Maus trap?

Who is John Maus? And who does he think he is? In the coming weeks his name will doubtless become familiar as the lists and sublists of 2011’s best music fight it out for supremacy and hashtags.

In a year without a clear critics’ favourite (perhaps PJ Harvey comes closest to the domination of Caribou and Beach House in 2010 and Animal Collective the year before), it seems Maus’s odd pop opus We Shall Become The Pitiless Censors of Ourselves may yet emerge as points winner.

The Minnesotan singer/composer is a tutor in postmodern theory by day and by night he sounds like the Human League’s Phil Oakey swapping the mic for a crucifix in a medieval passion play. It is a shimmeringly weird synth record spattered with galactic hits from another universe.

But is it one big trick? It’s the question bothering John Maus fans. When he turns up at Tufnell Park Dome in Waco Texas nutter mode (his performance lies somewhere between a Nandrolone-fuelled gym workout & an exorcism) the night becomes a puzzle disguised as a rave.

The show is a one man and his laptop affair, leaving the stage free for a physical display of self-flagellatory endurance. Maus – an alternate American hero with a firefighter’s jawline – slaps himself round the head, gurns and grimaces at the crowd and, like the emperor in Star Wars, shoots out (imaginary) lightning bolts with his fingers.

His good looks and athletic physique somehow make his crazed performance all the more beguiling. He is pleading with us to absorb his intense energy; part cult leader, part pop idol. And the question in my head: is it wrong to giggle?

“They call me the believer!” proclaims Maus (on Believer, see video) as he fires through time-travelling epic Quantum Leap and the Frankie Knuckles synth storm of Streetlight , greeting each of his own songs with surprise and awe. And The Rain soaks the crowd in space beams and cathedral organs, while the motivational disco fuzz of Keep Pushing On mirrors the hipsterobics unleashed on the floor.

But the songs are ancillary, a vehicle for some other project. Maus, 31, and a sometime lecturer at the University of Hawaii, is studying for a PhD in political philosophy and recently told The Guardian: “If I can get up there and nearly have a heart attack every night, if a human being can push themselves to the absolute limit of their physical existence and people can still go ‘What’s the point?’, then that’s the point! To point out how we can’t take our existence for granted.”

So is his performance an experiment in the mechanics of evangelism? Could his karaoke set be an investigation into herd politics, the coordinates of euphoria, the unsettling speed at which a crowd follows a leader? If so, he can conclude that, when the mood is correctly engineered, humans are willing drones in another man’s utopia; even in Tufnell Park on a cold night in November. Dictators take note: it only takes a laptop, an energy drink and good cheekbones.

Anna Doble

A version of this article first appeared in the Spectator Arts Blog, November 2011

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