The New Scenesters
After a more than a decade of hijinks on the ecstasy fueled PLUR tip - Peace Love Unity and Rave- backed by the ubiquitous phrases "It's all good" and "Right on," change is inevitable in the underground. Maybe we didn't see the backlash coming but I think it's here. Forget about slick DJs, stylish music, good vibes, being smooth, looking fine, designer drugs and dancing all night long, that's tired, played out, over, done.
Let's get our bearings, pop-culture-wise: we're living in perpetual wartime, enduring a prolonged economic downturn, in a post-Jackass and post-Fight Club world. A band in Florida, "Hell on Earth" grabbed national headlines by planning a live suicide at a gig.
So what the heck is going on?
After hours in a dark warehouse, a crowd has gathered. There's a performance artist onstage doing their utmost to get the audience to leave the venue. There's a DJ playing Faith Hill's rendition of the National Anthem from the Super Bowl from their laptop, football announcer voices intact. The light show artist puts on a full screen image of the Statue of Liberty backed by the Stars and Stripes, people are laughing and booing, leading a mock chant of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" The next DJ badly scratches through unwanted records found in the free box at the thrift store. Another specializes in used records from the 25 cents pile at the junk shop; ones with the most scratches are among the most sought after. Another group of noise artists wearing earplugs launches tides of feedback and glitched out laptop frenzy at the audience. One DJ- knowing their audience all too well- bothers to neatly beatmatch some house music records; people boo, heckle and empty the room. The show ambles along, with two performers an hour on the main stage. Sometimes it's more vaudeville than rave, like a talent show gone bad; a comedy troupe has a crowd going with a skit about opening up a 'Rape Factory' in the neighborhood and leads into a vulgar improv bit about an unmarried anal-retentive pregnant Mormon woman in labor. A side area blasts a loop of Kenny G's version of 'Amazing Grace' through blown speakers for hours on end; the light show is a screen saver animation that says 'Your Text Goes Here.' The performers bicker about who did a better job of emptying the main room out; by most accounts the winner had the room down to zero people- and even left for a bit themselves while they were still playing- to score negative zero, which could be tied and not beaten. For the most part however, a deep irony takes over; no matter how hard the performers push to offend, someone is gleefully taking it in, perma-grin on their face.
The crowd itself is inebriated, raucous, edgy, freaky, crazy. The event appears to be consistent with the basic principles of 'Fuckoism,' and is discussed in those terms by guests in-the-know. The promoter is only serving Coors Light from a keg with small styrofoam cups. Lots of people are on the same page and brought their own: garish wine coolers and their ilk are among the most popular beverages. People are smashing chairs on the dance floor and no one is dancing. Except for the crazy guy who's making people laugh or feel nervous. I feel like I should have worn a helmet. At one point someone grabs my just-filled beer and pours it down my shirt; I take it off and wring it out, beer all over the floor. Someone wanders by naked. Someone else is blaring a badly out-of-tune trumpet like its a sporting event; someone else has a bullhorn. People are hooting and hollering and screaming, dashing madly about. People brought squirt guns. Some are in lurid costumes or deliberately ill-fitting clothes. Badly painted signs for the event include various put downs, sick jokes, poorly executed doodles and so on; one image- painted boldly in dayglo with captions- is of a puckered sphincter defecating. The crowd spends a lot of its time milling around outside the show, clogging the hallways or standing in the parking lot.
Unexpectedly, the whole event has a crazed sexiness to it; grabbing someone's ass seems appropriate; getting right up in someone's face or bumping into them part of the event. There's palpable sexual tension in the air. I get caught up in the vibe and start leering at people. I openly hit on one friend's girlfriend, then another. There's an overall sense of debauchery I'm not used to and it's a big turn on. The 'anything goes' vibe breaks down inhibitions. What are the rules? Are there any?
Turns out there's a quickly evolving scene of antimusic dedicated solely towards being sonically offensive, unpleasant, harsh, distorted, shrill and unbearable. The big putdown in these circles being 'That sounds like music,' which would mean it has measurable pitches and rhythmic intervals. One major protagonist is cultural engineer and multimedia artist Madame Chao, of Brooklyn, NY who helps organize Noise Kombat Battles on both coasts. Performers go head to head in front of jeering crowds, alternating in one minute sonic bursts, which are then scored by crowd reaction and match officials. What attracts artists and an audience to a Noise event, where the performers are trying to assault the audience with the most gruesome noises they can generate? Electronic musician Mutex, who performs at some of these events, explains:
"It's about cutting edge media saturation and a degree of amplified
personal commentary. Ever listen to an old distorted out rock recording
and feel like, "Damn, they saturated the magnetic tape all the way!"
We're doing it digitally now with a variety of software and hardware
tools. The best noise tracks aren't just spectacle, they're loaded with
inside jokes giving props to other noise artists or friends and they are
loaded with political commentary or perhaps elements of pop culture. I
spin and produce dancefloor house and techno but the noise battles
provide an incredibly free format for exploring less structured audio.
For this last noise battle I stayed up for a day and a half to prepare
two one-minute long tracks containing 107 samples. That is a ton of
audio in a small package."
Peter the Squeegee, an Oakland impressario, hosts an event called "Annoyance" in a cavernous warehouse space. The event is billed as a whole night of 'nails on a chalkboard' and attracts over a hundred paying guests. Flyers for the event are made by parasitically putting stickers over other promoters' rave flyers; a juxtaposition of slick mega-massive goodtimes hyperbole underneath and harsh, stark ugliness stuck on top. What is the allure of such a gig? Peter explains: "It's different, and it taps into something fundamental. People have lived through the rave scene. A lot of them know about punk rock. They're looking for something new yet distinctly comforting. That's what electroclash was about. But it had no substance so it couldn't survive. This might be equally empty but at least here, in the now, it feels like it's something. Everyone feels annoyance, I walk down a street and hear people either using the word or expressing the tone. How could you not relate on some level? I guarantee that people walked out of that party feeling like something happened to them."
There's definitely roots in all of this- aggressive assaults have been part of many scenes over the past decades- including punk rock, the industrial scene, performance art, heavy metal and so on. There's a new synergy gelling, and I'm reminded of Survival Research Lab's shows, GWAR concerts, seeing the Dead Kennedys live back in the 80s, seeing jars of aborted baby fetuses in an art gallery, or seeing a performance artist jump off the roof of a gallery nude with weights attached to his testicles years ago. There's also a very modern subtext; the crowd and performers intermingle online days before and after the show with social software sites like hatester.org, tribe.net and the venerable friendster.
Back to the pre-dawn hours in the warehouse. It's a classic happening, there's definitely a buzz going on. I've never had so much Coors Light in my life. Some people leave the event abruptly in disgust; some pass out in the corner. Some of the organizers clean up the debris, while others are concerned about taking things too far. How far will this scene evolve? People seem to back off the edge of doing permanent physical damage to each other or the venue- something that seems all too possible as the night unwinds. People are already planning a followup event called "Asshole" and debating about what should be planned; someone suggests getting a bunch of shopping carts, another wants to get a bunch of car alarms. I think I might go shopping for a secondhand helmet and some earplugs.