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Murphy’s Law: On The Joyful Politics Of LCD Soundsystem

In the absurdity of the Trump era

by Tanner Howard

James Murphy is, at age 48, perhaps the most eloquent and necessary philosopher alive today.

It may seem strange to cast the LCD Soundsystem bandleader in such lofty terms. But Murphy’s trajectory over the past two decades, from New York scenester to globe-trotting dance-punk virtuoso, has also seen the gradual blossoming of an undeniably articulate voice speaking to some of life’s most fundamental questions. Classics like “All My Friends” wouldn’t keep their luster a decade on if they did not capture the painful, beautiful reality of a life of joy and suffering, and the inevitable journey of growing older. In a timeless way, Murphy’s words affect us all, keying into the profound disquiet always lingering under the surface of everyday living, knowing that someday it must all come to an end.

Labeling Murphy a philosopher may strike some as unlikely at first blush. But LCD Soundsystem fans have stuck around and swelled their ranks in no small part because the band makes such philosophizing fun. The thought of wading through some dense philosophical text (or, even worse, taking any college philosophy course) makes the field seem painfully irrelevant. Murphy and his bandmates have made such heady reflections on the importance of life bearable: In dancing out our deepest anxieties about love and loss, surrounded by countless other fans and friends, we are forced to remember the basic joyousness of life itself, and accept our fate with an open heart and shaking hips.

Murphy’s philosophizing has succeeded in no small part because of Murphy’s careful dance with absurdity, inside LCD’s DNA from the start. “Losing My Edge,” the song that introduced the group to the world, saw the 32-year-old Murphy already gleefully aware of his own obsolescence, a lifetime dedicated to obscure music made irrelevant by the internet age. But rather than moping or sulking, he cheerfully accepts his fate. Losing out to the “better-looking people/with better ideas and more talent,” Murphy shrugs his shoulders, concludes these usurpers are “actually really, really nice,” and proceeds to revel in his own music nerdiness without apology. While cheekily insisting in his own, unparalleled music taste, Murphy still reminds listeners: We won’t be cool forever, no matter how hard we try, but why not revel in the struggle to stay relevant just for the hell of it?

In so many ways, Murphy’s witticisms actually bear a striking resemblance to the existentialist philosopher Albert Camus. Camus’ seminal essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," similarly rests on embracing the absurd, the potentially devastating realization that the world will resist all of our sincerest efforts to find some grander meaning within it and through it. Deeming the question of suicide in the face of absurdity to be the “one truly serious philosophical problem,” the French thinker tells us, “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” Across the rest of the essay, which culminates in the titular Greek myth that Camus uses to illustrate his argument that one must choose an absurd and avert suicide, Camus’s words sound remarkably like Murphy’s. In his own powerful way, Murphy has brought to life Camus’s most probing philosophical work and set it to the rhythm.

To this day, LCD Soundsystem’s most melancholic track is “Someone Great,” a loving lament to a loved one now gone. (Speculation has long rested that the song is about Dr. George Kamen, Murphy’s longtime psychotherapist, although Murphy himself has always remained coy on the subject.) From its opening, overlapping synth patterns, through the gentle chiming bells that mirror Murphy’s singing, the song sets the tone of introspective, hopeful reflection, even in the face of great loss. As he sings, “And it keeps coming… and it keeps coming… and it keeps coming till the day it stops,” we hear in Murphy’s voice the painful acceptance that life is often an impossible burden to carry—until suddenly it’s not. At the track’s close, those words run into his parting thoughts, where he sings, “We’re safe, for the moment/ Saved, for the moment.” Somehow, even in a song about the death of someone dear, we’re still fortunate to be here, blessed to see another day.

Articulating such contradictory feelings—still getting to finish “all the work that needs to be done,” finding it hard to grieve in the first place, when “the coffee isn’t even bitter,” realizing that “nothing can prepare you for it/the voice on the other end”—Murphy touches a part of us that knows pain and loss are imminent to life, no matter how hard we try to pretend otherwise. 

Camus explored similar issues in "The Myth of Sisyphus," interpreting the Greek story as a parable to the meaningless but joyful life we live. Sisyphus, leaving his place amongst the gods and plunging into the human world, is eventually condemned to a lifetime of pushing a boulder up a hill, only to see it descend again after every trying effort. Rather than viewing this fate as tragic, Camus insisted that Sisyphus is actually the ideal absurd hero. Having defied the gods, Sisyphus has found his own freedom, no longer tied to a sense of higher purpose. Camus wrote:

This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.

Reaching this sort of Sisyphean equanimity does not come readily. Camus insists that many people are still not aware of life’s lack of higher meaning, but, once they do, the person “who has become conscious of the absurd is forever bound to it.” Such a realization can create despair, as Camus admits: it is much easier to dwell on something like religious belief, just to try to make sense of it all. But in embracing the absurd, Camus suggests, we become more capable of living in revolt, seeking a sense of fullness and openness to life, no matter its ultimate purpose (or lack thereof). He argues: “Accepting the absurdity of everything around us is one step, a necessary experience: it should not become a dead end. It arouses a revolt that can become fruitful.”

Taking Camus’ lead, Murphy shifts gears on “Tonite,” tackling similar themes from an entirely different vantage point. Contemplating the maddening quest for purpose in the face of our inescapable demise, he reminds us how easily we can forget to accept our own mortality. Against the grim but persistent optimism of “Someone Great,” “Tonite” cackles with a deadpan lightness. As the song opens, Murphy taunts those who invoke the spirit of carpe diem, without meaningfully reflecting on the end that awaits us all: “Every singer’s singing the same thing/ It goes tonight, tonight, tonight, tonight, tonight, tonight/ I never realized these artists thought so much about dying.”

