The New York Times recently organized a trending piece on seapunk, a nascent subgenre of dance music powered by Tumblr, visually associated with ocean colors and imagery. One of the defining characteristics of most young adults and children playing with these microscenes is the near collapse of their online and real-life worlds; figurehead of the seapunk Shan Beaste same said to Chicago Reader in January, that person’s ability to grasp and understand the scene “depends on whether you are URL or whether you are IRL.” And while ancestors like Beaste understand the playfulness of it all, once the seapunk article appeared, many straight-faced online commentators shrugged and insisted they had already moved on. slimepunk anyway. Another day, another meme.
The rapid dissection and pouring out of musical ideas was once how the independent world viewed pop music – a playground of fleeting sensations that aren’t meant to last. It’s one of the things that makes pop exciting, that it unabashedly wows large audiences and captures the dizzying excitement of today regardless of yesterday or tomorrow. Rather, indie merged, in the latter part of the 20th century, as an oppositional subgenre of music, defining itself by what it was not as much as it was, threatening to cut itself off. from the rest of the world in the process. And above all, it was not pop. It was not fleeting.
The risk was that indie would become oppressively austere and drab, and by the late ’90s it really seemed to be. If there was an underlying history of indie in the first decade of the 2000s, it’s how the internet and file sharing opened up this world, encouraging exploration of a litany of supposedly uncool sounds. – pop, dance, classic rock, R&B, metal, country, folk. And indeed, the initial rush of online social interaction allowed listeners – previously separated by geography, class, and different sensibilities – to discuss music with individuals they would have had very little chance of interacting with. in person, exposing them to new and sometimes conventional wisdom. -explosion of points of view.
As once-ostracized sounds returned to the indiesphere, they were initially packaged and welcomed as new ideas, like fads. But slowly they shed their dismissive labels and moved from tangential ideas to central ones. By the time LCD audio system bowed out, no one had called the group “dance-punk” in half a decade; weird people opened the door to Good iver, Fleet foxes, and the bearded hordes; electroclash, the most despised of these scenes, was the most enduring and cuddly of the audience towards everything from Justice To The knife To Robyn to dozens of electronic bedroom artists. In recent years, acoustics and electronics have turned indie so far that electric guitar bands can seem new and retro.
Lately, however, memes have taken over, and they don’t inject themselves into larger sounds and contexts, but rather smaller and smaller contexts. The genesis of this is probably the chillwave, a simplistic lo-fi sound that doesn’t ask much of its creators other than a reverb and a sample of Pablo Cruise. And it doesn’t need much more: like its visual partners – Polaroid images and 8mm and 16mm grainy film – it hits the instinctive button of real or imagined childhood nostalgia. It’s almost like a womb in its comfort: just like with seapunk, water is a common ingredient. They also both gravitate towards the cheap sound as well as the cheap product, seemingly wary of enduring musical values such as competence, fidelity and, perhaps most importantly, shelf life. (It’s probably no coincidence that a buffer against this has been the recent return of guitars, volume, and velocity for the first time in years.)
The result is that musicians are threatening to become content producers, producing a constant stream of conversation topics and half-formed ideas without quality control. Being part of a conversation seems as important as what is actually said. It’s a sure path to obscurity, rushing to appeal to an increasingly small audience ready to follow at the real-time speed of Twitter and, in particular, Seapunk favorite, Tumblr.
Last year, Duck spoke about his distrust of Tumblr, lamenting that the social media bulletin board discourages creativity and self-expression. Tumblr has potential as a conversation center – a lot of people use it that way – but more and more, Drake’s characterization as a place for photos and gifs unencumbered by the written word seems accurate. Like Pinterest, the current social media success story, it’s simply a way to spread things that a user finds cool, engaging, unique, or fun without an explanation. And with its rolling presentation model, none of this is built to last.
Drake’s biggest problem with Tumblr, however, was that it limited personal expression, allowing users to simply compose other people’s work. His assemblage of images collectively provides a panoply of what the user presents to the world, but they are usually only reruns of the work of others. And like any social media, everything can be easily redesigned: delete a tweet, edit your Facebook profile, produce new images on Tumblr and Pinterest, change the handle of your bulletin board and you can easily reinvent yourself.
Paradoxically, in the age of the ephemeral, if there is one topic that is actually discussed in independent / internet circles, it is authenticity: the WTF-nes of Die Antwoord, the way (for some) the inherent authenticity of being young and black papers on the social crimes of Strange future, scratching your head to find out if Kreayshawn must be taken seriously or if Lana del rey is indie or pop. Since the gifs and images displayed on a Tumblr page are meant to reflect the sensitivity of the person posting them, it is apparently important above all that such content reflects not only the authenticity, but all the intangible qualities that the user final values. It’s a weird and impossible to win shell game – guessing people’s intentions, locating cool rather than quality, running around to kiss and dropping memes at exactly the right time. Proving that you are up to date with anything that is a minute old may seem more important than identifying things that remain notable and useful outside of a 24-hour Internet news cycle. Expressions and ideas that are not superficial don’t stand a chance in this environment. As a result, independent music threatens to fall into a place where listeners value the associative power of a content provider rather than the expression or truth in an artist’s work.
If there’s a new avatar for the indie-Tumblr world, it’s Claire Boucher, who records what she calls “post-Internet” music like Grimes. (She has since disowned the tag, sounding rightly petrified that it will become something as uncool, or permanent, as a subgenre tag.) Boucher is a figurehead of the new indie fleeting in part. because she’s one of the best of the recent wave of home electro-pop musicians, and because she articulately expresses the themes of her work. In short, his music projects emotional nourishment and depth of thought alongside its melodic charm.
She’s also a figurehead because she unapologetically believes in the power of social media and loves Tumblr’s curatorial expression, romanticizing her as a home for all the interesting work online. And it certainly can be. But the idea that living a post-internet life means choosing between URL and IRL, as Beaste hinted at, or combining the two worlds and not being able or willing to part with your online personality, is limiting. It’s even arguably cowardly, to carefully manicure a fabricated reality version of yourself online via social media and let that idea of who you wish you were to substitute for your more complicated, complex real-world self. (True enough, another of Drake’s lamentations about Tumblr was that IRL people don’t tend to mirror their URLs in any way.)
Boucher expressed his fear that people would limit his identity to a mere collection of his interests or a curator rather than a musical force. And she’s demonstrated over the last week just how limited the life of URLs would be with her. Video “Forgetting”. In the clip, the art child Grimes performs in the cheap seats of motocross races and soccer games, cutting a subversive figure among these catchy masculine worlds and distorting the norms of the audience / performer relationship. This is the most striking thing she’s done, as she abandoned the safe cocoon of the internet and waded into an unknown real-world space. It’s one of the first non-internet things this post-internet artist did. It is no coincidence, it is also the most powerful.