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ONLINE EXTRAS

• See the clip that started it all, "Chocolate Rain," at www.startribune.com/a3441.

• Read more about the First Avenue performance and fan comments at our music blog, www.startribune.com/poplife.

Music: 'Chocolate Rain' falls on YouTube star's hometown

  • Article by: Chris Riemenschneider
  • Star Tribune
  • October 10, 2007 - 9:13 AM

Even though the lights were dim, the sold-out crowd knew exactly who was taking the stage once he bellowed, "How you doing?"

With the familiar, booming voice that late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel said could make him "the next Darth Vader," Minneapolis' scrawny YouTube sensation Tay Zonday gave his local coming-out performance in the wee hours of Saturday morning .

While not exactly as momentous as the first time "Purple Rain" was sung at the landmark rock club, Zonday's performance of his bizarre hit "Chocolate Rain" capped an incredible five-month run for the 25-year-old University of Minnesota graduate student.

"This is just another totally unexpected honor," said Zonday, whose real name is Adam Bahner.

The so-called Internet Superhero (or at least that's how his $15 T-shirts billed him) came to the club at the special request of Pittsburgh's underground dance-music hero Gregg Gillis, a k a Girl Talk, the concert's headliner. Gillis is just the latest of many bona-fide music stars to sing Zonday's praises. John Mayer and the drummer from Green Day each even posted their own versions of "Chocolate Rain" on YouTube.com.

Any performer would appreciate the kind of numbers that Zonday's quirky, homemade clip has gotten on the communal video-posting website.

"Chocolate Rain" is due to get its 10-millionth view within days, after five months on the site. It's in the top 40 of YouTube's most-watched music clips of all time, and the top 10 of the most-discussed clips.

Zonday's hometown stage debut -- aside from a couple unknown open-mike appearances -- offered a little more insight into what all this internet fame means.

It apparently doesn't count for much.

"That was painful," said Draeke Weseman, 25, of Minneapolis, echoing a majority of the comments heard after Zonday's five-song set. "It was like a bad 'American Idol' audition tape."

Grant Buntje, 28, was even harsher: "If he had just done 'Chocolate Rain' and left, it might've been amusing. But after that many songs, I wanted to get up there and push him off the stage."

Setting the stage

Zonday only performed for 20 minutes (wisely avoiding any 15-minute jokes), ending with "Chocolate Rain." As with all the night's songs, the seemingly nonsensical and overly academic lyrics flashed across the video screen behind him: "Chocolate rain, dirty secrets of the economy/ Chocolate rain, turns that body into GDP."

Wearing the same rectangular glasses and plain white T-shirt as in his videos, Zonday opened with another of his YouTube hits, "Do the Can't Dance." He proved he truly can't dance, offering a repetitive one-arm circular move that looked like a cross between wax-on/wax-off in "The Karate Kid" and Elaine's gawky gyrating on "Seinfeld."

Zonday proceeded to dance that way all night (onstage again during Girl Talk's set). His other signature move was -- sort of like the dramatic-effect breathing technique in his hit video -- taking a long, drawn-out swig of bottle water between every song.

Bryan Laudick, 26, who drove from Des Moines for the show, was one of the few attendees to give Zonday a break.

"People who say he only has 15 minutes of fame are missing the point," Laudick said. "I think it's great he has even gotten 15 minutes. It's good to see an everyday, average guy get even that amount of fame. "

Girl Talk wiz Gillis also sang Zonday's praises afterward.

"He's a hometown hero," the DJ said. "I thought he was amazing, I'm really glad he came out."

Like many in the local music scene, First Avenue's staff had no idea how to get in touch with Zonday to invite him to perform. Club booker Sonia Grover said, "Girl Talk's agent worked really hard to track him down, which shows how much they really wanted him here."

Where did he come from?

Zonday grew up on the north side of Chicago, leading what he called a "pretty isolated" childhood with "very protective" parents. His older brother Damon Bahner, who has taken over as his manager, said, "He never really was a kid that was into pop culture much."

When asked whether "Chocolate Rain" was in any way a "Purple Rain" homage, Zonday said, "I admire Prince, but never really listened to him."

Said his brother, "He created his music from his own unique perspective, which I think is why it stood out."

The younger Bahner began posting his clips as Tay Zonday on YouTube in January and got to "Chocolate Rain" in April. By July, it became big enough for late-night TV host Carson Daly to do a skit about it. Zonday then performed on Kimmel's show in August.

Posting clips "comes as natural to me as making a phone call," Zonday said. "It's a sign of the times. Everybody does it."

He did it from his apartment in Minneapolis, where he arrived two years ago to earn a graduate degree in American Studies -- which, by the way, he's still pursuing.

"If I could make a living creating my art, then I would of course love that," he said, "but I'm fully aware that very few people are able to do that successfully."

That doesn't mean he's not testing the waters. He's close to signing an advertising deal with "a large beverage company," his brother/manager said. Until that happens, his biggest payoff has been from a couple private gigs around the country, plus he's now a so-called YouTube Partner, earning some advertising money from the site.

Zonday said he has fielded many offers to collaborate with big-name music stars, but he doesn't want to name them until it happens. He is also considering offers from record labels to make an album, but he remains most skeptical of that prospect.

"Is the album even a relevant art form any more?" he asked.

Of all people, Zonday is certainly raising doubts that it is.

Chris Riemenschneider • 612-673-4658

Chris Riemenschneider • chrisr@startribune.com

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