Everybody became a music expert around the time of the show, even though most people under seventy-five hadn’t ever heard it. Past performances, attending celebrities, winning songs and Maestros. It gives us all something to talk about for a couple of weeks. So we can feel like we were in the loop. We’re very cultured. It changes you when you hear it, though. Just ask anyone who’s had to perform. But we all make mistakes. I should probably be thankful I was given the option to dance. Parole would still be three years off if I hadn’t. Society better feel repaid.
Stage fright didn’t bother me. They wouldn’t be able to see my face anyway. And they said I didn’t have to do anything but stand on my mark during the performance. But the unknown made me nervous, whatever was on the other side of the curtain. Uncertainty always connotes some strange form of death, something from which I knew I couldn’t come back. Unerasable. I had been told how music used to be, before the ban. How it used to make people feel. How people moved with it and not from it. How it was a beautiful, articulate language instead of a science. Or a drug, depending on how you look at it. The same debate as whether pianos were string instruments or percussion. The elderly always spoke of it fondly when I was young, the few that were old enough to recall it. Sounded like something I was fortunate not to remember. Something I didn’t want to carry the burden of missing.
We were the final act to go on. Showered and dressed in black suits and starched white shirts with thin black ties. We had been waiting in a holding room in the back for a few hours, during which none of us spoke. A few minutes before we were scheduled to go on they lead us backstage, motioning with index fingers to pursed lips for us to move slowly, to keep the shackles quiet so as not to disrupt the show. They stepped through the chains that connected our collective wrists and ankles and offered us glasses of water. Several of us drank. Then they stuffed folds of white cloth into our mouths and fastened them in place with small leather straps, cushioned under the buckle so as not to scrape our necks. It wasn’t uncomfortable, necessarily, and the cloth soaked up the saliva that pooled under my tongue from not being able to swallow.
There were several pairs of frightened eyes. Several pairs of acquiescent, veteran. Once we were properly gagged they placed the masks over our heads. They were handsome masks. Silicon. Well made in the image of our particular Maestro. With just a glance they looked very much like him, although the smile bordered on silly. They tucked the masks into our collars. My breath immediately began to condense inside the rubbery nose and around the mouth. It tickled when I exhaled. On the other side of the deep blue curtain the winner for Most Debilitating Song finished her acceptance speech and our Maestro was announced. As the applause subsided, the curtain parted and we were hustled onto the stage. Into the lights.
There were speakers everywhere. The stage walls were blanketed in hundreds of black craters, varying in diameter and each nippled in the center. The theater was a massive pavilion of velour balconies and boxes. The ceiling was a maelstrom of imploded diamonds. Everything was immaculate. Every seat cushioned a famous rear. Celebrities and dignitaries peered down at us as we each found our appropriate numbered mark, the clinking of our chains echoing throughout the house. Directly above us hung a massive unlit bulb. In front of us and just below, alone in a half-circle sunken before the stage, our Maestro stood with his instrument panel before him. My face began to sweat and I could hear my labored breathing stifled beneath the mask. The bulb began to blink a soft red. At this, the audience shuffled collectively, raising hands to ears, inserting something into their canals one by one. They each then produced from the back of the seat in front of them red industrial earmuffs, which they fastened to their heads, adjusting them for comfort. As the audience prepared, we were unfettered. They removed the chains from the cuffs that remained fastened to our wrists and ankles. The metallic jingling quieted and the bulb remained lit and unblinking. We were left alone onstage. The curtain unsplit. A spotlight from the highest balcony soon blinded us. I had to turn my head to stop it from piercing the silicon eyelets. Every light went black except for the red glow of the bulb and the seething spot. Someone coughed in the silence. It was the last familiar sound I heard before the music began.
Old folks say it used to have something to do with single notes all blended together. And a rhythm, like a cadence or clock ticking, helped to move the blended notes along. Certain songs were better than others, easily distinguishable from what I’ve been told. Apparently some of them made you want to move your body parts in time with the cadence. Willfully. In the old days, anyway. But it all began to sound the same, before the first Maestros started to tinker with its subliminal aspects. The elderly of my youth weren’t around to see it banned soon after the emergence of the Maestros. People abandoned the old music because the new music was so blissfully addictive. They literally couldn’t stop listening to it. So many people stopped going to work the economy plummeted, and a coherent few thankfully realized we couldn’t be trusted to listen to it, for the good of the country. Prohibition laws were swiftly passed. Of course no one had the foresight to consider the plague of withdrawals. Hundreds of thousands are still in clinics to this day, living in constant supervision, their helmets covering the earbuds that keep them alive. They can’t figure out how to ween the most addicted from the sound.
