Amongst our arsenal of modern technologies the internet is unique on a number of levels, one of the most obvious being its scale. The net’s sheer ubiquity, particularly in the West, as well its de-centralized structure have made it a great equalizer, a giant killer even, despite varying levels of accessibility in the developing world. The growth in government and corporate accountability that the internet has facilitated has been but one of many ways in which it has measurably advanced the common good. Others include profound advances in convenience, freedom of movement, employment opportunities and the potential for greening our economies.
In addition to facilitating all of this good the WWW has also been a harbinger of much that is insidious. Of course, as an inanimate network the internet itself cannot be held culpable for the abuses and changes it has wrought on our social and geopolitical landscapes, most of which are the result of good old-fashioned choices.
One of the most egregious examples of these is that way in which the web has delivered to us the opportunity to rob ourselves of the intoxicating pleasures of mystery.
If you attended rock and roll shows with any regularity before the turn of the millennium you’ll recall the experience of showing up to see a band you loved and not being sure what they would look like. You might have seen a few images of them in liner note photographs, perhaps the occasional poster or magazine profile. But even album-specific promotional shots were often dated by the time the band went on tour.
I can still vividly recall the first time I saw the heavy metal band Zao play a concert after singer Dan Weyandt had rejoined the group. It’d been a couple years since the band had released their devastating Liberate Te Ex Inferis LP. When that album came out Weyandt had still been in his rockabilly greaser phase—hair tightly pomped, biceps rippling beneath vintage cowboy shirts. Drummer Jesse Smith had been experimenting with an androgynous look that featured nail polish, eye shadow, and a penchant for hydrogen peroxide.
When they finally came out on the stage at Slim’s that night to set up their equipment I saw that Dan had new neck tattoos and was growing his hair out. He was already several hard miles down the road of his transformation from harrowingly beautiful 19 year-old punk rock icon with porcelain skin into the haggard, zombie-obsessed patron saint of heavy metal burnouts that he would become. The trucking company t-shirt he wore did nothing to conceal his growing paunch. Jesse, for his part, appeared sporting an ungelled mohawk, worn cowboy boots, and jeans that laced up at the crotch.
I’ll never forget the sound of some other fan screaming in delirious excitement as Weyandt appeared onstage to help move an amplifier or two.
“Fuck yeah! Fuck yeah! Dan! Yeah! I drove from Missouri for this!”
We were in San Francisco.
Nowadays our sense of anticipation is easily lost. It’s not difficult to burst the fragile zeppelin of suspense when one can stand at the bar ten minutes before the show and scroll through dozens of photographs and videos of an artist’s performance from the previous night of the tour. That cool backdrop they made especially for this tour? The light show? The choreographed dance moves? You’ll see it all coming. We’ve reached a situation in which instant gratification is the norm, and the pleasure of having things revealed gradually or even in a blaze of unexpected glory (like that time the guy from The Darkness surprised everybody by appearing for his penultimate guitar solo riding atop an animatronic tiger) is in danger of being lost.
Given my own capacity to dilute the thrill of anticipation, I’ve come to actually respect those artists who don’t update their websites with regularity. They heighten my sense of pleasure while delivering me from my own lack of self control. If it was up to my most impulsive self I’d know everything there was to know about an album, a tour, an artist’s most recent meal, at a moment’s notice.
But wait a minute, that sounds familiar. Many artists gleefully manipulate the joystick of their romping publicity machines with cavalier disregard for their own privacy, let alone the capacity or appetite of their audience to take in (or care about) the amount of information they’re being given. Madonna used to reinvent herself once an album cycle. Lady Gaga reinvents herself every day, sometimes more than once.
I once walked into a restaurant venue for dinner and ended up sticking around for a show headlined by a band called Six Organs of Admittance on nothing but a whim and the strength of my waiter’s recommendation. I’d never heard of them. Them turned out to be him, a guy named Ben Chasny who, along with a drummer and a third fellow who could be vaguely described as a “sound manipulator” proceeded to rip through one of the most primal sets I’d ever witnessed, incendiary and tender in equal measure.
Since that night I’ve been intrigued by Chasny but haven’t been able to learn much about him. He doesn’t update his website much. He’ll go weeks or months without touching the thing. His bio is outdated, he doesn’t have current pictures, he doesn’t always post his tour dates.
I was speaking with a fashion designer several months ago about the pressure she felt to connect with her prospective audience, to manipulate Twitter, Facebook, and a video blog, all toward the end of staying present in the consciousness of potential consumers. Chasny seems to have ignored that pressure. He refuses to accept the mantle of the new norm, in which you’re expected to fight to keep yourself in the spotlight of a culture afflicted with terminal ADHD.
It’s the same principle at work in a song with a chorus you absolutely love but which only occurs once or twice. You have to wait for it, yearn for it. At least, as Arcade Fire points out, “we used to wait for it.” We used to have to. The radio wouldn’t let us pause or go back, and resetting the needle on our record player or rewinding the cassette was too much of a hassle. Now we just click our mouse or tap a key and we’re back at the chorus.
When Willy Wonka uttered the words from which this essay takes its title, however firmly his tongue may have been planted in his cheek, he revealed author Roald Dahl’s understanding of the danger we face in sacrificing the pleasures of mystery on the twin altars of immediacy and the illusion of the possibility of absolute knowledge. Will the hero get the girl? Will my favorite guitarist show up onstage with an incredible new rig? Will my night out be a huge success or a total failure? I could look up every frickin’ bartender in the city on Yelp and try to hedge my bets, or I could take a chance on a restaurant, a band, a book, a movie… hell, even a person.
My friend Dan is a tattoo artist. At one point during a long conversation we had a few months ago he described his desire for people to be able to come into his shop and have something of a magical experience.
“Tattoo shops always had a showmanship aspect. When I was first getting tattooed it was a little bit of a magic show also. And I liked that about it. I hope that whatever tattoo shop I work in doesn’t lose that. I hope I don’t lose that. Mike Malone, who’s a really famous tattooer in the United States, said, ‘We all come from the carnival.’ And I like that. I want it to feel kind of fun, like the tattoo shop is outside of any other place you’re going to go to. You’re not going to go to any other store and hear the people talk like that. It’s still kind of a free zone hopefully, and kind of a magic place for people still. I know it’s hard, like we talked about before, how the cat’s out of the bag; anyone can go on the internet and find out anything they want to know about tattooing. All the explanations for all the magic are out there. But hopefully for some people it’ll still have a little of that magical, cool experience.”
The next time I ask you a question which will surely be answered if I just wait a little, just have a little patience… please, don’t tell me. I don’t really want to know.