Monday, December 23, 2019

Top 25 tracks of the 2010's: #23 Angel Olsen - Lark

read #24 here:

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#23: Angel Olsen - Lark

this is probably not the only time i'll mention this, but the 2010's were the decade where i lost almost all interest in the critical darling American indie rock/folk scene i used to put a lot of mental effort and energy into trying to follow in the previous decade. i honestly didn't feel like there was anything more there for me. most of this past decade, i would frequently revisit an ongoing internal fight with myself over trying to find something that still spoke to me at all within the what's left of the whole ecosystem of indie rock music. Angel Olsen was one of the few new indie songwriters who broke in the 2010's that i actually felt a genuine spark of something from. there is an urgency and distress to her voice that reached me when a lot of stuff didn't... even when a lot of her song structures and arrangements didn't really rock the boat in any particular way.

Angel Olsen's breakout album was 2014's Burn Your Fire For No Witness, which opens with a cute little lo-fi track that i like named "Unfucktheworld" before bouncing around a few different styles and eventually settling on a bunch of slower songs at the end. But the first one i heard was the slightly less adventurous/more full band-oriented My Woman from 2016. on that album in particular, Olsen is a very solid songwriter and a great performer and the songs are very well-arranged... but there's very little that feels new or exciting there outside of her voice. the reference points for her first three solo albums come very much from rock, folk, and country music of the 60's and 70's... very old, well-worn musical tropes by this point (to put it lightly). she definitely works from within a particular framework for her songs without jumping too far outside of that. and she does a good job with it. My Woman is a very polished album... but it's really, really not anything you haven't heard before. and that's really the story of so much indie rock in the 2010's for me.

that's why something felt genuinely amiss when i watched the video premiere for her track "Lark" this year. "Lark" is the opening track of her album from this year's All Mirrors and feels like a pretty strong statement of intent. the track, at its core, is still recognizably an Angel Olsen song. the same straightforward guitar chords are there, and the lyrics are a pretty simple, if gutting, story of a romantic relationship completely gone awry. but everything else is far more ambitious and strange - more like something you'd hear on a Radiohead album, especially in how seems to musically wear all of its themes on the surface in a more fully-realized way. i'm sure her songwriting/arrangement collaboration with electronic producer/multi-instrumentalist Ben Babbitt for this entire album is part of that (hi Ben! i know you're probably reading this). also Jherek Bischoff's string arrangement on "Lark" is like a thick layer of fog on top of what in someone else's hands might be a far more conventional song, obscuring and drastically heightening all of the uncertainty and anxiety you can feel from her voice. when the song drops into a thunderous refrain for the first time around 80 seconds in, a wash of reverb envelops her voice and she sounds like she's belting her lyrics from the mountaintops (which she literally is in the video). within the first two minutes, we're in a far more alien and intense place than anything on any of her previous albums.

speaking of Angel Olsen's voice: what separates Angel Olsen from a lot of other critically-hyped mid-tier success indie songwriters for me is she really feels like she absolutely believes every single word that she's singing. she is very much a "what you see is what you get" type of performer. she's not the type to easily or adeptly put on another kind of mask. and that's why it's all pretty funny to me, because she often seems to go for various different high-concept approaches and concepts in her music videos. the 2010's is the decade of the pop performer as all-encompassing media figure who lives many different lives, and i have no doubts that indie songwriters who want to have any place in that ecosystem have to find their own ways to keep up within the limited amount of budget and resources they have. and i imagine some of her videos have attracted more fans to her (her widely-viewed video for "Shut Up Kiss Me" is how i discovered her music). but most of her videos tend to fall pretty flat for me because a) they generally feel like they consist of one idea that isn't expounded upon much, and b) i don't think she knows how to a put on a mask long enough to convincingly sell a role. that's not really unusual for the less budgeted world of indie music, but it's hard to come away thinking she's anyone but Angel Olsen.

and that's alright to me. in a decade where a lot of performers, and really just the music industry in general, were at an all-time high with bullshitting their audiences (a trend which in no way excluded indie music), her directness is still refreshing. she does feel like she's hinging on your every breath as a listener. her voice can often be powerful like in "Shut Up Kiss Me", but more often it's strained and upset, and confused... and sometimes more gentle. and you feel her channeling all those emotions from very deeply within herself. and that's honestly why i've always thought her packaging as a Prestige Artist in the often more quirky and tongue-in-cheek world of indie rock is a bit odd at times. there is all this deep angst that trembles throughout her voice that often doesn't match with the way she's presented. Angel Olsen is not Mitski: she's not a super clever performer. sometimes i also feel like doesn't ever exactly know how to package herself as a performer, but somehow that kind of adds to the tension that makes her music feel more urgent and unstable and exciting. she's a lot of raw nerves and frayed, jagged ends just waiting to surface but never really able to. she carries the vibe of an everyday person who is just about to enter middle age and already has several broken dreams she's carrying with her - not of a hyper-composed, finely curated, ultra-savvy artist.

