2015: Identity Crisis Un-Thinking Thinkpieces & Listening to Identity in a Sensational Vacuum

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

Introduction: Listening Together

Our voice is everywhere; our voice is nowhere. We try to speak bigger things than you and I. We’re stranded on these cultural shores, floundering in the shallows watching for mutant reflections that flush and reform against themselves on a mobile surface. To “problematize” seems like something we must do and, often enough, the only thing we can do. But these days, the word itself is so overwrought its near meaninglessness has sunk into oblivion. We’re conditionally listening for foaming and receding splashes against normativity, our toes sinking and soaking into the sand, miles away from the depths of our problematic moment.

The dubious thinkpiece — a lineage that this essay itself stands within — has been published infinitely as to become the quintessential portrait of millennial pseudo-intellectual evacuation. To critique is to bully and to be bullied, forced to simultaneously run against the natural, majestic energy of artistic creation and the production of the press apparatus. Only critical sponsorship can replace critical listening; or, more elusively, criticism serves to mechanically reify the discursive progression of historical moments.

In 2015, that moment witnessed timelines reporting radical critiques of verified dominant industrial and institutional fixations. That moment grappled with massively mediated crossings of intimate thresholds, some with the transgressive force of truth, some that were read as exploitation. That moment faced renewed public anxieties and state violences against bodies whose bare lives were only identifiable enough to be rendered moot.

In 2015, that moment acknowledged a disrupted subjectivity, a fragmented identity, a broken social framework that prompted the individual artist to spill out into multiple forms, queered in their quest to be unrepresented and yet be paradoxically seen, affirmed as whole and un-whole.

Music criticism is hopeless in that it ostensibly has one purpose: To speak on behalf of the artist using their art. But the difficulties of critique have grown from criticism’s bullied nature, the critic co-opted by the desire to define, orient, and divulge hidden works. Whereas the artist buries their secrets in sometimes fallow soil, the writerly critic is compelled to dig up these works, often damaging them in their process of revelation, bullied by a demand for clarity. As a result, music journalism has had to relinquish the effort of listening with music inside of its often broken and elusive context.

But in a more difficult twist, a capitalized/territorialized style of writing has become dominant, one that seeks to entirely obtain the working musician in its spread. The thinkpiece has positioned itself at the intersection of music criticism and soft social justice, just enough to feign the pretense of a “controversial” angle to contextualize the inherently controversial and divisive state of music. These pieces will definitively politicize the artist they discuss. These pieces will ally the marketability of controversy with the subjectivity of music. These pieces will get shared on all social media platforms.

More than selling an aesthetic or cultural analytic, thinkpieces promise an engagement with ethical ramifications, with felt importance to our moment. They have no responsibility to the work itself and are designed to describe the social utility of a work for an assumed listener while upholding an aesthetic framework: conversational, axiomatic, automatic. The thinkpiece projects/produces a new organization for existing systems of control based on narrative political outlines that can be contained by or contain an artwork, bearing a new hope out of that line, maybe even despite the work.

The thinkpiece has positioned itself at the intersection of music criticism and soft social justice, just enough to feign the pretense of a “controversial” angle to contextualize the inherently controversial and divisive state of music.

Can a review not bear to think so responsibly? The distinctly millennial boom of subjectivity becoming mediated via collectivism and self-narrativization has begotten stratified listening and consuming habits, as if there are proper channels for thinking, as if change happens at the speed of thought. Thinkpieces are therefore more compelling, even compulsory, for the notion of individual responsibility attached to their baiting headlines, published at the event horizon of capitalism’s maw, swallowing the moment or the work through its anticipation of its own readability. In this sense, the thinkpiece is programmed to abstract the shared language of music into the language of efficient consumption; it projects a technical image onto music, over the music’s often obscure reality, so as to “reveal” it, to recreate it.

