I saw The Protomen live for the first time at Lola’s Room last week. The Protomen are a band that sings dystopian agit-prop tributes to the classic video game Mega Man. Every album (there are two so far) is an Act in a dark, epic rock opera that grows more and more agonizingly tense as straights get more and more dire for a futuristic city under fascist robot domination, and for their would-be saviors. They played back-to-back shows, each one featuring a different Act.
I could only attend one, so I chose the second, which is the one that resonates more strongly with me, though both are amazing. Act I is about Doctor Light’s robot son Mega Man defying his creator’s will and standing up to Doctor Wily and his robot thugs, only to be disillusioned by the fickle public he fights for. Act II is a prequel, chronicling how Light and Wily created the robots together, how Wily seized control of them and of the entire city, and how Dr. Light’s first attempt at ending his rule met with disaster.
From the very first song, I had tears flowing. I danced and fist-pumped and cried and screamed through the whole gut-wrenching tale, knowing all the while how it would end yet giving myself fully toward feeling its emotions right along with the protagonists. Yes, this is a story of robots and mad scientists, but the Protomen’s genius is that they’ve infused those trappings with a real human core of pain and heartache and hopes raised and hopes crushed. It’s dystopia at its finest. It’s bleak, yet defiantly hopeful for all that. It’s raw and authentic storytelling; take my word for it or better yet, listen for yourself! I walked out of Lola’s room with powerful feelings coursing through my body. Feelings of sorrow and joy and above all the sheer vividness of taking on the emotions of the story so completely.
It’s not the first time I’ve been moved in this way by art. But I took time to reflect on why powerful stories move me in this way—certainly more strongly than they seem to move most people. And a little random memory came bubbling to the surface of my thoughts: how, when a friend of mine burned copies of the Protomen’s albums to blank CD awhile back, he labeled them “Nerd Bible.” When I’d seen that, I laughed. But now I saw something more than flippancy, or a mere cutesey way of expressing his enthusiasm for the band. I realized, that, whatever my friend may have meant by that label, for my part I do take the Protomen as seriously as the Bible.
I’m part of a faith community called The Bridge. It’s kind of like church for people who’ve been damaged by church. We’re an inclusive, expressive bunch who are committed to giving voice to the voiceless, making a safe space where everyone can tell their story. One of the ways we do this is by writing all our own songs, expressing what we’re really going through rather than the polished, “Biblically correct” way to feel. And we’re free to enjoy this music any way we like: sitting and singing, standing and screaming, dancing, painting, freestyle rapping. It’s creative and defiant and freeing.
I realized that the Protomen’s music moved me in heart and body exactly as much, and in exactly the same way, as music at the Bridge moves me. Cutting loose and dancing allowed me to let loose all the frustration and longing held trapped in my chest by civilization…just like at the Bridge. Screaming out lyrics along with the band allowed me to defy the powers of shame and dare to hope…just like at the Bridge. I had a feeling of solidarity from singing and moving along with a crowd of people all taking joy in the same thing, while still being free to do my own thing…just like the Bridge.
Screaming lyrics like “don’t turn your back on the city,” “light up the night,” and “climb to the top of the world,” held exactly as much meaning and emotion as anything I’ve sung at the Bridge.
That’s how I realized…the Protomen are my religion. Not JUST the Protomen, mind you. But things LIKE the Protomen. Things that move me to tears with painful truths, things that give me emotions to resonate with, and a narrative to enthrall me. I’ve cried for Jesus Christ Superstar, Cowboy Bebop, Dr. Horrible, the Road, and more. My religion is STORIES. It’s a religion that’s felt rather than believed. It’s not about doctrine, but relationship; not about metaphysics, but emotion. It’s about defiance and finding our voice.
Yep, stories are my religion. And like any religion when it gets taken out of the realm of raw and honest expression and placed into slick marketable packages it becomes open to manipulation and oppression. The Protomen are taking a story, a trite narrative from a video game, out of its safe, cute package and dumping it back into the raw and dangerous sea of messy humanity. And I salute them.
The one thing that the Protomen don’t do, though, is tell your story. They’re telling their story, and inviting us to join in, and it’s fucking powerful! But I’d say there are two components to this new religion of mine; one is to find the people who are telling raw authentic stories, like the Protomen, and celebrate that. But the other is to tell MY story, and work with others in community to help them tell theirs. Band Member Muphy Weller even says as much: “That’s what the band is about. If we can get away with what we are doing, kids out there will do it; and don’t be ashamed of who you are.”
That’s where the Bridge comes in. That’s where story games come in. That’s where all forms of DIY art come in. Brave souls like the Protomen show us that stories are for everyone, and the next step for me is to invite you all to join me as we tell OUR story, together.