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Death Grips Is Dead, Long Live Death Grips

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Component is a section of  Aux.Out. for one-off pieces, special editorials, and lost orphans of the music discussion. Today, Philip Cosores offers some last words on the recently defunct outfit, Death Grips, and why pop culture should always make us think. 

“I think we are just threatened by unfamiliar things as people and then we react strangely, or it seems common for people to get some false sense of how they think you think of yourself but it’s actually a total projection.” – Zach Hill, 2010

Last year, on August 8th, I talked to the creator of Pigeons and Planes via a series of emails. Death Grips had just staged their no-show concert and the music world was enraged. I wound up drafting this response to the situation that never got published because Kendrick went and dropped his “Control” verse and Stereogum posted an essay that had some similar arguments.

Now, Death Grips has broken up and I am even more disillusioned with my contemporary writers and critics, as well as a few music industry professionals, that feel the need to ridicule the band on their way out. It’s funny, because Death Grips’ napkin note says words like “art” and actually expects the listeners to think in terms of art, but it’s 2014, and we don’t believe in art anymore. We believe in pop culture.

If it isn’t pop, we aren’t much interested in it, or at least that is what it seems. These worlds used to be as separate or as intertwined as you wanted, but try to be a music critic without having to have readily available knowledge on Ariana Grande, and good luck. When the worlds were separate, people could enjoy these art world curiosities, and not have a peanut gallery cracking jokes about not that which they don’t understand, but that which threatens their existence just because it is different.

DeathGrips3

Imagine if Sonic Youth was playing in the ’80s to fans of Wham. That’s what it feels like to see the current music writing community try and actually contextualize Death Grips. In the schoolyard sense, the popular kids shouldn’t be worried about what the misfits are doing. But in 2014, pop not only wants the numbers, but it wants the cred as well. And the best way to get that is by pushing down the most threatening kind of music to pop – that which has no possibilities to be pop music and exists just to be art.

The reaction to Death Grips oozes entitlement in the most ugly of ways. There was a time when being a rock star and being volatile, abrasive, and provocative were not negatives. But now you have Trent Reznor mocking you for not having it together, and suddenly the Nine Inch Nails concert tour feels much less like anything “art” related and much more about commerce. It’s a pop music tour, how silly of Death Grips to try and be artists in that environment.

Of course all concert tours have bottom lines and financial considerations, but why should that be a concern to music listeners and critics? Thinking about Reznor as an entrepreneur, stressed out to find a new opener, does nothing to benefit Reznor as an artist, and only stands to hurt enjoying the music experience for what it is.

Likewise, it seems more and more we are seeing articles focusing on numbers, sales figures, trends, and the like. Yes, this is significant for people interested in business and economics. But it also can mask the fact that a lot of people can’t, and won’t, engage music as the art form it is.

Here is a significant portion of the essay I wrote last year about the Death Grips concert incident and I think it’s still relevant.

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Death Grips

I literally just read six different writers, all talented and generally of opinions that I agree with, and they all had six wildly different reactions to Death Grips. The articles conclude that either a.) Death Grips was doing performance art in the form of a “gotcha,” b.) Death Grips were indulging in their creativity as artists and delivering much needed punk attitude, c.) Death Grips were seeking attention, d.) Death Grips were being asshole punks that don’t care about their fans, e.) Death Grips were just redundant and unimaginative, and f.) Death Grips are the worst human beings ever to live.

Now, these are six interesting takes, or maybe only five interesting takes, and who is to say that any one of them are right or wrong, but all seem to take their presupposed opinions of who Death Grips are from slanted headlines or what makes sense to their essay. Like Zach Hill stated in 2010, these are projections of who they need Death Grips to be to suit their argument. What do we actually know about Death Grips? We know plenty about Zach Hill. He’s been in the indie music world for more than a decade, and in that time, he hasn’t exactly been a spotlight hog or a money grabber. He has played on numerous well-known and unknown projects, and seems to attract people to him more than repel. But as far as his more recent collaboration with Stefan Burnett, we just have their words and actions.

Last year Zach Hill said this to Pitchfork:

“There have been a lot of what we call “flashes” since we started Death Grips– this real relationship with listening deeper to everything happening around us everyday. If you pay attention, it’s just insane how there’s this dialogue you can have with life and the unknown. If you’re awake to certain things in life, they tell you what to do. We believe in that. We live by that. We’re experiencing that everyday.”