It’s supposed to be relatively safe in short bursts, though. Or I wouldn’t have agreed to it. My children were the reason I opted to perform in the first place. Home and unwell trumps imprisoned and healthy. The Maestros, instantly deified and infinitely wealthy, went up in arms after the ban. Apparently everyone wanted to be a Maestro back then; a Rocking Roller, I think they were called, when anyone who could bang a drum or pluck a string could make a song, before a doctorate in Ultrasonic Acoustical Engineering was needed to even be licensed to try. And with no more concerts or appearances or albums they had no path to become Rollers. So the Maestros got together and petitioned the government to at least keep a regulated annual award show. For the exposure. Their wish was granted when they all signed contracts agreeing to act as consultants during the massive effort to weaponize their compositions. Patriots, too, are the Maestros. It’s been the most celebrated night of the year for decades.
We’re very cultured.
It sounded as if someone had recorded the first nanosecond of a very thin piece of metal tinking against a very thin piece of glass and elongated it indefinitely. I couldn’t hear it so much as feel it, like a painless needle behind my ears. My muscles tensed. An aural undercurrent of static. The cloth in my mouth juiced when my teeth clenched upon it. Then the thrum began. An atonal drone that I can only describe as purple. The regurgitation reflex encompassed my entire body, as if it wanted to throw itself up, turn itself inside out. I heaved. Deep valleys of gigging-hum somehow jackhammered deeper into previously unknown bottomless trenches, throttling. I heard next a muffled scream, which didn’t emanate from the prison of speakers. With all my strength I wrested my head to the left, past my raised arms towards the only natural sound. I couldn’t tell who it had come from. Every suit and mask clenched and flailed. Knees buckled. Asynchronous electrified puppets. The Maestro fingered the instrument panel casually. Another scream was choked upon as my neck spasmed, wrenching my jaw back to center. Wubwubwubwubwub was injected directly, bypassing my ears, and inflated my brain plumply against my skull. My head was forced back and forth angrily, as if hammering a nail into an invisible wall before me. My thumb pushed on the knuckle of my forefinger until it broke. By now we had convulsed away from our marks, and stood jumbled on the stage, occasionally bumping one another. I heard over the thrum soft thuds and crunches from one dancer’s wrist cuff repeatedly slamming itself into his mask. His white shirt saturated crimson as the blood seeped. His legs soon gave out beneath him. His body attempted to right itself, remain on its knees in semiconsciousness, shoulders bucking, and his limbs slid beneath him like a deer on ice. I felt the pop of my ankle tendon. The thrum and purple drone and elongated ping intensified, rhythmized. My bladder eliminated itself as I bit off the right side of my tongue, which had somehow wedged itself between the gag and my teeth. I attempted to lean forward so as not to choke on the blood that had long since saturated the cloth, but the electric tension in my lower back wouldn’t allow it, nor would my throat permit me to swallow. I sucked air through my nose, breathing through the mercuric bubbles. The trail of blood and saliva was cool on my neck. Another dancer collapsed, completely this time. The audience roared with applause. His body thrashed on the stage, his knee hammering repeatedly onto the hardwood. His movements eased from that of a fish out of water to a sensual, unconscious writhing against the floor, less frantic. He stopped moving as my shoulders righted me forward again. At the climax of the performance every dancer’s arms were thrust behind them, perfectly in synch, chests shoved mightily at the audience, as if in attempt to fly away. Of the two bodies on the floor, only one of the prone dancers’ arms pointed lazily to the sky. My eardrum popped but nothing audibly changed. The Maestro dramatically whisked his hands from his instrument panel and raised them triumphantly into the air as the music ceased, and most of the dancers tumbled to the floor. Only now could I hear just the right side of the audience’s rapturous ovation. As they applauded we were shackled again and pulled away. The two bodies were dragged by their underarms behind us as the Maestro took his bow onstage. The curtain closed.
We were taken to the post-performance area, where we were treated for sustained injuries. A booming voice introduced the final presenter. I never again saw the fallen dancers. My finger and ankle were wrapped as the nominees for Best Performance by a Maestro were announced. I was told to put ice on my tongue to keep the swelling down, and given an apology for the hearing loss. It might go away in a few days, they told me. Said I could keep the diaper. Cute. They signed my release papers and said that they would see me next year. Our Maestro was announced as the final nominee. I didn’t make eye contact with any of the other dancers as I walked to the door, surprised to find my palm tapping gently on my thigh. I opened the fire exit and walked out, into the light, for some reason trying to recall what I had heard. Trying to remember the music. Before the door closed behind me I heard the presenter speak.
And the winner is, she said.