I Got Earplugs for Valentine's Day:
Notes from a No Fun Fest Girlfriend, Part I

(Part One) (Part Two)

Disclaimer: If you're looking for the informed opinions of a noise expert,
you're reading the wrong article. I hardly know anything about noise music. But
don't worry! That's the point of this article. I'm the girlfriend of a dude who
loves noise, and this article is my attempt to sum up some of the thoughts,
opinions, reactions, and half-assed theories I've been forming in response to
the stuff I've heard and seen since he started taking me to shows with him. This
installment, Part I, is a general analysis of the slow, shy and blushing, and
not-always-amiable beginnings of my relationship with noise, and I'll be
following it up with a Part II next week, after the BF and I ride the shuttle
bus to Red Hook for No Fun Fest (that's what the V-Day earplugs were for, of
course). So enjoy, and come back and read Part II next week to see if I make it
though three days of No Fun alive.

Last
night, I was at an Indian restaurant uptown, trying to remember whether I liked
Kingfisher beer better than Taj Mahal or Taj Mahal better than Kingfisher, when
an older couple at the next table caught my attention. They had finished eating
and were getting ready to leave, and as the woman put on a pair of big, furry
earmuffs, she said to her husband, completely exasperated, "This music is enough
to drive you out! I mean, I guess it's good if you're meditating
or something. Is this just... one very long song?"

I made a face at my friend across the table and tried to stifle a laugh. The
offending music – the sort of chill, quiet sitar music they play at every Indian
restaurant – was so calming, so soft, so utterly inoffensive, that it was funny
to hear someone object to it with such passion.

But even though I disagreed with her opinion on the sitar song, and even though
I rolled my eyes at her mean and closed-minded attitude toward the music, I have
to admit that, to some extent, I understood where the earmuffed woman was coming
from: it's hard to respond to music when it doesn't do what we expect it to do.
For this woman, and for a lot of people, music means lyrics, melody, familiar
instruments, verse-chorus-verse structure, a beginning and an end in the space
of three or four minutes. Music means something fast and giddy to dance around
to, or a sad love song that reminds you of someone, or something epic and
emotional to sing along with while you wash the dishes.

That's what music used to mean to me. In fact, before I started listening to
noise music, I didn't bother to ask myself such serious questions as what
does music mean to me? because my relationship with music was organic and
easy and didn't seem to demand questioning. Music was what got stuck in my head,
what I sang in the shower and bounced around to at the bus stop. Sure, I'd read
John Cage essays in college, and I was aware of a very different definition of
music, a definition that was much more interested in problematizing the term and
challenging its boundaries than in bouncing around at any bus stops. But I never
actually heard a Cage composition, or any songs markedly and stubbornly
different enough to make me feel the need to reevaluate my definition of music.
That is, not until I met this boy.

He was actually too shy to ask for my number, but he did have the balls to ask
what time my radio show was. A few days later, about halfway through a Belle and
Sebastian song, he called the station and said, "Hi... I, um, I really like your
show." Adorable? Yes. Honest? No, not exactly.

It took me a few weeks to completely come to understand how little this guy
cared about Belle and Sebastian, or any of the music I listened to. At first, I
figured he was just posturing, just trying to like obscure and difficult-to-like
shit because it gave him radio station cred. My second theory was more creative:
he did genuinely like this music, but only because his heart was cold and
black and made of aluminum, and he would never have any emotions at all unless I
made him listen to the Microphones a lot, and even that might not work.

And while I was busy trying to figure out how any reasonable person could
genuinely enjoy listening to music with no lyrics or pretty melodies, my
boyfriend did his best to provide an answer. First he tried simply explaining
why he liked his kind of music better, but this method only led to a great deal
of exasperation and to my calling him a lot of mean names ("doucheface music
snob" comes to mind). Fortunately, his second attempt at making a case for noise
was substantially more successful: he gave up on his long-winded doucheface
explanations and opted for the more direct tactic of picking me up after work
every night and dragging me to shows with him. Somehow, the long bike rides out
to the little bars in Jamaica Plain and Somerville and the weird (and
intriguing, and exciting, and sometimes ugly, and, yes, sometimes beautiful)
songs I heard at these places were able to persuade me in a way my boyfriend's
explanations never could. Noise made a surprisingly articulate argument for
itself, I discovered.

So, fine, I came to realize noise was something worthwhile, and I could finally
fathom liking it. That doesn't mean I actually liked it, though. I mean, I
sometimes did – I liked Double Leopards a lot, but Fat Worm of Error? Meh-
unimpressed. And then there was the Merzbow show, which was (surprise!) the
three most unpleasant hours of my life so far. I mean, it's fucking Merzbow, and
it's not like I didn't know what I was getting myself into when I bought the
ticket. And it's not like it was so horrible that I regret going (I like that I
know what a Merzbow show is like now). But I can't say I had fun at the
show.

