By Henry Morgan (PhD Musicology)
Recently, I have been investigating the Internet as a relatively new and unique cultural space in which artistic communities are formed and musical activity is based.
In exploring this topic, I have come across several online musical subcultures that align themselves (whether ideologically or merely aesthetically) with ideas of post-humanism and accelerationism.
This is reflected in the music associated with these communities, such as the electronic genre Vaporwave, which makes use of a retro-futuristic, cyberpunk aesthetic. The politics and philosophy of accelerationism is often bizarre and extreme, but has been embraced by writers on both the Left and Right.
The object I have chosen to illustrate this is not a piece of contemporary Internet music, but a YouTube video uploaded in early 2016 that functions as a kind of music video for an unusual piece composed in 1994 – a so-called ‘audio version’ of a paper by the controversial neoreactionary philosopher Nick Land entitled Meltdown.
The audio piece was originally presented, together with the paper, at the Virtual Futures Conference at Warwick University in 1994. This was part of a series of interdisciplinary academic events held during the 1990s that focussed on cyberculture and a ‘technopositivist’ view of the future.
The music takes the form of a twenty-six-minute psychedelic techno track that alternates between ambient and dance music sections, and prominently features synthetic voices reciting Land’s text. These voices occasionally begin to overlap, building up and becoming incoherent, displaying an intentionally disorientating ‘digital maximalist’ style typical of Internet music in both its popular and more experimental forms.
The video, which is comprised of visual material from the cyberpunk artist ‘0rphan Drift’, features kaleidoscopic images of technology, body augmentation and digital landscapes, all slightly obscured by editing and visual noise. As the synthetic voices speak, Nick Land’s text appears clearly on screen, in a manner reminiscent of the ‘Lyric Video’, a popular genre on YouTube designed to display the lyrics of pop songs in real time, so that the viewer may read or sing along. To my mind, this approach reinforces the function of the video as secondary to the text – clarifying and augmenting the music’s presentation of Land’s ideas.
In our discussion of this video at the Postgraduate Forum, we talked about how ideas such as those typified by this video can be seen appearing again and again through history, to the point that this video and its music feels woefully dated, and may even already have felt this way in 1994. Yet, thanks to the Internet and its near infinite capacity for the replication and spread of digital information, when these themes do return their audience now has no choice but to experience them as part of an extant intertextual network that looks both forward and backward.
Online, all ‘new’ ideas are born fully immersed in the context of their previous iterations. The contemporary, online audience for this material (visible in the video’s busy comment section, and the fact that the meticulously annotated text or ‘lyrics’ of Meltdown can now be found on several pop lyric websites) consumes it as a product of the past, despite its futurist themes. To many, the Internet embodies the pinnacle of an ongoing journey towards post-human existence – but this virtual, online world is still unable to escape history. Paradoxically, in their attempts to understand and musically represent futuristic ideas about the Internet, self-identified members of online culture still have nowhere to look but backwards.