Ever since The Wire magazine named Far Side Virtual its number one “Release of the Year” for 2011, discerning music nerds have felt the imperative to step to either side of a line. On one side are those who applaud Ferraro’s boldly provocative gesture, his willingness to subsume stubbornly-held notions of taste and originality within a series of conceptual readymades. On the other side is a growing rank of malcontents who have greeted Ferraro’s sudden leap from the lo-fi post-noise underground to lurid HD postmodernity with skepticism or contempt. The sheer volume of complaints leveled by the cranky avant-gardists and EAI partisans who constitute a large percentage of The Wire’s readership prompted editor Tony Herrington to publish what amounted to a retraction, explaining that a statistical oddity had vaulted the album to the top spot.
Still other critics have preferred to straddle the line, cautiously celebrating the “contemporariness” of Far Side Virtual (if little else about it), dubbing Ferraro “our Jeff Koons” or comparing his work to that of video artist Ryan Trecartin, both of which could be considered backhanded compliments, given the often irresolute reception these artists have received in the contemporary art world. One thing at which Ferraro has been undeniably successful is exposing the latent conservatism of the milieu to which he belongs, by which abandoning the aesthetics of lo-fi noise is viewed as a capitulation to mass culture and engaging in an ambiguous Warholian dialogue with pop culture in the internet age is seen as inexorably outside the purview of underground music.
Into this ideological rift, Ferraro has launched a new, puzzling artifact: a free digital mixtape released under the name BEBETUNE$ (aka Bodyguard). Announced last year on Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook, and previewed in a series of bizarre YouTube clips, inhale C-4 $$$$$ was released via Mediafire in December, with a follow-up entitled #SILICA GEL promised for February 23. This project seems to have inaugurated a new period of manic productiveness for Ferraro, similar to the Summer Headrush series in 2009 that comprised at least 16 CD-Rs released in quick succession, often simultaneously. Unlike that series, which depended upon the scarcity and obfuscation of underground distribution, BEBETUNE$ makes full use of democratic internet distribution channels to cast its net as wide as possible. Every tweet and Tumblr post relating to the project has openly promoted the BEBETUNE$ brand, in a series of hashtags and seemingly random cultural references that lay bare the surreal process of making-viral. Along with his new online presence, Ferraro has made himself available for interviews in which he speaks readily about his influences and artistic process, incongruous for an artist who was previously known for extreme caginess and willful obscurity. If the medium is the message, then one would be remiss to interpret this change in Ferraro’s modus as anything other than a text to be interpreted, at least as important as the “content,” i.e. the music.
Fortunately, the music of BEBETUNE$ is at least as interesting as its method of distribution and stranger even than Far Side Virtual in terms of its alienating effects. It’s the first time, to my knowledge, that Ferraro has ever directly referenced hip-hop in his music, and as such it is tempting to read this shift as an acknowledgment or working-through of his biracial identity. Ferraro’s assertion that he belongs to the “first church of Lenny Kravitz” already acknowledged his ethnic makeup, so that even his deconstructions of ostensibly “white” pop/rock of the past could be read through the potentially destabilizing lens of his mixed race background. In the final analysis of BEBETUNE$, race is something of a red herring, haunting the project but not defining it. Instead, Ferraro combines his newfound interest in comparatively clean digital production with a simultaneous desire to interrogate the immediacy and prolificacy of hip-hop culture, especially the “trap rap” of mixtape superstars Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame. With its instantly familiar generic tropes — plasticated snares, in-the-box kicks and orchestral hits, slapdash production — trap music offers an alternative doorway into the ersatz aesthetics explored by Ferraro in Far Side Virtual and elsewhere. What better signifier of modernity than the now global ubiquity of hip-hop, a genre that was initially assessed by many critics as an ephemeral trend, a novelty genre, the death of traditional musicianship?
Ferraro’s take on hip-hop is instantly defamiliarized. Preset kicks and thin hi-hat rolls coexist uncomfortably with digital gamelan hits, vocoderized vocal loops, and the incongruously thick, chorus-y sounds of Ferraro’s Juno synth. Frequent sirens, air horns, and drops reiterating the name of the project lend a certain hyperreality that risks tipping over into satire. The self-consciously “global” aesthetics — song titles include references to Macau and the Saharan ringtone culture — evoke the dense, teeming atmospheres of ultramodern, geographically hybrid urban spaces and prevent the project from becoming a straight genre parody. While Ferraro does reference the Auto-Tuned vocals of Lil Wayne on “#C I T Y LIGHT$$$,” and a few tracks do operate as parodies of radio rap, on the whole Ferraro seems to be gesturing at something far stranger and more ambiguous than a simple send-up of hip-hop mixtape culture. Case in point is “STREET DREAM$$,” which subjects Gang Gang Dance’s “Glass Jar” to the MPC sample-slice treatment. Same goes for “Sahara Jr.,” which verges on a recapitulation of the global trance of 2011’s Eye Contact. By placing GGD on equal footing with the comparatively “low” aesthetics of trap-hop, Ferraro hints at unexplored resonances that most would find improbable. Ferraro’s “everything time” may be as inclusive as GGD’s, but it’s also much more self-reflexive and problematized.
The cover image for inhale C-4 $$$$$ includes photographs of a bizarre publicity stunt in which six living Chucky dolls invaded Times Square to promote the DVD release of the 1988 horror film Child’s Play. The cover serves a dual purpose as an homage to an early mixtape by DJ Paul of Three 6 Mafia, who pioneered a dark style of hip-hop with lyrical content fraught with references to Satan and serial killers. There are elements in Ferraro’s impressionistic take on hip-hop that are irreducibly dark and paranoid, a digital unease aggravated by multiple references to unhinged technological proliferation: “NERO CEA$SAR/ANTI CHRIST,” reptilian societies and GTA suicides, “P.O.W.E.R.” and “M A D N E $ $,” tweeting the Armageddon using Siri voice commands, Hipstamatic photos, and T-Pain apps. It’s an extra-geographical, overly-rich slipstream of signs, omens, and synchronicities that point to nothing other than themselves, a kaleidoscopic information overload that sprawls out into a post-human event horizon. Ferraro’s project is focused on that eschaton point; if not the end of the world, then definitely the end of a certain kind of innocence. That end is evoked with a giddy horror on inhale C-4 $$$$$, turning what should have been Ferraro’s most accessible project to date into a relentlessly off-putting and occasionally terrifying mind-picture of a 21st-century apocalypse in the process of uploading.