Deconstructing: Death Grips’ No-Show Live Show And What We Expect From Concerts

Michael Nelson | August 7, 2013 - 2:32 pm

When Death Grips “chose not to arrive in Chicago” for their scheduled set at Lollapalooza 2013, it led to outrage in comments sections, on Twitter, and in real life: Patrons at Chicago’s Bottom Lounge got violent when it became clear the band wouldn’t be performing at the official Lollapalooza after-show party for which they had been booked. Instead of Zach Hill and Stefan “MC Ride” Burnett, attendees were presented with nothing more than some pre-recorded music and the projection of a suicide note onto a stage populated only by an unmanned drum kit. That drum kit was promptly destroyed by the furious crowd. It was an apoplectic outpouring perhaps not commensurate with the offense. As Gary Suarez of The Quietus tweeted in response:

A band pulling a no-show shouldn’t be a news event. Says a lot for the sorry state of American music that we value politeness.

It didn’t end there, though: Along with the announcement that Death Grips were canceling additional tour dates, it was revealed that the experience provided to those in attendance at the Bottom Lounge was exactly the show Hill and Burnet intended — and was exactly the show they would be taking on the road. They hadn’t bailed on the gig; they had envisioned the gig as an experience at which a live band or physical representation thereof was totally unnecessary. Even the the equipment left behind for fans to demolish was part of the act — according to DNAinfo, it was merely “a child’s learning drum kit.”

“There wasn’t really a show at all,” wrote Vanyaland’s Michael Marotta, following the cancelation of last night’s Death Grips gig at Boston’s Royale. “Not only would Death Grips not be performing, but they wouldn’t even be at the venue. Or in the city.”

Of course, Death Grips have always been a dick in the eye of the music industry: canceling an entire tour without informing promoters; signing to Epic only to soon thereafter take shots at the label via Twitter, release an album without the label’s approval, publicly share confidential emails from label reps expressing dissatisfaction with the the band’s actions, and finally, be dropped by the label. No one should be shocked by this most recent turn: Death Grips have made a career of confounding expectations, of conflating acts of rebellion with publicity stunts; there was no band in contemporary popular music more likely to repurpose their tour as a defiant set of performance art presentations — or, more accurately, non-performance art presentations.

But Suarez’s aforementioned observation is an apt one, and while Death Grips certainly seem to have crossed a line, it’s difficult to distinguish exactly where that line is drawn. From Sid Vicious to Beyonce, we’ve more or less done away with the notion that the performer on stage must be the immediate source of the music we’re hearing in the room. Only two weeks prior to the Lolla debacle (and in the same city), Lil B “played the most purely enjoyable set of [Pitchfork Festival],” wrote Jon Caramanica of the New York Times, “rapping over recorded tracks.” Musicians frequently take the stage much later than their scheduled set time, or leave the stage much earlier than expected. Fiona Apple famously stormed off the stage at Manhattan’s Roseland Ballroom — crying, accusing, apologizing — because she was unhappy with the sound in the room. The Replacements were notoriously, shall we say, unpredictable. “Frequently, the band was barely able to stand up, let alone play,” wrote Stephen Thomas Erlewine at Allmusic, “and when they did play, they often didn’t finish their songs.”

Even willful antagonism (or seemingly willful antagonism) is relatively commonplace in live music. To name a few recent-ish examples:

  • In 2008, Smashing Pumpkins did a tour whose setlist regularly comprised “a two and a half hour show that mostly emphasized new material, generally avoided old classics, and included at least 40 minutes of formless prog-metal dirges and artless, atonal drones.”
  • In 2009, after 32 years, Throbbing Gristle put on their first-ever NYC show, which opened with an hourlong set wherein the band played their score for Derek Jarman’s 1980 film, In The Shadow Of The Sun, followed by “a painfully long merch signing session,” and then another hourlong set, which reportedly “unfolded slowly, with the tantalizing prospect that the lights would be turned off at any moment. (They weren’t, much to the chagrin of everyone).”
  • During a 2012 Atlas Sound show, Bradford Cox responded to an audience member’s suggestion that the band play the Knack’s “My Sharona” by playing “My Sharona” … for an hour.
  • This past June, at Minnesota’s Rock The Garden festival — opening for Silversun Pickups and Metric, outdoors, in the rain — Low played “a 30-minute version of the stormy drone epic ‘Do You Know How To Waltz?'”

But at least all those bands actually played. Twenty years ago last month — and also at Lollapalooza, coincidentally — Rage Against The Machine “stood naked onstage in front of thousands of revelers at the event in Philadelphia before walking away without playing a note of music … to protest against bosses of the Parents Music Resource Center, who were calling for a ban on explicit content in music.” Rage were pelted with coins while they stood there naked — a peril of actually being present while refusing to play. Death Grips are much less likely to be injured by a shower of tweets.

As Judas moments go, it’s probably accurate to say that Death Grips’ stunt (or statement?) is unprecedented, but is that not itself a worthy achievement? Isn’t crossing the line something to be admired in a musical culture that often seems to be content playing by the rules? Isn’t that what we expect of artists, and more importantly, what we need from them?

I’m reminded here somewhat of the massively influential Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović, whose work has ranged from 1973’s Rhythm 10 — in which she “set out to explore the physical and mental limitations of the body” by more or less ritually cutting her hand to pieces — to 2010’s The Artist Is Present — in which “she sat immobile in the museum’s atrium while spectators were invited to take turns sitting opposite her.”

Most recently, Abramović appeared in Jay-Z’s “Picasso Baby” video. Apparently she was the inspiration for that project. “Concerts are pretty much performance art,” said Jay, describing his relationship to Abramović. But here, he’s still playing by the #oldrules; he’s really no more than a distant cousin to Abramović. Death Grips are her children.