and yet what wasn't really able to surface before seems to come out far more within "Lark", and all at once. the song musically climbs and falls into different fragments of melody that alternate between tenderness, righteous anger, and pure horror throughout its over six minute length. they never seem to really resolve or coalesce around a particular structure. the music video begins with her immediately walking out of a clearly violent argument with her boyfriend, and you can see bruises and scratches on her chest. the presence of mountains (i'm imagining this was filmed in Asheville, North Carolina where she lives) feel intensely isolating as she wanders out alone into the night, bruised and battered. at various points in the video she seems to emerge triumphant among the thick woods, but it's short lived and nothing actually gets resolved. while the video still suffers like a lot of her others from not being particularly coherent, the imagery and mood of it is very clear. there's a brief image towards the end of a seeming flashback of her with her head and her hands at home, totally exhausted as a seemingly supportive arm reaches out to her, only for her to jerk her arm away abruptly in fear and anger. the point is there's no comfort here - it's all bullshit and lies.

if i can make an incredibly heavy-handed comparison: this track feels very much like America in 2019 - there's so much tension that never really goes anywhere but kind of just builds and builds into a gradually unfolding, slowly escalating nightmare. and there's really no escape from it - everything joins from a bunch of disparate threads and comes to the surface all at once in a disorienting and deeply disturbing jumble. there are no more new dreams to dream anymore, just the complete dissolution and destruction of all of our existing ones. and that echoes a lot of what she carries through her voice when she screams "what about my dreams?" in the final spike of intensity lined by electric guitar towards the end of the track, just as everything in the song seems like it has run out of steam... as if she's having one final flare-up of anger that she had to get in before collapsing into total exhaustion. she has all the internal dilemmas of a millennial who was raised expecting to come into a very different world than the one she ended up in. it's what Slavoj Zizek might call "wrong dreams" - the inability to recognize that what she thought she wanted was always going to end in disaster. and so she's in the midst having a desperate hysterical breakdown as she realizes just how deeply she was invested in something that was actually always a nightmare. after this, the track actually ends far more discordant and frayed than it began. this song is very much about a relationship that's gone extremely sour, but the fact that so much is left unsaid and the music carries the mood so heavily leaves it open to a lot of other kinds of interpretations.

"Lark" is a truly fucking exhausting song. there's nothing particularly fun or clever here. it's like slogging uphill through the mud in an intense rainstorm as hard as you can. but it's also extremely cathartic in a way a lot of music of the last decade wasn't. maybe it's a relief that the rest of All Mirrors is mostly not like that, but the rest of All Mirrors also doesn't hit quite as hard as "Lark" because of that.

i have to admit i haven't revisited All Mirrors much since it came out, but i also don't think i really ever absorbed it that much the first place. it's funny, because this album is only from a handful of months ago... and i saw it get a brief time in the sun with lots of praise before quickly fading into the background. that's not uncommon for any album these days, where things have to be immediate and grab your attention right away. but i didn't see it appear on too many best of the year lists this year in spite of all the praise either. a lot of critics seemed to forget about it pretty quickly.

and maybe part of that reason is i do think there is something a little more quietly disruptive about this album. it's a very musically ambiguous album - it doesn't resolve in a clear or easy way, and it's musically dense and full of parallels to other things, and it doesn't fall back on as many cutesy references to old music of the 60's and 70's as her previous work did. i think it can be hard for a lot of critics to make something out of that, because it seemingly came from left-field for an artist who seemed pretty set on staying in on a typical indie folk/rock path (an increasingly conservative and restrictive genre). but as usual, critics are being unimaginative and wrong.

to me, "Lark" points out a future direction for indie music - defined by more open ambiguity, anxiety, and ambition. it feels like it's trying to drag indie rock, with all its baggage and increasingly conservative and regressive tendencies, kicking and screaming into a newer and more interesting place. whether indie rock really follows behind that is maybe not the interesting question. how will artists who come from that ecosystem, possibly realizing it's a broken and regressive place, take more of a leap into the unknown and experiment far more in order to stay alive and relevant? that's the interesting question to me. and i'm happy to see Angel Olsen, of all people, doing that here and on All Mirrors in general. maybe this will be a one-off, or maybe it'll be a longer-term shift for her - but i definitely don't think this mood will be a dead end for indie music in general in the next 10 years.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Top 25 tracks of the 2010's: #24 Vessel - Paplu (Love That Moves The Sun)

read #25 here:

if you don't like orange, you can also read this piece on my patreon here:

