Jeff Mangum live
While acknowledging that it’s impossible to argue someone into loving something they hate, and vice versa, it’s still often enjoyable to attempt the argument. When we talk to people whose opinions directly contradict ours, we’re forced to defend our tastes, define our opinions, and analyze why we react the way we do. Which is why we have Why Don’t You Like This?, in which two of our writers will attempt to discover whether people with opposing opinions can get beyond “No, you’re wrong!” and have a civil, constructive, and possibly even convincing discussion about their points of contention. Because no matter what talk radio says, there’s still a middle ground between “We agree utterly” and “I’m right, and you’re stupid and evil.”
Evan Rytlewski: One of the reasons I seek out concerts, aside from the obvious ones, is that they can help me appreciate artists I don’t seem to enjoy as much as everybody else. In recent years, I’ve left performances by Grizzly Bear and Joanna Newsom, two acts I was lukewarm about going in, with a greater admiration for their songcraft, and I enjoy their records more now. So when I had the opportunity to catch Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum in Milwaukee earlier this month, I jumped on it. I’ve always regarded Neutral Milk Hotel’s 1998 album In The Aeroplane Over The Sea as pretty good, but not the sacred masterpiece or apex of ’90s indie-rock that so many herald it as. And I’ve felt that I’ve been missing out because of that. If I hear an album as purportedly magical and uplifting as Aeroplane and walk away thinking it’s merely pretty good, I must be listening to it wrong, right? I hoped that one of Mangum’s performances might help give me the “Aha!” moment his albums alone couldn’t.
Boy, was that logic misguided. This was not an event for the casual Neutral Milk Hotel fan. I’d read accounts of passionate, even weeping crowds at Mangum’s recent acoustic concerts, but even those didn’t prepare me for the sheer intensity of this show, where the crowd greeted him with a reverence more fitting for a messiah than a musician. I’d underestimated how deeply his fans have internalized the prevailing narrative about the “second coming” of the reclusive singer-songwriter, his return to the stage after a decade spent away from the public eye. At first, the seated audience was palpably nervous, seemingly afraid that any sudden movement might scare him away, back into exile. But once Mangum encouraged the crowd to stand, that anxiety lifted, and fans rushed to fill the aisles. He asked the crowd to join in, and they again followed his command, matching his nasal foghorn with their own full-lunged bellows. The rest of the show was an impassioned, theater-wide sing-along. At times, fans seemed to be competing to drown each other out, using volume as a display of admiration for the man on stage. (“You think you love these songs? Well, I’m singing them way louder.”) Other fans struggled to contain their emotions. Two young women wearing similar white cardigans spent most of the show locked in a trembling embrace, only releasing each other’s forearms once the house lights rose.
Josh, you’re a Neutral Milk Hotel fan, and you were at the same show. I’m curious to hear your take on it. Even as a fan, did you notice something a little… cult-like about it? For all the concerts I’ve been to, I’ve only seen one where a crowd connected to a performer with such vice-grip devotion, and only on television: Dashboard Confessional’s 2002 MTV Unplugged appearance, which remains one of the eeriest things I’ve ever seen on MTV. In that footage, frontman Chris Carrabba performs surrounded by an audience of teenage fans that doubles as his backing choir. When they aren’t singing along, the teens look lost. Their glazed eyes dart uneasily around the room, and they fidget incessantly. But when Carrabba asks them to join in, they light up with joy and purpose, and they sing as one. I used to watch that footage and ponder how awkward it would be to sit among that audience as a non-fan, having to feign excitement so as to not stand out, mouthing made-up words to songs everybody except me knows by heart. After Mangum’s concert, I have a better sense of what that might be like.
I would never try to talk you out of your Neutral Milk Hotel fandom, Josh, but perhaps you can help me understand what I’m missing. Is a Jeff Mangum concert really such a special occurrence that it merits such high emotions?
Josh Modell: Hey, Evan. The short answer is yes, it really is, and we should celebrate that rarity rather than scoff at it. The longer answer is that you’re right: This Jeff Mangum tour wasn’t meant for you, the casual fan. It was meant for the diehards who snapped up all the tickets immediately when they went on sale, who fell deeply in love with a record over the years and never thought they’d get the chance to see any of its songs performed live, because its creator was notoriously reticent about performing. It probably wasn’t the best place for a guy who got a free ticket and kinda sorta wanted to see what the fuss was all about. (Not saying you shouldn’t have gone, but there was probably a kid crying outside who would’ve gladly taken your seat.)
