Disruption and Performance: The John Vanderslice Oregon Living Room Shows, June 2013

August 7, 2013

I don’t pretend to be a person who knows a lot about performance theory; I certainly don’t play one on the Internet. In fact, I know almost nothing about the field besides the few articles I taught, and poorly, in my prior incarnation as an instructor of interpersonal communication. However, I recently had the incredible opportunity to attend not one or two or even three, but FOUR glorious nights of living room concert shows given by the singular John Vanderslice, and I found myself thinking more and more about Goffman’s concepts of front-stage and backstage behavior, as well as about notions of public and private space. 

What constitutes a performance? What is a performance space? How is the distinction between performer and audience built up, maintained, destroyed? What are the benefits to these binary distinctions? How can the artificial or organic distinctions between performer and audience best be disrupted? What are the outcomes of doing so? What does it mean for a private individual to open up his or her home, salon-style, to strangers from the Internet? 

First, before I devolve into any longer digressions than those for which I’m already well known around here, let me explain that John Vanderslice has long been among my favorite musicians, ever since I went to a show at which he was opening for the Mountain Goats in 2004 (and, see here how I revert to the rhetoric of establishing what, for lack of a better term, can be referred to as “cred” – another performance?). Cellar Door had a lot of songs that seemed loosely based on films, and as someone who would shortly ruin her life with the pursuit of graduate degrees in film studies, I really liked the songs; moreover, he was an effusive, friendly human being, and everyone’s into that, except sociopaths. I was so impressed that I ultimately wrote him in for vice-president (of the United States of America) when I voted later that fall (I voted for John Darnielle for president). Un/fortunately, we get the democracy we deserve (Don’t worry. It was a Diebold machine and I lived in Florida, so my vote probably did not count anyway).*


Here is the first of several exhortations I shall make for you to check out his music, because I have great taste in media. Anyway, I’ve gone to many, many shows over the years, though due to circumstances in my life I hadn’t seen him play since about 2009. Thus, when I drove down to Salem for the first show, I was very excited. This proved to be a good strategy.


In addition to not being a scholar of performance theory, I’m also not a music writer – indeed, despite once having had a music-related book shortlisted for publication and ostensibly working on lyrics rights to move it forward with another publisher, I actually loathe most music writing. So I’m not going to try to engage in Music Writing Itself here. However, I will say that just like all of Vanderslice’s albums, 2013’s Dagger Beach really resonated with me in terms of not only its content, but in terms of its production, as it was self-released and funded through Kickstarter. I was proud to be a supporter – even if the record had sucked, which it emphatically did the opposite of, I was really excited to be part of something that subverted tradition, because that’s just what I’m all about.


Here, instead, are my impressions of each show and some thoughts about what the practice of living room shows, especially with this specific performer, do to disrupt people’s assumptions about performance. Here are also my thoughts about damn near whatever else pops into my head. Again, keep in mind I think some of the ideas I’m raising are probably pretty basic to those better-versed in performance theory, and quite possibly rather pretentious to those who are not.

SALEM, JUNE 13th, 2013: I had never been to a living room show before and didn’t really know what to expect, other than sheer awesomeness. Luckily, my expectations were exceeded most excellently. For one thing, the extremely gracious hosts had nearly unlimited cookies. For another, there were only about 20 people, and the “intimate” setting really set the tone for how subversive I think this whole living room show is.


I should mention here that as I was trying to convince a friend to go to these shows with me, I described my interest in Live Music Events™ as rooted in narrative. I always found something beautiful in the fact that a room full of hundreds, if not thousands or even tens of thousands, of strangers would unite for one prescribed event and then disperse. They would always share that short chapter in their lives. This is probably best exemplified by the afterlife of Heavy Metal Parking Lot.


The atmosphere was really more of a salon, as in the 18th century thing (Note: I have never, personally, been party to nor attended an 18th century salon; I’m still working on my time machine). Vanderslice offered not only a lot of great stories and “behind-the-music” type things,  While at a lot of the “club” shows I’ve gone to, performers have occasionally responded to catcalls from the audience, this seemed to be a fluid conversation. Rather than a hybrid dualism created by the heteroglossic audience acting as a mob calling out to the performer, on a physical pedestal of the stage (Something Vanderslice actually mentioned), here everyone seemed to be an individual.