#24: Vessel - Paplu (Love That Moves The Sun)

as someone originally from the Midwestern United States of America, where much of modern electronic dance music is originally from, i always find Europe and especially the UK's monopoly on so much electronic music culture kind of infuriating. so many of the prestige, ultra-hyped artists that led me to embracing and finally wanting to explore that space a lot more as an artist (Aphex Twin, Burial, Boards of Canada) all come from some part of the UK. i grew up having more of an affinity to experimental music from the start without really knowing that, but i came from the rock music-loving state of Ohio, where being a producer of beats and sounds was extremely niche and unpopular. (i'm sure that's changed somewhat, but anyway...) most of my favorite stuff back then all came from the more experimental moments of artsy indie rock albums, or prestige artists like Radiohead, but i never thought of electronic music as its own space worth exploring until later. for whatever reason the culture in the US doesn't seem to produce nearly as much electronic music i have any affinity towards compared to the UK, and i really couldn't say exactly why that is! if anything, the last decade revealed to me how much rock music has failed to go anywhere or do anything particularly new and other genres (hip-hop, pop, r&b, and electronica) are all taking the exciting leaps forward.

that's not saying that electronica is always this great birthing ground of exciting new sonic innovations or whatever. it has plenty of its own stiff, tired cliches that artists like to endlessly trot out because those ideas feel comfy or familiar. it's common to look to the past for inspiration, but the it's same past as everyone else: some sort of retro-futurist dreams of the early to mid 20th century, or the future sci-fi Blade Runner dystopia that literally already so oversaturated in media that it's a copy of a copy now. it's easy for artists working with that same set of references to just do a worse and less interesting job of what someone else did before them, because why wouldn't they? hard to say anything new there.

as far as i care to interpret it, dubstep was an attempt to fuse some kind of virtuosity with sonic experimentation and have it be danceable that gained widespread popularity in the late 00's. by now dubstep is all but dead and a lot of artists who came from it have shifted their sounds and approaches in interesting ways. Sebastian Gainsborough's (great name btw) first album as Vessel, 2012's Order of Noise definitely sounds dubsteppy to me, if not on the weirder and quirkier end of that style of music. it's definitely sonic experimentation that exists from within a very particular palette of sounds and framework of genre that probably seems much less clever and more dated to someone like me who is not coming from that scene. i'm more familiar with Vessel's second album Punish, Honey which sounds more like some kind of dark industrial music that's started to fester and grow worms and bacteria out of it. my favorite track from that is called "Red Sex" with its perversely gyrating buzzsaw synths. they're very simple - they're like low-level organic lifeforms. but they've grown legs, and now all they've learned to do is how to have sex and it's kind of bizarre and kind of terrifying, but also kind of funny. i like how silly the pitch shifting in that track is. but most of the album is not so silly but dirty, rusty music that is pretty fun sonic adventure into the coal mines but not something that's necessarily going to take you on a ambitious journey to some place you've never been. to be honest, i mostly forgot about Punish, Honey other than "Red Sex" several years after.

Queen of Golden Dogs from 2018 is far more virtuostic in its instrumentation - the chamber strings and voice, and the cover art seemingly inspired by famous female surrealist artist Remedios Varo obviously point to that. this is a more stereotypically "female" album i guess you could say (a generalization i hate using, especially in the age of heavy mainstream TERFdom). most obviously the album is interspersed with several tracks tend to very slow, languid meditations that are filled with mostly strings and female-sounding choirs not speaking in English. in the more ambitious electronic tracks, the lead synths sound far more lacy and intricate than anything in his previous work... but they also have an unmistakable edge to them. they're more highly developed than the low-level lifeforms of the previous album. they don't just stay in one place - they're quick. but they can still shock you if you touch them. these tracks are actually really fun and energizing to listen to.

"Paplu (Love That Moves The Sun)" contains many of the strains of the most forward-looking sonic experimentation of the last decade in electronic music. but it's also being more ambitious and tightly structured than most of that stuff, and feels like it'll end up coming off far less dated in the future. in spite of Sebastian Gainsborough's dubstep origins, this isn't the work of a "scenius", and it's not really something you need to be well-researched in a specific scene or have a lot context to understand. it's music you feel first and it's universal, in the way the Romantics might have envisioned it.

