Dan Deacon has re-imagined electronic music as a punk, do-it-yourself genre in which audience participation during live performance aids the music’s spirit of individualism. Studio Deacon and live Deacon are two versions of the same experience not because the actual music is different but because audience interactivity provides a new window into hearing how his music shifts over the course of a song. Deacon performs live on a low table close to the audience alongside two drummers and another keyboardist with a wave generator and often leads the audience members in dance-offs (At a recent show in Boston, he picked me, the guy wearing a backpack, to start a human tunnel). Haters might view his instructions to the audience and their seemingly blind obedience as evidence of narcissism or an authoritarian relationship. Regardless, Deacon makes you feel like you’re a part of the show.
The inclusiveness of Deacon’s live shows has come to a peak on the current tour, which includes the use of new technologies to encourage audience participation. For example, Deacon and some friends developed an iPhone app for the tour; at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston, Deacon asked whoever had smart-phones in the audience to turn on the app during the band’s performance of “True Thrush”. As it turns out, the app was part of the light show, as the various colored lights on the phones’ screens responded to the changes in the music, essentially making some of the audience members a part of the overall performance. The ability of the audience members to participate in the light show based on what type of phone they owned calls attention to the economic diversity within the crowd, perhaps mirroring what Deacon wished to explore with America—which thematically deals with the country’s geographic and economic diversity—but perhaps also unintentionally isolating some audience members.
Then again, Deacon recognizes the problems inherent with the use of such an app. On the night of the show in Boston, Deacon called the smart-phone app “the least punk rock thing we’ve ever done.” Deacon himself was a supporter of last year’s Occupy Wall Street movement. Many detractors of the movement pointed out the movement’s hypocrisy by arguing that many who were involved in the movement were wealthy and used corporate-approved devices like smart phones.
In my phone conversation with Deacon, however, he said that some nights he calls it “the most punk rock thing we’ve ever done.” Because he and his friends made the app while simultaneously recognizing that it only works on corporate produced and approved devices, the app seemingly speaks to the tension between DIY, capitalism, and America in general. Deacon and his band have always kept it punk on past tours, touring in a school bus run on vegetable oil, not gas, and crashing as much as possible on the floors and couches of friends instead of at hotels. “We kept ourselves sane by keeping it as punk as possible,” Deacon told me. Yet, as Deacon pointed out on the night of the show, nothing encapsulates the political, social, and economic punk vs. corporate tensions within technology like an iPhone app.
Deacon’s music isn’t inherently political. Rather, it displays his inwardly oriented interpretation of the world in which he exists. In person, however, Deacon is very political. Deacon studied political science (among other things) at SUNY Purchase and labeled himself to me a “conspiracy theory kind of person,” not in the sense that he believes aliens are running the country, but in the sense that he believes the political, social, and economic power in society is centered on a few. In essence, Deacon shares a similar viewpoint as Senator-elect Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts. Before playing the final tracks from America at the Boston show, Deacon thanked the crowd for electing Warren, but, like a true punk, told the crowd it was their responsibility as individuals to make sure she didn’t become a corrupt politician like the rest of them.
Deacon’s live performances of the songs from America combined with the studio recording itself provides a holistic way of analyzing the album’s central argument: while America is geographically beautiful, it contains a lot of social ills, and its up to us, the crowd, to do something about it. The titles of the tracks on America reference the album’s core argument. The album starts with “Guilford Avenue Bridge”, named after a bridge in Baltimore. The tribal drumming of this track and of a lot of the tracks on the album seem to suggest the idea of strength in numbers, or “Lots”, as the third track is titled. The album ends with a four-part “USA” suite: “Is A Monster”, “The Great American Desert”, “Rail”, and “Manifest”. These titles, respectively, suggest, perhaps, foreign views of the U.S.A., inherently beautiful geography, the benefits and constraints of transportation developments, and the ultimate combination of geography and American Exceptionalism.
On “True Thrush”, Deacon writes “Beast of my brain, everybody’s the same/With the beast’s control, it will never turn gold, and that’s just life.” He supplements this interplay between personal and collective oppression by the “beast” by continuing, “With the lies you’ve been sold, let the nightmare unfold, if you don’t mind,” a bleak middle-section for a song whose lyrics, comparatively to other Deacon songs, are audible. Deacon ends the song with literal elevation: “Spread those wings wide and take me along / Now show me the sky and tell me I’m wrong.” The subject of the song, perhaps Deacon, is witnessing America’s diversity and historical trajectory from above. Deacon speaks to the listener and tells him or her to “tell me I’m wrong,” as if to challenge the listener, or the audience at a concert, to prove his political cynicism wrong. “Tell me I’m wrong” may sound facetious or sarcastic, but in the context of Deacon’s punk inclusivity, it’s inspiring. He included the audience literally through the iPhone app that worked during that very song. Now, according to Deacon, the audience must act symbiotically and include him.
Jordan Mainzer is a staff writer.