Although it is my job to update this blog with tech industry news, analytics tips, and various techno-culture musings, it is my duty to interrupt your regularly scheduled programming. Last night, I saw Shut Up and Play the Hits, a documentary about the dance-punk band LCD Soundsystem. Before the movie started, I knew nothing about LCD Soundsystem, had never heard one of their songs, and had never read anything about their frontman, James Murphy. I left feeling as though I had seen something tremendous, inarticulable, and profoundly sad. I still do not know whether I like LCD Soundsystem’s music. Songs like “Disco Infiltrator,” “North American Scum,” and “Pow Pow” are disco-tinted, synthy, sparkly, and altogether too electronic for my country-bred sensibility. But I do know that Shut Up and Play the Hits is the best film I have seen all summer, and that it’s appeal explains our cultural fascination with tech startups.
On April 2nd, 2011, LCD Soundsystem played their last concert. Murphy had announced the band’s breakup two months earlier. As it’s phrased in the documentary, the end of LCD Soundsystem, unlike most rock bands, was extraordinarily controlled. There would be a final concert at Madison Square Garden, and then, Murphy would retire. If Shut Up and Play the Hits records that epic farewell, it is equally concerned with the aftermath—how will Murphy go on without his band? What does the world look like without LCD Soundsystem? The documentary takes place over a constrained time period: the hours leading up to the concert, the actual performance—vividly captured from multiple camera angles and rendered in crystalline audio and technicolor—and the day after. We watch Murphy prepare for his band’s funeral, conduct the service, and then recede into private life.
The history of LCD Soundsystem, or rather, the historical narrative of the band—its ascendancy to celebrity, massive popularity, musical influences, funny anecdotes, and crazy tour tales—is irrelevant to Shut Up and Play the Hits. While the documentary does gesture at the band’s backstory with archival photographs, there is an intentional lack of specificity, detail, and explication. Shut Up and Play the Hits is not PBS programming or a Ken Burns creation. It has no intention of teaching viewers anything about music history. There are no amusing infographics or stop motion animations to illustrate Murphy’s musical influences. In fact, there is no voiceover to provide any explanation whatsoever. Shut Up and Play the Hits is case-in-point that voiceover almost always detracts from the aesthetic potential of documentary film. The imposition of an artificial narrative constrains the wonderful possibilities of individual interpretation. And on a simpler level, voiceover interferes with the smooth generation of narrative within the footage. Instead of allowing a natural story to precipitate from the documentary material, a voiceover interrupts whatever happens to be forming and introduces an alternative and usually worse frame. The rejection of voiceover and the lack of supposedly necessary “information” about the band are complementary. All information surfaces in situ, in Murphy’s conversations with friends and with a journalist. The interview is a clever substitute for voiceover, because it allows the viewer to swivel between two receptive sites: the interviewer and the subject. In effect, we feel closer to Murphy—our empathetic circuits are brought into proximity—because there is no audible filter between his breath and our own.
Shut Up and Play the Hits is such a powerful and moving documentary because we feel Murphy’s pain acutely. Despite LCD Soundsystem’s obvious triumphs—the gold and silver records, the critical acclaim, the sold-out final show—Murphy does not seem certain that he has hit the kill switch for the right reasons. The sensation of uncertainty creeps off the screen and into the audience. The day after the show, Murphy needs to go check out the band’s gear before it gets auctioned away. The film crew follows Murphy into a warehouse, where the collection of guitars, pianos, synthesizers, amplifiers, and drums barely occupies a fraction of the vast space. Fluorescent bulbs illuminate the room in synthetic white. Their mechanical drone fills the otherwise silent movie theater. Murphy sits in front of a piano, which only hours earlier captivated 20,000 fans. He hums along with the fluorescent light, improvising a musical phrase over the static note. He stands up and starts sobbing, caught by the camera deep in the frame, covering his face, trying to regain composure. It is heartbreaking. We cannot help but feel the most intense empathy for this celebrity, this giant, this genius, this stranger.
In a similarly wrenching moment, a man who we can only presume is Murphy’s manager sits with him outside a New York coffee shop. It is the afternoon after the concert. Having already declined Murphy’s invitation to dinner, professing a prior obligation to go upstate and watch the dogs and the farm for his wife, the British gentleman, like Murphy, graying and getting old, rises and says, “This is weird, but I’ve gotta go.” He hugs Murphy, and says, “Take care of yourself.” Then, he is gone.