In any case, we clearly experienced very different things based on our points of view, but let me take issue with a few of your particular observations. I think it’s pretty silly to try and stigmatize a concert as cult-like, with all the negative connotations that brings. If at some point in the evening Mangum had started preaching about his godhood, or encouraging people to do anything except sing along and have a good time, maybe you’d be on to something. But he was surprisingly nervous and down-to-earth. Mid-song, toward the beginning of the show, he encouraged people to stand closer to the stage. He didn’t even treat his own songs as the precious commodities that his admirers did, even skipping lyrics to encourage people to come closer. I don’t understand how it would be any more cult-like than any other concert where people get excited and sing along. Sure, there was some weeping, but I honestly don’t think that’s too unusual in the concert-going world. Have you ever been to a Morrissey show? Or any teen-pop anything? You’ll find plenty of crying and insanity there.
You’ve been to non-indie-rock shows before, I assume? The crowd’s reaction at this show vs. most other shows you and I go to was certainly more exuberant and emotional, I’m guessing. But that doesn’t make it cult-like. It makes it an event, and, for me anyway, something really wonderful and heartening. It’s funny that you mentioned Dashboard Confessional, because I thought exactly the same thing—but in a vastly different way. I have a good friend who worked for Dashboard Confessional for several years, and I ended up seeing the band—whose music I would generously say is “not for me” and would ungenerously say is “terrible”—several times, just as a function of hanging out with that friend. I didn’t like the songs, but I found the crowd’s reaction and participation to be so overwhelmingly joyous and communal that I could only be happy for them. I’ve said this to Tasha Robinson, and I’m going to say it to you now: Do you hate fun, Evan?
About two or three songs into Mangum’s set in Milwaukee, people started to stand up. My first reaction was to be, like you, a grumpy old man. I was ready to enjoy a comfy seat in one of my favorite venues in the country, the Pabst Theater. Had I stayed on my ass all night, I’m sure I would have loved the show. But once the spirit invaded everyone around me—and me—by about the third song, the energy got so much better—more communal, more exciting, more absolutely joyous. This is the reaction that those songs deserve, and I was honestly overwhelmed by the vibe in the room. It was rare and fantastic, and I felt that reaction coming from everybody around me. You say “other fans struggled to contain their emotions” as if that’s a bad thing. That sounds to me like the ultimate goal of any performer, to connect that strongly with an audience. It’s what they dream of—that connection. Just because you didn’t have that same connection doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong or weird or cult-like about a thousand other people finding it, does there? Also, I don’t think you mentioned the songs or the actual performance yet. What did you think of those? Don’t say “meh.”
Evan: Well, here’s where I lay some middle ground: Any performance that leaves that many people feeling that overjoyed has done its job. Whatever Mangum is doing up there onstage is clearly working for him, and the cynicism of one uncommitted music critic is no reason for him to change course. As for the performance itself, I thought it was—here comes my apparent term of choice for all things Neutral Milk Hotel again—pretty good. Definitely not “meh,” but definitely not “OMFG,” either. Mangum’s voice came across strong, and he seemed more personable than all the talk about him as some kind of a hermit led me to believe. But even at just an hour long, the set was a little samey, and all those hard-strummed songs began to bleed together. Members of Mangum’s opening act provided some occasional guest instrumentation meant to suggest the scope of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea, but the arrangements never went all-out. I don’t say this very often, but I agree with Jim DeRogatis, who wrote of one of Mangum’s Chicago performances, “What could this show have been if Neutral Milk Hotel had been a real band and Mangum was backed by Elephant 6 giants Robert Schneider, Bill Doss and William Cullen Hart?” There was potential for a bigger, better concert here, though, yes, it would have cost the show some of its intimacy.
What I found off-putting about the concert was that the emotion from the crowd completely dwarfed whatever emotion came from the stage, which is part of the reason why Dashboard Confessional’s Unplugged special came to mind so readily. In that footage, the singing crowd practically is the performance; the performer himself becomes secondary. There are moments when those watery-eyed teenagers seem not to be responding to Chris Carrabba, but to the experience of seeing Chris Carrabba. I got a similar vibe from Mangum’s audience, a sense that they were responding to the circumstances around the performance more than the performance itself.
So yes, cult-like is a severe term, and one I don’t toss around lightly, but there really was something singular and intense about the crowd’s reverence for Mangum, and I think that same intensity manifests itself in some of the overblown language surrounding the singer’s return to the stage. Fans and music writers alike—I guess there’s not usually much distinction between the two—have repeatedly described it as a resurrection, and Mangum hasn’t done much to temper this second-coming narrative. When a fan at a concert in Chicago this month asked him for his thoughts on reincarnation, Mangum replied, “Well, I’m doing it right now.” And that sort of hyperbole strikes me as seriously silly. If the last decade has taught me anything, it’s that any and all ’90s acts can (and probably will) begin touring again. Mangum’s return may not have been an inevitability, but it’s certainly not a miracle, either.