One thing that really struck me about the Merzbow concert is that it didn't feel
like a concert. All of the things that mark a concert as a concert were absent
from the experience: there was no singing, no on-stage banter, no dancing, and
hardly any audience response at all. The familiar pattern of performer and
audience interaction I'm accustomed to seeing at a concert – they play a song
and we applaud, they play another, we applaud again – was suppressed by an
oppressive song that began but refused to end. The screeching noise (and I'm not
calling it a "screeching noise" to be mean or dismissive of the music; I'm just
trying to give an accurate description) started at 11:00 or so and didn't let up
until 2:00 AM. (Now, take this moment to close your eyes and imagine the old
woman from the Indian restaurant at a Merzbow show: "Is this just... one very
lon
g song?").

As I said, I'm not sorry I saw Merzbow. I definitely appreciated his music on
some level, but my enjoyment of his performance was qualitatively different than
the enjoyment I felt when I saw Beulah play the Bowery Ballroom (for example).
The response I had to Merzbow's music felt closer to the sort of response I tend
to have to art. I've always run with a weird, art school crowd, so I've seen a
fair amount of performance art, and I can more readily understand Merzbow if I
think of his work as performance art instead of music. My reaction to his
performance was closer the kind of reaction I have to art (performance art or
painting, whatever) – less visceral and more cerebral. I couldn't appreciate the
sounds immediately, because they weren't pretty or even very interesting to me
(and call me a pussy, but it was really fucking loud), but if I thought about
the sounds and what implications they might have in terms of defining music, or
defining performance, or what potential they have for creating an atmosphere of
intense tension, sure, that was interesting stuff to think about. But this was
not music I was going to go home humming or buy a t-shirt to remember (nevermind
a Merzbox). And if someone asked me how the show was the next day, I
wouldn't say, "Oh, it was fun."

Now that I've brought up the intersection of music and art, I'd like to digress
for a minute and fast-forward through my noise education to this January, when
my friend Andy took me to the
Dream
House
. Dream House is a sound installation by a musician named La
Monte Young. You go up these stairs and walk into a small room, and the room is
empty except for a set of speakers mounted near the ceiling that play sine
waves, a thick carpet, and some pillows on the floor to help facilitate the
rolling around and writhing about that goes so well with listening to
crisscrossing sine waves. As you writhe, or walk, or somersault through the
room, you pass through the intersecting sine waves, and the noises they make
distort and change dramatically, from high-pitched tones to deep rumbling
textures. I loved the Dream House – the noises are so pretty, and there's
nothing like doing a cartwheel and hearing the sine waves change really fast
while you're flying across the carpet.

In addition to the experience of the Dream House, I also appreciate the
concept of the Dream House: the Dream House presents noise
art as noise art and doesn't try to disguise it or package it as music.
Just as seitan tastes good as long as you don't think of it as beef, noise
sounds good as long as you don't think of it as music. At the Dream House,
the noise isn't presented like music; there's no stage, there's no beginning
and no end of the show, there's no ticket to buy, there's no performer, and no
audience standing and watching. The Dream House looks like an art
installation, not a concert, and it's easier for me to digest that way: I'm
expecting art, and I get noise art. It's a straightforward experience, unlike
Merzbow's unpleasant surprise (I'm expecting a concert, and I get... noise art).
Even though it's aural and not visual, and even though most people seem to have
no trouble calling it music, I have to say that noise feels much more like art
than like music to me. Now, I don't mean to make the claim that it's not
music – I've read enough art theory to know that saying noise isn't music is
just about as pointless as saying Duchamp's urinal wasn't art – but I'm just
saying, I imagine some noise might seem more at home in a gallery than in a
nightclub.

But let's get back to the nightclub, and go back to the night I saw Merzbow. Two
things surprised me about my response to Merzbow: One, I didn't want to leave.
Two hours into the three-hour screech, my boyfriend, kind (and wussy?) soul that
he is, said, "I'm not really that into this anymore, do you want to go home?"
And I was surprised to realize that I didn't want to go home. I wanted to
stay until the end – I wanted to see how such a dramatic performance would end,
I wanted to see how Merzbow would break his weird spell, how he would dissolve
the situation of tension and undivided attention he'd created. So even if I
didn't enjoy the music directly and immediately, fine; I did find it interesting
and impressive on some level. Merzbow: 1, Rice Dream: 0.

The other thing that surprised me about seeing Merzbow is that I was really
cranky when we got home from the concert. I was angry, I realized, at Merzbow,
for making me sit through an oppressive three hours of loud, unpleasant, and
boring sounds, and somehow making me feel compelled to stay until the bitter end
to hear the screeching stop. Fucking Merzbow, dude. I had a ridiculous but
powerful impulse to seek revenge by somehow coordinating a situation in which
Merzbow would be forced to listen to something he'd find unpleasant
(All-Girl Summer Fun Band?) for three hours. I was surprised that I had such an
emotional reaction to the experience – I don't usually have emotional reactions
to art. I don't cry at movies, and I've walked through enough "shocking" gallery
exhibits and sat through enough "disturbing" independent films so that that kind
of stuff doesn't really faze me anymore.

