Pinch til the feeling’s gone

Light observations on a recent Screaming Females show. I went though a few phases with this band. At first I just thought they sounded good, and I honestly felt like their songs were kind of whatever, but I eventually came around. The fact that their songs are engaging but not terribly easy to get a definitive handle on is the point (it might even be intentional, although who cares).

Seeing them live clarifies a few things, the most obvious of which is that Marissa Paternoster is a demon. Both the unrealistic facility of her shredding and the deep intensity of her singing are entirely piercing. I’m really not the romantic type, but this just isn’t the same thing as being good at playing music. It’s magic. It’s not, however, an explanation. The other members are just as impressive and just as important, it’s just that they have less flashy jobs. More than that, they are crazy tight as a band. They actually stretch their songs out a lot live, with lots of solos and extended bridges and soforth, but none of it feels superfluous. Their cohesiveness makes it feel like they’re not showing off; for all their intensity, it feels like they’re working. Maybe this is kind of an obvious thing to be impressed by, but I was impressed regardless. It was invigorating, and I don’t feel invigorated very often.

So they’re kind of the Platonic ideal of a rock band, and this is somewhat unexpected, because they present themselves in the opposite manner. Their major theme is ugliness, which is reflected in all of their album and merch designs. It’s aesthetic-ugly and not ugly-ugly, of course, but it still conveys the sense of initial off-putting-ness that is the salient part of ugliness as a concept. And they have the expected corresponding lyrical preoccupation with the “down” side of things, i.e. failure and misery. So because of all this and because they just hit harder than hell, it makes some amount of sense to think of them as a punk band.

The first time I saw them I was actually thinking a little about how you would classify them (not because that matters or anything, but just because you wonder about things sometimes), and seeing them perform I suddenly felt that it was overwhelmingly obvious. They’re a metal band. Assuming one does not understand genres reductively, this straightforwardly describes the type of music they play. They have expansive songs filled with squeedly solos and big theatrical vocals. And they’re not really that noisy; something like Dinosaur Jr. is a relevant point of comparison, but Screaming Females are more precise and clean without going all the way into pop songwriting (and they actually have quite a facility with slow songs). They’re about as far from three-chord thrash as you can get while still being a rock band. In this sense, metal is the opposite of punk: in lieu of simplicity and directness, it focus on musicianship, complexity, and theatricality (actually, metal is sort of pop hardcore, when you think about it).

If this all seems obvious, that’s great, but people sometimes have difficulties in this regard. There was a guy in the merch line talking about how this was “totally a punk show” and “bands are so tame nowadays” and blah blah blah (and using the precise “sick, bro” demeanor which you are currently imagining), and I just felt like this was a really sad perspective to hold (as well as being a deeply ironic way to feel about punk, of all things). You imagine that there’s some kind of holy grail out there, and you spend all your time looking for it instead of noticing everything else that’s going on. And even when you think you’ve found it, the only thing you can actually see is what you’re already expecting. Like, there was Bad Moshing at the show, which is fine, I honestly don’t even care, it’s just that I feel like people are using pre-scripted fake engagement to avoid real engagement. You can mosh to anything that’s loud and fast enough, so, like, go ahead, but if that’s all you’re doing, if that’s the only point you can conceive of music as having, then what you actually have is nothing. This is what’s so toxic about the idea that “things used to be great and now they’re not like that anymore.” When you think this way you both ignore everything that’s actually happening right now and reduce anything good you find to a shallow veneer of idealized aesthetics. Bands are like this right now. This band is like this right now. This is what it means for a work to possess immediacy.

This was, of course, the point of punk itself, to the extent that there can be said to have been such a thing. Speed and intensity don’t necessarily characterize punk music – “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is a slow love song. And it is actually this tradition that Screaming Females is upholding, just by being a working band that keeps moving and doesn’t pander. They used to close with “Boyfriend,” their punkest song, but they cut that in favor of doing “Criminal Image” with multiple Big Rock Finishes, after which they explicitly refused an encore with a throat-cutting gesture to the sound person.

