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Postmodern Village
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OC/DC: The Order and the Pain World Tour 2010
By Sarah Tonnen

The first thing you notice are the flashing lights. We’re not talking about the common strobe-and-laser lightshow that accompanies most rock concerts like some visual correlative to the music to come. Rather, at an OC/DC concert, the lights that are flashing when you walk in are the house lights, being flipped off and on an exact fifty times prior to every show. Not only have fans come to expect this, it’s one of the reasons they keep coming back, over and over again.

Indeed, the thing to do is to get there early and count down: “fifty, forty-nine, forty-eight, forty-seven, forty-six . . .” If not for the clear sense of irony with which most of the crowd enters into this ritual, one might mistake it for something cult-like, magical.

It takes a while for the band to assemble on stage. Some are still washing up, after all, and washing up. And also washing up. The bass player, Tic Williams, is well known for showing up for a concert with hands pre-bloodied in an attempt to control his obsessive fear of the filth of the road, and the hotel room, and the concert hall—and even, it has been rumored, of his own to-all-appearances-spotlessly-clean bass. The resulting carnal shower for those sitting in the front row as Williams lays down a heavy rhythm is considered something of a hard rock blessing for the band’s faithful.

As Anguish Young begins his opening guitar licks, and his brother Multiple lays down a backing track, it becomes clear we’re in for anything but a normal concert. We’re in for a repetitive, ritualistic slog.

From their breakthrough 1980 album Back In Back In . . ., OC/DC has shown that it takes more than catchy tunes to capture and maintain the media spotlight. It takes the obsessiveness to do the same thing over and over again until the numbers come out just right. Either that or the damn thing finally catches on. And this the band has done, indeed seems natural for.

This concert, at Rochester, Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic Banquet Hall, begins with their signature tune, “Highway to Hellover Again.” Midway through the band gets “caught,” stuck in the same riff for what promises to be an eternity. But the crowd has figured it out and begins counting again, down from fifty, screaming to be heard by the guys on stage over the screeching guitars and the thumping drum: “twenty-six, twenty-five, twenty-four . . .” It’s really all about knowing what to expect. It’s about predictable behavior becoming predictive behavior, the ritual magic of the everyday projected large, in-charge, and ready to rock.

By the time they roll into “It’s a Long Way to the Stage (If You Lose Count and Have to Start Over Again),” the crowd seems to have fallen into a seething sort of hypnosis. The gutwrenching anxiety on the stage is somehow calming to the fans, as if in mockery they are captivated by magical thinking. And maybe here we begin to see the mass appeal of religion: some shaman takes my low-level anxiety and makes it his own; in his obsession my passing sins are resolved and I am absolved; the force of their power over me is carried into the cosmos through the dissipative powers of the stations of the cross, of the chiming of bells, of a guitar string endlessly ground.

And then there are the lyrics. In this case it’s “You Shook My All-Encompassing Desire to Check on the State of the Stove”:

She was a wack machine
She kept her everything clean
She was the most obsessive woman
That I’d ever seen

And so OC/DC proves that only they could make continually checking to see if the car door is locked and the lights are off a positive sex act. With “Hell’s Dwells,” about the theo-maniacal obsession with thoughts of sin and degradation, the otherwise emotionally stable listener may even begin to relate. After all, even while they may not take up all our brainspace, we all have thoughts that we seem to cycle back to perhaps more often than we should. We revisit them, worry them again and again.

And again the band gets stuck, the countdown commences, the ritual restores control.

“Dirty Hands, Washed ‘til Chapped” is OC/DC’s paean to the particular proclivities of several members of the band:

When you see germs most everywhere,
Enough to drive you nuts,
Just call on me, and I’ll be there
To scrub all over your butt—

It’s sung not with passion, precisely, but with an utterly convincing sort of fervor, not the having-been-there-and-survived sort of thing you get with the blues, but a being-there-in-the-thick-of-things sense you get when you’re nagged by it all the time. The repetitive guitar line somehow evokes a mechanistic and deterministic sense of safety and control.

To their credit, the band has never been shy about their shared psychiatric diagnosis. An early album was named simply OCD, and its title track continues to get a lot of air play, not only because of the driven pace but also for lyrics like this:

I’m OCD, and my schedule’s tight
OCD, and my life’s a fright
OCD, a compulsive lode
OCD, watch me implode!

Thus OC/DC can be thought of not merely as a band with a particular framework of emotional challenge, but also as a public service, promulgating symptomology of a condition from which 2 million Americans are thought to suffer while still delivering the butt-jarring, hard-rocking goods. This would seem to be a boon for the psychiatric community, but OC/DC has actually turned out to be quite controversial. As the chanting fans suggest, the lines between rock ‘n’ roll and PSA and the glorification of celebrity meltdown are easy to blur. Are we not, in fact, more enamored of Britney Spears when she shaves off all her hair for no discernable reason than when she sings mediocre pop songs? Don’t we shower considerably more attention on Lindsay Lohan when she breaks into tears after having failed, quite publicly and in court, at rehabilitation than when she, um, does whatever it was that got her famous to begin with? And is this not a manifestation of our collective obsession with ameliorating a widespread madness embodied by our cultural contradictions: Christian but militaristic, neighborly but disdainful of the poor, professing egalitarianism but allowing huge wage discrepancies? Are not bands that can’t stop thinking about sin and sex and dismemberment manifestations of our own obsession with those same things? Is it concern for a psychiatric illness that drives us to OC/DC shows or a need to silently, screamingly acknowledge our own denial?

Perhaps I’m too worried about it. In fact, I think I might be. It’s hard to stop thinking about, frankly. It makes me feel dirty to consider how infected my mind has become to these thoughts, but I feel that I must consider them. After all, celebrities are what pass for culture these days; as a cultural critic, if I don’t think about them, I’m not qualified to comment on that culture, now am I? Am I? What does one become when one is outside of culture? Would I not then be indistinguishable from a baby raised by wolves? If I did not obsess about Heidi Montag and the Kanye West/Taylor Swift tiff I’m really no better than a wolf-woman, really, a snarling, filthy, flea-infested, uncouth wolf-woman unable to control her urges and appreciate the finer qualities of Lady Gaga and Jersey Shore much less unironically fine things like Degas and Diaghilev and Dostoevsky. If I fail to obsess over our cultural currents, I’ll devolve to a semi-literate, mouth-breathing, raw-meat-eating she-wolf with a tick the size of a softball clinging to my neck and gnats attacking my seeping gash. That’s what I’ll be. That’s all I’ll be—all I’ll ever be.

At any rate, the set finishes up with “Rock 'n' Roll Obsession,” another quasi-eponymous piece, and the one Eddie Van Halen declared his personal fave. But don’t think that “finishing up” is synonymous with “almost done.” OC/DC, in its inimitable way, is never quite done. A typical concert ends like this one did: the band gets stuck on a chord toward the end of the song, and the crowd counts down from fifty, and, right as they hit “zero” the band gets stuck on the next bar, and the countdown happens again. And one wonders, who, exactly, is in control here? The first impression is that the power position always goes to the crowd: the men on the stage, each in the midst of his own private torture, is clearly being exploited by the cynical fans, titillated by the rock ‘n ‘ roll freakshow. But here, in the final set, with the crowd constantly “reset” back into the cycle of obsessive order, it seems the role has been reversed, and a lesson is writ on how constant, public repetition can turn your own personal problems into everybody’s collective mess.