"Paplu (Love That Moves The Sun)" comes towards the end of the album and it's the longest and best distilled of any of Vessel's music. it also just summarizes a lot of the best ideas put forward by the biggest sonic experimenters of the decade in an extremely tight music package. It starts a little slow: the melody mostly jogs in place energetically for the first 3 minutes as its warming up its different component parts as much as it possibly can before peeling out. as a side note, i generally find this album mostly to be sonically perfect (however you want to interpret that), EXCEPT FOR the damn handclaps he uses which feel a bit too obvious and clumsy on top of everything else for me. but that's a nitpick: because this is all about polyrhythms and juxtapositions and layers upon layers of instrumentation that warp and change dimensions in strange ways. it's a kind of surrealism, but a very old (almost ancient kind of surrealism)

we're far beyond the point of just sitting inside a vibe or a framework and appreciating the little innovations that might exist there. this album isn't commenting on or reacting to any contemporary scene or movement as far as i can tell. if i were a more uncharitable person, i might ascribe some strains of "cultural appropriation" to the sound of Queen of Golden Dogs because some of its instrumental timbres are obviously non-Western and the intent to marry classical music with is very reminiscent of other recent sonic experimenters like Ash Koosha. you could also definitely hit it with some accusations of Orientalism in the overall sound and approach. but i think the problem with using that critique here is that the package isn't distinctly either Western or Non-western, but a smashing together of different ideas or sounds. i don't really look at it as appropriating a particular sound, but more an abstract idea. the base it's building off of is an old, strict, deeply formalist kind of spirituality that seems fairly universal to a lot of different cultures. that's something that seems very much out of time, very much not fashion-forward in a way that a lot of the sexy dystopian, warping electronica of the 2010's sounds. at least not until it starts getting amped up.

Eventually all the warm-ups for the first 3 minutes bring us to a squawking, angelic melodic voice that forms the baseline of the rest of the track. the voice sounds vaguely still feminine, but it's distorted and warped now: the cut-and-dry femininity of the chamber music voices is being messed with and interrogated. the amped up, super hyper poly-rhythms are pushing it much farther and in a much different direction than it was ever meant to go, and it's trying to keep up with it in vain. it feels almost as if it's being crushed. there's something that feels a bit wrong and deeply grotesque about it - which of course, makes it feel more disarming, and more exciting.

the track, like much of the album, coasts on a subversion of expectations: you don't expect all this manic energy to be coming from such old and stiff, formalist book of sounds. things are amped up to a degree of intensity that feels almost inappropriate. its initial surface of stiff formalism give way to an increasingly complex and interlocking series of shapes and patterns. a portal to the future that exists from within some sort of imagined past reconstructed from old, fading books and pieces of art. it's a new feeling, but a sort of newness that still feels like it could only come straight from the distant past, something that we just collectively forgot.

and so you're coming from a place and a direction you didn't expect to be coming from at all. there is also a really strong positivity about the track that is disarming, even when compared to the rest of the album. i think in abstract "Paplu (Love That Moves The Sun)" is about the inevitable evolution and complication of time. the simple squawking voice is unchanging, like a heartbeat - like it's from a much more primitive era and was never built to be transposed in the midst of all this industrial machinery that threatens to bury it or underwrite it. and yet the voice continues to stay afloat, and all these other processes are being lead behind it - they only underscore it or comment in reaction to it. something about the speed of the pace of technological change of the past several centuries is deeply frightening and alienating when you think about how new it is. everything moves so fast, maybe too fast. but the fundamentals of life stay the same. and we forget so much so quickly.

i've been thinking a lot lately of artists like the Iranian-born Ash Koosha who is translating textures and ideas from traditional and classic music (in his case, Iranian classic music) to something more plugged-in, contemporary, and exciting. it reminds me of (famous Hungarian composer) Béla Bartók and his attempts to study Eastern European folk music and translate it to something more ambitious and contemporary. it's allowing a lot of ideas that weren't given the chance to live outside a particular context to grow and evolve - and to also complicate them. as a socialist this concept obviously appeals to me. in the case of Ash Koosha it's also a way to non-Westernize music in a way that's attempting to be both respectful to the traditional music he grew up with and while also still trying to push the envelope as sonic experimentation.