Regarding the moshing, Paternoster did the obligatory thing and reminded everyone to not be violent assholes (she’s smallish, so there may have been some personal relevance there), and it’s the fact that this is obligatory which is the point. Musicians understand the situation, but people haven’t caught up yet. There’s a sense in which this is as it should be – if artists weren’t ahead of their audience there wouldn’t be any point – but it also feels like it’s been a while and we’re still working on these basic problems. You obviously have to have some kind of pretty strong self-motivation to be doing this sort of thing, but I feel like it must still be frustrating, to be trying to convey something non-trivial and to have people interpret you in the most trivial way possible.

So, you know, you can approach things from whatever angle you want, obviously. But it’s sad to think that people are missing things that are right in front of them, just because they think they already know what they’re looking at. It’s limiting. There’s more going on than just the stuff that people always talk about. The way something looks isn’t the same as what it is.

Nature isn’t magic, it’s just a mystery to us

I went to see case/lang/veirs last week, basically just out of loyalty to one particular part of that equation (go on, guess). It was a solid show, especially for being the second time they’d ever performed. The differences in their vocal styles filled out the songs really well without feeling superfluous. Also someone threw a bra onto the stage. They surprised me by doing “Man,” which is a little harder than I thought they were going. The band really nailed it, though, and that song has some extra significance coming from a collaboration of women.

They also covered “People Have the Power,” which definitely has some extra significance re: recent events. It’s not like the best Patti Smith song or anything, but it has its merits. The more I thought about it, though, the more I felt like this whole understanding of progress being a matter of “the people” standing up for themselves is getting to be rather behind the times. What we’ve been seeing recently is actually the opposite: successful populist movements are the ones fucking everything up. The people really do have the power, and that’s the problem. Sure enough, I was awakened the next morning by a text message from my sister, informing me that a populist movement in Britain had voted in favor of racist nationalism.

The standard evasion here is that things like this happen when “uninformed” people are “mislead” by “demagogues,” which isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s pretty facile to pretend like this is a real explanation. It’s actually the bad kind of conspiracy theory: an explanation so totalizing that it doesn’t explain anything. All bad decisions are made by evil shadowy elites; all good decisions are made by virtuous ordinary people. This puts you in the anti-analytical and very convenient position where the things you support are the things the people really want, while people who vote for things you don’t want are “voting against their own interests.” The irony, of course, is that this ends up becoming a populist argument for elitism: the people can’t be trusted to make good decisions on their own, so they need the right kind of people as their leaders.

(Sanders fans have been fucking up pretty badly on this front by refusing to accept the fact that their candidate lost in a fair fight. I really don’t think anyone was “mislead” into thinking that Clinton was more liberal than Sanders was.)

The Brexit decision is a pretty clear demonstration of the problem. It’s an instance of the people throwing off shackles that were placed on them by the elites for the purpose of global economic management, but the actual motivation for it was a confused mix of biases and half-baked theories, and the only reason it was even at issue in the first place was because of politicking, resulting in an unnecessary decision that almost everyone agrees will ultimately be harmful if not catastrophic. I mean, it’s kind of obvious that people don’t generally know what they’re doing, but this isn’t a fucking Dilbert comic, it’s a real political problem. Almost everyone takes it as an article of faith that “the people” are the only valid source of moral justification, and I think we have to confront the fact that this probably isn’t true.

