Monthly Archives: February 2014

Tough Mudder, the avant-garde, & the popularity of rollercoasters

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IF YOU LIVE near where I live, then around about now’s the right time to register for Tough Mudder Scotland, a 10-mile obstacle course involving ice, icy water, fire, electric shocks, long falls, an outside possibility of death, & of course, much mud. I don’t know, maybe that appeals to you. Christ knows it doesn’t appeal to me, but then I’m a bookish, waifish intellectual. They sew me into my skinny jeans before I leave the house (for lectures only!) & I come straight back, draw the curtains, & stay at home thinking about life & adventure & the great outdoors & so forth, without ever actually experiencing it. I’m like Wordsworth in that respect.

But obviously Tough Mudder does appeal to some, because over one million people worldwide have participated, & the event continues to grow. Three of my friends have done it. I can sort of understand the appeal. It’s essentially an egotistical thing, proving to oneself that one is indeed the best, the toughest, the fittest. It’s like graduating the SAS’ notoriously difficult training, except without then being obliged to make oneself useful by fighting for the country. That’s why, whereas the SAS would pay you, you have to pay Tough Mudder for their services, because what they’re letting you do is play special forces, but in basically safe conditions. Sure, I mentioned further up that there’s been one death, but out of one million participants, that means Tough Mudder is 99.9999% safe, which makes it safer than ecstasy, horseriding, or safe sex. & in that sense, Tough Mudder strikes me as a weirdly privileged phenomenon, a notion possibly borne out by a look over the countries in which the company operates: the United States, Canada, the UK, Ireland, Germany, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, & Mexico. At this rate, we could just replace the Human Development Index with a measure of the presence or non-presence of Tough Mudder.

Nick Hornby wrote a typically sensible essay in his nonfiction collection 31 Songs, discussing Suicide’s 10-minute industrial nightmare, “Frankie Teardrop”. Unfortunately, I can only link to the first few pages of the essay here, but the gist of it is that Hornby considers the critical phenomenon of undue praise often going to experimental, unsettling, challenging works simply by virtue of their being experimental, unsettling or challenging, deciding that it is, by & large, the product of a complacency borne of peace & prosperity; that a returning WWI veteran probably wouldn’t have much of a wish to listen to “Frankie Teardrop”, a song which one reviewer compares to being shot in the head.

Nick Hornby makes a very good point. But it was also his description of “Frankie Teardrop” as his most disturbing sonic experience which gave me a desire to listen to it; in the same essay, Hornby expresses a preference for a Teenage Fanclub song on the basis that it’s catchy & likeable, which is fair enough, but to this day hasn’t been a strong enough recommendation for me to seek it out. I myself have recommended to friends Scott Walker’s dank, claustrophobic Tilt & his violent, ugly The Drift essentially on the basis of how unpleasant they are. Teenagers often try to outdo each other on who can stand the most violent films, the obscenest pornography, or the heaviest music. But I think there’s something more than that novelty value going on, because I still enjoy Suicide, Scott Walker & indeed noise music, which is as far as I can imagine the apotheosis of heavy, because it’s nothing but feedback. I’m not trying to boast there; & when I do listen to noise, it’s with something of an ironic distance, because I do recognise the absurdity of the sort of aural race to the bottom which produced it: the fuckit-ism of “Just how far can we push this? Beyond the point of pleasantness? Hopefully!”. & as teenaged as it seems, there’s a huge fascination with boundarypushing, even in mature, “serious” fields such as, say, the entirety of modernist literature. Or experimental film. Or most visual art since the Second World War.

It might be a touch too easy to chalk all this up to our pampered society. After all, times of war have produced plenty of war literature & art, & times of hardship or horror don’t always lead to fluffy escapism becoming more appealing. Cultural historians have often blamed the optimism of Tin Pan Alley on the harsh realities of the Depression; but then, the same critics would also argue that the aftermath of 9/11 put the kibosh, temporarily, on the popularity of films like Godzilla or Independence Day, in which the destruction of New York is just the coolest thing – that escapism was common before 9/11, & more complex, challenged moralities more popular afterwards*. Tough Mudder, difficult avant-garde art, &, indeed, horror films, might all be appealing to one unchanging part of the human psyche which just longs for “danger”, in flavours that vary from indivual to individual. & I don’t think wider sociopolitical considerations have ever made much of an impact on the popularity of rollercoasters, which are, I think, probably the most direct expression of this sort of fascination.

*As, for instance, with the proliferation of dark, tortured superheroes in films like The Dark Knight, though it must be pointed out that the cinematic trend began a little before 9/11, with Blade (1998), X-Men (2000), & Spider-Man (2002, but completed earlier. Posters & trailers for the film featured WTC prominently).