Wow this performance just destroyed me.
On The Rapture of Dancing Alive
(or: I Finally Watched That Future Islands Performance and I Feel Changed)
Doing work on my couch last night, I ended up on Letterman, watching the end of an interview—Nick Offerman—and then the musical performance of the night, some band Letterman was cracking jokes about before they’d even started. The Strypes. I think I remember Letterman saying something about ‘mom picking you all up’ after the show, which was funny, because look at them. He also made a joke about taking them to play laser tag after the show, which, ha.
But it reminded me that there was this Letterman performance that everyone was talking about a few weeks ago I had yet to watch, this Future Islands thing. I didn’t know exactly what it was that everyone freaked out about, I just remember there being that typical morning-after Internet peak-chatter level of talk, the kind I’ve made a habit of avoiding instinctually. Because when you work in Internet, that inescapably loud and concentrated volume of talk about That One Thing, at least for me, strips some of the joy out of it.
So, right then, I finally watched it.
0:30 (as performance starts): Okay, this sounds very 2006. This all looks very 2006.
0:32: At least that lead singer is moving. Decent two-step.
[BAD MID-AUGHTS VIBE INTERLUDE: For anyone even remotely paying attention to rock from 2005 onward, the name of the band—Future Islands—sounded gratingly familiar. There were (or still are?) The Futureheads, Islands, and a Jimmy Eat World album called Futures that I’d never listened to. Also: Future (rapper). Everything about it seemed so typical I was pretty convinced that whatever I was missing out on was some sort of schtick, like some band shooting themselves out of cannon. Which, I mean, I love the Arcade Fire, but look at them: In 2014, they’re demanding their fans dress up in costume to their shows. It’s fair skepticism, is the point.]
0:41: Okay, kind of into this post-Morrisey post-synagogue thing and there’s an expressive eyebrow, and is that the thing?
0:45: Wait what’d he just do with his legs.
0:49: Where did his head go what was that, do that ag
0:54: He’s slowing down, maybe that was just a Thing. And he’s touching his chest, is this vamping? Is that what he’s doing? Maybe he’s actually feeling i
1:00: He’s doing the leg thing again and moving his head what even is that? It’s amazing. Okay, I get this, guy has moves.
1:04: What did he just do with his voice? Wh—Did he grind the note?
1:14: Holy shit he just dropped it to the ground. How did he do that? Where did he learn that mo
1:17: He did the thing with his voice again I swear to god I heard it he’s actually doing that right?
1:29: Oh my god his hand is in a fist and he’s looking out into the audience like the answer is there and they’re all the answer this is really something.
1:33: WHOA did not see that coming, the punching through the air and following through with his entire body on a note, which kind of looks like a combination golf swing/victory fist pump but he gets it, I get it, I get wanting to do that at a chorus, that which is the physical iteration of that particular guitar crescendo.
1:37: His hand in the air, holy shit, there are performances of Les Miz that are less theatrical.
1:43: And now he’s washing away the light with his hands and he totally grinded that note in his throat, okay, okay, I think I get this now, he’s secretly got a great voice and great moves, this is very solid.
1:52: The camera just went tight on his face and wow this guy is really, truly selling what’s happening here.
[LARRY SANDERS INTERLUDE: If you’ve ever watched The Larry Sanders Show, you know that the musical performance is usually when Garry Shandling either gets screamed at by Rip Torn about some crazy backstage nonsense or he’s hitting on a celebrity guest. For the most part Larry Sanders doesn’t care much for his musical guests, and I imagine, night in and night out, this is how Letterman feels about his musical guests: A lot of monotony. He’s really seen it all before. And I imagine him talking to a producer or somesuch as the band is on. Remember: Letterman really loves acts that put their all into it, and say what you will about the Foo Fighters—and there’s plenty to—you can’t say Dave Grohl doesn’t know how to put on a performance, which is why they’re one of Letterman’s favorite acts to have on Late Show. So I imagine this is around the point Letterman looks over his producer’s shoulder, and goes: ‘Hey, wait: Who the hell are these guys?’]
2:07: Ohmygod he’s pounding his chest so hard the mic just picked it up this is amazing bordering on uncomfortable.
2:24: Yes! People do change! They gain one piece but they lose one too! You are making so much sense I am completely on board with this now, this is just, everything, church
2:27: They just went tight on the rest of the band and they’re the most innocuous looking people ever, the bassist looks like whatshername from Chelsey Lately, which I guess is sm
2:30: WAIT WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT he just grabbed at his shirt and made that noise from his throat again! That was real! And he’s curling his lip into a sneer and BAM he’s back into the moves
2:41: He just did it again I’m so not making this up
2:53: Is he crying? This is all so much but also there will never be enough of it.
2:58: BOOM and he launches into the chorus again and he’s pounding his chest and the mic is picking it up and somewhere Meatloaf just jumped out of his Lay-Z-Boy screaming at the TV like “GO MOTHERFUCKER GO GO GO”
3:14: I am sold, I completely get this, I am watching this again as soon as it’s over because why wouldn’t anyone want to feel anything this much? This is what Joseph Campbell called, when asked about the meaning of life by Bill Moyers, “the rapture of being alive,” and
3:28: HOLYFUCKINGSHIT HE
3:29: 'SREALLY DOING THE DEATH METAL THING I
3:30: FEEL LIKE HE JUST REACHED THROUGH THE SCREEN AND
3:31: IS CHOKING OUT A PART OF MY SOUL
3:34: And now he’s dancing again and staring out into the audience but dancing harder than he’s danced this entire time and maybe in his entire life, he is dancing with purpose, like he’s going to generate energy or lifeforce by doing so and don’t be over and
3:35: It’s over. It’s all over.
- - -
And this is the point where Letterman comes out and screams: “BUDDY! COME ON! How about that? I’ll take all of that you got!” And Letterman knows what you just saw because he just saw it, and he is equally enraptured himself. Any band who goes on Letterman for the next month, at least—like the one that was on last night—has been completely screwed to hell by this one.
There are so many reasons why this is great, but the three that stuck with me this morning on the way to work were:
1. If you’ve ever danced in the bathroom—and I’ll readily cop to doing so, mostly in high school, before heading out to a party or a date, usually to something as desperate and pathetic, like The Cure’s “Close To Me”—your moves probably somewhat resembled an incredibly watered-down iteration of this. These aren’t bad unkfunky whiteboy moves, either: Dude has rhythm. He’s dancing along with the bassline, and he’s actually moving his feet and hips.
2. It’s really easy to be cynical about anything so sincere, especially since this lacks the kitsch textures of twee (see: Anderson, Wes) or polished veneer of pop. It’s confusing in the same way Meatloaf and Morrissey are confusing, in that there may be intent and awareness, there may be that allusion to death metal, but where those things normally serve to let an audience know that the artist is in on the joke, here it’s simply disarming: the acknowledgement that they have you, they’ve got you, you’re done for and now they can do whatever they please with you, like tear at their chest and plead and cry and scare the shit out of you.
3. Back to dancing in your bathroom: It was so much fun, and in retrospect, expressed so much, and this maybe made you (and definitely made me) recall in a very real way the energy of that stupid fun in a way you (or I) haven’t felt in a while. But more than that, it’s that this band—which has apparently been at it for 11 years now—finally got their shot. They got a spot on Letterman. And whether this is exactly what this guy does every night at his shows, or not, the bottom line is that he went with it, went for it, he didn’t water down a single thing about what got him to this moment. In fact, he doubled down on it. And the rest of the band played their part, too: They know how to make music, and not complicated music, and probably could’ve thrown themselves into it, too, but that would’ve betrayed what they knew they had to do. They had their one chance in life to make this kind of impact, and they did. And that’s really kind of amazing. Who won’t take all of that?