Finally, one more Merzbow show fun fact: I noticed I was one of maybe six or
seven women in the audience. And even at some of the "prettier" noise music
shows I went to, the girls I saw there were always accompanied by boys (who may
or may not have dragged them there), and the boys still outnumbered the girls
dramatically.

So, the question presents itself: why do boys like noise? There are a few
possible answers to this. First of all, it seems that boys tend to be more "into
music" than girls in general, but I never totally understood the reasons for
this. Like, if you look at who's writing music criticism and stuff, it's almost
always guys. Even Tiny Mix Tapes, which is somewhat lady-heavy for a music site,
only has a roughly 6:1 boy: girl ratio going: women are hardly the majority
here. But I don't even want to try to figure out why boys are generally more
into music than girls, because I'd probably have to trace this back to cavemen
days and drag Freud into things, and it would start to get messy.

So, granted, boys tend to be more "into music" than girls, but the boys are
going to outnumber the girls way more steeply at a Merzbow show than at, say, a
Shins show. In a

Flagpole magazine review of a Hair Police album
, Emerson Dameron
posits that "noise is the new dude rock," because it's (secretly) stadium rock
distilled down to its screaming and wailing essence: song structure is stripped
away to reveal "the rage and the catharsis and the defiance and the freakouts"
that lie at the core of frat rock. Although I've never really had much of a
visceral response to noise music (as I explained, I tend to experience or enjoy
noise in a more removed, cerebral way), a lot of the noise dudes I've talked to
describe a certain cathartic visceral reaction as one of the reasons they like
noise.

Along with the pleasure of catharsis, another typically boy-friendly attribute
noise music has to offer is the opportunity to demonstrate a certain toughness.
Now, I'm not saying guys only listen to noise music so people will think they're
tough and manly (ha ha), but I can't rule out the macho-points incentive as one
of the various subconscious factors that draws more men than women as noise
fans. Just as some guys take pride in being able to withstand exhausting
football practices and extra Tabasco sauce, it's possible that noise guys take a
certain pride in being able to tolerate really harsh or grating or simply very
loud sounds. There's a certain online message board for noise-tards that my
boyfriend likes to read when he's supposed to be doing homework, and there's a
whole thread on it about tinnitus. Who here has tinnitus? What show did you get
your tinnitus at? I think I got mine from Lightning Bolt! I was 14 inches away
from the ride cymbal, at most! These dudes are basically bragging about their
tinnitus, and I'd be lying if I said my boyfriend wasn't one of them. Now, sure,
there's probably some girl out there who's also weirdly proud of her
noise-music-related hearing loss, but nonetheless, this sort of bragging has an
undeniably macho quality to it: aaargh, look what I can tolerate!

It's funny how clearly and literally masculine/feminine stereotypes carry over
into music. My choice of All-Girl Summer Fun Band as the music most likely to
make Merzbow miserable was not entirely random. In my mind, he's basically the
antithesis of AGSFB, and in fact, it wouldn't be so off base to describe his
music as a No-Girl Winter Death Screech. There's something essentially masculine
about noise: it's tough, harsh, ugly – indeed closer to "Death" than "Fun." It
definitely falls on the masculine/winter/death side (as opposed to the
feminine/summer/fun side) of the stereotypical boy music/stereotypical girl
music spectrum.

So, the question becomes: is the stereotype true? Do girls "just want to have
fun"? That is, is "fun" what girls look for in music? If so, count me on Cyndi's
team. "Fun" may sound too easy or shallow, but I don't think it's such a bad
thing to seek out. Before I met this guy and started listening to this crap, I
was perfectly satisfied with choosing to listen to music that sounded good,
stuff with pretty melodies and clever lyrics, rap songs with good beats, indie
pop with catchy, fast choruses. I haven't dramatically repudiated all that or
anything – I still love that shit, and it still makes up the majority of what I
listen to, and I still think that listening to music because it sounds good, or
nice, or pretty, or catchy is a perfectly reasonable and respectable thing to
do. I guess the only difference is that now I understand that listening to music
because it sounds awful, or challenging, or ugly, or impossible is also a
perfectly reasonable and respectable thing to do. So why do more boys than girls
tend to bite the bullet and buy the earplugs and venture out on that noisy limb
to hear the difficult/ugly stuff? I don't really know. All I know is that I'm a
pretty big fan of the name No Fun Fest. Because at the same time that it's
flippantly nihilistic and sarcastic, it also succinctly and bluntly states a
fundamental truth about noise: it is no fun. But, as I've finally learned,
that's not a bad thing. And just because I can't say the show I saw last night
was fun doesn't necessarily mean I didn't have a good time.

But then again, just because I can't say I'm having fun doesn't necessarily mean
I am having a good time, and that's why No Fun Fest is pretty much
guaranteed to be an interesting three days. I'll see the bands, confer with the
other No Fun Fest girlfriends, and get back to you next week.

(Part One)
(Part Two)

  

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