Music these days, right? The amount of music being released or performed has always exceeded the amount of time required to listen to all of it, but the pace at which this is happening now makes our current musical climate ridiculously incomprehensible–which is to say: literally beyond the grasp of the conscious individual. Nowadays, we’re listening not only to new singles, albums, and EPs, but also to new trends, genres, and microgenres; new mixes, remixes, and mixtapes; even through a daunting proliferation of new formats, mediums, and platforms, all of which facilitate complex, hypertextual ways of listening.
But the more we divide our time among multiple ways of consuming music, scrolling ourselves into feed-based rabbit holes, the more things start feeling temporary, fleeting. And it often sounds like it, too. Here, musical moments like the “Migos flow,” microgenres like “drag,” and sampling trends like the sound of a gun cocking (“chk chk”) emerge, reproduce, and disseminate at a whiplash pace, appearing and then disappearing before we can really comprehend what’s happening.
This shift from legacy acts and canonized albums to the transient aesthetics of trends and fads is expected in a time of digital hyperacceleration, where new music is immediately processed, appropriated, hybridized, and cannibalized as soon as they’re released (sometimes even before their “official” release). But what might it mean when rappers like Gucci Mane and Young Thug are releasing mixtapes whose titles reference albums that haven’t even been recorded yet? What is being implied when our music vocabulary suddenly flowers to include bop, drill, hauntology, blackgaze, hypnagogia, and seapunk? How do we talk about music when so much of what we listen to now feels so transitory and historically inconsequential?
Let’s look at two particularly influential music trends of the last several years: footwork and vaporwave.
Footwork describes both a form of electronic music and a style of dancing that, in its beginnings, existed solely in the Chicago underground. During this time, footwork was primarily expressed in converted warehouses and rec centers, where combatant dancers formed circles and took turns competing against each other, while artists like DJ Rashad and DJ Roc performed complex, highly experimental configurations of blown-out sub bass, pitch-shifted vocals, stabbing snares, and skittering hi-hats: it was house music without a house, dance music without the sex–it was violent, otherworldly, fidgety. And as soon as UK label Planet Mu started officially releasing footwork in 2010 (discovered via a series of YouTube videos), there was no turning back: footwork would soon become a major force in electronic music.
Vaporwave, on the other hand, wasn’t a regional phenomenon, nor was it preoccupied with notions of authenticity and progression. In fact, vaporwave, which started gaining momentum in 2012, sought to topple such constructions by foregrounding what was originally intended to be played in the background. In its most radical form, artists like Vektroid (who adopted various monikers) and INTERNET CLUB did this by appropriating cultural detritus–cheesy corporate muzak, pre-boarding lounge tunes, elevator music, etc.–and re-presenting them with only a slight pitch-shift here and an inconspicuous loop there. It was a net-based art, whose meaning was inextricable from both its surreal, time-conflating imagery and its rigorous adherence to the act of reframing itself as a compositional tool. The perceptual dread bound up in the repetition of this bland, faceless music was enlivened not because we could suddenly appreciate the bland, faceless music as such, but because it was in part about the bland, faceless music.
Both styles seemed to have come out of nowhere, both styles attracted rabid fan bases, and both were only made possible by the internet. But their stories have different endings.
Digital technologies have a way of giving momentum to music trends. In contrast to the context of previous modes of music-making, -listening, and –valuing, technology has embedded humans in the instantaneity of an exclusive present, where the emphasis is not on distance or mobilization, but on speed, acceleration. Here, we act less like subjects in a geographical, spatially-contingent space and more like nodes in a complex network of information, facilitating the movement of data.
The aesthetic consequences have manifested rhizomatically, and not without a fair share of ideological change. Rather than strumming, bowing, or blowing, many musicians are now oscillating, filtering, and sampling. In this context, musicians behave as information manipulators, bending not notes, but symbols, conducting not orchestras, but wild experiments in digital recombinations and hybridizations. The new aesthetic model is less cultural currency, more electric currency. The new aesthetic model favors affect, sensation, movement.
As such, music trends can manifest in an instant. Some play out so quickly they don’t even gain enough traction before being absorbed into an altogether different genre. Because not only is change accelerating, but the pace of change is accelerating too, such that we are able to visualize the changes unfolding in real time, to caress the contours of this technological shift as they happen, to immerse ourselves in data streams and information flows without concern for constructions of past, present, and future. Here, time doesn’t flow. It erupts.
Technology, then, creates the material conditions that lead to music trends. But it is the critic who creates the values associated with them.
By 2013, footwork had reached peak saturation and critical acceptance, its meaning having long shifted away from the fetishistic voyeurism of outsiders looking in and toward an international dance sound that permeated various electronic genres. As difficult and as challenging as it was, footwork’s openness to hybridization and collaboration led to its unlikely penetration into mainstream clubs and dance floors. And, despite its current inability to influence or produce the way it did during its heyday, footwork is still widely celebrated today, if on a smaller scale.
