“The electric light is pure information. It is a medium without a message, as it were, unless it is used to spell out some verbal ad or name. This fact, characteristic of all media, means that the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium.”
– Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man
“How is a network really being sustained — computationally and through creative labour? How is the network experience to be thought as felt? Whose labour — creative, manual, skilled, disorganised, etc. — keeps it moving along? What intrusions of rhetoric from other images of the social — neoliberal democratic theory and its dreams of customised participation, for example — break into and intrude upon the fragile links that tentatively form within networked experience?”
– Anna Munster & Geert Lovink, Theses on Distributed Aesthetics. Or, What a Network is Not
In an interview earlier this year with The Observer, New York promoter Todd Patrick spoke about the sustainability of counterculture. In the midst of an ongoing conflict with New York law enforcement over cabaret laws, building regulations, liquor licenses, and other barriers to entry now deep at the heart of the city’s nightlife, independent venues like Palisades, Market Hotel, Death By Audio, 285 Kent, and others have all felt a crippling strain beneath the weight of changing tides, both in real estate and in the cultural possibility it provides. Where once joining a “punk” subculture represented a certain “dropping out” of productive society, with venues serving an important role in the active sustainment of such cultures, now both largely cater to a class that’s only half-engaged. Patrick notes that music no longer reflects diverse scenes, largely because the “tastemaking class” has shifted toward a culture of half-committed indifference; where the class used to be active participants in hosting shows, playing in bands, and putting together tours, the current critical mass is now “barely engaged.” He writes,
By expanding the ‘market’ for independent music so far beyond the small underground communities it grew out of, we’ve wound up with a system whereby the main people who matter to a band being successful or not are people who don’t actually give too much of a shit about music in the first place…ultimately the audience that matters are these half-interested people who find out about music via commercial outlets, don’t seek obscurity, buy show tickets online after reading reviews online, and maybe forget to show up to the shows they buy tickets for.
At the heart of this shift was always the internet. Over at least the last 15 years, music and counterculture have seen staggering, unprecedented changes in their methods of consumption, distribution, and aesthetic development. Styles like “indie” grew out of a certain fanaticism for the false scarcity of independent artists, ones like Jeff Mangum or Elliott Smith who, as TMT writer Nick Henderson once noted, were defined by the sort of short-sighted claims to personal identity now firmly representative of an earlier aesthetic era. Beneath the “medium” of broad, descriptivist genres like “indie” was really always the “medium” of an earlier internet in motion, one that has increasingly outpaced the possibility of subcultural sustainability and generational aesthetic production. The exchange between the “myth of the songwriter’s narrative truth” towards another “myth of aesthetic cohesion” more largely represented a shift in how we conceptualize digital media, effectively disrupting earlier notions of counterculture in the shift toward a more current digital abundance.
But as much as it’s given us an endless variety of transient genres and subcultures, this phenomenon — what Henderson calls the soft focus — is not sustainable. The “hyperassimilative” form that once saw something radical in conspicuous detachment has since become flattened and uniform, a hegemony of aesthetic consumption now firmly at the heart of corporate interest. In an economy increasingly mediated by metrics of attention, social media has come to dominate our collective time spent online, working to actively maintain user interest across the web. Siphoning the traffic of a broad number of independent sites into their own user interfaces, social networks now overwhelmingly control how media sites reach their audiences. The disruption at the heart of this paradigmatic shift has now come full circle, eating its own tail in not only the hindrance of further aesthetic development, but also in the strain it puts on the few outlets that could potentially speak to the broader importance of such developments. At its core, the form now undoes itself.
With media distrust at an all-time high, notions of a “post-truth” moment in the global political landscape feel everywhere; the British departure from the European Union, the Columbian vote against peace agreements with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia, and the US election of Donald Trump have all come to represent the same sort of baffling disconnect between media and public opinion that has led each nation toward its own increasingly unstable future. Loaded with the sort of blatantly false hyperbole that’s led some to suggest it as the source of such polarization, social media has become a charged weapon in a new political order, one that divides users with an overwhelming abundance of misinformation, flattened and uniform in a larger algorithmic hierarchy.