Now on to the big question. Do I hate fun? Not particularly, though I suppose I’ve probably lost some of my sentimentality about the live-music experience with age. With that said, I don’t think I’m a complete curmudgeon. I understand that a standing audience almost always makes for a better show, even if I’d personally rather sit, and I don’t begrudge happy audiences their joy. On the contrary, sometimes their joy is the best thing about a concert. I’m not the biggest Bruce Springsteen fan, for instance, but one of the delights of his marathon concerts is seeing how they make real fans completely lose their shit. For me, their excitement is nearly as much of a draw as Springsteen’s parade of hits. What was unique about Mangum’s Milwaukee concert, though, was that complete reverence for the headliner became a prerequisite for enjoying the experience. Fully enjoying Mangum’s sing-along readings of these songs meant giving yourself over to them completely, and that’s something I’m not sure I could have done even if I were a bona fide Neutral Milk Hotel fan. I go to concerts to hear songs and to appreciate them, but not to become a part of them.
Josh, I’ll let you close this crosstalk on an uplifting note, in hopes that you can exorcise my cynicism once and for all, leaving me a happier, better-rounded concertgoer, if not overall person. But before I do, I want to goad you just a bit, because I don’t think my sentiments are all that unrelatable, if you set aside your Neutral Milk Hotel fandom. You’ve never been to a show where you felt out of place, or a show where an overly reverent audience creeped you out, even just a little bit? You want me to believe that you really sat through all those Dashboard Confessional concerts thinking nothing but Pollyannaish thoughts about how happy you were for the band’s fans, and that there wasn’t anything even the tiniest bit Children Of The Corn-esque about their synchronized Chris Carrabba worship?
Josh: Well, I’ll give you this much: I didn’t sit through entire Dashboard Confessional shows. I would’ve eventually been too bored by the songs themselves to continue thinking positive thoughts about the happy kids and their common interest. But honestly, I can’t think of a concert I’ve been to—and I’ve been to a lot—where an overly reverent audience creeped me out. I do remember seeing Nine Inch Nails at Metro in Chicago in 1990, though: I wasn’t really a fan, but I went with my brother, who was. I remember feeling the really dark, angry energy, both onstage and off, and being really intrigued by it. I didn’t exactly get it—nor do I get Dashboard Confessional’s appeal, personally—but I wasn’t creeped out in the slightest. There are plenty of things to get creeped out about in this world (ever been to a mega-church?), and a collective enjoyment of a musical performance just isn’t one of them. As my friend Sergeant Hulka from Stripes once said, “Lighten up, Francis.”
Also, it sounds like you’re blaming an audience for the press using hyperbole like “resurrection.” That’s pretty silly, and quoting Jim Derogatis—the Armond White of rock criticism—isn’t going to strengthen your case! I saw his review when it ran, and it immediately struck me as wrong-headed: In his case, he’s nitpicking for an excuse to not like the show. (Whereas your reason for not liking the show kinda boils down to, “I didn’t get it, so there must be something nefarious going on.”) Why armchair-quarterback an acoustic show that’s billed as “Jeff Mangum” and decidedly not as “Neutral Milk Hotel”? Not only is the argument pointless, but it also betrays the fact that neither you nor Derogatis is really that familiar with the recorded material: A huge chunk of In The Aeroplane Over The Sea consists of just Mangum and his guitar. I’d be psyched for a full-band resurrection—errrr, reunion—too, but that isn’t really a valid reason to dismiss this show. Again, if you’re not into the songs, that’s a perfectly valid reason to not love a show. But that’s what it boils down to: You didn’t particularly like the songs or the performance, but it’s hard to admit that when so many people love it. Admit it, Evan! (You’re not alone in not liking things that you’re “supposed to.” I don’t particularly “get” Bon Iver, but I’m also not going to write a thousand words about how everybody who loves him is wrong. What’s the point?)
Also, you can’t really quote Mangum responding to something off the cuff during a show as his true feelings—that’s just not fair. I’m guessing if you asked him in an interview whether this was a resurrection, he would probably want to use softer language. You’re arguing based on that quip that he thinks he’s some sort of god, which is just patently ridiculous, especially given his casual, humble attitude at these shows. You chose to ignore something he said at the show we both saw, which was something to the effect of, “It’s really gratifying when people connect with what you do, so thanks so much.” Hardly the words of someone with a messiah complex. To me, he seemed as taken aback by the reaction as you did. Sounds like maybe you’re projecting a little bit based on how you perceived the audience’s reaction—and your own status as an outsider to that audience—than what was actually going on.
And then you say this, my friend: “I go to concerts to hear songs and to appreciate them, but not to become a part of them.” Oh dear God, really? What a bummer! Do you go to parties simply to learn the facts about what your friends have been doing? Do you go to a basketball game just to enjoy a display of athletic prowess and to eventually scribble the final score in your little notebook? All I can say is that I hope is that your favorite band of all time comes out of retirement soon, and that you get great tickets, and that you make sure not to attend the show as a critic, but as a fan. I picture your rocky critical crust crumbling away, as the true believer inside bursts forth in a ball of happy light, joins hands with his fellow fans, and sings along. It’ll be kind of like a resurrection!