2015: Identity Crisis - Un-Thinking Thinkpieces & Listening to Identity in a Sensational Vacuum

by Nick James Scavo & Pat Beane
Dec 31, 2015

Introduction: Listening Together

Our voice is everywhere; our voice is nowhere. We try to speak bigger things than you and I. We’re stranded on these cultural shores, floundering in the shallows watching for mutant reflections that flush and reform against themselves on a mobile surface. To “problematize” seems like something we must do and, often enough, the only thing we can do. But these days, the word itself is so overwrought its near meaninglessness has sunk into oblivion. We’re conditionally listening for foaming and receding splashes against normativity, our toes sinking and soaking into the sand, miles away from the depths of our problematic moment.

The dubious thinkpiece — a lineage that this essay itself stands within — has been published infinitely as to become the quintessential portrait of millennial pseudo-intellectual evacuation. To critique is to bully and to be bullied, forced to simultaneously run against the natural, majestic energy of artistic creation and the production of the press apparatus. Only critical sponsorship can replace critical listening; or, more elusively, criticism serves to mechanically reify the discursive progression of historical moments.

In 2015, that moment witnessed timelines reporting radical critiques of verified dominant industrial and institutional fixations. That moment grappled with massively mediated crossings of intimate thresholds, some with the transgressive force of truth, some that were read as exploitation. That moment faced renewed public anxieties and state violences against bodies whose bare lives were only identifiable enough to be rendered moot.

In 2015, that moment acknowledged a disrupted subjectivity, a fragmented identity, a broken social framework that prompted the individual artist to spill out into multiple forms, queered in their quest to be unrepresented and yet be paradoxically seen, affirmed as whole and un-whole.

Music criticism is hopeless in that it ostensibly has one purpose: To speak on behalf of the artist using their art. But the difficulties of critique have grown from criticism’s bullied nature, the critic co-opted by the desire to define, orient, and divulge hidden works. Whereas the artist buries their secrets in sometimes fallow soil, the writerly critic is compelled to dig up these works, often damaging them in their process of revelation, bullied by a demand for clarity. As a result, music journalism has had to relinquish the effort of listening with music inside of its often broken and elusive context.

But in a more difficult twist, a capitalized/territorialized style of writing has become dominant, one that seeks to entirely obtain the working musician in its spread. The thinkpiece has positioned itself at the intersection of music criticism and soft social justice, just enough to feign the pretense of a “controversial” angle to contextualize the inherently controversial and divisive state of music. These pieces will definitively politicize the artist they discuss. These pieces will ally the marketability of controversy with the subjectivity of music. These pieces will get shared on all social media platforms.

More than selling an aesthetic or cultural analytic, thinkpieces promise an engagement with ethical ramifications, with felt importance to our moment. They have no responsibility to the work itself and are designed to describe the social utility of a work for an assumed listener while upholding an aesthetic framework: conversational, axiomatic, automatic. The thinkpiece projects/produces a new organization for existing systems of control based on narrative political outlines that can be contained by or contain an artwork, bearing a new hope out of that line, maybe even despite the work.

Can a review not bear to think so responsibly? The distinctly millennial boom of subjectivity becoming mediated via collectivism and self-narrativization has begotten stratified listening and consuming habits, as if there are proper channels for thinking, as if change happens at the speed of thought. Thinkpieces are therefore more compelling, even compulsory, for the notion of individual responsibility attached to their baiting headlines, published at the event horizon of capitalism’s maw, swallowing the moment or the work through its anticipation of its own readability. In this sense, the thinkpiece is programmed to abstract the shared language of music into the language of efficient consumption; it projects a technical image onto music, over the music’s often obscure reality, so as to “reveal” it, to recreate it.

What’s revealed and recreated is identity as a known (controlled), massively felt (shared), and productive (content marketing) category of contemporary listening life. Within a neoliberal affective zone un/contained by social media, this open/closed audition is assumed as self-reflexivity. While this content may be tuned to social justice ideas and values, the lack of a “critical” component (or at least a self-critical component) can stop debate, glaze-over critical eyes, and freeze the progressivity or illegibility of identity. As a result, we often already know what we’re listening for; we know the sound of problematics; we know the pitch of auto-corrective writing over and against the fluidity of music, concretizing its form for consumption.

