April 12th, 2011 | Live reviews

There are exactly two categories of people that can’t enjoy a MEN show. You might think these categories have something to do with political leanings, or sexual orientation. They don’t. It’s not hard to imagine Kathy Griffin, Willow Palin, and all of the members of a large delegation of international Olympic ski teams spontaneously group-hugging during a rendition of “Who Am I to Feel So Free.” There’s a rare inclusiveness and positivity to what this band does that shatters all kinds of barriers, and I’ll go into that in a bit. But for now, know that the only folks who can’t enjoy a MEN show are: 1.) sullen bastards and 2.) buried corpses.

I was joking with a friend earlier about calling this review “The show that unbroke my hooha.” I’m front-loading that sentence in the hopes that my parents will stop reading now. The thing is, though, they’re still reading. Still reading. This too. Yup. They’re not going to click to the other open browser tabs (respectively: Imus Ranch, Ravelry, CourtTV, Jerusalem Post, and me and my brother’s Facebook pages). The good news is that they lived through the 60s and 70s. They’ve got weirder stories than all of us combined. They do. (You do, guys).

Let’s talk for a second, reader, about reader experience. In classes I kind of remember from four years of liberal arts chutes & ladders (idea for next article: FOUR YEARS? How is that even allowed?) , there seemed to be two camps regarding the practice of creating things with the audience’s response in mind. Camp one, mostly aging poets who exoticized the shit out of anything “ethnic” and kept leaving their spouses for each other in sad avalanches of adultery that they seemed to think were being deferentially narrated by Updike, insisted that as writers we’re not responsible for the audience’s response or for the ignorance with which our work would doubtlessly be met. Don’t create for ‘them,’ they insisted. Write into the ether. This approach put me off because of the barf-worthy presumptuousness and pathetic condescension inherent in an ideology that flips off its imaginary audience. FURTHERmore, it’s problematic to assume that it’s even possible to write without an audience in mind. For some reason, in my head this impossibility boils down to a neurotic application of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principal—observing something changes it, and it’s futile, unless we’re mentally ill or deliberately hiding, to turn off our own awareness of that dynamic. I’m aware right now of a few specific folks who are courageously slogging through this article because they know that it’s going somewhere (Hi!). I’m aware, as I type this, of the sorts of kids I hope will stumble on this article (It gets better! By ‘it,’ I mean ostensible heterosexuality tempered by constant frustration at the existence of gender!). I’m aware of my  parents, who, by the time you read this, have already emailed my brother to figure out what the hell I meant in that last parenthetical.
We can’t void the existence of audiences from any experience of creation, and if we try to, if we even want to, I can’t imagine why we would even choose to create anything.  We’re accountable for the electricity, the weird invisible dialogue that our creations generate. If we laugh off that accountability, then at best we’re just jerking off the alphabet, and at worst we’re stitching together havoc-wreaking Frankenstein monsters and shoving them off the patio. Art [and etc.] that isn’t to some extent reverent regarding its audience reeks of its own pointless smarm. Those who claim to create in a vacuum end up sounding, more often than not, like incoherent dicks. If the primary discussion that your creation prompts is whether or not it has a point, then you’ve failed.

The second camp, in regard to audience-reaction, was more of a lazy militia. Their stance held that art—and everything – is political, politicized, part of an economy of power [Okay, yes–] that doesn’t need to be understood [No! Willful ignorance bad!]  in order to be deafeningly addressed with sloppy, hollow-eyed earnestness. Someone livid after skimming a blurb about freeing Mumia might, for instance, sculpt tears out of food-garbage and plaster them to the student union bus stop. Attending college in the 90s meant that yes, you’ve seen modern dancers on stage holding flour-sack babies dressed in military uniforms, you’ve heard suburban white girls rapping about their ‘refugee roots,’ and you knew at least six kids who went to protests because they had a crush on a loud attractive person. In this approach, the act of creation is fraught with guilt-inducing privilege. College activism intended to give a voice to the disenfranchised and oppressed, and sometimes it did—some of that shit made the news, and some of that news educated its viewers. Frequently, though, activism provided a platform and a tricked-out megaphone to oblivious shitheads who loved to hear themselves talk. Their intentions were often more or less altruistic, but 90% of the time, points were lost to reverse-jingoism, infuriating didactics, and sound bites fished out of always-replenishing pools of ideological sludge. Causes drooped over causes like soggy pancakes. I remember a World Bank protest that became a perplexing, awkward rally for pot legalization. I still think about the staggering misinformation sputtered forth from both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian debate, spearheaded, inevitably, by twitchy ex-Catholic kids from Vermont who’d never met a Palestinian—or an Israeli— or an Arab—or a Jew.

At this point you might be wondering if this is a music review. Yes. I mean, sure. .

I’m not in the habit of rolling my eyes at art or music or writing that’s overtly political. I’m a broken-record adherent to Williams’ claim that “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” However. I am in the habit of mentally punch-kicking art or music or writing that’s completely humorless, because it’s usually a huge red flag portending a horrifying lack of self-awareness. I worry about the willful delusion that we can consume dreck ‘ironically’ without absorbing some of its superficiality. I’m anxious about the amount of art that co-opts, dilutes, and markets the messages of sincere, effective activism in order to market it to teens whose frontal lobes are still forming. And in a general sense, I’m annoyed by this kind of crap. [The latter generates anger without offering solutions. It’s like a lone transient in a barren Disneyland parking lot screaming “Get offa my lawn!”, and being cheered on by tiny mobs of confused spiders.] In any case. It’s rare to come across work in any medium that avoids the pitfalls that are inherent to that medium. That’s an unsexy way of saying that this show was a remarkable one, for reasons I’m still parsing, and clearly still getting to—just—hold on a second. Okay. Here we are.