I have always found the sense of an ending intolerable. The reality of growing older—leaving friends and memories behind, losing comradeship and companionship—is, I think, an instant formula for empathetic connection. These experiences are universal, because, of course, they all point to the most intolerable ending, death. The fact that we will all die must be reconciled with our egocentric worldviews, our lust for invincibility and unquenchable thirst for immortality. Referring to a line from Keats’s poem Hyperion, “Still they were the same bright, patient stars,” Rei Terada writes, “a line like this says ‘It’s all right’ as persistently, meaninglessly, and godlessly as a thousand pop songs. What’s all right? Little that concerns us; yet it’s all right that life will eventually vanish from the universe. That’s not all right for history of course—but that’s all right.”
The last song that LCD Soundsystem ever played, “New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down,” is the prototype of Terada’s pop song. It announces persistently the coming of endings—youth, a youthful time in an ancient city, a young and restless innocence, and an era of adolescent adventure—and asserts that ‘It’s all right’ that we stand on the threshold of such endings. But I would contest Terada’s assumption of meaninglessness and godlessness. In the final moments of LCD Soundsystem’s final concert, there was a palpable collectivity, like a thick, atmospheric fog that sweeps down on a city to obscure the movements of trolley cars, electric buses, and blousy soccer moms in vintage Cadillacs. The sharing of an instant in time, of an overpowering and mysterious emotion, knit those 20,000 fans together in a single, expressive organ. At IFC, where I saw Shut Up and Play the Hits, nervous and uncomfortable laughter broke out when the camera focused on the faces of crying and ecstatic concertgoers. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny the religiosity of LCD Soundsystem’s final concert. I have experienced this effect myself, at a Bruce Springsteen concert, where the collective cry of BRUUUUUCCCCCCEEEE brought Madison Square Garden together, as though in prayer, devotion, or exhortation to some great deity. The expulsive moan functioned like the OM: a channeling of the breath of the universe through the human body. If, as Benedict Anderson and Hegel claimed, reading the newspaper at the breakfast table substituted for morning prayers, bringing communities together around a collective ritual, then the modern rock concert is a substitute for the sermon of a prophet. The stadium show is the most powerful religious experience available to the secularized and spiritually numbed, atomized, isolated individual. The rock concert is just one variety of religious experience, as valid or invalid as any other. In the thrall of the rock god, we citizens of the unbelieving city come together and sing hymns and praises and dance like dervishes, ebullient, and weep at the beauty and sorrow of the end of life and the promise of some continuance, an afterlife, in the memory of popular music
I do not think it is a coincidence that a movie like The Social Network fascinated audiences. In fact, “the sports movie” (Rudy), “the music movie” (Shut Up and Play the Hits), “the high school/college movie” (American Pie/Animal House), and the startup movie are all variations on a theme: triumph in the ending of a era, referencing, however obliquely, our one-way transit around the game board of Life. These movies all capitalize on an available emotional fixture, the construct of the “team” and its dissolution. Our obsession with startup culture follows the same logic as our obsession with all team cultures. We fetishize the startup as a place, like the football field, where relationships mature, blossom, become glorious, and wither into perpetual memory. In essence, the narrative of the team is a narrative of what happens as we approach death: the loss of the people who recognized our sovereignty as individuals, who verified our existence in the universe. Digitization and vituality have defeated the Cartesian principle of radical skepticism. Physical sensation and thought are no longer enough to prove our presence in the world. Our status as “real” depends on our faith in the reciprocal acknowledgments of our friends and families. The most terrifying thing about death is that we lose the immediate recognition of others; we lose the ones we love. (Unless you believe in an afterlife, that is.)
Startups are just the latest in a long string of communities that stand-in for an ideal state. The startup represents the team, which in turn represents the utopian family: the defining lack of (post) industrial capitalism. We are addicted to the fantasy of building a team that must eventually collapse. LCD Soundsystem might as well be Facebook. Except that the aesthetic of LCD Soundsystem’s music raise the filmic stakes. I doubt there will be a movie about the end of Facebook, if there is such a documentable end, if only because there will be nothing beautiful to project into a theater.
New York, I Love You
But you’re freaking me out
There’s a ton of the twist
But we’re fresh out of shout
Like a death in the hall
That you hear through your wall
The death of LCD Soundsystem is all right.