Rather than arguing that one’s ultimate end should become a source of despair, he tells us, “This is the best news you’re getting all week.” In his goofy, grumpy dad sort of way, Murphy’s “late era middle-aged ramblings,” coming from a guy who was already in his 30s before he became a dance music sensation, reminds us that enjoying ourselves can’t change the inevitable: “And you're getting older/ I promise you this: you're getting older.” While a perfect night out can feel timeless, none of us escape the reality of growing old, losing our edge—suddenly, we’re too old to party all night; our bodies begin to refuse the drugs we put into them; without meaning to, we’re forced to accept the incomprehensibility of our mortal fate.

None of these realizations come easily, of course. Particularly once we’ve begun to sense the weight of our own mortality, always lingering just behind our daily hopes and desires, we still may not feel any closer to making peace with the relationship between living and dying. When we’re told that “life is finite/ but shit, it feels like forever,” we’re not necessarily any more capable of accepting Camus’ insistence that “[r]evolt is the certainty of a crushing fate, without the resignation that ought to accompany it.”

That’s what makes the LCD Soundsystem reunion so gratifying: Seeing them live gives us the chance to enter a space in which we can actually feel, on both a physical and emotional level, just how fortunate we are to keep going, even when life can overwhelm and overpower us. During the band’s initial run from 2002 to 2011, I was just a bit too young to catch them live, although their “farewell” album, 2010’s This Is Happening, became essential listening during my sophomore year of high school. Thanks to their reunion, I was fortunate to catch the band twice in 2017, first at Pitchfork Music Festival and then as part of a three-night run at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom.

As I entered the show at the Aragon, now five months out from graduating college and decidedly lacking a sense of purpose or clarity about my path forward, I was unprepared for just how cathartic the band’s performance would be. “All My Friends,” probably the band’s biggest hit (and the second best song of the 2000s, according to Pitchfork), took on a special sort of melancholy: Having lost a number of close relationships over the past year, I found myself helplessly alone and yet strangely comforted, as Murphy sang, “Where are your friends tonight?” remembering that, no matter what had gone wrong, “I wouldn’t trade one stupid decision/ for another five years of life.” Likewise, “Someone Great” reduced me to tears, the visceral sensation of grief and paradoxical hopefulness that can accompany the feeling of loss, buoyed by our ability to dance through it all. 

Even attending the concert alone, just getting to share such an experience with so many other people was a necessary reminder that there’s always a way out of any sense of loneliness or dread, even if it’s not immediately clear how to get there. As we collectively sang the words to every song, lumps in our throats at the specific experiences that we may have attached to Murphy’s thoughtful reflections on getting older, I could feel how important it was for so many of us to share that experience with countless others that night.

Particularly in a moment in which we’re driven further and further from one another, our news feeds carving away at our ability to share experiences beyond our individual perspective, there’s a genuine sense of importance that a space like an LCD concert can create. In her book Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy, Barbara Ehrenreich argues: “Not only has the possibility of collective joy been largely marginalized to the storefront churches of the poor and the darkened clubs frequented by the young, but the very source of this joy—other people, including strangers—no longer holds much appeal. In today’s world, other people have become an obstacle to our individual pursuits.”

As Ehrenreich senses, and as anybody at that concert would tell you, the feeling of communal joy hasn’t completely disappeared from our lives. But outside of one memorable show, or a perfect all-nighter surrounded by friends, such a feeling of immediate, intuitive connection to those around us is increasingly hard to come by. Forced into working longer and longer hours, often in gig economy jobs that pit us against people just like us, we’re easily trapped inside feelings of isolation and loneliness. In this environment, we have fewer chances to spend meaningful time with others, at a political moment in which we need to hold one another tighter than ever before.

In this sense, as strange as it may seem, there’s a genuine political significance to an LCD Soundsystem show. LCD’s performance can help to remind us just how captivating a sense of communal joy can make us feel, growing our capacity to connect with others and form emotional bonds that provide a necessary release. With so many of us under attack, we gain strength in numbers, remembering that we don’t have to take on the world’s adversities on our own. Twenty-seventeen was not only the year that James Murphy brought together thousands of eager fans night after night, but also the first time many got involved in politics. Whether amongst the five million-plus Americans who participated in the Women’s March, or those that flooded airports in the wake of the travel ban, countless people found strength in joining the crowd, chanting slogans, and feeling a palpable kinship in uniting against the horrors of a Trump presidency.

Do these actions have some greater meaning, in the philosophical sense? According to Camus, even if they were lacking in some deeper purpose, this should not devalue their significance. In the middle of the Myth of Sisyphus, he wrote:

It was previously a question of finding out whether or not life had to have a meaning to be lived. It now becomes clear, on the contrary, that it will be lived all the better if it has no meaning. Living an experience, a particular fate, is accepting it fully.

As people on the left continue to find their bearings and build the political strength necessary to combat the ugliness that confronts us, maintaining a feeling of direction, when so much seems beyond repair, is no small task. By adopting a philosophical outlook that starts from this place of absurdity, accepting the incomprehensibility of the world and its sheer madness, Camus showed that this outlook need not deprive us of our ability to act. Similarly, in demonstrating that life is as beautiful as it is fragile, Murphy is one small reminder that we can somehow manage to keep going in trying times—even if, in the end, all we’re left with is one joyous gathering at a club, surrounded by friendly people, content to revel in the face of so much darkness.