that different from the Backstreet Boys' "I Want it That Way" -- different haircuts, same result. And "Mutt" Lange, better known as Mr. Shania Twain, even produced a few tracks on the Backstreets' new Millennium, just as he once did for Def Leppard. Cunningham raves about those bands, as well as MTV's Total Request Live, the video countdown show that Spears and company rule with a candy-coated fist.

"I've been listening to a lot of pop lately," Cunningham says, taking a break from his telemarketing job. "I think pop's getting real good. The guy -- I think his name is Martin or something [manager Max Martin] -- who writes all the songs for 'N Sync and Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys...all those songs are just so good. They're over the top, but they're, like, pushed beyond over the top. It's almost like when you go to the movies, and that music that plays right before the movie starts, like an ad for THX or something. It's like songs based around those kinds of things, where it tries to pump you up so much."

John Freeman (in gorilla suit, with Dave Wallin) and Jon Cunningham (in scarf, with Ian Bjornstadt) go pop, pop, pop!
John Freeman (in gorilla suit, with Dave Wallin) and Jon Cunningham (in scarf, with Ian Bjornstadt) go pop, pop, pop!
Pops Carter is Dentonís Rhythm Man, baby.

Cunningham's newfound love for pop has already edged its way into his set lists. The only metal found on songs such as "Gary Busey Boy" (a track off the forthcoming Corn Mo/.357 Lover album, Diorama of the Golden Lion, due later this summer) is the kind found in the gutters of Tin Pan Alley. And on June 19, at Bonanzaganza -- a Good/Bad Art Collective benefit featuring performances by Cunningham and cohort John Freeman's solo act Dutch Treats -- he will unveil his latest cover, the Backstreet Boys anthem, "Backstreet's Back." In keeping with the spirit of the original, Cunningham says he will be joined onstage by a couple of 9-year-old boys, dancing along with the song. The pop doesn't stop there, though: The Dooms U.K. (the band Cunningham is in with Freeman, among many others) is working up a rendition of Ricky Martin's unfortunately ubiquitous hit, "Livin' La Vida Loca" -- a fairly straight version, no less.

"Oh, yeah," Cunningham says, as though the idea of tampering with Martin's song would be unthinkable. "I may try to do a Will Smith song too. Maybe "Miami" [from Smith's 1997 album Big Willie Style]." The Dooms were set to unveil "Livin' La Vida Loca" on June 3 at the Liquid Lounge, capping off the first edition of Cunningham's every-Thursday-in-June series of "Children of the Corn Mo" nights, but held off. It wasn't because the song wouldn't fit the format; there wasn't one to begin with. The "Children of the Corn Mo" shows -- suggested by Liquid Lounge booking agent Dale Brock, and put together by Cunningham -- feature an eclectic assortment of bands. Most include either Cunningham (Corn Mo and .357 Lover, the rock version of Cunningham's solo shows that features members of Baboon and Q and the Black Martin) or Freeman (Dutch Treats and Telethon, the latter a "German techno kind of band," according to Freeman) or both (Dooms, Golden Vipers, Rocky Horror Rock Band).

It doesn't much matter which act happens to be onstage -- it's all Cunningham and Freeman's show. The highlight of the June 3 installment came halfway through Corn Mo's set, when Freeman joined Cunningham for a rousing version of Temple of the Dog's "Hunger Strike," a song from 1991's Pearl Jam-Soundgarden one-off collaboration, with Freeman growling his way through his best Eddie Vedder impersonation. All that was missing were a thousand drunk, shirtless frat boys. "That's a big crowd-pleaser, definitely," Freeman says. "It's a sure-fire hit. If there's any problems with the show, we do that one and everything is OK." The series ends on June 17, with sets by Rocky Horror Rock Band (consisting of Freeman, Cunningham, ex-UFOFU guitarist Joe Butcher, Daron Beck on keyboards, Dooms guitarist James Henderson, and Floor 13 drummer Duncan Black) and Golden Vipers, Cunningham's and Freeman's "soft glam" outfit with Beck. Cunningham says he expects to continue the shows in the future, after he and Freeman return from an extended trip to take part in the Good/Bad New York satellite's first show, Joey on I.C.U., July 2 at ABC No Rio.

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