Tuesday, December 18, 2007

God(less), What an Awful Racket

A frigid mid-November night in a Hamburg hostel with an empty wallet doesn’t offer many options in terms of entertainment. Either you try to chat up the Ukrainian cutie working the front desk, or, like me, you’re content channel-surfing on the tiny 8” TV chained to the wall above your bed. Luckily, a cultural news magazine had a segment about the somehow-still-nascent-yet-spreading Noise scene. There were a number of new faces (mostly Frenchmen with horrid haircuts) in addition to the usual cast of “marquee” Noise acts like Hair Police, Magic Is Kuntmaster, and Whitehouse. A larff though it was to see such sonic miscreants on prime-time TV, one thing Whitehouse mayor domo William Bennett said stuck out. I’m paraphrasing from memory:
“The way the audience reacts – they seem to be drawing things out of the music that we weren’t aware of. It says more about them than it does about us.”
So that’s where I was.

Meanwhile, I’d recently revisited Ian Svenonius’ brilliant book of screwball sociologly, The Psychic Soviet. Quite probably my favourite essay, “Rock and Rolligion,” deals literally with the parallels between major faiths and popular music. It’s not simply that each is an intricate (if often illogical) weave of rituals & values; the analogy is so immaculate that you can match Christian sects to respective rock subgenres. For starters, those greasy-pompadour’d rockabilly throwbacks are the Amish: history stopped at a certain point. Arena rock, with its emphasis on pomp & circumstance, is Roman Catholicism, while indie rock, with its semi-ascetic, guilt-driven work ethic, is 7th Day Adventism. The schismatic birth of Punk was equivalent to the Protestant reformation, and touring is doing missionary work. Similarly, hip-hop is Islam, with all of its competing constituent sects.

So that’s where my head was.

Now, the thing about Noise is that its tech-heavy cacophony is sufficiently abstract that, if you enjoy such sounds, you could feasibly be so entertained by traffic, wind, industrial plants, passing trains, the hiss of an untuned radio or TV. Some ham onstage with a table full of modded electronics is superfluous: raw sound becomes its own Art. There needn’t be a conscious creator pulling the strings. So a thought occurred to me…

Noise is the Atheism of Rock ‘n’ Rolligion.

Atheism is a rejection of many things – heirarchy, superstition – but foremost, it’s a rejection of a dogmatic interpretation of reality. Sense, perception, and experience can be judged subjectively, on their own merits without heeding an arbitrary set of criteria. Life can be glumly mechanical or viscerally poetic; a stoic procession according to scientific rationale, or an absurdly serendipitous success of a chemical cocktail. To squeeze the last sap from an overtapped cliché, beauty – or indeed its absence – is in the eye of the beholder.

All of which can also be said of Noise. Once the need for a conscious creator is rejected, then so too are tautological claims of truth or beauty. Dogmatic adherence to heirarchy & ceremony becomes delusional bufoonery. Sensory experience requires no mystical context to be enjoyed – so get to enjoyin’ it, ‘cuz what you see is all you’re gonna get.

Of course, some of the rituals and behaviours of the faithful are adopted by the faithless, but this is out of pragmatic deference to what is “socially acceptable.” A Noise concert, for example, would be like an Atheist celebrating Christmas: a decent excuse to get dressed up and congregate with those nearest & dearest to you (though this is sometimes more a chore than a pleasure).

This isn’t to say that there is no merit in the words or works of the faithful. There was a lot of wisdom in what both Jesus and Anton Newcombe have said, though I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, nor would I want to pattern my life precisely after theirs. Similarly, I appreciate the majestic contruction & meticulous design of both the National Cathedral and Pet Sounds, but neither betrays any more universal truth or higher aesthetic pleasure than, say, the spectrum-spanning eyefuck of Shibuya crossing or the whisper of falling snow.

But if nothing else, one parallel is unequivocal: Noise is as baffling to pop fans as Atheism is to the faithful. Always smacked with the same, stodgy old dismissal: What “art?” What “beliefs?” Isn’t the point that they don’t have any? Well, as the man said… if you have to ask, you’ll never know.

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