This is Not a Show

by: T.M. Brown

August 9, 2013

 In 1985, Boyd Rice—noted experimental musician, provocateur, satanist, Gnostic historian, and general asshole—played a concert in The Hague, Netherlands under the name NON. Rice was interested in concert experiences as philosophical tests of free will so he played his droning tunes at an unbearably high volume and thus presenting audience members with the choice between enduring a show they paid for or escaping through the nearest exit and maybe tossing a beer bottle at Boyd on their way out. The Hague show had all of that, except this time Boyd decided to add a physical component to the already taxing sonic one: lights. He turned near-blinding spotlights on the audience and placed them on the other side of a sturdy barrier to prevent fans from smashing them; Royal Albert Hall meets Waco. But that’s not the best part, apparently Boyd:

…continued to be friendly to the audience, which made them even madder, because they were so mad and I didn’t care! They were shaking their fists at me, and I thought that at any minute there’d be a riot. So I took it as far as I thought I could, and then thanked them and left.

Boyd Rice WILD music
Boyd Rice

Musical brinksmanship isn’t terribly magnetic. Ozzy biting the head off a bat, Mayhem using blood and literal shit during their live acts, everything G.G. Allin did between 1989 and 1993—these aren’t meant to spur critical thought about comfort and indoctrination in audience members. It’s antagonism for its own sake, a grown-up gory version of the 12 year-old who wants to see how much he can get away with before he actually gets in trouble. I may cleave a little too close to the mainstream here, but there’s a bright line separating serious performance art of the Schneemann-Burden-Abramovich vein from their musical foils. Rice may have been attempting to skirt traditional notions about the rote nature of concerts by presenting something completely different but he’s nothing more than a  Puckish heel attempting to goad the audience to bald anger, rather than something potentially more complex.

I have to say that I was a little terrified when I bought a ticket to see Death Grips at Webster Hall this past week. I’d seen footage of their Coachella set in 2012, and I realized that their string of furiously steroidal (and excellent) releases sounded nothing like their live show: the guys on the album were anemic dweebs fucking around with a drum set and a keyboard; the guys onstage were musical monsters. I thought about buying earplugs or wearing clothes that I knew were going to be caked with overpriced beer and sweat. I figured I’d stay close to the back in case it just wasn’t my scene. I felt like I was going to something exceptionally out there and began to emotionally equip myself.

Then they didn’t show up for their slot at Lollapalooza. Then they didn’t show up to play their set at Chicago’s Bottom Lounge, a concert that was sort of an after party for festival-goers interested in juxtaposing the open azure dome of Grant Park with something slightly more gritty and visceral. Instead of the trio, there was a drum kit, some Death Grips playing over the PA system, and a screenshot of an apparent suicide note from a young fan. The audience started a minor riot after being told the group would be a no-show, and some enterprising youths made off with pieces of what they thought was Zach Hill’s drum set like they were fragments of the True Cross. (Death Grips later said the set was a the kind of drum kit you buy for your hyperactive nephew which makes it more like chipping a piece off the crucifix at a random megachurch.)

People figured the no-show was part of Death Grips typically cavalier attitude towards convention: they ditched a handful of domestic and international dates in 2012 to work on an album under the Epic umbrella and eventually gave the album away for free when they didn’t feel like waiting until 2013 for an official release date and decided to leak some sensitive emails from their label for good measure. Some people thought it was awesomely punk rock. A lot of people just thought they were dicks. Death Grips said they planned it that way the whole time.

Here’s the thing about what Death Grips did: it was a hell of a piece of performance art. Sure, it drives a hatchet through their fans by splitting them into people who ostensibly get some sort of sonic inside joke and those that are pissed about missing out on seeing an exceptional live act come close to stroking out on stage. But it shares a direct bloodline with the kind of performance art you’re more used to seeing in museums in that the combination of absence with ersatz musical experience (i.e. the PA blasting Death Grips tracks) is trying to breakdown expectations of what going to a show actually means to an audience member. Doing this during Lollapalooza—a festival that is basically patient zero for the quickly creeping corporatization of the summer circuit—only buttressed the message. Death Grips, no matter the following or musical merit, are just another name in a time slot and can be replaced with Shaun White’s middling band without much penalty.

But it isn’t simply a rehashing of well-mined performance art topics. As Pitchfork’s Grayson Currin laid out, this is an incarnation of delayed satisfaction in an era where people lose their shit over a video taking 25 seconds to buffer. Expectations have been injected with amphetamines in the last decade—“now” is the only time horizon that matters which means that delays of any length are simultaneously infuriating and fundamentally similar until they approach that magical absolute zero of being canceled. Once your expectations are completely snuffed out, you’re forced to think critically about what exactly this is all about: why is there a suicide note being projected? Why’d they put that drumkit onstage? Why the hell are they playing the album versions of songs we were expecting to hear live in a few minutes?

I know all of this should come with a huge, neon “Intentional Fallacy” disclaimer. Saying that Death Grips non-show was the continuation of traditional performance art could be completely off-base. It’s been suggested that the suicide note was symbolic of the band’s desire to call it quits and that the “fan’s” visceral and spiritual attachment to their music was an ironic take on what they think of their output so far. There’s also a chance that Death Grips were just acting selfishly, ditching a commitment because they would prefer not to perform like some Money Store Bartleby and then realizing there was an opportunity to clown on critics by growling “art” and sparking the sort of essays you’re reading right now. But all that is just hedging. Death Grips wanted to tell you something about the state of music by shattering expectations the only way they know how, putting on a hell of a show.

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