Vessel has no such concrete goals to unearth one particular tradition, and yet the need to translate the old into something new and complicate it feels very deeply a part of this music. considering the original dubstep context of Vessel it's easy to just expect that it'll just be music that's "good for the scene it comes from" but doesn't stand as much outside of that. but that's why it's truly exciting for me to see these kinds of artistic leaps being taken by artists i didn't have much of an expectation for before that happened. who really knows where the artists who are going to push us into a new, more adventurous future of music are? i can only hope those artists are given the resources and encouragement and ability to move in that direction and this doesn't just become the province of artists from London on very hip, gatekeepery record labels owned by rich art kids though (this is a call-out post about Tri Angle Records, i'm sorry). anyway - i can only hope!

Monday, December 16, 2019

Top 25 tracks of the 2010's: #25 Kanye West - All of the Lights

hi folks! this is the beginning of my writing a list of my top 25 musical tracks of the 2010's. this is the first of the list. more will be coming, bit-by-bit, as i write them. think of this as sort of a longer term writing project. i hope you enjoy it!

if you don't like orange, you can also read this piece on my patreon here:

#25: Kanye West (featuring Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Elton John, Fergie, Alicia Keys, Drake, and a small army of arrangers and producers) - All Of The Lights

it's pretty much impossible to say anything new or interesting about Kanye West or his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but i'll give it a shot. MBDTF is a maximalist pop spectacle of strings and horns and endless features and tracks that go well over 5 minutes. it launched a decade of enshrining pop stars as larger than life, all-encompassing cultural figures who garnered increasing critical attention and adulation. in other words, it's one of the prime crown jewels of the age of everyone's favorite term: poptimism.

it's also the sign that mainstream rap music was starting to take on the high-concept ideas that had traditionally been the realm of rock music for many decades. by the end of the 00's mainstream rock had been puttering out for awhile as it failed to evolve or transform in interesting ways and continued to recede into the background of pop culture. "indie music" had had a big moment in the mid to late 00's but quickly withered away in popularity and broader cultural attention due to the platforms that empowered those artists dying or artists themselves burning out. enter artists like Kanye West, ready to scoop up some of those ideas and bring it into his own work. i remember many users on the rock music forums i frequented seeing MBDTF and, specifically, Kanye's sampling of King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man" as half-hearted attempt to steal clout and cultural signifiers from rock culture. they were angry! it seems like a silly and kind of bigoted response in retrospect (which it kinda is, yeah), but also: maybe there's truth there too! but that's one of the many complicated questions about Kanye West: is he empowering black artists and other rappers through re-contextualizing music and traditions that originally stole from black artists and then mostly kept them out of its history as part of Kanye's ongoing narrative of struggle as a black artist, or his complete absorption of various kinds of other culture into the Kanye West Brand a mostly self-serving enterprise? the answer to both questions is yes.

anyway, if there's such a thing as a "prog rap" album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy would be its poster child. instead of endless guitar noodling we have endless high-profile features and production techniques, enshrining various characters in the ongoing self-immortalizing narratives of famous people as part of their own storybook. Kanye West was a "producer" by a much more traditional definition at one point, but that definition shifted to mean "the guy who brings everyone together into one room". tracks on MBDTF include a massive list of different artist, arrangement, production, and engineering credits in ways that can only draw comparisons to the pipeline of production around Hollywood movies. and really: this is Hollywood maximalism in it's most straightforward and real sense. everything is too big, too long, too much. there's nothing subtle about this album, and that lack of subtlety is as American as... not paying taxes.

Though Kanye West is one of our biggest cultural characters, it's always hard to know with his work how much he  wants you to really like him or identify with him or not. in many ways the character of Kanye in MBDTF plays the Jordan Belfort-like role of someone who thrives in absolute excess and is totally unlikable but exhilarating to be in the orbit of. but also Kanye never really fully commits to the bit - in other ways you might feel sorry with him and the way he's treated by the industry as a black artist... that is until his relationships flames out and he goes on about being the most persecuted human alive, or that he brags about the various ways he's abused women throughout the album. this part sadly is probably way more true to life than anyone wants to believe, and the Gil Scott Heron sampling in "Who Will Survive In America" weakly and abruptly concludes the whole album without really shedding more light on any of these things.

