Daegan Miller

Distortion is the Sound of Life Uncontained


ISSUE 53 | NOISE | JUN 2015

The video starts with a grungy black Chuck Taylor, tapping.

The scene is a high-school gym, shot in nostalgic sepia tones.

Kids sit on bleachers.

There are cheerleaders.

Right beneath the basketball hoop—the ceremonial place of honor reserved for popular athletes and business-suited local dignitaries—wobbles a dingy trio.

A few menacing, slightly distorted power chords kerrang from an as-yet unseen guitar.

The song is slower than it feels like it ought to be. It’s a deliberate slouch—and that’s part of its pleasure: the singularity of the real.

You wait for something to happen, and it does. The drummer, all hair and arms and shins, beats out a savage pounding rhythm—snare-kick, snare-kick, snare-kick, snare-kick—while the high-school cheerleaders robotically pump and twirl their pom-poms in perfect mechanical time.

Then comes the roar.

* * *

Punk rock saved my life—not truly, I suppose, but honestly. It came along at a decisive moment when I felt desperate, like I had been waiting for something to happen for what seemed like a really long time. And then suddenly it did. On a sunny, warm spring day in 1994, when I was in eighth grade, I found a mix tape lying in the grass at a track meet. It was intriguingly labeled “Sex Pistols.”

* * *

In late 2006 I reluctantly discovered Youtube, and, when I was burned out from the PhD program in history that I had just started, I would click my way to the music videos that I had missed as a teen. Because I had grown up in the country—cable didn’t come up our road—and I wasn’t raised on MTV, all those iconic music videos, The Offspring’s “Self Esteem,” or Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” or Rage Against the Machine’s “Bulls on Parade,” those videos that taught my peers vibrating to alternative culture how to scowl, dress, and cut their hair, all of this was a fresh discovery for a twenty-six-year-old me.

But even we country kids couldn’t miss the digital revolution, and I did get to witness the explosion of the Internet: that fall day in 1995 when my family got a computer and we all logged on for the first, fateful time. I remember the initial euphoria surrounding e-mail (no more stamps! It’s easy! And instant!) and instant messenger, (it’s more instant than e-mail! Easier, too!) cell phones (no more hassling with pay phones! instantly!) and, later iPods (eons of music easily available at your fingertips! instantly!), Facebook (stay in touch easily! instantly!), eBooks (no more cumbersome real books! Get instant access to thousand of titles, easily!), on and on, a seemingly endless digitization and commodification of everything from writing to friendship all flying under the banner of a revolutionary silicon instant. Information wants to be free. Just like us.

* * *

Nirvana was not a punk band, and they scared me with their songs. Songs with titles like “Rape Me,” songs with lyrics that seemed like the very bleakness punk promised to dispel. Nirvana was dangerous. Not adventuresome dangerous, or vivacious dangerous, but deadly dangerous, the danger of a gray nihilism. Their big song, the song of the 1990s. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a song you could not avoid because it blanketed the radio waves, the school halls, the back of the bus. You couldn’t miss the way that butchered power chords thundered their shaky way out of every room where a kid sat with a guitar, hoping. You couldn’t even miss it when you stepped out of the shower: Teen Spirit was one of the most popular deodorants in the early nineties, and I loved it.

* * *

The volume is loud. Really, really loud, dirty-looks-from-your-neighbor-loud, loud enough to hear it, unmistakably.

With the music like this, the on-screen action is perfectly choreographed: measured shots of leaping verticality from a horizontally moving camera: piston-like cheerleaders’ arms, the jackhammering drummer’s head, the flailing guitarist. Everyone—bass, drums, guitar—is playing the same rhythm, pounding it out as hard as they can, as if every instrument is percussive.

It’s glorious, ecstatic angst.

And then it goes soft.

This is the band’s signature sound: loud, quiet, loud.

A minimalist guitar part, two notes, rings out, barely, above a guttural bass and gunshot snare.

The singer/guitarist—scraggly, insecure, and scared—mewls into the camera’s dead eye.

A janitor, with mop and bucket, a reappearing motif, makes his debut, polishing his broom handle. Head banging.

The lyrics are bleak, a relentless dull blade in the quiet, filled with desperation that fits the overexposed face of the washed out singer/guitarist.

But there’s movement as the blade twists. The guitar coughs into its louder, hoarser voice, the lyrics repeat a desperate “Hello” (a question? a greeting?). The band is almost never shot as such—a band—but individually; the singer’s voice is doubled, giving it a huge thickness unto its isolated self.

The singer/guitarist jumps.

The kids in the stands, owners of all those Chuck Taylors, leap and thrash.

The janitor rocks out.

And then you hear it: a wall of perfectly crystalline distortion rolling thunderously from your speakers.

* * *

Perhaps one of the key things American cultural historians will write about, one hundred years from now, is the Panglossian cultural attitude rushing to embrace communication technologies that tend to render communication superficial, even as we have a desperate longing for real, substantive contact. What immediately, bitterly struck me when I got to grad school was the phenomenon of the unhappily frowning student, walking around campus with his or her eyes glued to a phone held out like a talisman to ward off the unfamiliar, while white-corded earphones made sure that nothing unfamiliar entered sensitive ear canals—students completely isolated from the here and now, desperately awaiting the promise of connection announced by a vibrating hunk of plastic. Or walking into a classroom whose tomb-like silence was broken only by the clatter of many thumbs scuttling over text-sending keys. Isolation amidst a crowd. I love the promise of communication technology—who doesn’t want a tighter bond with their friends, their books, their music?—but I can’t avoid the melancholic conclusion that our deeply collective longing for real community has been cynically exploited.

