Horizons: What, if any, are the Politics of Hypnagogic Pop?

huge.84.423296The 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

Continuing Education:

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?

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4 Responses to “Horizons: What, if any, are the Politics of Hypnagogic Pop?”

  1. First, I recently read Keenan’s primer on Kosmische music in The Wire’s October issue, and I think he provides some political ideas that can be juxtaposed with Hypnagogic Pop. Namely, he contrasts bands like Faust that attempted to violently destroy existing foundations in order to construct new ones with the Kosmische bands that attempted to merge early German folk with more contemporary psychedelic sounds. To me, it seems like noise and hypnagogic pop fall into similar categories: the first is radical and violent towards the past, but the second is liberal and tolerant of the past.

    So the two models we get are the basic social science models of political change: one attempts to destroy the old and construct an entirely new form of life, while the other takes parts of the old in order to construct a hybrid form of life. The first works from outside and against history, while the second works from the inside by resurrecting and reinstating the positive values of the old.

    The political goals of hypnagogic pop seems to be to take elements of the old, shuffle them around, and use them as building blocks for a more liberated possible future. Keenan claims that HP gains its power from 80s pop culture. But, I don’t see anything radical about 80s pop culture. Rather, it seems to be grounded on values of escapism, hyper-consumption, hyper-individualism, and passive nihilism. In order to present the utopian promise of HP, though, it seems like he pushes these more negative aspects to the side to emphasize the spiritual, New Age aspects that offer a glimpse at some form of liberation.

    But even here I don’t see anything radical, and I think that by focusing on the spiritual would be to simply promote escapism. To me, the language of “accessing altered states,” revealing subaltern truths, uncovering the secret remnants of authentic material, and so on, mean nothing. Unless someone does some serious philosophical work to flesh out what this language means, this is just New Age gibberish. Though, Keenan does say some specifically politically meaningful things about the New Age dimension of HP.

    First, he claims that it has provided a space for unrestricted creativity since nobody (i.e. academic thinkers) pay any attention to it. It has not undergone the sort of ruthless critical assaults that are commonplace within Western academia. In much the same way they treat Ayn Rand, serious thinkers look at New Age shit and say “fucking idiots.” So the New Age provides some sort of space for hyper-creativity to take place that is immune from restrictions and criticism. To me, this sounds like pure fantasy. There is no such space that is immune to restrictions or power and, even if there were, such a space that has never felt criticism sounds awfully dangerous: the unrestricted id, the child who has never been told ‘no’.

    Ultimately, I can’t see how the talk of this power-neutral space, an authentic aura, a return to 80s pop culture, altered states, leaps of faith, and New Age-ism can result in a radical political project. As Kennan himself says, HP has no critical agenda. At best, I think it is more in line with a traditional liberal political project. It borrows from the past and builds a new future out of those pieces, and so long as those pieces are simply pieces of 80s pop culture, I’d be terrified to see what that would look like politically.

    Other thoughts: The radical model of complete historical renewal is problematic. I’m not sure this is even possible or more desirable than the alternative since it seems to imply vast amounts of violence and destruction. The reformist model seems more pragmatic, but the picking of the historical pieces that are used is critical. By focusing on some mysterious transcendental authentic aura that historically emerged through 80s pop culture, I think, blurs the political more than it articulates it. If pushed to define itself, I think all this language would collapse. The political needs to be empirically grounded; if it’s not, we end up with Plato’s Republic, the myth of the volk, and so on.

    Finally: As someone who has spent a good amount of time studying Leo Strauss, I think there is another interpretation (actually, there are infinite others). HP snags its power from 80s pop culture. To the public, this presented itself as eternal fun, carefree consumption, and so on. But this cultural picture was really used to blind the many from the horror and injustice taking place nationally and internationally. 80s pop culture was powerful in that it distracted the many from the facts, and smoothly reproduced the ideology and values and hyper-capitalism. 80s pop culture was able to present one thing, and conceal another. If HP taps into this dimension of 80s pop culture, maybe there’s a different result. HP can present itself as carefree, nostalgic, and New Age, but ultimately be promoting an entirely different (more politically focused) agenda. Perhaps HP is the aesthetic that can be used by political radicals to cloak their ideas. But the inverse is always true: HP can be the apparently radical cloak that conceals conservative ideals. Who knows.

  2. James Forsyth says:

    david keenan, ever seen him dancing? does a mean four step gable, spouts kinda hipster babble unheard of in the east of glasgow and like hal linden and plays the clarinet…. the skaters? ever seen them at hours mathematically fixed, in the same room, at the same table, the same room together? No, didn’t think so… anyway as dr. chesterton put it : the highest use of the imagination is to learn from what never happened and after all it’s only music, john.

  3. mr p says:

    I’ve read Keenan’s HP article, though I haven’t read much commentary. First, while I do commend Keenan for opening up this can of worms, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes throughout. The problem I have is that Keenan — like many high-profile journalists who are endlessly fawned over — desperately attempts to reify an impulse that is clearly anything but unified. We’re not talking about a sweeping cultural/artistic movement like Dada here. Do we really want another New Weird America, a sort of half-joke, nonsencial stylistic descriptor? This ideological imposition I think short-circuits the momentum of underground musics; it’s reductive, deflating, disempowering. It’s easy to get caught up in the initial frenzy, but I think it’s harmful in the long run. (Not that I would discourage writers from doing it — these reifications are to me more interesting than a lot of the music!)

    Part of this problem is this desire to construct linear narratives to begin with. All music, to me, is hybrid, backwards-looking, etc. Linear narratives play to the temporal constructions of the ‘past,’ ‘present’, and the ‘future’, and of the more ideological constructions of ‘the original’ and ‘the new’ and ‘the authentic,’ etc, which makes it all the more fuzzy. And either way, HP clearly has no political agenda, which doesn’t entirely wipe it of its political potential for listeners, but it’s definitely where I get off board. I’m not into the idea of renewal through a vague recollected memory with a stress on apolitical decontextualizaiton and appropriation.

    It’s also worth pointing out that, while many of the mid-decade “noise” fans have indeed embraced HP, it often seems to be for the same superficial reasons — like, constructing narratives through the music and/or as a conduit for “transcendence.” I do think there are benefits to this pseudo-spirtiual construct that’s so often intertwined with escapism and fantasy, and also think this approach to music listening can be political in its own way, but my point is that a lot of “noise,” even of the harshest kind, wasn’t very political and I don’t think a lot of its listeners listened politically either. Wasn’t it Wolf Eyes who dismissed the intellectualization of noise and who would rather eat pizza?

  4. [...] his thoughts. "You hit to advert that this is completely misanthropic, the oppositeness of the hypnagogic pop intent of misty eyelike locomotion backwards into the womb. This is more of a Back to the Future as [...]

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