Friday, July 2, 2010

Reading, writing, and DDR, pt. 2

If you're wondering where Tracy's been, she's still quite active in reading submissions and behind the scenes decisions, but at the moment she's visiting (and traveling) with family, and as such too busy to blog. She'll pop back in when she can! Until then, you're all in my care.


I think I was thirteen when I first took an interest in music. For my life so far, I'd found music embarrassing as a subject and an experience -- as far as I could tell, everything anyone had ever recorded was A) boring, commercial pap or B) about why I should consider sleeping with the performer(s). As one grows older one becomes inured to the come-ons of both individual celebrities (Sting, Bonno, Britney, Xtina, Pink, whatevs) and society as a whole (imagine wrapping yourself in this moist, pink flag) but when you're a certain age and someone or something intimates he/she/it might want to bed you there's a voice in your head that immediately cries out, "Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes!" regardless of whether we're talking Jewel or Fitty. It's an awkward time in a boy's life. He avoids popular culture. Or I did.

But then I found proper music. As I recall the chain went something like (don't judge me, remember that I'm very young) John Mayer --> Power Man 5000 --> Everclear --> The Strokes --> Smashing Pumpkins --> Modest Mouse, with Modest Mouse being an essentially perfect endpoint. Keep in mind that when I say "Everclear" I mean the one that made Songs from an American Movie parts One and Shite. It would take me a little while to discover the good Everclear. There were brief periods of rest in Taking Back Sunday (now most famous for their contributions to the Denny's menu) and Atom and his Package. (Remember him?) I borrowed my tastes from girls I dated.

As it turned out the issue was less that the artists were coming on to me and more that they weren't using the right moves. As a teenager (and still now, as a proper human being) I couldn't have felt less slick or cool or self-assured, but the whole strategy of popular music is smothering to death any other feelings than those of being slick and cool and self-assured under an auto-tuned pillow. In short, they were trying to kill me. That they were also trying to bed me, or rather to convince me I wanted to bed them, didn't make things any less confusing.

Modest Mouse was (and is) the perfect band for me because they could create a song that felt the way I did so I wouldn't have to feel that way anymore. In other words they were the perfect band for me because where popular music tried to murder me, Modest Mouse succeeded, precisely because they seemed like that would be the last thing on their minds. The catharsis of "What People are Made Of" is so perfect it leaves nothing for the listener to feel. The song does all the feeling for you. It intensifies your own feelings. And when it's done, so are you. Most feelings only need to be acknowledged before they'll dissipate. Being young and socially incompetent means having a lot of feelings you'd like to be rid of. I discovered I liked music when I discovered it could pull things out of me by naming them.

It didn't hurt that the names were more flattering than "wishes he could look girls in the eyes" or "hopes to one day have a friend he'll still care about ten years from now," or, "hates his stupid body." With Modest Mouse, with Smashing Pumpkins, with Nirvana, it all became existential and interesting, while at the same time the sticky yuckiness at the core of their production acknowledged it was really all about being a miserable stupid teenager having utterly banal feelings of shame about the hair around my nipples.

The same time I was discovering music was the time I was growing totally dependent on computers, which means I listened to most of my records in Media Player. It doesn't take up much of the screen to show a playlist unless you're iTunes, so they used the left two thirds of the screen on visualizations. Visualizations are the clear inspiration for DDR, in that they translate music into a series of visual undulations that simultaneously seem to explain and to mystify their source. They turn sound into pictures.

There are a couple versions we've all seen. The wiggly wave thing, the series of peaks and valleys that reminds us of a televised heartbeat, may have been the first visualization you ever saw. If it wasn't that, it was probably the row of cheerful little bouncy bars, each apparently tuned to a certain measure of the sonic spectrum, each rising as that measure gained in prominence.

There were also, however, more abstract ways to look at music. I was fond of one I think of as "volcano," which was a glowing, smoky disk of light at the bottom of the screen which spat variously sized jets of what appeared to be neon lava as it revolved, growing and shrinking, slowing and speeding in accordance to various qualities of the music, or some confluence thereof. There was another with a sort of circular ribbon at the center of the screen, which changed shapes and colors with the music, emitting a sort of fog, which hazed the screen and drifted outward, creating a sort of wormhole effect, like the Dr. Who theme. There was one with a circular fan of these sort of spikes, that grew and changed colors and shrank. There were combinations of these things. There was one where particles flitted from one part of the screen to another, and this field of shooting stars rotated to be seen from different angles, sometimes there were many, sometimes there were few.

I would stare at these for hours. What I wanted was to be able to decode them. I wanted to be able to turn off the sound and deduce the music that was playing from the visualization. What I wanted was to know which changes in pitch and tone could create which effects in the image.

This was possible to an extent. The ones based on bars were especially easy to work out -- the leftward ones were the deepest bits of the spectrum, the rightmost ones were the highest. But if you watched long enough you could often find the patterns in the movements, the colors, such that you could almost translate from one to the other.

What I wanted to do was to be able to think of a shape and feel music.

What I wanted to do was to be able to translate any shape into a song. I wanted to weep for triangles. I wanted to thrill for circles.

Perhaps partly as a result of this I do see shapes when I hear music. But I've never been able to work the other way, exactly.

What I wanted was an easy means of catharsis, and a talent, and a mind like a computer's mind, that could do this thing.

With DDR you become the visualization. The shape is the one that you make in negotiation with the arrows.

When you read a book your body becomes the visualization, becomes the shape of the words passing through you, and you light up, and change colors.

Or the book is the shape, the visualization of the writer's music, and yours -- and when you read it, tracing the shape, you feel the music.

Or the words are notations, or steps.

And you feel it inside, and it kills you, so you don't have to feel what you felt anymore.

The difference being that DDR only exhausts the experience of fun. You play it until you're not having fun anymore, until your body hurts and weeps. You read a book until the book is exhausted, and it exhausts you. Until you're dead. That was how it felt to write it, too.

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