No red lights. No strobes. This is the request I make to every sound guy and lighting operator whenever I load in for a gig. There’s always this moment when they look at me quizzically, almost combatively, before I punctuate my request: ‘I get seizures.’
Not exactly, but close enough.
As a musician, there are few things that I enjoy more than going to a show and experiencing people push to be the best versions of themselves through their art. There is something about the honesty that comes through when one is performing, and the conversation that a musician is having with their bandmates as well as with their instrument, an electricity that is not only heard and seen, but also felt in your soul. When a performance is completely locked in and captures your senses and your imagination, and you surrender and get lost in the ‘there-ness,’ and you feel what can be possible through this synthesis of personhood and chemistry and sound waves and vulnerability and connection, one word that comes close to capturing this experience is Beauty. Another is Human.
There has always been some light show element in live shows, even in smaller-capacity venues. Usually it’s just changing the lights from back to sides, blue to green twice, maybe three times per song. But it seems that as of late, more and more bands and venues are integrating more – shall we say -- involved, and therefore troublesome, light shows into your regular run-of-the mill gig.
At a recent Sleater-Kinney show at the 930 Club, I was completely taken aback by the unruly amount of strobe lights, affectionately termed #DeathStrobes.
They were insanely bright, and they were focused directly at the audience’s retinas, and I squeezed my eyes shut,
my face buried in my jacket.
By the third song, my brain felt like it was going to push out through my eyes and ears and I saw spots, and I felt my right arm starting to go numb.
My Positive No bandmate, Tracy Wilson, and I eventually retreated to the basement bar, where we waited out the rest of the set.
You see, I have chronic sporadic hemiplegic migraines (SHM), a rare neurological disorder that is characterized by having both the fun of a classic migraine with aura (thousands of flashing, zig-zagging stars in my field of vision) and the excitement of a stroke –tingling, numbness, weakness, and/or partial paralysis on my right side, lack of muscle coordination, slurred speech, problems with finding words, inability to speak, difficulties with concentration, dizziness, eye and facial twitching, balance issues.
I’m not gonna lie. It sucks. Imagine your brain feels like it’s swelling and is pushing up against the back of your right eye and the base of your skull, and it’s been pressing against your skull for so long that your brain feels like it has permanent throbbing bruises.
This is my normal. In fact, I can’t remember a time when my head didn’t hurt.
The other symptoms, well, they just come and go as they please, sometimes one or two, sometimes all at once, lasting from several minutes to a few days, usually triggered by some sort of stimulus, such as perfume, stress, heat, not enough sleep, changes in barometric pressure, hormones, caffeine, alcohol, and yep, you guessed it, light, especially fluorescent bulbs, sunlight reflecting off metal and glass surfaces, and flashing lights.
It’s really inconvenient.
Only a few people know about the extent my SHM, because it’s kind of a conversation killer, and I don’t want pity, and honestly, I’m not a delicate flower, and I don’t want my illness to define me. It’s something I’ve dealt with for 20 years, and I try not to let it get me down, and on the whole I have a really amazing life. Seriously, you would be totally jealous.
Tracy, a fellow chronic migraineur, and I told people about our Sleater-Kinney experience, and every person has asked us whether we were able to watch the NPR video of their show from the night before. I know they’re trying to be helpful and offer us a way to possibly regain something we lost, but that’s not the point. I mean, would you pay $40 to see Sleater-Kinney on Youtube? I really don’t feel like I should have to say this, but video footage is nowhere near the same as actually living it.
A week later, another friend and I had to leave a Gang of Four show early because of the strobes, which were unbearable, even though I had come prepared with sunglasses.
The strobe phenomenon has even worked itself into smaller clubs. Two days ago, I saw
The Gotobeds, Protomartyr, and Priests play at U Street Music Hall. Killer bill, right? Unfortunately, the experience was overshadowed by pulsating red and blue lights both on stage and overhead, and I left the show with my right side in a sad place: dragging my foot, not being able to make a fist, and my cheek felt like it had been injected with novocaine.
This was not a roller coaster. This was not a rave. This was not a multimedia extravaganza. This was a punk show, with the light board manned by some random employee with an exuberant finger on the fader.
When I think about the best shows I’ve seen over the past couple of years – Swans, Perfect Pussy, Xiu Xiu, Einsturzende Neubauten, Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, Dirty Beaches, Magnetic Fields, Nick Cave, Deerhoof, Yo La Tengo, Pharmakon – only one of them had any strobes. (Kate Bush, who can do what she wants because she’s Kate Bush. And she only had about 10 seconds of strobes during an entire 2 ½-hour performance.) Why is it, then, that so many other bands and venues feel the need to inflict seizure triggers on the rest of us? On some level, I understand: One of my bands, Dead Fame, had a DIY light show that we built (and tested, to make sure I was okay) in order to ‘enhance the performance’ and ‘give the audience something exciting.’ Maybe that’s it. Ticket prices are increasing, and perhaps bands and venues are feeling pressure to make it ‘worth it’ to someone shelling out $25-$50 per ticket. Perhaps there is some sort of unspoken competition to be
Bigger, Faster, Brighter, Louder.
By the way, Dead Fame eventually got rid of the lights when they got to be too much of a hassle and got in the way of the performance. We realized that we spent too much time worrying about the lights on stage and not focusing on the music. And isn’t the music why we go to shows? Isn’t it through that music that we truly connect and the reason why we’re willing to shell out some cash? Isn’t that what got people together in a room with instruments and ideas to begin with?
The bands that really touched me were just that: people, on stage, with their instruments, their tools, telling us their stories, showing us their truest, inner selves, going on an adventure and taking us with them, with passion and honesty and heartache and joy.
It was just us, together, in that moment. Any extensive lighting would have detracted from that connection, and honestly, would have felt disingenuous and contrary to the spirit of the bond between the audience and performers; it would have created a veil.
I accept that light shows are not going anywhere, but bands should be aware that they have fans who want to see them perform the music they love, who also happen to live with serious neurological conditions, which cannot always be controlled with medication. You can’t easily pick us out in a crowd, because our ailments are, for the most part, ‘invisible’ to the untrained eye, and because we are badasses who keep on living. But I ask that you please be more proactive to help us make informed decisions concerning our health. While neither is ideal, it’s far better to pass on a show than to have to leave three songs in. If the venue has a capacity of less than 500, don’t use house strobes. There’s no need for them in a venue that small, and it’s usually controlled by someone who’s just kind of fudging buttons to do whatever they thinks looks cool. If you have a contract, include a provision that states that the venue post signs stating that your show contains lighting that might induce seizures. Better yet, have the venue post it on your event’s page on their web site. Post it on your personal site and on Facebook. Instagram a venue’s warning sign. And maybe, just maybe, you could cut back on the #DeathStrobes just a little?
Because you don’t need them. What you give us is so much more than some flashing lights. Your music helps us get through the bad days, and we are forever grateful, and we’ve got your back.