I remember an early advertisement for the iPod showing dancing silhouettes, each one alone, in his, her own tiny box barely big enough to contain the digitally-rendered human movements.

* * *

The thing that I loved most about punk rock is that it let you know that you didn’t have to take it and even if you didn’t know what you wanted there was always action: you could howl at the moon. I heard hope in punk’s defiance, but in Nirvana the only sound reaching my ears was an irony neither studied nor knowing, but resigned to the tide of a consumer culture fixated on the commodity, on increasing consumption, on passive entertainment. Nirvana, I thought, was the sound of no future in a minor key wheezed out by a singer who would kill himself at age 27.

The janitor in my school wore a bright sunshine-yellow Sex Pistols shirt.

* * *

My techno-crankiness gained some much-needed analytical legs when I recently cracked the covers of Jaron Lanier’s 2010 manifesto, You Are Not a Gadget. I found especially thoughtful the way that he details a circle of simplification: everything digital is a sampled denial of something real. Digital culture depends on devices invented, marketed, and distributed by folks, Lanier argues, who celebrate quantity over quality, surface over depth, on-and-off over a whole complicated variety of human experience. This utopian faith in quantity has juiced the capitalist cultural value of conspicuous consumption—or it is the other way around: digital culture is capitalist culture? Along the way to more of a diminished everything, though, we’ve tacitly agreed to settle: we’ve come to, in Lanier’s words, an “apocalypse of abdication,” a classic sort of alienation where we divorce the best, most human parts of ourselves from ourselves—creativity, personality, intelligence—and cede them to our machines, leaving ourselves less-than-human.

Lanier is not the sort of crunchy green Luddite whom you might expect to make criticisms like these—he’s one of the founders and promoters of Virtual Reality. He’s worked for Microsoft. He reveres the iPhone. But he’s also a humanist, and he’s watched in dismay as people refer to themselves in computer-esque terms: we “plug in,” “download,” “power down,” or “network.” At the same time we grant digital stuff, those pixelated renderings of the real, human, living agency: blogs and digital magazines “go live.” Phones are “smart.” The Internet “answers” when we “ask” it something. And there’s Siri: a digitally feminine voice, an “intelligent personal assistant” that helps you to get the things done that the apparently unintelligent personal assistant we all are assumed to have, can’t. “Talk to Siri as you would to a person,” Apple instructs; “Tell my wife I’m running late.”

To give his critique teeth, Lanier, who is also an accomplished musician, explores what the culture of digitization has done to music, which, he argues, has been rendered bland. “Whenever I’m around ‘Facebook generation’ people,” he writes of my generation, “I ask them a simple question: Can you tell me in what decade the music that is playing right now was made. Even listeners who are not particularly music oriented can do pretty well with this question—but only for certain decades.” It’s a provocative experiment: I’m betting you know what an eighties hair-band sounds like; a fifties rockabilly group, a forties swing act. “A decade gets you from the reign of big bands to the reign of rock and roll. Approximately a decade separated the last Beatles record from the first big-time hip-hop records,” Lanier writes. But what sound distinguishes the music of the 2000s?

I think I know: Auto-Tune, the digital processor that debuted in 1997 and was popularized by Cher’s “Believe” in 1998. A device which turns the human voice predictably synthetic. Auto-Tune is the sound of today.

* * *

The song continues on like this, quiet, loud, quiet, the bleakest lyrics nearly shouted down by the most ferocious distortion.

Intensity builds throughout the oddly, perfectly lyrical guitar solo while the kids from the stands, sidelined freaks with long hair, hard-core no hair, or matted dreadlocked hair, take over the gym; and the cheerleaders, finally liberated from uniformity, grind and gyrate wildly, the scarlet-letter anarchy signs stitched over their breasts telling us for whom they cheer, while the singer, with that straw-bleached hair almost, but not totally obscuring his febrile eyes, screams with everything he’s got into the camera: “A denial.” Nine times, a denial.

This is how it ends:

We see kids carrying off the drummer’s high hat, the bassist’s bass, the division between audience and performer closed.

We see the fuck-it-all guitarist smash his instrument to pieces.

It is not joy, but it is a sort of solidarity in the vitality of mutual denial. Connection, despite.

* * *

If there’s a nineties sound, it’s that roaring distortion, so different from that of the sixties classic and psychedelic rockers, the meaty crunch of seventies hard-rock bands, and the exquisitely coifed eighties sound of heavy metal. The nineties distortion—Dinosaur Jr., Weezer, The Smashing Pumpkins—is looser, bigger, wilder. It sparkles.

I was wrong, as a teenager, about Nirvana. They’re a bleak band, but I’m not so sure anymore that they were singing anthems of resignation. It’s that roaring distortion that has changed my mind, that sound that is the sound of someone desperately trying to avoid being sucked into the downward spiral of sameness, its abrasiveness paradoxically the thing that attracted many of us longing for our own real connection. There was something there, even if it was mediated through cassette, vinyl, or CD; there was something real and millions of us felt it.

Maybe that’s why I’ve been recently finding myself drawn to Youtube to watch “Smells Like Teen Spirit” every few weeks. Maybe in this age when we’re told that the world is at our fingertips, when convenience is king, when superficial flash is cherished over function and content—an age, it’s not doubt clear by now, in which I feel profoundly isolated—maybe now is when I need Nirvana more than ever.

But the band is gone, and all that’s left—as I quickly re-watch the Youtube clip, look up a small detail on Wikipedia, check my e-mail (ignoring for just a little bit longer all the old, yet-to-be-answered messages to see if there’s anything new and to which I’ll no doubt put off responding until tomorrow, maybe)—all I’ve got left is the dying sound of a distorted guitar.