What’s revealed and recreated is identity as a known (controlled), massively felt (shared), and productive (content marketing) category of contemporary listening life. Within a neoliberal affective zone un/contained by social media, this open/closed audition is assumed as self-reflexivity. While this content may be tuned to social justice ideas and values, the lack of a “critical” component (or at least a self-critical component) can stop debate, glaze-over critical eyes, and freeze the progressivity or illegibility of identity. As a result, we often already know what we’re listening for; we know the sound of problematics; we know the pitch of auto-corrective writing over and against the fluidity of music, concretizing its form for consumption.

But is the thinkpiece even listening? When do these reliances on identity begin to overwrite the va/porous vessels of our interiority, the messier folds of subjectivity? What streaks are left when the discursive condensation fogging up our infinity mirror is wiped away? Can we listen past the noise of political optimism without writing ourselves out of touch? How do we trust our desire for the political to save us, or thoughtful writing to represent us, when outrage and hope have been co-signed by PR?

When the answers are telegraphed, we turn to the nameless seers, the arcane dropouts, the interstitial players, the apocalyptic riders. These words are not enough. We board an un-manned sub to listen for 2015’s bioluminescent bottomfeeders and visionary anglers, mining the depth of identity at the ends of the word. As we try to draw identifiable meaning from their bodies, these releases will elude legibility, chimeras snapped through a prism. We try to find our best angles, while each of them dance together out of the frame: the POWER of the doomsayer; the OUTRAGE of the city muse; the drifting soundscapes of EMBODIMENT; the emotional machines of DESIRE. These will be our futile devices for unthinking that thing we repeatedly found ourselves listening for in 2015.

Power: Apocalypse Garden
Insert from the vinyl release of Jenny Hval’s Apocalypse, girl

There is obvious power within the machines that develop controversy and speculation in thinkpieces — a power expressing itself so compellingly that you can’t look away. Yet, thinkpieces only use this power as a sensationalized myth of the actual biopower of music. The root of this power can be found in the inner presence of sociality becoming regulated in life; the sound of power can be heard in the way the artist produces and reproduces this life in music. Where is the identity of power other than in the ways the powerful are swallowed by the micro-powerful? Where are powerful identities other than in music that subvert and extend the utter hugeness of power’s machine?

If any music this year summoned the paradigm of power both against and toward the sensational vacuum, it was in the way Oneohtrix Point Never and Jenny Hval sensationalized their own art to subvert the productive forces that contained them. 2015 saw these artists interchangeably breaking down the image of identity and the identity of image to ecstatic ends, revealing a power in both the identity of the manipulator and their created works.

If any music this year summoned the paradigm of power both against and toward the sensational vacuum, it was in the way Oneohtrix Point Never and Jenny Hval sensationalized their own art to subvert the productive forces that contained them.

Oneohtrix Point Never’s Garden of Delete achieved this at the very terminal between machine and bio power, the sticky intersection between the subject and the symbology that bound and enhanced it. Its aesthetic operation languished in its own damaged quality, in the illegibility of power’s purpose as a critical tool qualifying the subject’s inevitable dance with its language: spectacle, reference, breakdown, and moment. Despite an initial hesitancy from the press toward the album’s sickly language, Garden of Delete received near-unanimous praise. It toyed with 0PN’s underground status as a giant in weird experimental waters, and yet, it was only partially “thought on” as an actual piece — perhaps due to the intimidating power that 0PN’s oeuvre has come to represent to both underground music circles and publications looking to capitalize on his presence in that “market.”

In the case of Garden of Delete, perhaps it’s easier not to suggest what the record does conceptually or actually; it’s much more relevant to call it a rad alien-rock record and walk away in a smoke of squealing guitars and melting skin. Powerful machines can use 0PN only as much as he has used and abused his art — as a bulwark of classical counterculture in music as it has been used toward the breakdown and manipulation of image at specific, timely moments — a proclamation of power in the most direct sense.