But is the thinkpiece even listening? When do these reliances on identity begin to overwrite the va/porous vessels of our interiority, the messier folds of subjectivity? What streaks are left when the discursive condensation fogging up our infinity mirror is wiped away? Can we listen past the noise of political optimism without writing ourselves out of touch? How do we trust our desire for the political to save us, or thoughtful writing to represent us, when outrage and hope have been co-signed by PR?

When the answers are telegraphed, we turn to the nameless seers, the arcane dropouts, the interstitial players, the apocalyptic riders. These words are not enough. We board an un-manned sub to listen for 2015’s bioluminescent bottomfeeders and visionary anglers, mining the depth of identity at the ends of the word. As we try to draw identifiable meaning from their bodies, these releases will elude legibility, chimeras snapped through a prism. We try to find our best angles, while each of them dance together out of the frame: the POWER of the doomsayer; the OUTRAGE of the city muse; the drifting soundscapes of EMBODIMENT; the emotional machines of DESIRE. These will be our futile devices for unthinking that thing we repeatedly found ourselves listening for in 2015.

Power: Apocalypse Garden

There is obvious power within the machines that develop controversy and speculation in thinkpieces — a power expressing itself so compellingly that you can’t look away. Yet, thinkpieces only use this power as a sensationalized myth of the actual biopower of music. The root of this power can be found in the inner presence of sociality becoming regulated in life; the sound of power can be heard in the way the artist produces and reproduces this life in music. Where is the identity of power other than in the ways the powerful are swallowed by the micro-powerful? Where are powerful identities other than in music that subvert and extend the utter hugeness of power’s machine?

If any music this year summoned the paradigm of power both against and toward the sensational vacuum, it was in the way Oneohtrix Point Never and Jenny Hval sensationalized their own art to subvert the productive forces that contained them. 2015 saw these artists interchangeably breaking down the image of identity and the identity of image to ecstatic ends, revealing a power in both the identity of the manipulator and their created works.

Oneohtrix Point Never’s Garden of Delete achieved this at the very terminal between machine and bio power, the sticky intersection between the subject and the symbology that bound and enhanced it. Its aesthetic operation languished in its own damaged quality, in the illegibility of power’s purpose as a critical tool qualifying the subject’s inevitable dance with its language: spectacle, reference, breakdown, and moment. Despite an initial hesitancy from the press toward the album’s sickly language, Garden of Delete received near-unanimous praise. It toyed with 0PN’s underground status as a giant in weird experimental waters, and yet, it was only partially “thought on” as an actual piece — perhaps due to the intimidating power that 0PN’s oeuvre has come to represent to both underground music circles and publications looking to capitalize on his presence in that “market.”

In the case of Garden of Delete, perhaps it’s easier not to suggest what the record does conceptually or actually; it’s much more relevant to call it a rad alien-rock record and walk away in a smoke of squealing guitars and melting skin. Powerful machines can use 0PN only as much as he has used and abused his art — as a bulwark of classical counterculture in music as it has been used toward the breakdown and manipulation of image at specific, timely moments — a proclamation of power in the most direct sense.

There was power in the most misdirect sense, too: Jenny Hval’s reclamation of subjective incoherencies and a disavowal of America’s subcultural underpinning in futurism with sleight of hand. Critics’ thinking (always kingsize) with Apocalypse, girl clung to the signs of the times, reckoning with Hval’s songwriting as sexual progressive art pop rather than a flexible identity workout routine. Hval’s imagination of a present without feminism and socialism was powerful worldplay that scrubbed the writer of their own projected terms, locating the work in the static-success “Mission Accomplished” wasteland of capitalist social justice excess while at the same time identifying Hval’s sentimental attachment to the potentiality for these movements to really take care of us. Her music unfolded the question of identity on a sliding scale, asking “What’s wrong with me?” and turning her eyes to Heaven (asking for an apocalypse, asking for a productive care of the self).