Pro-Brexit voters had a number of different motivations. The most obvious was racism via anti-immigrant sentiment, but there were also leftists who supported it as a blow against neoliberalism, and there were even people who didn’t actually understand that they were voting for a real-world action to take place. So the question is: why does this slight majority composed of conflicting and nonsensical motivations have any moral significance? What is the actual justification for the claim that society should do whatever 50.1% of the population thinks it should? There’s nothing magic about a majority. In America, amending the constitution requires 2/3rds support, because it’s “more serious” or whatever, but there’s nothing magical about that number either; it’s exactly as arbitrary as 50.1%. And everyone actually knows this: the filibuster is an American tradition that is respected because it is blatantly anti-democratic; it prevents an issue from being decided by a straight up-or-down vote. That is, it’s respected when it’s our side doing it. We’re fine with claiming moral authority when 50.1% of the population is on our side, and we’re just as comfortable claiming it when we’re the virtuous underdogs battling an ignorant majority.

Gay marriage was opposed by a majority of people until it wasn’t; the answer to the moral question didn’t change over that period of time. When the great state of California voted to ban gay marriage, it was widely regarded as a perversion of the democratic process. At the same time, polls showing majority support for gay marriage were leveraged as an argument in its favor. So, like, which is it? Do the people rule or not? Scalia’s buffoonish Obergefell dissent raised the objection that nine people who had followed one particular path of elite development were deciding the issue for the entire country. Obviously, this was hypocritical as fuck: Scalia wouldn’t have been whining about the tyrannical power of the court if it were on his side. But that’s just it: the only reason we got gay marriage is that the court happened to have the right composition at the right time. In fact, what happened was considerably worse than that. The actual direct cause of the Obergefell decision was that one fickle mushhead wanted to go down in history as having written a big important civil rights decision, and this is actually what everyone had expected all along. After learning about Brown v. Board in history class, we all assume that the Supreme Court will take care of civil rights issues for us, overruling the annoying prejudices of the unenlightened populace. But Scalia was inadvertently much more correct than he knew: court decisions are ultimately as arbitrary as anything else, and no one really cares. When the elites are on our side, they’re representing the will of the people; when they aren’t, they’re Machiavellian schemers.

(Extra credit pro tip: Brown is a terrible example of justice-via-judiciary, because it didn’t work. Schools are still segregated.)

The “people vs. elites” framework omits at least one important part of the scenario, which is expertise. Lumping rulers and experts together as “elites” is a significant analytical failure; there’s huge difference between people who happen to hold power and people who actually know what they’re doing. Unlike rulers, experts actually matter and are necessary. It’s not possible for anyone to know enough to make an informed decision on every issue. And something like Brexit is complicated enough that its consequences are not really understandable by ordinary people, so even in a “real” democracy, there’s no reason to expect that people would be able to figure it out. Of course, the real killer example here is global warming. The expert consensus is quite clear, and it is largely being ignored by the ruling class because it has inconvenient implications (i.e. capitalism sucks). But pawning this off as a problem of the “elites” is too easy, because the rest of us aren’t actually doing our job either. Even now, with the projections widely known and the effects beginning to be felt, people aren’t going to give up their cars and their lawns and their two-day shipping. We know for a fact that a majority of people just doing what seems right can literally destroy humanity. I shudder to imagine the results of a world referendum on global warming.

But simply putting the experts in charge, a theoretical arrangement which is commonly referred to as “meritocracy” or “technocracy,” is less of a solution than it is an evasion of the problem. Experts can, ideally, be trusted on knowledge, but not on values. In fact, the very process of attaining expertise accrues bias. This is most obvious in the case of economists. Expert economists are experts in the operation of the current economic system, capitalism, and are therefore necessarily only going to be interested in working within that system, making their abilities useless to anyone opposed to it for moral reasons. They can warn you about all the terrible economic consequences, but a vote against Brexit is still a vote in favor of neoliberalism, even if it is better than the alternative.

So the idea is supposed to be that these problems are balanced out by a separation of roles. The people express their values, which are then administered by the rulers, with the experts informing them as to the best way to get it done. But all three of these roles are based on fallacies. The part that everyone knows is that rulers are not disinterested administrators, they’re rulers; their goal is to increase their own power; their relationship to the people is purely rhetorical. The technocrats’ blind spot is that fact that expert knowledge is not neutral; all knowledge is contingent on ideology. Expert recommendations are not simply pearls of wisdom to be taken or left; they are formed with embedded assumptions and motivations. And finally, the real problem: “the people” aren’t any better at morality than any other idealized grouping. Racism is currently undergoing a renaissance as a populist phenomenon that the elites are actually trying to resist. Of course, the elites aren’t actually on the right side here; they’re still trying to maintain white supremacy. But their current goal is to promote inclusiveness as a bulwark against systemic change, and that’s a damn sight better than mass deportations and refugee crises.

Back at the show, they also did “Margaret vs. Pauline,” which k.d. lang introduced as the song that made her fall in love with Neko Case. Which is understandable; it’s a probing and deeply sympathetic piece of work. It’s a song about privilege: about the invisible lines that divide the lives of otherwise similar people. Two girls ride the Blue Line and walk down the same street, but one of them leaves her sweater on the bus while the other loses three fingers at the cannery. But it’s important to avoid the trap of romanticizing oppression; losing those fingers does not impart any particular political wisdom. Those invisible lines are as arbitrary as they are vicious; the horror is not simply that some people are fated to live under the gun, but that their suffering is meaningless. The real conclusion, then, is that nobody has a privileged epistemic position on anything; each person is merely an idiosyncratic mess of random experiences and pointless prejudices; there is no such thing as “the people.” Obviously, the phrase is primarily a rhetorical device, but if this is true in a substantive sense, then popular consensus is a phantom, and the concept of democracy loses its meaning. Putting things to a popular vote does not result in a consensus opinion, it results in an arbitrary decision chaotically determined by a writhing mass of misinformation and prejudices. It’s literally worse than nothing.

I may be a conceited motherfucker, but I’m not quite arrogant enough to pretend like I have a real answer here. But there’s a line from “People Have the Power” that struck me: the idea that remaking society involves “redeeming the work of fools.” This conception of the ruling class as “fools” cuts against the usual narrative, whereby rulers are hypercompetent master-planners whose problem is that they’re “corrupt.” In fact, rulers are mostly just a particular type of nerd, ambitious but otherwise boring, and for the most part they really do think they’re making the world a better place. The catch is that being embedded in systems of power has a severe distorting effect; what looks good from the inside tends to look pretty fucked up from anywhere else. Their foolishness lies in their inability to understand their own perspectives as limited. Meanwhile, the myth of “the people” is that true goodness lies in the decency of reg’lar folk with no particular hopes or dreams. In fact, the opposite is true: ignorance and myopia are not conducive towards morality; the people we respect from history are the ones who went against the common sentiments of their times.

I really hate to say this, but rich fucks are people, too. They aren’t actually a different species; they are vicious lizards, but so are the rest of us. The structures of oppression were not created by anything outside of humanity; we did it all by ourselves. They’re in our blood. Specifically, oppression is naturally occurring, it’s how people organize themselves by default. Most people will vote in favor of a society that doesn’t work for most people. Fixing this is not as easy as getting rid of the bad influences and going back to the good old days when everything was fine. There were never any good old days; justice is an undiscovered country. A just society will be something new, something that we have to invent, and then build, using the tools we have available right now.

Which brings us to the corresponding ideal of “redemption.” Despite its many, many crimes, our society has created a lot of things which are important to people. Things like amphitheaters where people can see music they care about and transportation systems that can take them there. It’s no good to aim for some kind of ideal revolution while ignoring what makes the world worthwhile in the first place. This is addressed in a couple of the new case/lang/veirs songs. “Down” points out that there’s beauty even in something as banal as driving down the highway. Indeed, there has to be: if the basic experience of day-to-day existence isn’t worth it, then nothing is worth anything; ideals can only exist as instantiated in mundane reality. But this does not license us to ignore the larger issues. “I Want To Be Here” addresses the bifurcation between the things we care about and the practical operation of society, asserting that the grind cannot quell the flame: “surely they can’t ruin everything.” This is true in general, but not in specifics: economics really does kill people; every day is the end of the world for someone. “Being here” may be what we’re truly aiming for, but if just being here were enough, we wouldn’t have to fight.

