God Save the Teen

The adorable anarchy of Atari Teenage Riot.

Published April 25, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

have you ever felt a noise so big you suffered and cringed and wanted to
die? I'm not talking about ideological pain, the kind that creeps up on you
when a Santana song comes on the radio or when you have to watch poor old
Dead Astaire posthumously peddling vacuum cleaners on TV. No. I mean the
kind of physical audio torture that is so intense and debilitating you're
convinced you have eardrums in your elbows. The kind that makes you think in
one-word sentences: Make. It. Stop. Must. Lie. Down.

I saw the German DJ band Atari Teenage Riot at an Austin club last month.
When they started playing or pushing buttons or whatever it is they do (a
blinding black strobe light prohibited vision), all I could do was start
hunting frantically through my bag for something, anything, to cram into my
ears. Gum wrappers and notebook paper were no match for that kind of
assault. I couldn't understand a word. I remember after the show when we were walking to
the car, my friend mentioned something about "destroy 2000 years of culture," but at the time I didn't know if he was quoting or describing. It was the sort of experience that calls all language into question -- like if you overuse the word "unbearable," then a night like that makes you pause the next time you use it to describe something merely annoying or uncomfortable. This was the kind of teeth-gritting endurance test that has nothing to do with
amusement and everything to do with the triumph of the will. I figured if I
hated something that much, it had to be great.

Then I got their album! It's called "Burn, Berlin, Burn!" (Grand
Royal!), and "Destroy 2000 Years Of Culture" really is one of their songs! All their
lyrics end in exclamation points! Sometimes more than one!!!!!!!!!!! It
starts with a cheer! "Start the Riot!" It goes, "fight! war! fire!
violence! DEATH! TV! police! FUCK YOU!!!!!!!!!" It's the funniest thing
I've heard since it was announced that Reagan's lost his mental faculties!
They're angry! They're mad! They're German! They're building new worlds
and all you do is watch television! But don't believe me! I'm the press!
They wrote a song about us named "P.R.E.S.S."! "90 PERCENT OF YOU IS FUCKIN SHIT!!!!
Hey wait. I'm confused. I thought we liked destruction. I thought burning
and smashing and knocking things down was starting the riot and that we were
supposed to start the riot RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!!!!!!

This wasn't funny live. It was brutal. But the album is fun, a thrilling beat bonanza, a downright hoot. Why is it that being able to understand the words
makes ATR sound adorable, sort of like an Italian Futurist version of
the Beastie Boys? Is it just me, or is anarchism becoming so much cuter? So much so that lyrics like "Cut all policemen into pieces" seem quaintly optimistic, as if eliminating the symbols
of the state are really going to free us all at last, and their sampling of the no-future riff from the Sex Pistol's "God Save the Queen" under the passionate chant "Delete yourself!/You've got no chance to win!" comes off as more nostalgic than lethal?

Maybe it's having control over the volume that weakens it. Not that "Burn, Berlin, Burn!" is a weak recording; it's still extreme, the gutsiest noise I've heard in months. But
I can handle it at home. I can turn it down and do the dishes and look out
the window. I can listen to them call Elvis Presley a sucker and then put on
"Jailhouse Rock." I can make it stop, and I can lie down. I can even like
it (can, and do). I can dissect content and hunt down my own pet themes and
think about the complex melee of electro-textures, admire the way the lust in
Hanin Elias' voice plays off Alec Empire's resistance-fighter's bark. But
all that just makes me miss hating them back in that club. I miss the neural shutdown, the escape, the way my ears whistled for hours and hours like some corporeal souvenir. I miss the pain. I'll keep living with the record, but I'll long for living through it.

By Sarah Vowell

Sarah Vowell is the author of "Radio On: A Listener's Diary" (St. Martin's Press, 1996) and "Take the Cannoli" (Simon & Schuster, 2000) and is a regular commentator on PRI's "This American Life." Her column appears every other Wednesday in Salon. For more columns by Vowell, visit her column archive.

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