There was power in the most misdirect sense, too: Jenny Hval’s reclamation of subjective incoherencies and a disavowal of America’s subcultural underpinning in futurism with sleight of hand. Critics’ thinking (always kingsize) with Apocalypse, girl clung to the signs of the times, reckoning with Hval’s songwriting as sexual progressive art pop rather than a flexible identity workout routine. Hval’s imagination of a present without feminism and socialism was powerful worldplay that scrubbed the writer of their own projected terms, locating the work in the static-success “Mission Accomplished” wasteland of capitalist social justice excess while at the same time identifying Hval’s sentimental attachment to the potentiality for these movements to really take care of us. Her music unfolded the question of identity on a sliding scale, asking “What’s wrong with me?” and turning her eyes to Heaven (asking for an apocalypse, asking for a productive care of the self).

This performance of sticky soft dick rock and mutant rebirth played out on a stage that became a micro upending of industrial art rock. Her face obscured by a huge blonde wig and sunglasses, balancing comfortably on an exercise ball, Hval pressed her iPhone’s speakers to the microphone to play a voice memo cover of Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness.” Her interpellation of the major label single was remarkable in its stillness and also absorbing for its evocation of a line between the two singers, that the same content machine could be fascinated with their identity-play and responsible for the conditions of their musical occasion. Hval became, for a moment, the other woman to Lana’s other woman and assumed the critical power of translating radio music with the same playful seriousness that she translated the poem that opens Apocalypse, girl. The sticky power of her soft dick rock isn’t only its gender play or sexual expressivism, but also its attachment to the listener’s complicity in narrative production.

Outrage: To Live and Die Transparently
Photo: Layne Dixon

The thinkpiece belies indignation of a surrounding presence, a feigned moment of outrage that expresses itself complexly, often into the machine it attempts to critique. Outrage remarks upon the trauma of artists locked in opposition to other subjects: cityscapes, great games, politics, processes. Often, music expresses outrage against these subjects while maintaining its creative perspective, an angle that emphasizes the expression of trauma for its own sake, on its own terms, eventless and gestural in equal measure. The thinkpiece forgoes the specificity of trauma to create a publishing event that affirms sensational, vacuous applications of counterfeit outrage in an effort to either offer a completist picture of a cultural fragment-moment or sensationalize its fragmented state. Doesn’t this obscure the deconstructive effort of artists’ outrage? Doesn’t this overwrite the outrage that artists use to affirm identity, articulate trauma, or further disrupt social damage?

James Ferraro’s Skid Row epitomizes the artist’s complex outraging within traumatic space as an experimental evacuation of polluted psyche. As a deranged, photo-realistic masterpiece-sculpture of Los Angeles, Skid Row explicitly details fragged subjectivity walking ghost-like through dilapidated and sensational space: guitars bending swaggy over images of cool crush cigs, Doc Sportello, In-N-Out, and GTA. Only four years prior to Ridley Scott’s futurist vision of 2019 Los Angeles in Blade Runner, Ferraro’s 2015 L.A. is chained to its past becoming hauntologically realized in the feedback loop of its unfurling present, rendered specifically as commentary on contemporary police brutality echoing the vandalized promises of civil rights movements decades prior. Ferraro mobilizes this L.A. as a sick sequel to his nocturne-hell poem of New York through the transfer of local, specific frustrations that sustain themselves with the force of subjective trauma. This trauma is pan-geographical as a psychological framework, yet painfully located in the metropolitan structures that haunt in their severe reality, in their cruel artifice. Ferraro’s Skid Row is not and could never be easy to stomach; its controversy is verbatim, its austerity never headlined. The outrage could only be overwritten in the representations that solicit its terms, a faux headline: Meet James Ferraro, The internet Artist Turning Skid Row Into an Experimental Nightmare.

We celebrate the end of the year the only way we know how: through lists, essays, and mixes. Join us as we explore the music that helped define the year. More from this series

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