2011: Dispatches from the Pop Museum
The Future Is Not What It Used to Be
2011 was the year nostalgia swallowed its own tail. Our collective need to gaze toward the past and to exhume our own cultural memories reached a crisis point. Our lust for anachronization and reenactment, for historical invocation, finally caught up with itself. No matter how much we attempted to reinvest the past with meaning, to privilege the lost and marginalized, to plunder and sample the audio ghosts of bygone eras, we bumped up against the irrevocable limitation of time’s arrow: The past is a limited resource, and we seem to have used it up. The appearance of an iPad on the sleeve art for James Ferraro’s Far Side Virtual would seem to be an omen of this crisis. Are we now experiencing nostalgia for the first generation of an Apple product when we’re still only in the second generation? With an increasing number of the most visible indie and underground acts bearing some relation to the past, whether through a conscious evocation of a shared cultural history or through the studied use of vintage gear and lo-fi production to create a forgery of memory, it does seem as if there might be some substance to the claim that culture has become a feedback loop. Instead of reinvention, we have become a culture of citation. Instead of ripping it up and starting again, we’ve become hypnotized by our own dreams playing back repeatedly on a tiny video screen. Has pop music become a museum?
“For many hardened leftists, postmodernism seems to prematurely herald the death of futurism, erecting a garish, Las Vegas/Disneyland-style resort on its bones.”
This is certainly the thesis of Simon Reynolds’ Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past, a book whose arguments reverberated throughout musical critique this year. As usual for anything written by Reynolds, the book is entertaining and erudite, drawing on an impressively vast array of examples to illustrate the endlessly self-referential hyper-stasis of contemporary culture. In a bravura critical stream-of-consciousness, Reynolds touches on a wide range of phenomena — rock museums, reissues, reunion tours, revivalism — to diagnose the so-called “febrile sterility” of the the retromaniacal ouroboros of pop culture. The book is by turns fascinating and frustrating, as Reynolds calls upon a myriad of high-flown philosophical ideas — Badiou, Barthes, Baudrillard — in order to produce what is essentially an extremely verbose and literate recapitulation of an old man wagging his finger and muttering “You kids today!” In fact, you could sum up Reynolds’ entire project with another familiar harangue of an older generation: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Indeed, throughout the text, the retro-activity of the 00s is consistently compared unfavorably to past periods of innovation — punk, hip-hop, rave, etc. — that Reynolds argues actually succeeded in creating sounds that were novel and futuristic. In many ways, this argument is seductive, and indeed the underlying rhetorical foundations of his thesis are undeniable. This should not distract us from the fact that it is also ridiculous and wrong.
It is true that postmodernism has decisively arrived in the realm of pop music, but this is not sufficient cause to begin eulogizing the death of originality. Part of the problem with Retromania is the problem with all arguments in which a stubborn structuralist thinker attempts an intellectual takedown of postmodernism. Many have tried, from Fredric Jameson to Slavoj Žižek, to convince us that postmodernism represents little more than a protracted capitulation to the logic of late capitalism. In its conceptual employment of irony, pastiche, kitsch, and appropriation, postmodern art sounds the death knell for the utopianism of the modernist avant-garde, who touted authenticity, originality, and formal purity as the escape hatch from capitalist relations. For many hardened leftists, postmodernism seems to prematurely herald the death of futurism, erecting a garish, Las Vegas/Disneyland-style resort on its bones.
“Instead of ripping it up and starting again, we’ve become hypnotized by our own dreams playing back repeatedly on a tiny video screen.”
In 1983, Juan Atkins fused Afrofuturist funk with the machine rhythms of Kraftwerk and created techno, a sound alive with newness, promising a utopian future in which social inequality was rendered obsolete by the widespread availability of democratizing technology. In 2011, Daniel Lopatin used democratized technology to sample and loop a 1980s TV advertisement for a popular soft drink, creating a track in which the sample’s ghostly, deterritorialized relation to a piece of cultural detritus from the past would appear to be the only “point.” Given the extremes of these two approaches, it’s easy to see why many critics have become disenchanted with postmodernism in pop music. However, this disenchantment stems from a conservative impulse, a kneejerk reaction to music that is drawing on a different set of values to stage its own solutions to the problems of late capitalism. To simply dismiss this music as unproductive nostalgia, or worse, to use it as the cornerstone of an alarmist thinkpiece about the death of originality, is to miss the point entirely.
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.
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]