This performance of sticky soft dick rock and mutant rebirth played out on a stage that became a micro upending of industrial art rock. Her face obscured by a huge blonde wig and sunglasses, balancing comfortably on an exercise ball, Hval pressed her iPhone’s speakers to the microphone to play a voice memo cover of Lana Del Rey’s “Summertime Sadness.” Her interpellation of the major label single was remarkable in its stillness and also absorbing for its evocation of a line between the two singers, that the same content machine could be fascinated with their identity-play and responsible for the conditions of their musical occasion. Hval became, for a moment, the other woman to Lana’s other woman and assumed the critical power of translating radio music with the same playful seriousness that she translated the poem that opens Apocalypse, girl. The sticky power of her soft dick rock isn’t only its gender play or sexual expressivism, but also its attachment to the listener’s complicity in narrative production.

Outrage: To Live and Die Transparently

The thinkpiece belies indignation of a surrounding presence, a feigned moment of outrage that expresses itself complexly, often into the machine it attempts to critique. Outrage remarks upon the trauma of artists locked in opposition to other subjects: cityscapes, great games, politics, processes. Often, music expresses outrage against these subjects while maintaining its creative perspective, an angle that emphasizes the expression of trauma for its own sake, on its own terms, eventless and gestural in equal measure. The thinkpiece forgoes the specificity of trauma to create a publishing event that affirms sensational, vacuous applications of counterfeit outrage in an effort to either offer a completist picture of a cultural fragment-moment or sensationalize its fragmented state. Doesn’t this obscure the deconstructive effort of artists’ outrage? Doesn’t this overwrite the outrage that artists use to affirm identity, articulate trauma, or further disrupt social damage?

James Ferraro’s Skid Row epitomizes the artist’s complex outraging within traumatic space as an experimental evacuation of polluted psyche. As a deranged, photo-realistic masterpiece-sculpture of Los Angeles, Skid Row explicitly details fragged subjectivity walking ghost-like through dilapidated and sensational space: guitars bending swaggy over images of cool crush cigs, Doc Sportello, In-N-Out, and GTA. Only four years prior to Ridley Scott’s futurist vision of 2019 Los Angeles in Blade Runner, Ferraro’s 2015 L.A. is chained to its past becoming hauntologically realized in the feedback loop of its unfurling present, rendered specifically as commentary on contemporary police brutality echoing the vandalized promises of civil rights movements decades prior. Ferraro mobilizes this L.A. as a sick sequel to his nocturne-hell poem of New York through the transfer of local, specific frustrations that sustain themselves with the force of subjective trauma. This trauma is pan-geographical as a psychological framework, yet painfully located in the metropolitan structures that haunt in their severe reality, in their cruel artifice. Ferraro’s Skid Row is not and could never be easy to stomach; its controversy is verbatim, its austerity never headlined. The outrage could only be overwritten in the representations that solicit its terms, a faux headline: Meet James Ferraro, The internet Artist Turning Skid Row Into an Experimental Nightmare.

Outrage was also directly, violently, and complexly declared in Rabit & Chino Amobi’s THE GREAT GAME mix on Halcyon Veil. Essentially functioning as an anti-thinkpiece, we noted that it was “the political orientation that was essential, [an orientation] that organized the critically engaged, musical powers that be to not only build personal visions of future through music, but to rip apart the symbology that’s been flying around electronic music this year in an effort to ‘purify’ the mental poisoning that can occur through culture-consumption.” Amidst a raging, metallic fury that defined the mix as a brutal progression in the free-futurist continuum, identity became the transfigured, morphic shape that was both poisoned and affirmed through retaliation, through resistance, through dark ecstasy. The mix’s devastating James Baldwin cameo uttered a clairvoyant prayer of outrage in the storm: noting an apt epitaph for outrage, that “their fire is not quenched,” that the fist will be raised for the Decapitation of Critical Economic Nodes, for the Phalanx Formation.