…and from the same interview, concerning the No Love Deep Web album cover:

“People should be able to look deeper into something rather than just seeing some dick. It’s also a spiritual thing; it’s fearlessness.“

NO LOVE DEEP WEB NSFW (dick)

Across the board, every column I read assert Death Grips as being a human representation on the cock that adorned that cover. Whether thinking the Death Grips show was deplorable or respectable, everyone seems fine in noting that they are dicks. But, to do this is to forget the point of the band. The band is all about making the individual feel empowered, not just mindless rebellion. In the same interview, Hill directly alludes to the idea of not being present at a concert, nine months before actually attempting it. To having something in the works, discussed, and planned for this long, and then to even tell the media in your only significant interview, there is no “gotcha” at all. The only way the audience should feel manipulated is if that they couldn’t read the writing on the wall.

But, like the dick on the album, fans and critics, who ironically are criticizing absenteeism while they themselves were absent from the event, can’t see past it. I’ve actually heard very little by way of criticism from people who actually experienced it, but their destruction of the site speaks volumes.

The focus has generally been on entitlement and a social contract that performers apparently make, that says they have to follow some rules in order to not cause outrage. By not showing up and breaking the contract, Death Grips become dicks, but shouldn’t that only be if the purpose was to be dicks. If the only point was to be jerks and make people pay for one thing and receive something they weren’t expecting, it’s a bit mean-spirited, but the spirit that Death Grips represent aren’t mean to be mean, there is thought behind it.

Is there anything funny about a possible dead person? Is this simply a punk, we don’t give a fuck attitude move, and why in the world do you think the two guys behind Death Grips are immature or looking for publicity or any of what they are glibly accused.. Here is the text of the suicide note:

I am ready to take my own life. Many bad experiences led me to this dark void that I am locked in. Maybe by my own hands? I don’t really care anymore. I just wanted to say thank you for showing me the other side. the side that is locked away deep inside a person. I am mad. Mad all the time and depressed all the time. I can’t take it. I’m not afraid of dying but i am afraid that I can’t hear DG in the after life if there is such a thing. I don’t know, but I hope your music transcends to the unknown. A place where DG’s essence exists. A place where art exists. I love art. That’s the one thing that kept me alive? this long. So just to ease minds, DG didn’t “influence” me to do this. this is my own fucking choice. but thanks for making my life a little better. you’re my absolute fave and I will fight the gods if they don’t allow me to follow DG’s efforts can’t see Earth. Anyways, continue doing great things. I love you Stefan, Zach, and Andy.
I will be watching.
-AJJ

Now, according to Hill, Death Grips is about bringing people together, tapping into something bigger than the band, and other metaphysical stuff. Even the fact that this note, whether it is real or fake, speaks about art as the motivation to live, appeals to the Death Grips message. “I love art. That’s the one thing keeping me alive.” Now when Death Grips attempts to turn the hypothetically deceased person into art, “fans” won’t engage, more concerned about their money’s worth and their expectations of a rock show. Well, news to anyone was there: you were given the opportunity to experience something bigger than a rock show, you were able to really think about the world deeply and understand a bit of where Death Grips is coming from. Instead, you tore the place apart.

Death Grips

The music industry has made no secret of the movement to recognize pop music icons in the same breath that they recognize musicians seeking to make art, but is it coming to the point that we just hold our artists according to standards set up by pop stars? In the pop world, it is not wrong to speak in terms of entertainment, but in rock and roll, in art, in punk, in whatever word you want to box Death Grips up in, entertainment is a fortunate side effect from the show, not a requirement. Art is supposed to incite emotion, not help you pass the time. Art is something that challenges expectations, not plays into them.

Death Grips are still scheduled for FYF Fest in a couple weeks and I can say in honesty that I do not care if they show up or if they don’t, as long as there is something present to engage and hopefully gain some insight from. Only then will I have any real platform to speak to Death Grips no show as a good or a bad artistic experience. Maybe the point is that no one was really there at the concert, that if the audience doesn’t show up ready to engage whatever is put in front of them, why should the band bother showing up either.

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So, I don’t know. You hear a lot about “pushing boundaries” of what music is considered artistic and about being concerned with what “the average person likes” in music writing, about being more inclusive and less exclusive. But there often seems to be an agenda amongst writers to level the playing field, where they can use their gifts of self-expression and creating a false reality that supports their life-long love of 30 Seconds to Mars or some shit. Death Grips is music that rarely sounded pleasing to the ear, that took themselves way too seriously, that seemed to feel the audience could be compromised in the name of art. But they were also interesting, worth thinking about, because their goal was that you would think. Pop culture doesn’t want you to think, and pop critics want to think for you. And maybe I’m crazy, but I think the day we turn our back or claim a disinterest in music as art, well, let’s just say I can understand Death Grips’ desire to call it a day.

Death Grips are Dead. Long Live Death Grips.

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