2011: Dispatches from the Pop Museum
The Future Is Not What It Used to Be
Seapunk, Tumblr Pop, and the New New Age
It has been argued by Mario Zoots (following from initial ideas put forth by Travis Egedy) that witch house — the postmodern joke genre that quickly became all too real — is incomprehensible without considering the role of the internet. In Retromania, Reynolds attempts to tease out the influence of music blogs and YouTube on contemporary pop, but he neglects the influence of microblogging platforms such as Twitter and Tumblr, which have become the key locus of pop surrealism and musical postmodernism over the past two years. On Tumblr, the endless blogging and reblogging of images, animated GIFs, Vimeos, and SoundCloud demos creates a chaotic slipstream that has become its own gloriously bizarre anti-aesthetic: VHS screen captures, 90s cultural detritus, haunted 8bit video art, minimalist internet pop art, New Age dolphin-scapes, and postmodern sexualities all collide to form one continuous post-internet trash aesthetic that rapidly evolves and can seemingly incorporate anything into its endlessly permeable corpus. Microgenres are born and die within days on Tumblr, and a raft of digital/cassette labels have begun making temporary homes on Tumblr in order to capitalize on these transient microtrends.
“You don’t have to be a philosopher to grasp the notion that the future is made from the past, and that one of the chief engines of progressive politics is the creative revision of history.”
Seapunk is merely the newest and most willfully absurd of these microgenres, an aesthetic that appears to be based largely on aquamarine-dyed hair and the Sega Genesis game Ecco the Dolphin. Seapunk is very much indebted to the clusterfuck aesthetics of Tumblr: tacky CGI renderings of New Age oceanscapes superimposed over the already familiar beach obsession of chillwave. The music itself, a hyperactive hybrid of rave and Baltimore House, seems to be the least important element of seapunk, a vivid example of postmodern pop’s tendency to focus its libidinal energies on a visual gestalt rather than generic specificity. I bring up seapunk not to acclaim it or defend it, but rather to demonstrate that even in its obnoxious ephemerality, it demonstrates the democratic, D.I.Y. aspect of Tumblr pop. The ability to curate and appropriate the past, to collect and conflate and create unique hybrids out of cultural detritus, has the potential to revolutionize the way we approach pop music. Writers and critics with a much more impressive pedigree than me have spilled a lot of ink talking about just how easy it has become for the average person to make music and find an audience for it online, so I won’t reiterate that familiar argument. The conservative finger-wagging inherent in the verdict of contemporary pop’s “febrile sterility” ignores the liberatory potential of a generation of unprofessional, internet-based artists producing work that disrupts and rewires the fundamental circuits of aesthetic judgment. Why exactly is D.I.Y. punk and 1980s industrial cassette culture progressive, but chillwave and hypnagogia regressive?
Toward the end of his book, Reynolds devotes a few sections to hauntology, teasing out a genealogy that moves from Boards of Canada’s Music Has the Right to Children and Position Normal, to Ghost Box, Mordant Music, and Moon Wiring Club. All of these British musicians share an obsession with the outmoded utopianism of an irretrievable past. Ghost Box artists are spared the harsh castigation of the rest of Reynolds’ targets, largely because he claims that the hauntological spirit is about highlighting the lack of a viable futurism in the contemporary landscape, which is one of his pet ideas. Reynolds invokes 20jazzfunkgreats’ notable assertion that “when the past sounds more like the future than the present does, revival becomes progressive.” However, Reynolds calls this a “precarious and paradoxical strategy,” and in subsequent chapters, he seems to have abandoned any notion of hauntology’s progressiveness. In the same chapter, Reynolds mentions but mostly refuses to critically engage with the parallel movement of “New New Age” music, artists like Stellar OM Source, Dolphins Into the Future, and Pulse Emitter, who have created some of the most consistently rewarding ambient electronic music in recent memory. Both British hauntology and New New Age share the same underlying premise: that the “naive” utopianism of previous generations can be redeemed and rewired to serve as a template for a futurism that transcends the myopic cynicism of these times. Of all the obsessive corners of the postmodern pop landscape, this seems the most inherently progressive in its aspirations.
“On Tumblr, the endless blogging and reblogging of images, animated GIFs, Vimeos, and SoundCloud demos creates a chaotic slipstream that has become its own gloriously bizarre anti-aesthetic.”
Writing about Afrofuturism’s historical revisionism, Paul Miller, a.k.a. DJ Spooky, argues that the project is not regressive, but rather a “living through the past as a kind of reflection site for future permutations in African identity — in the present.” On the other side of the philosophical spectrum, Slavoj Žižek, in the conclusion of the fittingly titled In Defense of Lost Causes, a text in which he reassesses the legacy of communism and other failed utopian projects, claims that “we have to accept that, at the level of possibilities, our future is doomed… and then, against the background of this acceptance… mobilize ourselves to perform the act which will change destiny itself and thereby insert a new possibility into the past.” Both Miller and Žižek grasp that in order to move forward in an age that is marked by the collapse of totalizing ethics and lack of any viable narrative of progress, we must return to the site of our failures. By liberating the outmoded futurism of past generations — whether scientific futurism, technoshamanism, or the New Age belief in man’s ability to evolve into higher consciousness — we can change the present. You don’t have to be a philosopher to grasp the notion that the future is made from the past, and that one of the chief engines of progressive politics is the creative revision of history. Why then should it be so difficult to accept that contemporary pop, in its obsessive evocations of the history of lost causes, is deeply involved in the project of mapping out potential futures?
[Artwork: Keith Kawaii]