MEN—Brooklyn-based, helmed by Le Tigre’s JD Samson, along with Michael O’Neill and Tami Hart– avoid a lot of problematic aspects common in two of the genres they fuse—dance music and (for lack of a better term) art theory. I hesitate to call it queer theory, even though questions regarding gender and sexuality are two elements that are inextricable from MEN’s work. But I’m guessing that generally queer theory is understood as a field limited to queer experience, when in truth it includes and explores the whole of human experience, because it has to. It’s maximalist. If queer theory was a dinner party, everyone on earth would be invited, not just LGBTQ people, people who make homophobic jokes, people who laugh at those jokes, people who tell the same jokes ‘ironically,’ and people who laugh at those same jokes… ‘ironically.’ Point is, art theory is often dry and inadequate, and MEN is not. Dance music is often empty and creepy, and MEN is not. The reason that electroclash seems like a vapid mess in retrospect is because of bands like this.

Trying to describe their sound—relentless, ecstatic, thoughtful pop—really does feel like that old saw about ‘dancing about architecture.’ The music itself isn’t revolutionary; it’s the way it unites cerebral lyrics with conversational ones, and belts them out over a beat with an ass that just won’t quit. The result is, in my (admittedly limited) experience, totally unique, and more or less transcendent. A lot of music speaks to both brainy and physical sensibilities, but this does so over an amplifier made of nerve centers pulled from your own body. The recordings are great, but it doesn’t have the same effect—this music is meant to be received from the strobe-lit band itself. Like all good rock, it’s about getting swept up in something frenetic and sweltering and joyful. Which brings me to that aforementioned crucial moment, with the thing about the hooha.

About two years ago, there was a guy, and an embarrassingly “It’s complicated! Shruuuug!” sort of relationship, and a lie that he told. It’s an old story—two people are involved in some way, and then, oh wait, oops, there’s actually another girl—maybe a few cities away—who was also lied to by him, without apology. In short, I was involved with someone, but my consent wasn’t earned, it was siphoned—and as a result, the most banal moments of affection that we shared took on a completely sinister pallor. It didn’t help that he radiated all the signifiers of a really nice, normal nerd. The deception threw me off in a big way. If a lie is impossible to differentiate from the truth, if a fake emotion is indistinguishable from a real one, what’s the point of trying to connect, or to trust anyone? I got duped, one stupid time, and my understanding of intimacy mutated. The thought of touching disgusted me. The evolution toward Crazy Cat Lady began, and I went with it for the better part of two years (sans cats, sadly). In the meantime, my married friends continued to like the people they married, my single friends continued to wook pa nub in all the wrong places, and my “It’s complicated!” friends continued to further complicate their complications by leaving breadcrumb trails of their crazy sex lives on Facebook. Every one of these approaches baffled me. How do people trust each other? How is this fun? Why does anyone bother? My parents (Hi, guys!) encouraged me to stop dressing like a homeless person, get some fresh air, and meet someone decent. My friend (thanks, Max!) helpfully pointed out that some dumb guy had ostensibly warped my copy of the James Brown record that resides within us all, but that it wasn’t useful or sensible to subsequently opt out of courtship, and the occasional sex that sometimes results. “It just seems really gross,” I explained. “Exactly,” he replied, not without reverence for said grossness. “It’s like Gak!” This did not help. I mean, it helped in that it jolted me out of my own tunnel vision—the groundwork for evolution was suddenly there, but a link was missing.

It arrived in the form of a song, which I’ll post here, but trust me, trust me—you really need to see it live. I heard it for the first time on Saturday night. I’d waded into the dancing crowd in front of the stage to get a better picture of the band (for this article—ha.) “We’re going to try to live again” was the line that caught my ear. Had somebody sort of died? I wanted to figure out what the song was about, in case it could offer any insights into what resurrection entailed. It sounded like useful information. As my brain fed the lyrics into its clown mouth, I moved closer to the monitors. Pulled into a bouncing whirlpool of the happiest campers I’d ever seen, I let go, and the music hit me like an anvil made of lasers. Was the energy palpable? I don’t know, but the people were—literally. Everyone moved like kids on a playground, arms flew up to clap out choruses—we were a tilt-a-whirl made of humans, powered by the band’s kinetic energy. The physical experience of the show was a vibrant and powerful one, but the only reason it worked is because it hooked its talons into my brain first—MEN lyrics raise questions, and the questions don’t let up—they carry your brain to the end of the song, as the music carries your body. And there it was. I felt in love with being a human among other humans. I remembered, for the first time in two years, the warmth of people, the point of closeness, the reason we bother.  I walked out of there feeling like I’d just been healed in a revival tent. I was worried that the feeling would subside, but it hasn’t. “Only connect”—Forster said it was the point of everything, and it seems that MEN is buoyed by the same message, in spite and because of the political realm the band occupies. By which I mean, I think, the universe.

—Amalia Levari