Over here at The American Conservative, we’re big fans of President Eisenhower. From his support for robust transportation infrastructure to his prescient warnings about the military-industrial complex, there’s a lot to like about Ike. Much of his personality speaks to a grounded republicanism that, with few exceptions, has been absent from the political scene. But nobody’s perfect.
Far more offensive than his moderate interventionism, or apparent lack of moral outrage about New Deal-era programs, was his enthusiasm for “Muzak,” a service providing anodyne instrumental arrangements of pop songs for use in commercial spaces. In 1953 this mild-mannered Kansan defiled the executive residence by having the stuff pumped into the White House. Nor was he the only chief executive with this unwise preference. In 1969, as his former VP Richard Nixon was sworn into a presidency of his own, Muzak blared across the Mall.
But though the GOP had muzak fans, the Democratic Party had a bona-fide purveyor in Lyndon B. Johnson, who actually ran the company’s Austin franchise while Ike was enjoying its mellifluous strains from the West Wing. LBJ was reportedly such a big fan that he hung speakers from the trees at his ranch so he could listen outside.
Of course I’m being too harsh, Johnson’s business aside, there was nothing unusual about the presidents’ taste at the time. Every age has its music for people who don’t care about music; they had elevator music, we have Ke$ha. Yet they do seem vaguely out of touch. For example, when in the winter of 1949 New York City authorities subverted municipal procedure and installed a muzak system in Grand Central Station, commuters were so enraged that they cut it off on New Year’s Day.
Since then muzak — with a little m — has changed considerably but it retains its basic function as architectonic music, sound that isn’t for appreciating in itself, but meant to be a feature of the built environment. Shoppers now respond better to indie rock than chamber orchestras and smooth jazz, but the point is the same. It “fills the deadly silences,” as the company’s slogan once advertised.
Fast-forward to the 21st century — after ambience and contingency were reclaimed as musical qualities in their own right and appropriation became the most powerful tool in pop music — and into a time when musicians are putting a new spin on the 80s-90s consumer milieu. Forcing an encounter with cultural detritus has long been a project of modern artists, and it was only a matter of time before the same thing happened in music. One day, when humanity is judged by the Great Rob Gordon In the Sky, we’ll all have to account for every transitional jingle, stock melody, and pseudo-synth-calypso soundtrack from every ’90s VHS tape, and afterward you can bet we’ll be in worse shape than a Gitmo prisoner after a night of nonstop Slayer. For now, a group of musicians loosely gathered under the label ‘vaporwave’ are making us pay for our sins early. Mr. P, my editor over at Tiny Mix Tapes, describes the new music:
These so-called vaporwave artists, a crop of sample-based producers … are appropriating wholesale from the 20th-century garbage dump, oftentimes corporate stock music and by-the-numbers mood music, non-satirical pastiche originally designed for utility (as requisite intro/transition music, as mere signifiers of commodified emotion, etc.). Drawing from a tradition of musical appropriation that extends back decades … these artists are foregrounding what was initially intended to play in the background, appropriating musics that are acts of appropriations themselves, attuning our ears to sounds we rarely take seriously in the first place. … This approach adds value to the music while extending the anonymity, a unification of individual facelessness with a pseudo-globalism that’s bizarrely yet appropriately exaggerated in the imagery, in the song titles, in the music.
Adam Harper asks the inevitable:
Is it a critique of capitalism or a capitulation to it? Both and neither. These musicians can be read as sarcastic anti-capitalists revealing the lies and slippages of modern techno-culture and its representations, or as its willing facilitators, shivering with delight upon each new wave of delicious sound.
“Life is being phased-out into something new,” said Land in his 1992 essay ‘Circuitries’. “And if we think this can be stopped we are even more stupid than we seem.” … The anarcho-capitalist pop of these musicians, whether we hear it as ironic and satirical or as truly accelerationist, is something of a soundtrack to Land’s visions.
I really enjoy this stuff, not because I think it sounds like what would be playing in a futuristic Bucky Fuller-esque cityscape, or the Virtual Plaza, but because no other music makes me feel quite the same way as this stuff does. It takes all the signifiers of architectonic music, the palette of soft sounds, the characteristic slow fades, and contorts them into something eerie, anonymous, and anarchic. Some samples after the jump: