John Maus, Sydney Festival 2012 - Live ReviewJohn Maus - Sydney Festival
Hyde Park Barracks, Sydney
Wednesday, 11 February 2012
John Maus's show proceeds like this: he plays his own mp3s through loud speakers – straight from the albums, vocal tracks and all - and then yells over the top of them, all the while gesticulating, pinching his nipples, and sometimes punching his own face. He does this for 25 minutes. Then he leaves the stage without saying goodbye.
On his records John Maus is a dedicated pop songwriter, striking right at the core of chorus, reaching for and latching at Big Moments. On stage he brutally undermines everything he's achieved at home. His pop songs are equal parts taut and sloppy, sentimental and flippant, and often blatantly stupid. But they're always strangely intimate in their shirking of decorum, and there's never the sense that John Maus is playing “the artist” for you, even though he definitely is.
Live, he's all release; the fan too. Live, these pop songs soundtrack an exorcism. At times you can barely hear the song beneath the clipping vortex of groans and cries. And despite how initially funny it is — watching a pop artist do bad karaoke to his own songs — it's touching in the end, the way Maus co-opts familiar and outdated pop textures and wrenches them back onto centre stage, leaving us to wonder where they've been lost for so long. Remembering vaguely where we were when they prevailed.
John Maus isn't a pop star and he's barely a musician. John Maus is feeding us the release we still expect — but most of us won't dare take — from pop music: the crowfooted face of blind ecstasy, the complete unencumbered inhabiting of The Moment; the way a chorus can sometimes, miraculously and heartbreakingly, stricken us for months. On stage, John Maus's performance is a directive and a reminder. Pop can't maintain its essence if it doesn't have hysteria, if it doesn't have an element of the obsessive, of the proudly gratuitous. Pop music can sometimes make us ugly, awkward, ridiculous, and in fact it's all the better when it does. John Maus knows and makes a point of exhibiting this.
Tonight, Maus doesn't even look like he owns these songs. He's not the artist presiding over an audience, and in his plain jeans and loose button up shirt, he's not a star. John Maus is the audience to his own creations, he's the response that he wants. Pop music is still powerful — Justin Bieber can make teenage girls faint, and many of us hum Rebecca Black on our way to work on Fridays — but there's the sense tonight that John Maus is duly reminding us why we still desire it. The euphoria of a shared intimacy through utterly inane posturing, the dumb power of lyrics that make no sense on a page, the attraction of body movements that betray our innate desire to flail in some swelling wind that isn't even there. None of this bears explaining. It just is.
John Maus opened his show tonight with 'Quantum Leap', one of his most philosophically explicit songs. “Dead zone is a sign of the times” is the dominant mantra, possibly alluding to the cyclical nature of pop culture in the 21st century, the ravenous picking away and recycling of history and heritage, the lack of the new, the celebration of what once was. If we have indeed reached this alleged End of History, then what can pop continue to be but a celebration of itself? What is left to celebrate but the notion of pop? In this way John Maus can have his cake and eat it too.
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