Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Song that Changed My Life: Orbital's "The Box"

The Bullseye podcast, with Jesse Thorn, occasionally interviews musicians about songs that changed their lives. The answers range from The Beatles to a guy who made music for player pianos. For me, that song was Orbital's The Box, released in 1996. The drum pattern backing the song is pretty typical of the other electronic music of the time, but there's no vocals or samples. There's just that moody, eery music.

When I was growing up, the only music I can remember having in the house was Bon Jovi and the Top Gun soundtrack. When I was eight or nine years old, I started listening to Weird Al, and the local top 40 radio station. I didn't really know anything about the other radio stations that might be out there, except that I didn't want to listen to what my parents were listening to.

Eventually, when I was about 12, I started listening to the local alternative station, mostly because it was what my friends were listening to. It didn't take long before I started getting exposed to the electronica music that was starting to hit the airwaves in 1996. In addition to "The Box," I also enjoyed Prodigy's Firestarter, and the Chemical Brothers' Setting Sun--in the latter case, possibly because I liked Oasis, and it had one of them doing vocals for the song.

For the radio station's "Deck the Hall Ball" that year, they booked The Presidents of the United States of America, Silverchair, the Butthole Surfers, Stabbing Westward, Fun Lovin' Criminals, and the Eels. They initially booked the Chemical Brothers as the closing act, but those guys had to drop out because of something like an ear infection, and they booked Orbital instead. I was not able to go to this concert, of course, because that would have meant having money for a ticket. However, the radio station broadcast the tail end of the show. They were running later than expected, and it wasn't until about midnight that Orbital came on.

They played for two fucking hours, and it just blew my mind. Until then, I had no idea that you could make music without words that was still able to evoke different moods and textures. Go listen to The Box again, compare it to those other songs and artists I mentioned above, and I think you'll agree that it is a completely different thing from what anyone else was doing at the time. They didn't become as popular as some of the other artists (at least not in America), but they weren't making music meant for bumping night clubs.

I devoured every Orbital album after that, and then started branching out into other electronic music, everything from trance DJ mixes to 8-bit chiptunes made on some guy's Amiga in Finland. Most of the music I own today is electronic dance music, and some of it has had a pretty profound influence on me. I might never have had the chance to hear any of it if it weren't for Orbital.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Show, Don't Tell

The life lessons I remember from church (all two or three of them) were all given by the same youth pastor, whose name was Orville. For one of them, he started out by having us raise our hands if we thought love was something you felt. Then he asked us if love was something you did. He then followed it with two stories. The first, he told us about the time he had to have knee surgery, and really felt like he loved his nurse. It, of course, was her job to make sure he was comfortable and happy, and also he was on a lot of painkillers. There was nothing there that was going to last once he was out of the hospital.

In the other story, he was in the army. One of the guys in the barracks had a fondness for screwdrivers and Doritos, things not allowed in the barracks, but someone managed to sneak some in for him. He over-indulged, though, and ended up vomiting all over the floor, just orange juice and chewed up Doritos. Everyone there cleaned it up for him, so that he wouldn't get in trouble, and though they probably wouldn't admit this, they did it because they loved him.

It kind of blew my mind at the time, and I couldn't believe it at first. But the idea stuck with me, probably for the very reason that it was such an odd idea, one that I didn't feel like I heard from anywhere else.

This went pretty well with my inherent distrust of the romance I saw portrayed in TV and movies. It always had this ring of falsity to it, like the stuff people did were stereotypical things that real-life people did not really do that often. I recently learned that I do not have a natural and instinctual ability to feel empathy for people, so that was probably part of it. I eventually took an additionally cold and scientific view of the "falling in love" feeling that people get, that the love we celebrate so much is nothing but a temporary chemical state in your brain that will be gone before you know it. I felt this myself, from time to time, and it's definitely a great feeling to be riding on when you can, but it almost never panned out into anything more than being friends.

I took this idea of mistrust a step further: if I am going to convince someone that I love them, it is not enough just to use my words, because I could be lying. It is not enough to do the romantic things I see on TV, because those could be faked as well. Hell, it is a straight up trope (if you want a TVTropes link, I don't have one) that the guys who are bad at romance just do it "by the book," and it is immediately obvious that they are bad at romance. The guys who are good at romance do something unexpectedly sweet that you maybe couldn't have predicted, and that also shows he really knows you. I concluded that the best way to show people that you love them is to do something special for them, something that demonstrates it in a way that couldn't possibly be faked. As the writers' motto goes, "Show, don't tell."

It happens that I also channel a lot of my creativity into being funny, so when you take romance and run it through my demented sense of humor, what comes out can be pretty damn strange.

The best illustration of this occurred two years ago. I was sort of seeing this girl named Lex, and I jokingly observed one time that we had opposite approaches to the law: she wanted to be a police officer, whereas I broke the law just about whenever I felt like it.

This gave me an idea. First, I went and bought the Cold War Unicorns play set:
Then, I took some pictures of the unicorns in suggestive poses, to create this:

In the morning, I e-mailed the picture to her, with no explanation. Later that day, I delivered to her an envelope with the American unicorn inside of it, accompanied by a print of the photograph. (I kept the Communist unicorn for myself.) She laughed, and told me it was one of the most thoughtful gifts anyone had given her. Over a year later, we were not seeing each other, but were still friends, and I told her that whoever she ended up dating or marrying in the future would have a hard time understanding what was so great about my gift. Like, if he did the most romantic thing he could think of, and she responded with, "This is pretty good... but it's not quite as good as the humping unicorns." It might take some effort to make that even begin to make sense.

I mention this, of course, not to talk about how awesome I am, and that bitches love me. (This is something I demonstrate, obviously, so that I don't have to tell you.) I do this to point out: love and romance take on many different forms. To be sure, if my gift is anywhere on the map of romance, it is way out in uncharted territory. The same joke could have completely failed with someone else... but if it were someone else, I would have done something entirely different.

So, when you think of what to do for the special person in your life, whatever day of the year it happens to be, don't ever feel like an idea you've had isn't romantic enough just because it doesn't sound like something romantic. There are as many ways to love as there are people in the world.

But a vacuum is still only a romantic gift if your partner has a cleaning fetish.