The Nostalgia of the Infinite (1910-1922)
In 1910, the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico began producing a series of canvases that has been retroactively grouped together as “Metaphysical Town Square” paintings. They depict Italian piazzas curiously devoid of human life, with haunting shadows cast by lonely buildings and archways, clocks and church towers looming in the distance. Some of the paintings depict incongruous elements and outmoded objects, such as ancient ruins, a Roman bust, or a crumbled sculpture next to a railway station. These canvases have been widely interpreted as depictions of the uncanny, “the presence of the past in the present.” De Chirico’s technique was to extract the familiar from the quotidian, leaving behind a ghostly presence impregnated by a deep sense of melancholy and nostalgia that reflected the inner workings of dreams and desire.
“Thom Yorke might be awfully good at crafting forceful and poetic lyrics that evoke the alienation of living in a consumerist wasteland, but he is stuck wailing from inside the machine.”
While de Chirico eventually abandoned metaphysical painting in favor of a more conventional style, a generation of European artists who saw his early works — Yves Tanguy, Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, and René Magritte among them — used de Chirico’s aesthetic ideas to found Surrealism, an avant-garde movement that attempted to liberate the irrationality of the unconscious in order to disrupt and subvert the capitalist, bourgeois culture industry they believed had led Europe into a devastating and unnecessary war. When surveying the range of contemporaneous reactions to the art of de Chirico and his aesthetic progeny, it is perhaps interesting to note that not a single critic thought to accuse it of being derivative or sterile because of its interest in outmoded objects or its references to earlier visual culture. There was no hand-wringing about the death of novelty or the end of utopian striving. Surrealism was seen as audaciously new, announcing a bold new aesthetic that pointed the way toward the future, even if it relied upon plumbing the depths of memory and the unconscious. Why then do we now associate these avant-garde techniques (the uncanny, the surreal, the outmoded) with unproductive nostalgia and regressive politics? I would argue that it is actually this association itself that is nostalgic, calling upon the outmoded leftist critiques of thinkers such as Guy Debord and Jürgen Habermas, who relied upon slippery notions of “authenticity” to criticize mass media.
I’ve argued elsewhere that much of the lo-fi post-noise psychedelia of chillwave/hypnagogia is not merely a solipsistic retreat into nostalgia, but rather a pioneering use of technology that lends pop music certain uncanny, surrealistic effects that were previously only available via the immediacy of painting or cinema. Upon hearing an album such as Oneohtrix Point Never’s Replica or KWJAZ, one’s first impulse is often to locate the references in spacetime: This sounds like the Beverly Hills Cop soundtrack; that sounds like Weather Channel music. This reminds me of Zack Attack; that reminds me of Jesse & The Rippers. It can be a fun game, but it misses the point. It’s enough to note that it sounds like something-or-other uprooted from a collective past and defamiliarized in a new setting, lent the scratch patina of a memory, a half-remembered dream, a heat-warped cassette tape, or an nth generation VHS dub. Just like a de Chirico canvas, the “subject” of postmodern pop is not the source of the samples or even the song structure per se. The subject is the uncanny excess, the range of sensual effects produced. If you are looking for originality in this kind of music, this is where you will find it. If you are searching for the politics of hypnagogic pop, this is where it is located.
James Ferraro isn’t trying to convince anyone that Weather Channel jazz is the new punk. Rather, he is producing a series of radical ruptures in the pop landscape. In pop music, it’s not enough to simply confuse the boundaries between high and low culture, because pop music is always already low culture, by definition. In 2011, it is no longer possible to effect a transvaluation of outmoded musical genres like disco or folk; this has been done to death. Any contemporary pop connoisseur has a few essential disco records in their collection, and it’s no longer subversive to exalt the virtues of a Pentangle album. In order to innovate in the post-music blog world, one must radically challenge fundamental assumptions shared by virtually all pop cognoscenti. This is why Ferraro and many of his contemporaries have chosen to focus on genres that have been generally deemed unfit to even wear the mantle of music: elevator jazz, commercial jingles, New Age relaxation tapes, library records, Windows startup sounds, royalty free MIDI baubles, and cheesy ringtones. The more generic the sounds, the better to disrupt the experience of listening and call into question the medium itself.
“The more generic the sounds, the better to disrupt the experience of listening and call into question the medium itself.”
What is pop music? Why do we listen? What does it mean to grow up in a environment saturated with disposable music? What are the economies of pleasure that dictate our listening habits? How might pop music structure our desires in a late capitalist economy on the brink of worldwide collapse? Questions such as these come to mind when you listen to an album like Far Side Virtual. The new album by Björk might be more innovative and “better” by whatever set of aesthetic values one applies, but it will always be another work of monumental artistic ego, yet another finely-tuned and complex “masterpiece” demanding obsessive listening. In the end, Biophilia is yet another album attempting to establish its position in a pop canon that seems increasingly suspect, as the critical narratives structuring the received history of pop are revealed as contingent, shaped by corporate influence and institutional prejudice. Thom Yorke might be awfully good at crafting forceful and poetic lyrics that evoke the alienation of living in a consumerist wasteland, but he is stuck wailing from inside the machine. If Radiohead is like a Chris Marker film, James Ferraro is like an I-BE AREA video. You may want to throw Far Side Virtual against a wall upon hearing its relentlessly arch, kitschy blandness, but it manages to successfully turn pop against itself, which, like it or not, is a politically progressive project. Its pure, bold conceptualism stood out in a year that was dominated by the “febrile sterility” of post-internet microgenres and tail-swallowing postmodernism.