As media sites have grown increasingly intertwined with the platforms that make their sustained existence possible, it makes sense that the narratives we use to talk about music would evolve. From the death of ‘indie’ and its own countercultural ethos that — thanks to a smaller, simpler network of bloggers and independent sites — found a way to scale to new limits, formative internet genres like vaporwave defined new ways to impact music culture at large. Led by critical writing that painted the genre as a conceptual gesture, vaporwave occupied a strange, unprecedented place as likely the first pop-music phenomenon derived entirely from the often-anonymous, digital-first occupancy of its own network of distribution; native to sites like Bandcamp and SoundCloud and successful thanks to its spread through social media, vaporwave defined a new trajectory for aesthetic development in an age distinctly after the scalable opportunity associated with the widespread consolidation of the blogosphere.
Hardvapour, a form of heavy dance music similar to gabber and hardstyle, sought to extend vaporwave’s democratic origins into new terrain, at times pushing toward the sort of “post-truth” existence that now defines so much of our political landscape. Built on a tenuous connection to vaporwave’s purported anti-capitalist aims, hardvapour pooled inspiration from the DIY ethos of Bandcamp to craft forms of noise-drenched dystopia much more indebted to artists like AFX and µ-Ziq than anything to come from the vaporwave world. Genre-defining works from artists like wosX and HKE came with conspicuously-crafted narratives built around Slavic characters and soviet kitsch that, beneath all else, openly contributed to the misinterpretation of their own work. Under a sprawling number of aliases, creators flooded networks with mixes and compilations that vastly outpaced the possibilities of narrative, pushing toward a realm beyond the limits of sharable criticism with an abundance of outright false information and combative commitment to their own unintelligibility. Like “post-truth” in its strategic use of flooded networks as a tactic of epistemological disruption, hardvapour continued the narrative erosion of vaporwave in a larger refusal to be interpreted, more effective as meme than in a larger search for critical meaning.
This open hostility to narrative feels emblematic of a larger shift from the role of critic as interpreter toward its surrogate in the alleged epistemological utility of the social network. In “The Postmodernity of Big Data,” Michael Pepi argues that, like postmodernism’s erosion of narrative in the wake of critical movements like poststructuralism, literary theory, feminist theory, and postcolonial theory, Big Data’s unprecedented volume of analytic figures gives it a massive interpretive force that “already operates from this apparently postmodernist logic.” With enough collected data from “network computing, e-commerce, and cloud computing,” narrative “truth” becomes a relative force, one wholly dependent on the subjective interpretation of such computing tools, rather than any overarching humanistic impulses.
Beyond its rejection of critical narrative, hardvapour’s spread through social networks emerges from a place more reliant on data-driven algorithms than critical celebration. As broader algorithmic “truths” increasingly give way to the sort of “post-truth” narratives now firmly detached from political history, hardvapour sets a certain precedent as a post-truth genre, one more in service of the algorithmic need for more music rather than any human capacity for critical analysis.
Where just a few years ago, the soft focus was a compromise, an understanding that the search for identity in narrative would only ever reveal a sort of flat, generational sameness in the exchange between “narrative truth” and “aesthetic cohesion,” both hardvapour and “post-truth” again reveal the possibility of subjectivity and subcultural fragmentation. Deep within the echo chambers of our respective networks, new genres look to redefine difference beyond the limits of critical humanism, now increasingly toward aesthetic production in the service of algorithmic need. As developments in artificial intelligence and sonic posthumanism point toward the real possibility of such trajectories, the rise of these forms could mean the end of countercultural unity all together. Or — as the case with most net-based microgenres so far — maybe this all points to a new kind of unity, a smaller consolidation of algorithmic taste-fulfillment that breeds its own truth in better service of fragmentary community. But what this would mean for both the artist and critic as agents in market-driven economies leaves much to speculation, with outcomes thus far looking increasingly reliant on dated systems of benevolent patronage, rather contributing to the sort of autonomous spirit once at the heart of thriving countercultures.
The expansion of the network always meant growing pains. For artists and critics whose crafts have been largely subsumed by networked algorithms and the diminishing returns of the echo chamber, the future, now more than ever, looks uncertain. But as these sorts of “historically-given semantics” increasingly give way to new understandings in network theory and the phenomenology of data hierarchies, a new unity begins to emerge from the post-critical. A hard truth, a baseline horizon from which aesthetic production can again sustain itself, starts to take shape in forms no longer reliant on the consolidation and scalability now native to networked existence.
But for this to develop into something with a significant impact, new models, new forms of aesthetic production and distribution must be built that abolish established practices of for-profit networks in favor of a larger, more sustainable good, one built on the commonalities that make this worth fighting for. And for that idea to spread, for that feeling to take shape into something close to the impactful possibility we all see beneath its surface, it’s going to take a little time.