I recently finished reading the fascinating book Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts by Grafton Tanner. For one, I don’t know anything about vaporwave aside from the vibrant neon laser visuals that accompany some album covers. Not only did I learn about the micro-genre’s tendency to sample muzak and other mundane sounds in order to invert their invisibility. Here’s music that we’re constantly surrounded by in order to fulfill a mass corporate-dulled consciousness. Tanner discusses the artist’s ability to reframe music from “non-places,” which are locations that only exist to serve a consumer agenda, such as strip malls or airports.
Vaporwave artists awaken the listener to music that is meant to be in the background, providing a comfortable but banal experience to waste time while spending money. You’re not listening to this music at the mall while buying another unnecessary fanny pack with black light-painted lizards on it, but at home or somewhere with your headphones on conscious of this music’s “omnipresence” and “the corporatist society in which we are trapped.” Part of vaporwave’s appeal is it’s revitalizing a time that doesn’t exist. It might look like the ’80s, but it’s a deconstruction of a fantasy and the decaying of a memory that was never really there. At its center, vaporwave is subverting the consumer culture of that blossomed in the ’80s. Once, the listener becomes aware that the nostalgic appeal of vaporwave is a farce, an anxiety and unease starts to seep in.
Tanner’s book glimpses at the capabilities of a genre to question our current reality. He posited many questions about the future of music that has now flooded our daily lives differently than when muzak was initially installed in businesses. While reading about the commodification of ghosts and rose-tinted nostalgia during this pandemic, I am curious if culture will bend even farther towards a lush past that never really existed or accept that our antiquated imagined future has failed. This would be Tanner’s understanding of Derrida’s hauntology—”failure of the future that was promised in the past.” What future do we imagine post-pandemic? Is it something similar to what we had before the pandemic? I surely hope not.
A couple weeks ago, while I was nearing the end of Babbling Corpse, Charli XCX dropped her latest project how i’m feeling now, an album that was mostly built from the ground-up when quarantine began. Initially I was drawn to the paradox of making an album that is focused fundamentally on the immediate now, but lyrically reflected on the past before we were all urged to stay inside. Additionally, Charli made an album that many might be eager to label as the “future of pop.” In reality, she’s sonically painting the destructive, anxious, and cataclysmic present. And although, she is a popstar profiting from a somewhat normal album cycle of streams and merchandise unlike the anti-consumerism of vaporwave, she draws from the microgenre in butchering an expected familiarity in pop music. Many of these tracks, even the nostalgic “Anthems,” feel like an earthquake within the matrix. Watch where you step, that beat might not make it roundtrip.
After her album’s release, Charli XCX seemingly spiraled into existential dread. She explained in a tweet that she felt purposeless and unsatisfied after sharing the project. I found her statement comforting and disturbing. The former because I understand how she feels, and the latter because this feeling of insufficiency is a result of a damaging productive urgency. That we must create and consume at an alarming pace. Purpose has become entangled with productivity. This concept is nothing new, there’s lots of wonderful writing about it. Though, the popstar is right in that we need to stop putting pressure on ourselves. It’s ironic, since that pressure brought a brilliant album….but this question of purpose is arbitrary. That is for you and you alone to decide, not based on your salary or streams or twitter count. Extrinsic motivation be damned!
Though our purposes might be moot at the moment, I did come across a wonderful sign this week, a fitting coincidence. A poignant term that Tanner notes in one of his final chapters is “digital melancholia,” a dreaded feeling of never being “full, of never catching up with all the culture we feel we must keep up with in the first place.” This is exact feeling, which Tanner has now put words to, is what I was trying to comprehend when I named this blog. Inspired by Simon Reynold’s declaration that music has become something of a chore, something to always be updated with. The streaming platforms have mimicked social media packaging—an infinite chasm that thrives off our anxiety of inefficiency.
Digital melancholia is not a good thing. But it feels good to become aware of my environmental and consumer conditioning. This anxiety is not a fault within myself, but a consequence of how I interact with my environment, it’s a result of how I react with what I expose myself to in this world. I don’t want to lose my appetite associated with my curiosity, but I don’t want to feed on empty calories from a system that doesn’t care about the wellbeing of its community. The urge to create is incredible, but it shouldn’t be fueled by monetary expectation or a fear of irrelevancy. how i’m feeling now succumbs to these anxieties, as well as rebels against them. She’s not digging into sounds that will sooth; she’s not “plumbing the past for comforting sounds and songs, sounds from the periphery and mundanity of daily life,” where popular culture has dug for lack of creative innovation, possibly even a fear of it.
What is the purpose of music? Have you ever thought about it? Most of the time I forget to let this query live in the forefront of my mind. For the past couple years, that question has been eclipsed by where can I get published? Who will pay me? Where can I be heard about hearing other people and validate myself in this industry? I’ve struggled with wanting to be part of the music crit clique, and even then mostly I’ve been unhappy or unsatisfied in my short time trying to fit in. Sadly, this growing unease within the industry is a consequence of competitive capitalistic survival in an society that doesn’t financially or, rather, emotionally value creative criticism or editorial curiosity and innovation. Can criticism be its true self if there is money involved? Can music?
Day by day, we’re witnessing the disposal of editors, reporters, writers, valuable thinkers by the hands of major corporations. (Here’s a lengthy list of those affected.) Those who still have jobs, I would imagine, are maybe left with some guilt, a pay cut, a piling up of more work, and a lot more responsibility, most likely teetering on mental collapse. Financially they might be at ease, but does it feel that much better to be attached to a system on the brink of failure? Is it ever possible to be comfortable in such a system even when it is thriving?