At one point, Vanderslice received backup vocals from the adorable child of the hosts. She was pretty good. The entire evening was warm and beautiful; I personally hope that if there is an afterlife that is not a punishment, it is approximately or exactly like that. I could have stayed forever, but that would have been creepy.


PORTLAND THE FIRST (June 13th, 2013): The next day, I went to a house in Portland, where a much larger crowd attended (of almost 50! It was starting to feel like I was in college again and a “huge lecture class” was like, 25 people). Again, the show was distinctive for how fluid it felt, just like hanging out in, well, someone’s living room, instead of being a Live Music Event with discrete boundaries and definitions. (Here I must add that when I got there, it was like entering the world’s happiest AA meeting [and only AA meeting at which people were drinking beer, probably] because Vanderslice announced to the room, “Hey everybody. This is Miranda and she’s awesome” and everybody was like, “hiiii!”). Although the post-show dance party to synth music never really got started, it was a similarly inclusive and wonderful event.

PORTLAND THE SECOND (June 14th, 2013): This was the first show that I didn’t go to alone. This in and of itself was wildly exciting and rare to me. Here, the audience-performer dichotomy was disrupted by the singing along, the interactions between performer and audience (at one point, Vanderslice stopped and asked my friend what kind of camera he had) and the overall feeling of subversion. We learned of the extremely hilarious true story behind “Convict Lake,” a story improved even more by the fact that I was sitting behind another adorable child, who did not completely understand the narrative, particularly the parts about dropping acid.


MEDFORD (June 18th, 2013): When I told people I was going to Medford for a concert in a stranger’s living room, they acted as though I was maybe selling a kidney to a stranger or something. Granted, I am still new enough to Oregon and still bad enough at general planning to not have realized that Medford was actually further than Seattle would have been, but who cares? I was able to talk one of my best friends into going with me, so I went down to Eugene in the afternoon and she and I drove down to Medford that evening. Everyone in Portland described Medford in a way that I had begun to expect something like this, but let me put it on record again to say that Oregon is so unbelievably beautiful it’s sort of unfair to all those other states. 

 Anyway, this was the smallest of the four shows. It was also the only one in which the audience’s direct participation was invoked for an extra-performative event, specifically, the murder of Mike L. from the Guitar Center commercials, who reportedly lives an empty, vapid life defined by high-interest consumer debt, musical dilettantism, and the total absence of any meaningful personal relationships, other than superficial interactions with the underpaid retail workers whose lives he makes more miserable on a daily basis.

The incitement to Mike L’s murder, to which the audience was extremely receptive, will probably go down as one of the most important events at one of the most memorable John Vanderslice shows, as the audience rose up from their seats chanting “Kill! Kill!” Ruthlessly, Vanderslice exhorted the audience to go forth from Medford, drive to Los Angeles, and destroy Mike L., preferably “with fire.” The long-term consequences of this incitement remain to be seen, but it was observed any violence would clearly constitute euthanasia, as Mike L.’s life appears so empty and meaningless. Despite the fact that as recently as the week before, Vanderslice had said good things about Guitar Center, as they had sold him a cheap capo and some picks, it was clear by Medford that he was out for blood. Regardless, the show still managed to be warm, welcoming, and inclusive. 


I later heard from an informant that the same thing happened at one of the Seattle shows.

I am not sure exactly how to end this; I’m always terrible at ending conversations or monologues. I don’t know what the major take-away here is, I don’t know if this is really a good fit for this blog, and I’ve actually been writing this for more than 6 weeks now. So I guess I’ll just end it with:

I highly recommend this context for shows for the above reasons, and of course I recommend Vanderslice’s music. I think living room shows are about more than the commodification of experience, but instead represent a meaningful and important instance of opposition to the hegemony in an age in which media is increasingly fraught, contested, and corporate. By occurring in spaces that are by definition private, yet by welcoming everyone, and by blurring the rigid boundary between performance and “real life,” whatever that is, living room shows of this nature are a phenomenon in today’s modern music scene.

Stay transgressive, loyal readers!**             

  *In an extremely absurd turn of events, in January 2008, my face was briefly shown on The Daily Show as I explained this to John Oliver. Really.

**Fun fact: transgressive is not actually in the MS Word dictionary. TALK ABOUT PERFORMATIVITY GUYS