A week and a day after I saw Dan Deacon play his new DVD, Ultimate Reality, at Bard College, I saw him buying a camera at B&H in Manhattan. B&H is probably what the Nazis feared the planet would look like by now: an electronics store run and mostly staffed by Orthodox Jews, every item carried from the shelf to the salesman to the register by conveyor belts, each one tricked out with neon blue trim. (The conveyor belts, besides their general air of Future, would have been necessary to switch your item with a lesser-quality one.) While I waited for my friend, I thought of what my run-in with Deacon would be like after he made his purchase.
Me: Hey, I loved your show last week.
Him: Thanks, I love people who love my show! Want to come make papier-mâché dragon costumes and fight in them to entertain Chinese gamblers?
Me: Of course!
Him: Don’t forget to bring your tape recorder and your desperate but embarrassing desire to be this generation’s clear-thinking Hunter S. Thompson.
Me: Sure thing!
Him: And some seventeen-year-old girls who’ll still be impressed by an apartment in Williamsburg.
I waited a while longer, but my friend made his purchase and we left before I got a chance.
It’s unfortunate that Dan Deacon’s moment has likely passed, slipping around the wrong side of the hype cycle into backlash, because the “Ultimate Reality” tour is clearly his consummation. Besides a whole new set of his enthusiastically kitschy electronic music, he has added two live drummers, and, most importantly, video art produced by Jimmy Joe Roche. It’s hard to explain the intensity of the experience he’s put together (though YouTube helps). The music is incredible—easily better than anything else he’s ever done—but if you’ve listened to Dan Deacon for more than two dozen hours in your life, you’ll probably tire of it in isolation. He hasn’t gotten any new synthesizers or even chord changes; it feels mostly like Spiderman of the Rings would have with more care and without his dorky crystal meth cat singing.
But then there’s the video. Roche’s specialty is drenching everything in neon colors, flipping the images at the middle of the screen, and rendering YouTube commenters speechless beyond “dude I feel like I’m trippin face.” For Ultimate Reality, he’s chosen Arnold Schwarzenegger as his muse. The video opens with Schwarzenegger circa Conan the Barbarian, half-naked and wielding a sword, his physique less godly than leathery and squat (one might say choadish) beneath a bright purple sky. It meanders through the rest of Arnold’s catalog from there—Arnold with half a robot face from Terminator, Arnold getting his head crushed in Total Recall, a pregnant and cross-dressing Arnold prancing around in a circle dance from Twins.
Each time Deacon’s music rises to climax, the clips speed and blur until they become an unsettling orgasm of senselessness—nuclear explosions and flaming helicopters and Arnold’s bleeding abs and was that an ejaculating penis? There’s something intimately horrifying about the whole thing—as if we were watching the broke Schwarzenegger of an alternate reality get fucked up on PCP and max out with free weights as he watches one of his late-career porn tapes. The underlying sense of menace, not just from the violent imagery but also from a bizarre, nearly momentum-killing interlude, in which a Star Wars-cum-Powerpoint scroll melds the plots of various movies (with an awkwardly funny/unfunny style; Schwarzenegger’s mission includes saving a boy who has been severely wounded by his abusive father), would have kept me on edge the entire time—except that it didn’t.
And that’s the trick Dan Deacon has discovered, or at least mastered, the reason he seems so entirely of the moment (in that he could not have come at any other time, and in that he is surely going to be surpassed): spectacle is a license to abandon meaning, and in this ahistorical, narrative-free age irony is the easiest game around. This is what made his show more than a show—it seemed a cathedral of sensationalist hedonism, a newly maximalist approach to communal experience. Deacon has observed the creeping growth of other media into the concert experience, and he obviously intends to push it towards its logical conclusion: the stimulation of every sense at once, in as big of a room with as many people as possible.
There’s still Schwarzenegger to account for, however. If Roche and Deacon wanted to put on the greatest light show ever, they could have done that. Why the relentless cultural referencing? There is probably no answer, but if there is, it is that culture has disintegrated so rapidly into its tiny and absurd constituent parts that one can intellectually mimic the physical effect of spectacle by throwing as many bizarre concepts at the viewer as one can. Any order but “in order,” and any reference but one that fits into a narrative we can still grasp: this is the way to displace the viewer from himself long enough that you can get him to dance for his life. What better choice than Schwarzenegger and his jump from pathetic masculine posturing to genuinely good governance, if one’s goal is to demonstrate our faltering demand that anything make sense?
It wouldn’t quite be correct to call Ultimate Reality art, even when that term includes bad art, because art at least ought to have some sort of unified being. Deacon’s extravaganzas have no central goal beyond his vaguely sketched-out attempts to manifest “future shock,” the phenomenon we are all supposedly experiencing as technology accelerates cultural development, leaving us able to feel at home in our own culture only momentarily. But future shock promises the death of art, and threatens to make art that doesn’t engage with or criticize, but rather embodies this temptation to succumb, in this case with a shit-eating grin and some hi-larious monologues about smoking weed. If Deacon represents the recognition of and assent to this kind of spectacular meaninglessness, he certainly doesn’t represent its triumph. That will come with Shia LeBeouf’s $200 million virtual-reality tour (“LaBeouf!”) sponsored by Microsoft-MGM-BMG.
In the Society of Spectacle, Guy Debord writes that “the spectacle … presents itself as a means of unification.” This unification is not that of conventional art, however; it bears no meaningful relation to the concepts of our own world that art ought to cohere and enhance for us. “The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered.” When the video and music simultaneously climaxed, cramming in as many images as would fit into a frame and as many frames as would fit into a second, it wasn’t hard to feel what Debord meant. As the maturation of media continues and the viewer’s experience of it grows more intense, the notion that there is anything to be taken away beyond the visceral sensationalism of it all vanishes.
I am perhaps too easily drawn into Debordian rapturous horror, taking Ultimate Reality‘s titular claim on its face, credulously willing to agree that this truly is the final reality, Debord’s “pseudoreality”—the last pitch into a relentless churn of decontextualization glossed into something tolerable by spectacle. It’s virtually certain that Debord would have thought so, anyway. But maybe we shouldn’t be listening to an alcoholic that shot himself in the heart more than a decade ago, never even bothered to define his own movement, and held that to understand his message one should navigate through one foreign city with the map of another one.
The day after the show, rumors began spreading that someone on campus had had sex with Deacon, or one of the drummers, or both at once. Sex with Dan Deacon? I’ll give the man credit, he claims to have lost weight, but he still has the look of grown gym class-cutter wearing shut-in sweatpants. One of his songs is titled “Shit Slowly Applied to Cock Parts.” I know cocaine can work miracles, but I’m skeptical his sex acts are anything but an extension of his performances: a little brief even with the unfunny interludes.
A week after the show, my girlfriend and I bumped into the girl who supposedly had the threesome in the Strand. She was wearing Johnny Depp glasses (or are they American Apparel glasses now, like everything else hipper than an IFC short?), and we asked her what she was up to in the city. “Oh, just partying with Dan Deacon,” she said, by way of confirmation. There really was a papier- mâché dragon costume fight. She’s living the dream, my girlfriend’s smirk remarked, just like the rest of us.