They Might Be Giants and Jonathan Coulton came to town a few days ago. I fell in love with Jonathan Coulton a few years ago when I first heard his rendition of Baby Got Back. The rest of his repertoire is one giant nerdgasm after another. It was through his website where I found out he was coming to town, and the Giants were icing on the cake.
It was a great concert, but I sure wish that Coulton’s set was longer. He couldn’t have played more than a half dozen songs before rushing off the stage to allow for another hour of setup. It would have been much better to just give him an acoustic guitar during that interim so we could get our money’s worth.
I’ve always teetered between being a big fan of TMBG and getting too annoyed with their music. I love their variety and quirkiness and the constant struggle of trying to figure out what the hell they’re singing about without going to their wiki. On the other hand, I hate to sound petty, but sometimes I just can’t get over the grating voices of the lead singers. Usually I’m fine with it, but there are some songs where the earsplitting nasality of their vocals is just too much and I have to take a break. I’ve never been a fan of Rush or the Smashing Pumpkins for the same reason, but I can dig the Giants. They’re worth the extra effort.
The crowd was definitely a new one for me. It felt like I was in a nerdy internet forum, with all the current memes being represented. At one point I realized that I’m probably just as nerdy as the rest of the bunch, because I understood and enjoyed a lot of the obscure humor. I guess I just try to hide my inner nerd. These people were flaunting it. Good for them.
For five years during college, I attended a Christian based campus ministry group. Most of my social life was involved with this group, and I seldom found close friendship externally. I do not regret those years, nor do I regret at all the friendships forged during those times. Although my view on life has changed considerably and I have lost some of these friends in the process, I still hold on to what I can.
Like most college-aimed campus ministries, this was led by a ragtag band leading the congregation in worship music. After my first year, our particular band was missing a guitarist, and praise jesus, I just happened to play guitar. Nervously, I became involved and went to a few practices. Those practices turned into playing with the band at weekly meetings, and I went on to be a regular staple every week for four years. I didn’t sing, as no god seemed to bless me with any singing voice, but rather played more of a rhythm guitar and filler during the emotional/spiritual moments of the night.
Now don’t get me wrong. I want to preface this by saying that I was a very dedicated Christian during this time and had no doubts whatsoever about the bible and anything spoon fed by the guys up front.
Music was a very integral part to the worship service. Several people that I had talked to told me that reason they came originally was because they were near the room we held our worship services in, and heard the music. It was upbeat and very heartfelt, and the whole audience was completely into it, so it naturally aroused the curiosity of the *ahem* worldy.
I strained to be an instrument of god; that he would allow me to be a vessel for his use. Our worship leader would often times go through the same standard rigamorole: starting off calmly upbeat, moving to upbeat, slowing it down, bringing it up slightly, then slowing it down to a grinding musical halt with a spiritual high. At that point the mood was set for the speaker/preacher to begin his sermon.
God certainly used me. I felt spiritually alive up there with the guitar, doing his work. The times I felt it most were when things would swing real spiritual-like – the lights would be off and all the music would stop. That is, many times all the music would stop, except through a prearranged continuation of a smooth, lulling guitar piece while the leader of the band had a heartfelt message to get across.
I was trained in classical guitar, so coming up with basic heartfelt chord progressions was child’s play. The mood of the room aided in this and for years I felt it was god acting through me. I don’t really know what prompted it, but during one of these deeply spiritual times, my consciousness suddenly sprang to life, as if gasping air from the under-water feel of the mob-mentality of worship.
I had full understanding of where I was and what I was playing on the guitar. More than that, I had a much keener understanding of what my guitar was doing to the crowd. Emotions and spirituality were peaked, and I was cycling through the same dreary chord progression, with a little feeling. The room was silent as people were asked several times to pray.
In this unexpected awareness, I did what I always did, but now with a different frame of mind. Through the music coming from my guitar, I manipulated the crowd as if pulling the strings on a puppet.
Now here’s where you stop and accuse me of taking credit for god’s work, or for being so overly conceited as to think that I had any such control as this. Well, I can’t argue against that other than to say I was caught up observing how easy it was to manipulate this mob mentality with a few plucking strings. I’m just trying to explain what I felt and what bothered me so much from then on out.
The room was about 200 people silent, the only sound coming from my guitar. With only slight variations like a wave on the oceans, I would subtly rise in tempo and volume, slowly and carefully, like bringing a still heart back to life. This was no different than what I had done a thousand times before, except this time I had an eerie presence of mind that somehow I had missed in the past. As I made these conscience fluctuations, it was as if the entire feeling of the room rose and fell with the vibrations from my guitar.
People’s hands would raise higher. “Yes, jesus!” and various moans were heard throughout the crowd. Some would go to their knees. I’d bring the tempo down. The leader of the band would take the cue and call for more prayer, and I’d be back to my little experiment. I fully played with these people’s emotions through the guitar, increasing the intensity of the room to a near fever pitch until the song would start up again.
I felt like a conductor in an orchestra, and it scared me.
It felt dangerous. It felt like a loaded gun. It felt impossible, like I was sinning or doing something wrong in god’s eyes. After all, how arrogant must I have been to believe it was me, not god, who was controlling the mood of the room.
Most of all, it was a slight crack in the shell of belief I wrapped myself in. After that first night of my returned consciousness during such spiritual times, I was afraid of them to come up again, yet strangely drawn to see what I could do. I tried to ignore such thoughts and to focus mostly on god and the music, but there was this fissure that had opened up and the realization that we, as a band, were playing the crowd like a fiddle.
It wasn’t just me, I was part of the band, and there were times when each of us had these interludes or solos in which we really drew out the emotion of the crowd. My eyes had begun to open and I realized that this was how the band had been all along. Our fearless leader did this all the time and we practiced explicitly to bring out such emotions.
There was no god in the equation. It was just a cheap ploy to manipulate the masses, and I was as much entranced by the spell as anyone.
There’s really no difference between this kind of manipulation and the tribal African fire dances that result in trances, the crazy speaking in tongues done by evangelicals, or the mass hysteria of teenage girls at a Justin Timberlake concert (sorry he’s probably out of date but whatever). It just isn’t quite as socially acceptable for college age students to drop on the floor in convulsions during a worship service.
The same neurons are firing in all circumstances, and they have little to do with any god. The mob mentality rules supreme in such scenarios. It feeds upon itself like a feedback loop, and our minds attribute such manufactured ecstasy with an external deity, or whatever it is we are intending to worship.
My favorite example has to be our old friend Benny Hinn: