Monday, 27 December 2010

Hypnagogic Pop?!

Looking back on the past eighteen months of music, one of the most controversial, bewildering, and ultimately interesting trends around has been the emergence and development in the US underground scene of ‘Hypnagogic pop’ music, and to a lesser extent, its subsequent splits into chillwave and witch house. My first reaction to these terms, as with many, was amusement as they were some of the most ridiculous genre inventions I had yet heard. Nevertheless, the path of these sounds, and their eventual appearance in many best new music lists this year is significant enough to warrant exploration and explanation, not to mention that they have captured an important, if ambiguous, zeitgeist in a large branch of contemporary youth culture.

Hypnagogic pop (H-pop) seems aptly to have apparated out of the musical ether sometime in the late 00s. Though I had been aware of a definite ‘sound’ which encompassed shoegaze, ambient, pop, and psychedelia for the past few years, the term ‘Hypnagogic pop’ was coined to describe it by David Keenan in The Wire magazine during 2009. Since being institutionalised though, there has been a lot of contention over what H-pop constitutes, and what exactly it refers to. The sound, now much described by every blogger with a dictionary, encompasses the nebulous worlds of the ‘spectral’, the ‘hazy’, the ‘wistful’ and the ‘dreamy’; spheres which are reminiscent of hauntology, and point to a focus on textures and atmospheres rather than clear-cut songs. Distortions, drones, reverb, and delay are all used to smother and saturate songs with the aural equivalent of flickers, grain, and lens flairs, which act to give the music a deeply nostalgic quality, like snapshots from the past found in a dusty attic. Indeed it is pop filtered and refracted through memory, complete with the blurred scars of analogue age faithfully recreated.

The intense focus on the past explains the archaic sounds mined by H-pop, which are commonly saturated in reverb, and often evoke something like a distant AM radio station blaring out in 1986. As such, many songs actually function better as collages of an artist’s influences than as a synthesis of them, which is a strong indication as to the way self-identification through pop-culture has affected art in recent years. Through H-pop it is also evident that nostalgia for the 80s and early 90s has overtaken a large subsection of young people today. Veneration, ironic or not, of kids cartoons, 80s movies, and music itself – from TV themes, to advertising jingles, to contemporary pop, to video game soundtracks – has formed H-pop’s particular sound and ontology, and this itself comes from some emotive element of the artists’ childhood cultural assimilation. To an extent every artist throughout history is the product of their past experiences, but for children of the 80s and early 90s, much experience was gained through the passive activities of watching TV, surfing the internet, and playing video games. This has consequently helped construct collective memory, and so it’s little surprise that contemporary nostalgia is related to favourite cartoons and movies.

It’s not like kids in the 50s and 60s didn’t identify themselves with pop-culture though; they did, but it also must not be forgotten that the pop-culture of the 80s and beyond was propelled by the power of neoliberalism, which encouraged the cultural machinery to manufacture a higher proportion of products than ever before in the search for heightened profits and ratings. The children of the 80s and early 90s were therefore the first generation to grow up with cultural saturation, which involved an overdose of everything, from iconic adverts to movie spin-offs of successful cartoon shows. This has unsurprisingly permeated the perception of a generation’s childhood, with many memories being formed not from events or emotions with direct resonance, but from monolithic cultural institutions such as MTV, McDonalds, and Nintendos.

A normal, comfortable childhood will always be an object of nostalgia though, regardless of whether it was mercilessly assaulted by advertisers. H-pop’s aural preoccupation with the past (and refusal to look to the future) is therefore the outright rejection of, and dissatisfaction with the present. Instead of today’s cultural institutions, H-pop is willing the return of those which are associated with the artists’ childhood in the 80s/early 90s. Certainly, this is the only way to regain childhood for many people whose self-identification is strongly related to the pop-culture of their youth. The danger of this though is that H-pop’s obsession with childhood is enacted not only through the worship of pop culture, but also indirectly of the forces behind it; the multinational corporations, and the cynical shareholders. This goes beyond Theodore Adorno’s view of pop-culture as opiate of the people to cover capitalism’s contradictions, and shows it to in fact be both the opiate and the contradiction; a lion in wolf’s clothing as it were. In saturating a generation with branded pop-culture, capitalism has planted the seeds of its own endurance wherein eventually people’s nostalgia and fond memories will all loosely be associated with consumerism. In short, through H-pop, capitalism has quietly ensured its future is guaranteed even though it is almost certain that no artist consciously intended this. Though H-pop may attempt a kick against the system as a collective cry for the retrieval of a lost innocence denied to us by a media-driven society, its intrinsic relationship to the media-machine ultimately denies any possibility of constructive political content.
Pocahaunted live, captured typically on Polaroid

A particularly interesting element of H-pop is that it is not a movement wholly generated from particular circumstances related to a specific geographical area and its idiosyncratic influence on artists, but one largely developed under the influence of the internet. The zeitgeist of H-pop is quite reliant on the internet, although it must be noted that many of its artists are based in LA. Still, the internet plays a large role in H-pop not only in uniting the sometimes geographically disparate artists, but also in aiding distribution, promotion, and facilitation of the collection of nostalgia-inducing source material. Even though H-pop is an invocation of the 80s/early 90s, it would ironically not be possible without the internet and its own cultural institutions such as YouTube or Napster.

Most importantly though, H-pop is best seen as an observation of a loose set of characteristics which link together a group of artists, including Ariel Pink, Pocahaunted, Sun Araw, Ducktails, and James Ferraro. Accordingly H-pop is not a ‘genre’ in the traditional sense in that it doesn’t group artists based on stylistic/musical similarities, but on aesthetic ones including lo-fi production, clear references to the past, and DIY distribution techniques. The actual sounds within H-pop are reasonably varied, and there is a considerable amount of crossover between it and its apparent spawn, chillwave (see Toro Y Moi, Washed Out and Neon Indian), which can be confusing. Nevertheless, Hypnagogic pop, chillwave, witch house, glo-fi, or whichever other name used by writers in relation to a certain group of US artists is more a tool to explain the particular movement than to categorise it. On a deeper note, I’m sort of thinking that H-pop could be a US indie subsidiary of/alternative to hauntology; dealing with similar concerns, but transposing them more precisely to the US suburban indie psyche rather than Burial’s UK inner-city or Boards of Canada’s unsettling, pastoralism. It’s just a thought though.

For better or for worse, H-pop has been developing since the mid-00s, and eventually became one of the most talked about sounds of 2010 (at least on the indie scene) and though I don't like most of the music, its indication of a larger generational malaise through very literal nostalgia is a pretty interesting and vaguely tragic sign o' the times.


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