Vaporwave, however, met a different fate. On a formal level, vaporwave’s techniques had a low learning curve for adoption, which made it possible to resist the stultifying effects of a quick demise with the overwhelming influx of new vaporwave producers. But it didn’t really matter, because on a conceptual level, vaporwave had run its course almost as soon as it dropped: not even a year after it first started getting attention, articles were published announcing its death. And somewhere along the way, vaporwave became a punchline.
Which was interesting, because vaporwave in its “purist” form was in fact just one among several permutations, and one that was described and idealized by critics themselves. Part of vaporwave’s supposed “death” has to do with our inability to conceive of it as anything but a microgenre–a “thing” without historical precedent or influence. Unlike footwork–which was entrenched in traditional notions of “authenticity” and “progression,” and existed, most importantly, outside the internet–vaporwave couldn’t be easily subsumed into the dominant narrative. So instead its own narrative was made up, exaggerated, and then unceremoniously killed off, with critics ignoring the links that placed it in a rich continuum of art appropriation and cultural recontextualization.
Indeed, the conceptualizations of footwork and vaporwave have to do less with our digital predicament and more with the state of criticism and the valuation that informs it (it should be noted that vaporwave artists themselves are also implicated in this process). Sure, technology accelerates the movement of trends, but it’s our language, our cultural biases, our critical limitations that often prop up a superficial understanding of trends: as ephemeral moments whose effects are self-contained. We hear trends ahistorically and uncritically, because our valuations of them are often ahistorical and uncritical. Unless it can be swiftly integrated into age-old stories of “authentic expression” and “human progress,” then the trend–whether it’s vaporwave, seapunk, or witch house–is met with suspicion, as if being more “digital” were somehow less real and, therefore, should be taken less seriously.
In other words, it was our rigid definition of vaporwave, not only the music itself, that was too suffocating to allow it life; and it was our valuation of it as a reified trend, as a mere microgenre, as an expiring aesthetic that was its cultural death knell.
The net-based label PC Music is garnering similar skepticism.
Despite coming from different traditions and having drastically different aims, PC Music in part continues the project left by vaporwave: both explore taste, simulation, commercialism, and recontextualization; both rely heavily on visual presentation and new, innovative ways of marketing; and both have completely obsessed fans (parodies and copycats cropped up almost immediately in each case). PC Music, however, functions more like a unified collective (and sometimes as a microgenre referred to as “bubblegum bass”), with many of its multi-faceted, multi-talented stable of musicians, artists, designers, and photographers celebrating and subverting mainstream stereotypes and dance music tropes in equal measure. While they do this in part by exaggerating, satirizing, and aestheticizing industry machinations–particularly A&R development, constructed idolatry, and corporate branding–they also do it with full-on joy and excitement.
In fact, the music of PC Music is often incredibly accessible, to the extent that its accessibility has paradoxically become a point of contention. Its impossible combination of feel-good vibes, earworm hooks, pop rhythms, and experimental sensibilities has attracted a host of naysayers, who call their music an “insincere” nightmare, question the privilege of its primary artists, critique its gender roles (while, at the same time, inadvertently stripping the women of their agency), and generally disregard it as a joke, a prank, an infantilized accelerationist take on fakeness and unreality.
Like with vaporwave and other trends met with similar dismissals, critics are often failing to engage with PC Music’s nuanced complexity, intentional middle-ground ambiguity, and ambivalent relationship with capitalism, reducing it close to the level of other derided net-based trends: something to contend with, but to ultimately treat as an inauthentic, historical curiosity. As something already set to expire.
PC Music offers an interesting challenge, however, because it emphasizes transient net-based concepts but is only a degree or two away aesthetically from the Top 10. So while the language of expiration is still there from critics struggling with a net-based aesthetic, its integration into the dominant narrative has proven swift, exemplified by PC Music head A. G. Cook’s remix of Charli XCX and affiliate SOPHIE’s production work for Madonna, as well as the high-profile attention they’re already receiving for their conceptual live events.
So perhaps what’s at stake here is not actually the expiration of our aesthetics. Perhaps, in the face of the increasingly transient, in-between states advanced by our digital media, what’s really at stake is our inability to “make sense” or form cohesive ideas in this digital age, to adapt our outmoded valuations/narratives to an ever-shifting technocultural landscape. Because trends, whether net-based or not, never really expire. I mean, does any trend really have a clear beginning and end? Can we really treat them as things unto themselves?
It’s the way we talk about trends that can sometimes feel like repetitions of empty narratives, like poetic gestures aspiring to the sustenance and longevity of its own words, like reflexive justifications for our incapability (or refusal) to critically engage.
But if we are to believe that the binaries of virtual/physical and digital/analog are conceptually false, that there is truth to Benjamin Bratton’s assertion that computation was a discovery rather than an invention, and that much of our experiences are algorithmic in nature, then maybe we can also believe how this hyperacceleration is actually an environmental reality, that perhaps it’s always been like this, just not at the rate and scale that we are now able to perceive and recognize. Maybe the depletion of Romantic, idealistic values by the hyperacceleration of technology is actually a replenishing of our sensory instincts: a reminder that, even if we can’t articulate it with our words, music is always telling us more than we think it is.
Maybe what is expiring, then, is not our music trends, but our way of thinking about them.