Human taste

Went to a Dan Deacon show yesterday. Electronica isn’t precisely my thing, but I listened to his recent album on a whim and liked it, so I basically went just for the hell of it. The upshot is that I’m now reevaluating some of my assumptions.

There’s taste and then there’s taste, which is to say there’s more to it then mere preference. There’s sort of a standard story about how underground rock responded to a world drowning in soft banality by reawakening the fire of the human spirit and asserting the values of emotional directness and raw creativity, etc. (It is, of course, deeply ironic that punk, an anti-movement if ever there was one, has congealed over time into a single easily understandable narrative. Read Please Kill Me if you’re at all interested in demystification.) This is mostly wishful thinking, and it’s easy to dismiss it all as ex post facto mythologization, but I can’t, because it actually happened to me.

I’m not really going to go into detail here because it’s none of your fucking business, but rock music had a revelatory effect on me at a time when I didn’t even understand the concept of revelation, let alone the possibility. I can’t dismiss it as shallow aesthetics or counter-cultural posturing, because neither of those things were at all relevant to my situation. The only logical explanation is that I was seized by something undeniably real, penetrated by raw power.

So the point is that rock music feels to me like an open plain of human values and new possibilities and electronica feels like the dead weight of schematics and equations that almost strangled me to death. But this is actually the other kind of taste: it’s just my perception. It’s become clear that the Wheel of Fortune has turned, and the majority of rock music now embodies the same evils it originally opposed. This has, of course, happened precisely because of the previously mentioned Standard Story about rock music (stories are dangerous, you guys). It’s now Understood that you go to a rock show and get drunk and act like a crazy asshole and that this is cool and liberating, which is obviously the opposite of liberating because you’ve obviously just acting out a script you’ve heard about third-hand, i.e. you’re doing what you’re told.

And, like, believe me, despite being an unrepentant snobby intellectual, I am entirely in favor of physical disinhibition. (That was a joke.) I’ve been in actual good mosh pits where people were dancing and having fun, and I’ve seen many more where a few morons just start shoving each other around and everyone else tries to get out of the way. If you’ve never seen this happen, trust me, it’s deeply pathetic. Sometimes you get a big mass of people just wobbling back and forth, and sometimes everyone’s crowded away from a huge empty space because two assholes are just flailing their arms around and nobody wants to be anywhere near them. The saddest incident in my experience was at a Sonic Youth show (post-The Eternal), which, yes, some morons actually tried to start moshing at a Sonic Youth show in the year two thousand and whenever it was, and absolutely no one else was going for it, and the only thing they accomplished was elbowing me in the face.

So I’ve been aware of all this for a while, but I still thought there was a way to thread the needle. I have been in plenty of actual good crowds, so I know it’s possible. Fugazi in particular is famous for having tried to confront this problem directly. As a post-hardcore band that was also seriously leftist and feminist, they had to deal with the fact that a lot of their fans were violent macho assholes (essentially the “Nazi Punks Fuck Off” problem). They insisted that people at their shows have fun and dance without shoving each other around. If people were acting like dicks, they stopped playing and took care of it. (For more information, there’s an audio file floating around the internet called “Having Fun On Stage With Fugazi” that you can check out.)

The culture has moved on somewhat since then, but I think we have to conclude that Fugazi’s project was a failure, because people still don’t know how to have fun at rock shows without being shitheads. I’ve seen bands that try to be cool about it and tell people to play nice, and it never works, because people actually don’t understand the distinction. I realize that “people don’t know how to have fun” is a hopelessly conceited opinion to hold, but it’s honestly a conclusion that has been forced on me by the evidence.

I saw Bleached recently, which, first of all, they’re amazing; they combine full-throttle thrashing intensity with great pop songwriting to create a completely exhilarating experience. Seriously, after the set people were talking in awed tones about how great it was. But they were loud and fast enough to send the “it’s time to act like an asshole” signal to receptive members of the audience, and that’s exactly what happened. I’m not so arrogant that I think I can fully diagnose spontaneous human behavior like this; like I said, the music was actually great and people were actually feeling it, and I’m really only talking about a tiny fraction of the total situation here. But that small group of people in the middle really were acting like this was their big change to be dicks and not like they were actually having fun. What would happen is that the song would start, and they’d shove each other around for about 30 seconds, and then go right back to just standing there like lumps. This is why this isn’t a matter of preference. It’s not about having to choose between going crazy and calmly paying attention, because behavior like this is the worst of both worlds: it’s obnoxious while also being no fun.

