Two years ago, ANOHNI’s Hopelessness mapped the end of the world through distorted anti-pop. It was a breathtaking musical experience, where lived experiences matched sonic output.
In 2018, as the world feels tilted toward collapse, an album like Hopelessness continues to play on as dystopian dirge lamenting the unreal becoming reality. A boiling planet, death by flying robots, the general malaise of being uncomfortable with how reality is panning out: those were the themes ANOHNI so bewitchingly tried to hammer out, offering beliefs set to music that so sharply matched the distortion discussed. Still, we are years from her message being heard and one can wonder if the artist and listeners who really, really listened feel any more hope – or if they have fallen into a deeper pit of hopelessness since the call to action was mostly acknowledged as “good music” without much action or personal accountability taking place.
What has come out of the ashes of ANOHNI’s plea is a fascinating line of music that has always been around but seems to be converging in interesting ways: pop from the end of the world, experimental, mostly electronic and future facing movements that tap into the micro and macro ennui of dystopia-turned-real set to sounds that match the decay of life as we know it. It’s a fascinating reflection of the our times that likely has always existed but seems particularly pronounced in this day and age, one in which we are juggling with technologic infringement, a dying planet, rich personal explorations, and the quest to end inequality. The resulting entries are heavy explorations of these subjects as told through catchy, distorted pop. It’s the soundtrack for the end of times.
Take Oneohtrix Point Never’s Age Of, an album from Daniel Lopatin’s ongoing technical electronic outfit that could be read as a mixtape of various power pop demos that didn’t catch on. What is presented is actually much deeper as the underlying premise Lopatin plays with is artificial technologies trying to figure out what it means to be human by the testaments they left online, the creations of non-artificial life who died so that they can live. This is not lightweight shit but instead that moment in Her where Samantha scans all of the internet to realize how sad we are, to see the problems that we didn’t.
Lopatin does this in Age Of in myriad (LOL) ways. Distorted, melted harpsichord, splintered and shattering guitar, skyward looking synths: the sounds of Age Of are that of final, deep, asthmatic breaths as best exemplified by lead single “Black Snow.” It reflects on the fingerprints of the human by looking at the fake versions it made, the harpsichord and guitar and “percussion” that were so digitized to seem real that you forget that they are not. It becomes a metaphor for reality, a simulacrum. By the album’s finish, with the heavy chested fade out “Last Known Image Of A Song,” the end is certainly near. You feel like the robot staring down at the pile of dead bodies. That is dystopian pop at its finest.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is someone like serpentwithfeet, whose soil is an intimate explaining of a self at the outer edge. Lopatin’s Age Of saw destruction on a macro sense, as huge sonic thoughts crashing down, while serpent’s Josiah Wise makes destruction between two people, exploding sound into choruses of noise, waves of thought between two people or between selves. It’s an ecstatic celebration of queerness with a constant creepingness of the eyes that watch the queer, black body. There is an element of the breath, of wheezing organs, of giant brass tooting out smoke, all sounds that build songs with a weight, a heaviness of the dangers of being in a time where people are told that love is love is love as groups of minorities are murdered for expressing themselves.
Take “cheribum,” a very straightforward love song about devotion and worshipping a lover that is presented as if a death march, of forces colliding, the interior with the exterior. As Wise has spoken about before, much of the inspiration for the sound on something like soil is from a fascination with the macabre which folds into his having juggled queerness with survival, the suffocating of one self trying to overcome another. soil is, in many ways, a very romantic album that is never not out of the dark woods that is double consciousness, of the reality of queerness. The dystopia for Wise isn’t the world ending for everyone but for the world ending for the self, for a relationship. Accordingly, every song feels as if a long, sharp, heavy fingernail on the shoulder, tapping and tapping and tapping, reminding of how easy you might think life is, that you could be pulled right back out in a snap.
Lastly, SOPHIE’s OIL OF EVERY PEARL’s UN-INSIDES hops over both Lopatin and Wise’s philosophies by making the personal public, by illustrating with industrial decayed electronic “pop” that you are a product. Deeply rooted in exploring queerness, SOPHIE explores what it means to create yourself by using artificial factory sounds that are matched with lyrical themes of self-acceptance, constructing identity, and finding personal utopias.
She mostly accomplishes this by using heavy voice modulation to construct an identity that, in some ways, is her most perfect self. Yet, as the dark heaviness that lurks in her production asserts, that “isn’t real” in many ways. As “Immaterial” and “Faceshopping” posit self-construction of the perfect personal product by zipping computer voices and slamming metallics, a song like “It’s Okay To Cry” actually uses the artist’s voice without the drama of industry because that is the real in the world. There is a dynamic of queerness and transness as we hope the world sees us meeting with the reality of unaccepting and uncreative cishet outsiders who constantly deny how we project (and protect) ourselves. SOPHIE’s dystopian pop is about self-preservation in a world that is constantly at combat with the who you take outside.
These three albums mark a distinct time in 2018 as it relates to music, one that echoes that of ANOHNI’s: pop, particularly alternative and electronic pop, is the best lens with which we can investigate contemporary struggles. No, it isn’t the most accessible nor is it the most straightforward but the complexities here and the technologies of creation (a la, electronic music) manifest just how complicated and almost otherworldly these real life dramas and traumas are. From environmental devastation to queerphobia, these albums paint the world as it is by looking at us in the mirror and honestly feeding us back what we deserved: distorted, fucked up, ugly music that has underlying beauty based in truth and hope – but you have to do the work to find it.
That is the lesson in dystopian electronic, in pop from the end of the world: there is no easy way in or out.
(And is it a coincidence that these albums came out within two weeks of each other, Lopatin’s released on June 1, Wise’s on June 8, and SOPHIE’s on June 15? Probably not but one can’t help but squint and see that there is a greater conversation happening here that we will have to keep tabs on, as this micro movement of distant artists converges to create more examples of alt-pop stars lamenting our collective losses as they fall into the doom that is life today.)