Pop & Non-Pop After The Conceptual Turn How pop’s appetite for itself has led to a taste for the sacred


Ferraro, Lopatin, Blunt

To sum up our argument so far: it’s difficult to define the music we listen to, because one of the key ways to do this — the old duality of pop vs. non-pop — is breaking down. This is in part due to changes in how we listen, but also due to what we would call a “conceptual turn” in music: contemporary music, both pop and non-pop, is increasingly concerned with not only how it sounds, but also how it is conceptualized and framed. Not only have the categories of pop and non-pop become extremely blurred, but both pop and non-pop are also increasingly about this blurring, resulting in a potentially endless hall-of-mirrors in which pop is about art which is about pop which is about art…

To ask the question “What is contemporary music?,” then, is to ask a question that the music is already asking itself.

If this is the case, then we must necessarily move on to different questions. Who’s asking this question best? Which artists are saying the most interesting things about how music sounds today, the ways in which it is made and how it relates to the social and musical world in which it emerges?

In the final section of this essay, we’re going to focus on three artists: James Ferraro, Daniel Lopatin, and Dean Blunt. These three artists are not necessarily the only ones answering these questions in interesting ways - 2014 has already seen a wave of new talents working with similar strategies and techniques, from E+E to CLEANERS, to in a different way, Actress.

Nevertheless, over the past few years it is undoubtedly these three artists who have engaged most consistently with this dissolution of the pop/non-pop distinction — a condition that they have not only been involved in developing, but also upon which they’ve grounded their subsequent experiments. In doing so, each of them has also moved beyond a simple conceptual gesture to produce music that is also musically compelling and has enabled them to capture the collective critical imagination in a way that makes them, we think, exemplary of the present moment in music.

Let’s start with New York-based musician James Ferraro. In 2011, Ferraro released Far Side Virtual. Originally intended to be released as a series of mobile ringtones, Ferraro’s album is an agglomeration of smooth corporate training video synths, familiar Skype and Windows sound effects, and shopping mall muzak. Ferraro’s method was not to simply sample such sounds — to frame and critique them, á la vaporwave — but rather to deploy them in such a way that they appear as a kind of sonic still-life of the present moment. As Ferraro put it:

Far Side Virtual mainly designates a space in society, or a mode of behaving. All of these things operating in synchronicity: like ringtones, flat-screens, theater, cuisine, fashion, sushi. I don’t want to call it “virtual reality,” so I call it Far Side Virtual. If you really want to understand Far Side, first off, listen to [Claude] Debussy, and secondly, go into a frozen yogurt shop. Afterwards, go into an Apple store and just fool around, hang out in there. Afterwards, go to Starbucks and get a gift card. They have a book there on the history of Starbucks — buy this book and go home. If you do all these things you’ll understand what Far Side Virtual is — because people kind of live in it already.

In Far Side Virtual, high and low culture were all brought into simple and uncomplex communion with each other. Unlike Yen Tech, the album did not try to perform pop culture, but instead drew a dead-pan picture of high and low culture’s radical equivalence in contemporary life. That such a move had not been made before is what made the album sound at once so definitively contemporary and yet paradoxically futuristic.

In his subsequent work, Ferraro extended this project into other realms of popular culture, occupying the monikers BEBETUNE$ and Bodyguard to tackle trap, hip-hop, and Auto-Tune, even teaming up with Dean Blunt to perform an odd tribute to distracted hotel lobby music. Ferraro’s experimentation across each of these fields must be read in the context of his work as a whole, each one another cultural reference point that has been flattened and brought into equivalence with the others. In this sense, it is tempting to read each new album as simply another page in the project opened up by Far Side Virtual, which may now have reached its apocalyptic endpoint with 2013’s NYC, HELL 3:00 AM, as we’ll see in a moment.

Ferraro’s project of painting a sonic still-life has also been taken up, in a slightly different way, by the New York musician Daniel Lopatin a.k.a. Oneohtrix Point Never. Like Ferraro, Oneohtrix Point Never’s albums of the past few years have explored the newly loosened palette of sounds opened up by the flattening of the pop and non-pop divide. Speaking of his superb 2013 release R Plus Seven, Lopatin explained that “I like the potential of reducing clichés down into some kind of weird, molten texture.” With the aid of a Korg M1 synthesizer, the album melded sonorous church organs, chopped MIDI vocals, tinny shamizens, and cheap-sounding brass tones. While some reviews linked the album’s sound to 1980s and 1990s electric and computer music, others were perspicacious enough to note that nostalgia was not Lopatin’s intent: the album instead revealed the deeply musical explorations of an artist reveling in a new suite of sounds. Lopatin is responding to a world in which everything — from voices to horns, church organs to beats — are now presets. Pop is no longer a sound that can be critiqued or inhabited, but an instrument that can also be played, composed for, improvised on, and even made beautiful.

One of the most interesting experimenters after the conceptual turns has been the cryptic figure of Dean Blunt, through his work as half of Hype Williams (with Inga Copeland) and most recently his solo releases.

Like Ferraro and Lopatin, Blunt’s music is evocative of music’s recent past, ranging from slow keyboard-driven jams, to psychedelia, to 1990s hip-hop. However, Blunt’s appropriation of these styles is far more blatant than Ferraro or Lopatin. 2013’s The Redeemer, most emblematic of Blunt’s recent work, opens with a stirring string refrain — a disarmingly lovely moment, until you work out that Blunt lifted it entirely from K-Ci and Jojo’s R&B track “All My Life.” The album continues with tracks blending Blunt’s dreary vocals with sea sounds, tinny keyboard strings, and grungy guitars, and then breaks inexplicably into a delicate folk song, sung by his now regular collaborator Joanne Robertson.

In trying to come to grips with Blunt’s work, the analogy with Warhol is useful — and indeed, something that Blunt himself is actively playing with. Unlike Ferraro or Lopatin, whose albums emerge as consciously crafted “works,” Blunt’s unorthodox release tactics (2013’s Stone Island was released unannounced on a blog in Russia) and his utterly cryptic engagement with the press leave his albums in a realm of ambiguity. It is never really clear how seriously we are meant to take his music, which you begin to get the feeling is precisely the point.

Blunt’s undecidability, coupled with his notable musical ability, leave the listener in a realm of self-reflexivity: we are drawn in by the lush strings of “I Run New York” and the folk strains of “Imperial Gold,” but we must constantly ask ourselves: on what grounds? We never quite know whether we are meant to adopt this music on its own terms or as critique or both. While Ferraro and Lopatin paint a picture of the newly integrated cultural sphere, Blunt digs at the anxieties that lurk at its edges.

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