In the toxic self-reproducing in virtuo fertilization of identity, Autre Ne Veut’s sheer rage against the machine found little to be silent about on Age of Transparency as a thinkpiece of its own. The recesses and glitches of the work embedded his conversation about transparency in the extra-geographical and omnipresent matrix of web sensationalism, helplessly frustrated with the machinic dialogue that would frame and then take down his work. Painting himself into a corner of the glass house he’d tried to inhabit, Arthur Ashin tweeted, “makes me sad that people won’t take the time to listen even 4 times through and try to approach it on its own terms,” “but then I guess that’s the point: music in the age of transparency.” His deflated rage took him to the platform of mediated authenticity, where his desire for critical respect was parallel to the new tradition of marketing transparency that the album sang and sawed about. Any piece of promotion or analysis dampened his project to ironic unmaking. So that his song seemed to carry on without end, Ashin repeated on record, “It’s over now,” failing to make an ending out of what was irreducible to occasion.

Embodiment: Mutant Drifting

As the repetitive becoming of identity is carried out online in virtual space, the body can’t be left behind. A kind of claustrophobic disembodiment comes with thinkpieces, a closed conversation between the reader’s sensors and the glowing or raised or audible medium that transmits the thinking. There’s a binaristic propaganda to the act that pulls the reader into the transcendental. When the thinkpiece tracks the real dreams of bodies (plural) as a molar body, it elides meaningful confrontation with the sticky specificity of embodiment.

Where does the spirit meet the skin? Does a thinkpiece have to sleep? Is it ever sick? Does it thirst for more than clicks? A thinkpiece begins with kicks and flinches, the involuntary reflexes of the expectantly stimulated, and then repeats itself in simulation to avoid misrepresenting itself, to ensure that this is the proper motion, that the reader won’t miss it. Its dances are well-choreographed and telegraphed instructively enough to become imitable group dances, catchy like a viral sensation. The body of a thinkpiece is overdetermined, overstuffed. The stuff-ing is torn from the pages of catalogs, ripped from the headlines, culled from autopsies and throwaways. A thinkpiece body is filled with the ransoms notes of identity’s slimiest dweller-dwelling: the Body.

In 2015, the body remains the first sight and site of identity, despite being understood as morphlexible than ever. Artists with real guts, like thieves in the night, snatched every morsel of rhetorical stuffing that tried to contain the body from the inside. It was these artists who found in the body not a determination or a lesson, but semi-automatic histories, unspeakable (and bellowing) horrors and pleasures, water-damaged maps folded back over themselves. It was these artists who sang the body symptomatic, or sampled and stretched the body until it wrapped the land without insulating a thing, until no one could remember all the names it’d been given. And, once again, it was queer artists who bared embodiment in sound (their bodies are the most regulated and thereby necessarily transgressive), who unspoke the projections and progressive demands of identity’s individuating and anonymizing pull. In its inarticulation of embodiment, Arca’s Mutant makes demands back against the seizing oversight of state-sanctioned movements with blackouts and spasms and depraved gestures.

Where the progress-narrativizing thinkpiece’s imagination for the body finds an ending in identity, Mutant obscures its boundary-shape in uttered darkness: the alienating suck of silence between samples, sounds that slice through the barely-there portraitscape. Even an unidentifiable body when “Very” naked is violative. The body of Jesse Kanda and the body of (what becomes more and less than) a pomegranate ooze in dance in “Front Load,” a video described as: “This video has been removed as a violation of YouTube’s policy on nudity or sexual content.” The recognizable shapes and colors of the Very naked body are among its most shocking (not safe for work), because they are its most meaningful, the genital parts that everyone knows to bear the fruits of sex. Or it’s a phallacy to say the body bears what it is and does. “Front Load” strips these machine parts from the frontiers of the body. With a probing close-up, the video drifts the gaze of the viewer from medical examiner to porn addict to horror enthusiast. The thinking hope for comprehension is destabilized the closer and closer we come to the surface of the body, which reveals itself into being un-wholly, component and compote. The bod(ies) depicted is a body elaborating itself, uttering its own representation as an act of becoming image — pluralistically, dialethically.

