The first thing I did when David Keenan’s hotly debated “Hypnagogic Pop” article came out in The Wire last June was log on to the Terminal Boredom message board–not because I read it all the time, but because it was the site where that debate began, as far as I could glean from a preliminary Google search. And the first thing I saw when I logged onto Terminal Boredom was a question that would make a really big imprint on my subsequent readings of the piece, partly because it was written in all capital letters and tickering from right to left across the screen:
“The only sad thing [...] is that REALLY the MOST important question isn’t asked: HOW DOES THE FIGHT AGAINST CAPITALISM RELATE TO ALL THIS?”
Maybe it’s because I spent four years of my life reading Marxist aesthetic theory in a windowless tower, but I’ve been thinking a lot about the politics of Hypnagogic Pop ever since. I commend Keenan a hundred times over for putting into words something that was on the tip of many a critical tongue over the past year but that no one had the guts articulate as something so sweeping as a cultural movement: the rise of a lo-fi post-noise psychedelia that moves past noise’s rejection of consonance and sort of unconscious adherence to the 20th century high modernist ideal of autonomous art (art that engages in discourse with contemporary culture precisely by refusing such a discourse, though noise typically refuses a discourse with academic constructs of this kind as well). Keenan makes an interesting case for hypnagogic pop as a move towards reconnecting with the eternal archetypes embedded in the changing landscape of pop culture, of embracing the fact that our consciousness is structured almost entirely by these archetypes and using them as a spring-board for self-discovery and renewal. But I would have liked him to go a bit further fleshing out how that sound might add up to new political stance or mode of aesthetic engagement.
So is hypnagogic pop political, in the sense of engaging in some way in the fight against capitalism and capitalist culture? Or does it signify a kind of dying gasp on the part of experimental music, a becoming-consensual of a noise now ready to throw down its hands and to concede that–at the end of the day–people just want to listen to Fleetwood Mac? My personal belief is that, sure, this new music may be somewhat “nostalgic” or “reactionary” in its return to outmoded recording technologies and the pop cultural idioms we grew up with as kids (Keenan zeros in specifically on the ’80s, though I think that any time period and/or geographical origin should be considered fair-game). But in this movement backwards I think there is the implicit recognition that these tropes actually form the fabric of our musical consciousness, and that they present building blocks for us to use as we move forward and try to create art that is true to our experience as members of the Y generation: coming of age with a remote control in one hand and an Ipod in the other, listening to our parents tell us that every good song in the universe has already been written.
When an artist like James Ferraro or Gary War takes a sample from an ’80s workout video and degrades it almost past recognition, he divests it of some of its original authority as part of the mainstream power apparatus and reclaims it as raw “working material”–ripe for recycling, recombination, and personal imprinting. The gesture is not an “oppositional” gesture per se, nor is it a subversion of pop culture from within. I think of it more as a positive building movement, one which acknowledges pop’s hold over us while using it to built an alternative to that reality. Kind of like building the change you want to see? When we listen to this new thing that David Keenan calls hypnagogic pop, then, the question of whether a piece of music is “engaged” politically or not ceases to be the question of where it situates itself along the pop-noise continuum. Instead, we should ask ourselves, How is it allowing us to escape this dead-end opposition all together? How does it hustle up elements from all along this continuum to assert the continued existence of the individual subject–long after, to judge from the looks of things these days, s/he should have already disappeared?
Since those initial reactions on Terminal Boredom, Keenan’s new term has been popping up everywhere from “justanothermusicblog.blogspot.com” to the “major indie” publications that like to pick up on grassroots musical phenomena of this kind and make them sell. At both extremes, music critics tend to gripe that Keenan is just trying to toot his own horn by being the first to christen yet another seminal post-9/11 psychedelic movement (following “New Weird America” in 2003), even as they unflinchingly incorporate the term–for lack of a better one, or any other one–into their own critical vocabulary. Whatever Keenan’s underlying motivations may be, I think he should be congratulated–along with hypnagogic musicians everywhere–for opening up a can of worms. It’s not every day that you can get noise kids and Pitchfork diehards together to weigh in on the politics of what we hear.
Words: Emilie Friedlander
For those of us who have ever wanted to probe Keenan himself on the capitalism question, Dan Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never, Infinity Window) seems to have beat us to it. He does a fantastic job of it in this informal email interview with the Scottish writer, albeit through veiled references like “Shakira” and “Pizza.” Hypnagogic writing about hypnagogic pop!
This author of this thought piece in The Brooklyn Rail seems to be completely unaware of Keenan’s article or any of the bands he talks about, but does a compelling Marxist/post-structuralist reading of the return to lo-fi production values and old school recording technologies in bands like the Vivian Girls, Wavves, and The Crystal Stilts.
Arthur interview with NY Eye and Ear promoter Todd Pendu, who talks about 21st century DIY as a creative reworking of the ’70s architectural concept of adhocism. Another example of using the detritus at our fingertips to build the world we want to live in?
Tags: autonomous art, Capitalism, Daniel Lopatin, David Keenan, Gary War, Hypnagogic Pop, Infinity Window, James Ferraro, lo-fi, Marxism, New Weird America, noise, Oneohtrix Point Never, psychedelic, Terminal Boredom, The Wire