I know this is getting kind of involved and by now you’re just dying to hear what I thought about Dan Deacon, but there’s one more thing that it would be irresponsible not to mention, which is the embarrassing and therefore frequently overlooked fact that part of the original motivation for punk was anti-feminism. The fact that typical punk music is largely the embodiment of masculine aggression ain’t a coincidence. The people who talk about how we live in a “feminized” society now are obviously clueless jackasses, but the fact is overt physical aggression is no longer socially acceptable (if it ever was, I don’t actually know), and rock shows provide a permissible outlet for it. So this is the actual political angle here: aggressive behavior is not liberatory because the people who act like this are not at all acting in an uninhibited way. On the contrary, they’re trapped in their masculine inhibitions. They can’t loosen up and have fun, because that’s totally gay, bro. The only permitted means of expression is aggression. (And of course it’s not just men; part of feminism is accepting that women are equally capable of being macho dickheads. I believe this is addressed in the Fugazi recording mentioned above.) This is more evidence of the well-known fact that masculinity is cowardice.

So the point, which I am in fact getting around to now, is that regardless of whether Dan Deacon’s music is my particular cup of tea, his show was a lot closer to what a good live music experience ought to be than most rock shows I’ve been to. Not that there’s one “ideal,” of course, but there are good directions to move in and there are bad directions to move in. Being part of an engaged community is a good thing. Being shoved around by drunk assholes is a bad thing. I mean, this is actually important. If a live show is about something more than entertainment, if it’s about people coming together and having a shared experience, then the question of how people can have fun without ruining everyone else’s good time is the same as the question of how civilization can progress without exploitation.

When it comes to stage banter, white guys sometimes have problems with being huge fucking bores, but Deacon was great. He was on-point politically without being lecturey and self-deprecating without being defensive. This matters because it created a good atmosphere in the room while also helping to normalize anti-oppression discourse, which makes everyone feel like they’re in a safe environment where they can have fun. One thing that The Discourse has struggled to overcome, even with all the silliness of the internet, is the perception that it’s dull and pedantic, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth: the point of being against oppression is so that we can all have fun. So it’s important to be able to enjoy yourself while also being conscious of doing the right thing. Deacon’s best line was when he told half the room to dance like Game of Thrones was made in a world without patriarchy and the other half to dance like all the money from Jurassic World was spent on public schools. So, yeah, maybe a little overwrought, but it was funny, and it was true, and it made people feel like having fun.

There was a lot of goofy audience participation stuff, some of it worked and some of it not so much, but the point is that it did a pretty good job of actually disinhibiting people and getting them out of the frame of how you’re supposed to act at a show. At some metal shows there’s apparently a thing called the “Wall of Death,” where two halves of the crowd rush into the middle and everybody crashes into each other and it’s total violent mayhem. This is exactly the kind of thing I’ve been complaining about: it’s macho assholery in the guise of uninhibited fun. Deacon gets this (he also worked in a crack about healthcare in Scandinavian countries vs. America), so his alternative is the “Wall of Life,” where everyone rushes each other in order to deliver high fives en masse. It’s hopelessly dorky, but again, it actually addresses the relevant issues: it’s a way of going crazy and having fun without being a dick about it. As Deacon put it, instead of rushing each other with reckless abandon, we should do so with full human consciousness. We should be able to have fun while still being people.

I don’t actually have to analyze whether any of this was a good idea or not (I just do it for fun), because it worked. By the end of the show, there were lots of people dancing and having fun while being respectful of everyone else, and it was great. So the point of this post is actually that I’m a little sad. It’s sad that “my” music has such a hard time accomplishing this, when that’s what it was supposed to be for in the first place. It’s sad that Fugazi had to exhort people to behave instead of compelling them organically through the force of their music – the way it was supposed to work, in the stories.

What’s not sad is the fact that the situation is more complicated than just choosing the right kind of music. If it seems like you’re on the royal road to the truth, you’re probably being marched into a cage. The twisted path is the one that might actually lead somewhere. This obviously isn’t about which kind of music is better than the other kind of music. Greatness transcends genre. It’s just that these waters might be a little harder to navigate than I thought. Even when you’ve felt a truth that’s impossible to deny, you can’t just cling to that one thing forever. If aesthetics are to be at all meaningful, your taste has to go beyond your preferences.

[Addendum: Just saw Titus Andronicus and they gave this exact speech before they started. I mean, “exact” in the sense that it was the normal person version rather than the pretentious theory version. Anyway, it’s nice to know that people are still trying.]

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