However, most great concept albums never really held together as narratives anyway. Besides: "All of the Lights" is a glorious success as a piece of music. it captures the only Kanye we know as fans: the Kanye as a spectacle, a part of a larger romanticized narrative that we tell ourselves about celebrity and the people who occupy that space. it's an existence that is always under the microscope of popular culture but can never exist outside of it. it's always blown out, coked up, and beautifully burning in the most colorful fashion for everyone to see. even the ugliest and pettiest moments captured by the lyrics are always soundtracked by beautiful blazing horns and luxurious strings that are drawn out in the most romantic, Wagnerian way possible. the beats aggressively skitter ahead like strobing lights. multiple different voices (including Rihanna) interject with the line "turn up the lights in here baby, extra bright - i want y'all to see this". Kid Cudi (Ohio pride!) also appears as a guiding angel and tells Kanye to get his life on track and let stuff go. the video cuts out a verse featuring Fergie as another character who is spinning out of control due to excess. Elton John is also on this song (!!), and is there to futilely attempt to warn Kanye to take a step back from killing himself and his career. there's no half-assing in this life.

celebrity here is a collective unconscious, something universal we need because we need a deeply sensory experience to keep us alive: something overwhelming and awe-inspiring to break us out of our own broken dreams and mundanity. the strobing, seizure-inducing video with its glorious neon text definitely also """''"'reminds""'''"" me of the Gaspar Noé film Enter The Void's famous intro. it's music that *sounds* expensive, and that's because it literally is extremely expensive.

and yet as this full surround-sound Hollywood bliss doesn't seem to reach the Kanye of this song, who appears to be in drugged out haze and paranoid that his girlfriend, who he went to prison for beating up, is sleeping with another guy (which she was, so he beats the guy up). he's weighted down by both money struggles and this child custody battle and his masculinity is humiliated by fighting for custody and having to meet at mundane shopping mall stores like Borders. this is an issue that comes back at multiple points in his lyrics, where he frames family court struggles seem like an ultimate form of oppression on his freedom and masculinity (and is unsurprising given his reactionary affiliations). but also, charitably, he's trying to make a case for the cycle to not repeat itself over again and for his child to not grow up in the conditions he did and make the same mistakes. so is the Kanye West character of this song actually Kanye or just an exaggerated archetype meant to capture the attitudes and struggles of rappers like him as celebrities? that dissonance clearly fuels the album, but is also a question that became more depressing to ask as the decade wore on.

the thing i can't stop thinking about with "All of The Lights" is how sexy and glorious it makes a total flame-out look. Kanye's lines do little to damper the extreme gloss and momentum of the song's arrangement. this kind of celebrity disaster is not something we can ever look away from as a culture. especially not as our favs like Rihanna and Elton John wade into the mess.

but it has to be said that as much as this song captures some sort of deep romanticized collective cultural desire, it's still built on a lie: even the biggest celebrity coke-fueled manias end at some point, and those people have to face the cold light of reality (if they don't die first). of course there's always genuine heartbreak there, and real passion and feelings and real pain that fuels the art and fuels the figures we see. many different generations of artists who came from struggle ultimately become victims of their own success in various different ways that fascinate and disturb us.... and also break our hearts. but also: the music industry loves to romanticize this process, thereby enshrining it as a permanent and unchangeable institution that's woven into the fabric of popular culture. it makes a whole lot of bank off it. and so we end up believing there's nothing else, because there can't be anything else.

years later, the glossy self-destruction of high-concept Kanye West would be embraced by a younger audience of Soundcloud artists with far less irony and self-awareness behind it. and now the gloss seems faded out and all that's left is starker, more nihilistic, and far more brutal to the artists themselves and those around them. there's no Elton John or Rihanna or Kid Cudi guardian angels here to guest feature and tell us that everything's going to be okay. it's just a trail of abused girlfriends and drugs, and young artists who failed to even be close to reaching their full potential before dying in their early 20's.

there's no one more American than Kanye West: an aspirational egotist with big dreams, big talent, a big persecution complex, and a need to have everything all of the time even when it's clearly a danger to himself and everyone around him. and all of us are working for (and living in the shadow of) artists like Kanye West, whether we really want to be or not.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

make stuff and be free! (to vanish without a trace)

note: if you don't like orange (what's wrong with you?), you can also read this post on my patreon here:

in a Discord channel i started recently to talk about art games, someone brought up Eric Zimmerman's "The Ludic Century" and it made me re-read the manifesto published on Kotaku that so aroused my ire in 2013.

someone in the chat pointed out the similarities in the manifesto between the Italian Futurists, and other people criticized it for being exclusionary of various peoples. but really, from re-reading it now: it was hard to find anything to respond to in the manifesto at all, because it seemed so bereft of new or interesting, or even mildly controversial ideas. it's a re-statement of conventional wisdom from the last couple decades of Gamification and Games for Change-ish bland neoliberal rhetoric about using the market to teach people more empathy. at the end of the day it seems to be more about affirming career choices of game designers or academics with the general sense that "videogames are actually really important, you guys!"

and you know what: they are important! let's be like Nancy Pelosi and clap back at the hypothetical gatekeepery middlebrow Roger Ebert man-demons of the world who were probably never going to listen or care anyway.

stuff like The Ludic Century manifesto is just empty affirmations of the importance of digital culture for the sake of digital culture. except for whatever digital frontiers we may be able to explore and colonize in the future, it's the end of history! it all just has to happen the way we said it does because it has to happen: it's an inevitability, and imagining anything else is an impossibility. just make stuff and be free!

i'm sure you've seen the headlines if you're reading this. videogames and game culture have become an increasingly mainstream aspect of pop culture. Twitch consistently draws in more viewers than Netflix and many of the biggest youtube stars (many of whom got their start doing Let's Plays of videogames) have consistently more views than the highest Nielsen rated shows on tv. because the audience often skews younger and there's an impenetrability and unreliability to the metrics used by companies like Google or Amazon, it's often still ignored or dismissed as not as relevant to culture by more established voices. but it's hard to ignore the impact the culture for and around consuming games has had on especially younger generations.

but, you might say: What Does This New Youth Culture Stand For? are the kids really all right?? or are they being programmed to destroy all culture, nay, the fabric of space and time itself by the Pewdiepies, the Minecrafts, the Fortnites, and God willing, the MEMES??!!!

in the past year i've started teaching game design part-time (as an effort to have something that slightly resembles more of a "real job"). and after a few semesters of teaching, it's become very clear to me that basically all game programs, even the ones that aren't explicitly in the mold of manufacturing kids to be good game industry workers, are all extremely practice-oriented. there are obvious reasons for this: there's no real agreed-upon language to use, nor is there a large body of criticism or existing artistic movements to draw upon in videogames. (but there sure are a lot of random essays on blogs like this one that no one remembers a years after they come out). plus there's a cageyness for many who work in the games industry to having their work be described or theorized about in a broader way... because of how many important cultural critics of the past have punched themselves in the dick ridiculously mischaracterizing, downplaying, or just downright insulting the medium of videogames.

so what does exist are sort of vague statements designed not to offend anyone or really take any particular stance on anything beyond saying "yay games!". and that's stuff like The Ludic Century, or also intentionally vague and overly broadly defined concepts like "Game Feel" that game designers often treat like a bible and create a religion around the Great Gods of Polish and Accessibility. we all must serve the God of the market: and he thirsts for more blood. any counter-narratives that try and bring in material or political realities to the theorizing of games, when they do exist, basically have to be created entirely by the teacher and are no doubt promptly forgotten by students once they leave the class. the end result is a bunch of university programs that are pumping out students who are filling Steam and with their games without much of a sense of cultural participation or continuity or like... sense of exploring concepts in general in their work.

digital spaces and technology, more broadly, often extol the virtues of "maker culture". we feel greater than ever impulses to just make stuff for the sake of making stuff in order to serve the Content Gods. being a craftsman is seen as better than all those pretentious highfalutin' types who are out for themselves and don't understand what you're doing. but maker/craftsman/practice-oriented culture leads to digital platforms that are filled to the brim with stuff that's made with barely any context, or continuity, or exploring larger concepts in general... with virtually no one who knows how to talk about any of it in an interesting way. and we all know who the first people disappeared and resigned to permanent irrelevance are on these platforms (hint: it's not the people who have lots of money and connections).

it may sound funny to say this as a critic, but i do think i'm more practice-oriented than theory-oriented at the end of the day. i think creating a work of art can be much more powerful and impactful than just theorizing about it. and i think theory has increasingly become weak and ineffectual at addressing broader societal issues and more concerned with justifying the career of whoever is spouting it at the moment. the post-modern academic tendency to over-theorize that took over in the latter half of the 20th century is part of what has slowly led to artistic communities that are in love with the concept of having a concept and so choked out of any life or inspiration to them.

the arts have become very bifurcated between the children of rich who live "the art life" to feel more relevant and less alienated from the rest of the world because of their privileged existences, and everyone else who does it to exist and compete with other artists in a brutal battle royale in the good old sphere of commerce. undoubtedly, public investment of resources away from the arts has been the biggest factor in making art communities increasingly just a space for the children of the wealthy and powerful. and it also contributed to this internalized guilt towards the idea of making art at all, and the need for the artists to find new ways for justifying the idea of "meritocracy" as it applies to singing the praises of of the free hand of the market. that general uncritical affection towards mass-manufactured commercial culture is probably something you've gotten used to seeing now if you're around people who need to make a living in that space at all. if you're rich you get to think about concepts (at least to the extent that those concepts don't implicate you), but if you're poor you only ever get to think about the market. anything else is a ridiculous indulgence.

but when The Arts become merely a copy of a copy of a copy, a lifestyle accessory for the rich, and a hyper-effective venue for gentrification, the sense of overall context or struggle gets sucked out of the work. apoliticization of art and artists also leads to this myth of the isolated genius laboring over their masterwork. there's a sense that if your work does manage to jump out of this commercial battle royale while still being unique and having lots of resonance with people, it must be a product of your mind being acutely sensitive, or more attuned to the cosmic powers of the universe. if you are around my age (early 30's) and grew up following indie rock music, i'm sure you'll recall the obsessive cults of personality around people like Jeff Mangum or Kevin Shields: the lone isolated eccentric genius. who knows to what extent they intentionally cultivated that view of themselves vs. if it was just an accident, but those myths are invariably destructive to the people who live inside them.

the thing is, we should be so lucky now. for anyone coming into this new media landscape to get that sort of treatment is a laughable fantasy. there's no space to be cool now. a vast majority of people who are making art now and don't have access/resources to larger structures will never get to live inside those kind of myths, no matter how "genius" their work is or how quirky their personality is. it's of course always true that myth-building around these things, if they become popular, tend to serve a purpose for people in power in one way or another. and it's not a healthy sort of way to approach someone's work beyond a certain point of getting larger recognition to it. but the landscape around art has become so unimaginably unequal that the ability to reach a larger consciousness to the point where anyone would even react or respond to your work EXISTING AT ALL without some kind of weird viral fluke is basically impossible.

and, even more darkly: we're not even close to having a basic foothold on how to talk about the deluge of stuff that's put out on digital platforms from this culture that values endless production for the sake of production of more stuff. we can frame this sea of stuff as a new explosion of creativity: maybe it is, at least in some limited ways. but if we can't find an interesting/enlightening way to sift through stuff, most of this wave will disappear without so much as a peep. it'll go up in smoke without most people knowing, just as a significant chunk of recorded music history did in 2008. except with not a bang, but a whimper.

Paolo Pedercini has said several times that if you're any kind of outsider or pushing for some kind of substantive change in your field, you have to actively label and contextualize yourself and the work you're doing, otherwise someone will do it for you. i think this comment was partly in reaction to how the queer games scene i was semi-a part of that got framed as "The Queer Games Scene" against pretty much everyone involved's will. that label ended up defining the scene in ways which probably contributed to it falling apart faster and more violently than it might have otherwise.

i agree in part with what Paolo says there. but the reality i see now is far more dark than that. i don't think anyone in this day and age can depend on anyone talking about or contextualizing their work at all. i think being viewed as irrelevant and vanishing without a trace is the far more inevitable reality for most people than being framed in a negative light (let alone any kind of light at all). one of the strange ironies to me about GamerGate in 2019 is imagining the idea of anyone getting that mad about a Twine game getting written up on a few videogame websites now. when people are mad at you en masse to the point where it leads to harassment it at least tells you that you're having an impact on the culture in some way. now there's just too much stuff for anyone to care or notice for more than two seconds. unless you're The Last Jedi or Ghostbusters.

i think we need to start to view criticism far less as an exercise in pontificating about the nuances of a work or as a venue to place personal narratives onto a work, and much more as just a form of preservation of culture. especially in the context where giant corporate conglomerates like Disney are doing everything in their power to keep audiences and entire critical industries fixated on them. if you can create curiosity towards an artist or cultural object that might have not existed at all before, people are way more likely to remember that and have it impact them later on in the future. really, the biggest obstacle is just getting people to care at all.

do i know how to do this? absolutely not! but i think there has to be a point where we all step down from our high horses and our "no ethical consumption under capitalism"s and "i need to do this to pay rent"s and acknowledge that the preservation of all culture that doesn't flow out from big corporate giants like Disney is what's at stake here. someone, somewhere needs to decide to go against the flow of the hand of the market that's pushing us all helplessly downstream. we're all, in effect, the servants of oligarchy at the end of the day if we don't do this.... even if we don't feel we have any choice, or just have to pay rent.

and if you're an artist: and you don't want to risk your work or the work of the vast majority of us who don't have the Big Buxxx behind us lining the dustbin of history, you have to find some way to contextualize what you're doing, where you're coming from, and why you're doing it. otherwise you're free, like the rest of us, to vanish without a trace.