Wednesday, July 22, 2009

hipstergogic pop

Interesting article by David Keenan, in the latest issue of The Wire, on what he's calling "hypnagogic pop" .

Basically it's some American ltd-edition cassette/CD-R noiseniks who've realized that noise is a bit of a dead end (better late than never eh?) and have been making this oneiric no-fi wooze, through which flicker memory-mangled traces of Eighties music: overbrite and clinically-tight mainstream pop and rock (Don Henley's "The Boys of Summer" gets a special mention); sequencer-chattering and digi-synthy themes from movies and TV; New Age, and so forth. All of which apparently seeped into the consciousness of these young twentysomething musicians when they were toddlers.

With words like "spectral" and "revenant" appearing before we're half way through the first paragraph, I started to get the distinct impression, as I read further, that yer man Keenan was struggling to avoid using the word "hauntology."

Also immediately thought, "well--this sounds very Ariel Pink" (the collision of formalist pastiche and reverb-hazy abstraction; the way Ariel talks about being brought up by MTV, it being his child-minder almost). Sure enough, Pink soon pops up as a reference point and an ally of a few of these musicians.

The New Age thing (one of the main imprints, run by the Skaters, is actually called New Age Tapes) cracked me up initially, in a "hipsters! whatever will they think of next!" sort of way. But thinking about it, it struck me as actually perfectly plausible and indeed fitting that New Age would occupy a similar position in the memoradelic unconscious of a particular American generation as BBC Radiophonic Workshop/schools TV muzak does for its older British counterpart. Windham Hill-type music was really big in America in the Eighties and doubtless a lot of these noiseniks had parents who played it.

One aspect to the uptake of New Age is the cultural economics of hipsterdom, the way that margin-walking creatives seek out music that is discarded and disregarded, and therefore susceptible to transvaluation. There's a literally economic aspect to this subliming of kitsch: whatever can be found cheaply in yard sales and thrift stores (few things could be less covetable/collectable than than a pre-recorded cassette of New Age music). But there's a kind of aesthetic logic to the interest in New Age too. Maligned as it is, New Age music has a fairly respectable ancestry: many analog synth epic artists and kosmische Krauts (Ash Ra, Deuter etc) were making wishy-(synth)washy, meditational sounds by the Eighties. And it's a thin blurry line between Ambient and New Age at the best of times. Take Laraaji, who uses hammered dulcimer and zither to weave blisscapes of pulsing chimes. His Day of Radiance was third in the Ambient Series, sandwiched between The Plateaux of Mirrors and On Land, but his latterday albums have windchime-and-incense titles like Celestial Reiki and Enlighten.

Reading the interviewees's accounts of what they're trying to do (especially James Ferraro* and Spencer Clark of The Skaters) and listening to bits and bobs of "hypnagogic," I got to thinking about the difference between this music and its older British cousin. The word that sprang to mind was "half-baked". Compared to the UK stuff, it has an off-hand, even tossed-off quality (and would almost have to be, given the insane output of releases that's the norm in this zone; Ferraro's done something like forty under an array of pseudonyms in just a few years). But "half-baked" isn't necessarily a pejorative. One angle of critique with the British hauntologists that's been voiced by some is that it's over-baked: just a little too neatly wrapped up as a conceptual package of sound and artwork and mapped-out reference points, with little scope for imaginative drift on the part of the listener. (I don't find this a problem myself, or at least rarely, but I can see the argument). Less overtly footnoted, the American stuff has more of a Rorschach ink-blot aspect. "Half-baked" would also be characteristic (hauntology is very much bound up with nationality I think) in so far as hypnagogic plugs into that perennial alt-American slackerdelic sensibility that goes back via Nineties lo-fi and Eighties goofballs like Butthole Surfers and Happy Flowers, to things like the LAFMS.

One question raised for me by the piece was: does this mean that every generation from now on will come up with its own equivalent of hauntology/hypnagogic, a working-through of the music/popcult assimilated during infancy and early childhood? You can see something like this process happening with wonky maybe, in the way that games music is such a strong influence… that palette of day-glo synth-tones seem to be heavily coded as "halcyon", presumably because for an entire generation, a high percentage of the total amount of music they heard as children would have been via video and computer games…

* Ferraro's KFC as example of "dark energy temples" that "alter people's reality in a psychotic way" surely takes the half-baked biscuit. (Or perhaps it's just completely baked, in the other sense?)