So the things we care about have to be preserved, but more than that, they have to be redeemed. A concert stage can also be used to distract people, to placate with cheap escapism, or to sell shit, and we really shouldn’t be allowing any of that to happen. But it’s not as easy as just doing the right thing, because we’re in a situation where things have already been organized incorrectly. The right motivations acting within the wrong structure can be just as harmful as explicit evil. We have to maintain the content of society while changing the structure to point in the direction of right things rather than wrong things.

Again, you tell me how this is actually going to work. There shouldn’t be anything impossible about synthesizing expertise and populism while eliminating the ruling class, but relying on “the people” isn’t going to get us there.

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.]

Shut up and carry on

I saw Metric last night, by which I mean just now, and I want to get some thoughts down while I’m still, you know, on fire.

I was mainly looking forward to “The Shade,” and it turned out to be way beyond anything I could have imagined. I mean, they played it straight, but for whatever reason the impact of it was totally unreal. I was seriously tensing up like my life was on the line. Emily Haines had a bit about how the “I want it all” part means the thing it clearly means and not the stupid thing that you’d have to be an idiot to think it means, which was obviously unnecessary, but that straightforwardness is part of why Metric is important. The fact that they’re all electronic-y now isn’t any kind of angle or maneuver, it’s just how they’re writing songs at this particular point in time. They did “Cascades,” for example, which is currently their most robotronic song, and they kind of played it up visually, but it wasn’t a “departure” in any way. This whole theme was established right away when they opened with “I.O.U.,” the first track off of their first (released) album. This wasn’t a throwback; they had the usual amount of weighting towards new stuff, though Haines threw in some a capella bits from “Hustle Rose” and “Combat Baby,” seemingly just for the hell of it. The point is that Metric has been fighting the same war all along. They’re one of the few bands around that feels definitively not lost, like there actually is a good future out there and they know what direction it’s in.

They did a group sing-along version of “Dreams So Real,” which actually worked. I mean, this is L.A., so at best half the people anywhere are going to be a bunch of blasé tourist assholes, but people were singing and I felt the ley lines of connection that really do exist beneath the filth-strewn surface of this garbage planet. And that’s the point: it’s a given right now that probably like 75% of the world is just dead gray nihilistic nonsense, so given that, what are you going to do about it? “Who wants to celebrate and who’s just fine to sit and wait?” Maybe this sounds easy, but it’s actually a problem for me. I’m a negative person, and while I consider my stance to be both valid and justified, that isn’t enough. If I actually hate banality more than I love the truth, then I’m a literal nihilist. I can’t allow that to be the case.

The big surprise was that they didn’t do “Stadium Love,” which is one of their big mission statement songs (they also gave up “Dead Disco,” so let it not be said that they aren’t moving forward). This is normally an extremely effective song; it’s powerful enough to completely destroy even a moderately large venue. But it was clear that the reason they didn’t do it was because they didn’t need to: that message was implicit in everything else they did. They’ve got an unbelievable range; they can build up the drama on “Artificial Nocturne,” tear it apart with “Too Bad, So Sad,” hold the tension in “Twilight Galaxy,” and bring it home with the now-traditional “campfire” version of “Gimme Sympathy.” They closed with “Breathing Underwater,” which was, as Haines pointed out, bittersweet, and as a result ultimately didn’t allow for cheap catharsis. Last time I saw them, on the tour for Synthetica, Haines said at the end of the show that she felt like the cowboy from The Big Lebowski. It’s certainly true right now that Metric abides, but given the current situation, it’s not really okay for us to merely take comfort in that fact. That’s why they’re giving it everything, and why they want us to feel the same.