Ann, Carl, Jason,
OK, here is a very 2014 confession: I’m writing this entry with the help of SelfControl, an app that allows you to block certain social media websites (my vices are Twitter and Gchat) for a given amount of time. I’m not sure I’d get much work done these days without it—a fact I feel safer admitting knowing that I’m in the exalted company of fellow SelfControl enthusiasts Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen. Like most of us, I spend the majority of my workday staring at a screen in a seemingly perpetual state of distraction: My digital workspace is strewn with unread tabs, auto-refreshing feeds, and sleekly designed pieces of content competing for my limited attention. This was the year I really started to worry about the effect that these skittering rhythms are having on my mind and my listening habits, to wonder what’s being lost at the expense of certain technological developments. One song that hit close to home for me this year was “Content Nausea,” a taut, two-chord Luddite anthem by Parkay Quarts, the cheeky alter ego of the Pavement-worshipping Brooklyn art-punks Parquet Courts. “This year it became harder to be tender,” frontman Andrew Savage sweats in a tense and nervous David Byrne–style deadpan. “Harder and harder to remember/ Meeting a friend, writing a letter/ Being lost.” The verse’s rapid-fire lyrics come at you like an explosion of naggingly unanswered text messages; the chorus isn’t a hook but a welcome moment of silence, like the blissful moment when your phone dies and you remember what those days were like when you didn’t have to answer to anyone but yourself.
Much as I love “Content Nausea,” we’re a little too used to this take on futurism: the hand-wringing naysayers with guitars, the nostalgic lists of all the simple pleasures we’ve lost. Maybe that’s why this year I found myself drawn to artists who saw our new technologically augmented reality as a boon, or even a kind of aural playground—this kind of music makes me feel a little more comfortable with my cyborg brain. Ironically, one of the most provocative artists in the bunch was something of an elder statesman, electronic music pioneer Richard D. James, who returned this year with the first Aphex Twin album in 13 years, the winding, warping sonic funhouse that is Syro. Maybe it’s because James’ glitchy, shape-shifting compositions defined so much of what ’90s electronic music sounded like, but something about Syro felt to me both retro-futuristic and boldly forward-thinking. A big part of it, I think, is that interviews reveal James to be someone who thinks about the future of electronic music with excitement and wonder, rather than scolding the youngsters who will never understand what it’s like to carry a monophonic synth 15 miles in the snow. In a great interview with Philip Sherburne, James marveled at the fact that making electronic music has become so user-friendly that even his 5-year-old knows how to download software from Pirate Bay and set up his own Bandcamp page. “The way they treat computers is just mindboggling to me,” James said. “[My son has] got quite an expensive Mac, and he just carries it around like [waves book in the air]. It’s like part of his body, swinging off his arm. It’s so weird. That’s kind of what I was dreaming about, in a way. Like a cyborg. We’re almost there, aren’t we.”
The cyborg has been a fixture in the pop imagination since the early days of electronic music, but it’s definitely had a resurgence in the past few years, no doubt owing to the fact that we’re all more or less becoming them, with our MacBook appendages and smartphone Google searches standing in for long-term memory banks. Atlanta rapper Future continued to hone his post-human emcee thing on this year’s Honest, although his most wonderfully weird verse of 2014 comes in the middle of Tinashe’s “How Many Times,” which he sputters like a dying robot caught in a rainstorm. Ann, I second your emotion that parts of the Tinashe record “sound exactly like my brain feels after too many hours of scrolling through multiple social media platforms,” and I’d argue that FKA Twigs is trying even more intentionally to fit that description. In Emilie Friedlander’s very good Fader profile of Twigs from earlier this year, she noted that her songs feel like “transmissions from a not-so-distant future in which one might physically transform into one’s own cyberpunk avatar, a techno-utopia in which physical idiosyncrasies become magnified as strengths, and where beauty begins to be understood as a malleable combination of one’s own masculine and feminine attributes.” Twigs is definitely an artist interested in boldly going where no one has gone before, by which I mean that in 2014 she is the first-ever person to make Google Glass look cool. Never thought I’d live to see that future.
The most provocative (and divisive) exploration of 2014’s cyborg pop happened on a small British label called PC Music, which specializes in stilted, proudly synthetic, sugar-rush pop—imagine a chopped-and-screwed remix of “Barbie Girl.” Helmed by the producer and de facto label head A.G. Cook, PC Music is sometimes accused of being too cerebral for its own good, sterilely sucking the fun out of the very kind of pop music to which it claims to pay homage. Occasionally, PC Music will put out a song that’s so stiff and idea-driven that it’s unlistenable, like Lipgloss Twins’ antic debut single “Wannabe.” But this year, some of the artists associated with the scene successfully started connecting the dots between aesthetic provocation and pure pop pleasure: Hannah Diamond’s “Every Night” and QT’s “Hey QT” both bring up interesting questions about desire, identity, and consumerism in the digital era—but more importantly, they’re both super catchy pop songs. QT is a duo of Cook and the British producer Sophie, and though they present the project as though “QT” is a hyperstylized, vaguely Britney-esque pop star, the track’s vocals are so heavily manipulated and the cover art is so thoroughly Photoshopped that it’s impossible to discern anything about the humans (presumably) behind it. Though her presence is also mysterious, Hannah Diamond at least appears to be a real person, but PC Music loves to toy with this chilling, post-Catfish idea that on the Internet you can never really know for sure who’s pulling the strings.
Carl, I think I had a response similar to yours upon my first listen to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah: Something about it feels refreshingly flesh and blood, a satisfying antidote to all of this glitchy cyber-R&B. (Stepping away from the endless refresh of my computer for an hour to give it a proper headphones listen felt like a visit to a spa.) But I guess the kind of future I’m hopeful about is one in which both of these kinds of music can peacefully coexist, none being heralded as inherently better or more authentic than the other. One of the most memorable and thought-provoking shows I saw this year was headlined by the so-called “holographic” Japanese pop star Hatsune Miku, the biggest star in the increasingly popular vocaloid subculture. Sitting next to me was a 5-year-old girl, one glowstick in each fist, who told me before the show with explosive glee, “This is my first pop concert!” She then told me about the other ones she hoped to see next: “Taylor Swift, and the Nutcracker.” Here’s to a future generation of baby cyborgs omnivorous and open-minded enough to call all of these things “pop,” and the twisted kind of sounds they’ll make someday.