Kanda’s form comes into focus only when contrasted by the negation of extra image-fields or opposed by blurry colors and smears of pomegranate; his continuous body-plurality exists in a visually transitional state, in many ways invoking the shrouded, drifting nature of Elysia Crampton’s debut album American Drift. Crampton’s debut was an impact-event in 2015, a thesis of elaborative embodiment, “an astounding plea for world intimacy on the most fundamental level, [and] a consideration of the trans-ontological status of covalent objects.” American Drift’s intimacy acknowledged the beauty within the grotesqueness of being, the problem of corporeality and how the world suffers through the misrepresentation that occurs at the level of flesh. This is misunderstood by processes that sensationalize human fluidity into tidy narratives and oppressive contexts. Embodiment forms the molecular/mineralic structure of the immanent trans-nature of things, a microbial dance that’s impossible to stagnate — in elaboration, always. The movement of this music escapes the stasis-congratulation of normativizing identity campaigns by being alive, often quiet — perhaps sensational, perhaps vacuous — but always rooted in the sensational reality and transcorporeal continuation of event drifting through the ages.

Desire: Producing Wide Emotion

How is the “theater” of thinkpieces challenged by pre-sensationalized mechanistic music? Is a thinkpiece able to even represent music that outshines the desire to sensationalize? Can a thinkpiece admit that desire inside you? A thinkpiece’s attempt to capitalize music or turn its fluidity into a clickable PRODUCT encounters difficulty, futility, or even frivolousness when trying to represent music already designed for mass consumption. A mimesis occurs when thinkpieces appropriate the context of a musical work, a mimesis that produces a “peak moment” for the work, rendering it into a desirable form often unrecognizable from the ragged and ambiguous sensations the music itself awakened. When this music is already arranged for mass consumption, it is already a complexly mimetic work unto itself; when this music is already a politicized object existing within heavily capitalized boundaries, it is a subversive, pre-packaged product that resists any subjective whim or analysis that may attempt to possess its blueprint, its design, its affect. Perhaps this work is already capitalized, perhaps it adapts and benefits from the intrinsic desire of all markets. Regardless, next to such sensational art, the thinkpiece often looks stale, redundant, and flat.

The subversion and simultaneous inclusivity of SOPHIE’s music condenses the mechanistic desiring-production of sensational markets into revolutionary music. Psychic repression can take place through capitalized identities and representationally damaged emotions. These emotions are celebrated in the demonic release of PRODUCT, a triumph of production that honors social libido through excess, manipulatable into the social fields of accelerationists, alt-club-bros, and McDonald’s commercials alike. SOPHIE’s production embodies a machine disruptive to the parallel flow of capital’s outputting of desire, and it’s able to transcend opportunistic journalism through this desire. PRODUCT’s production is aesthetically invincible to the writerly subjectivity of a lone journalist attempting to captivate an audience. It has already been thought out.

As SOPHIE’s hyperreal self-conscious arrangement for mass consumption shields the product from thinkpiece productivity, Carly Rae Jepsen and Grimes also elude capture through fluid identity disclosure on a relatable spectrum from universalizing ambiguity to specifically dissonant pastiche. The Buzzfeed buzzards and TMZ crows pick at the Promethean carcass of identity in an unattended wash-rinse cycle that never empties the body of organs.

Grimes’s Art Angels celebrates the idiosyncratic nature of personality and craftsmanship that comes from trusting — even desiring — the weird fetishes, obsessions, and flaws found in subjectivity to the point of objectification. She follows pastiche naturally to deeply personal conclusions, annotating references with her own odd inflection and illustrative detail. Grimes’s “total intuitive mastery of association and juxtaposition steps with a glorious amnesia that forgets all association once it’s apprehended,” an aspect that expresses how subjective desire consumes and builds identity fluidly, in step with culture, symbiotic with its associative richness. Carly Rae Jepsen’s relatability reverses Grimes’s quirky continuum; rather than building pop out of the artier impulses of the subject, she takes the universal tropes of pop’s craft and lets her Uniqlo Music drift slightly to evoke complex desire, an incisive emotion somewhere between the hyperreal assemblages produced by SOPHIE and Grimes’s bizarre, personal art-pop. This musical desiring-production functions as a rendering of the non-personal, be it through the direct design of PRODUCT (I can make you feel better!), the emotional fetish of the deep-subject (This music makes me cry!), or even the shirking of responsibility to reach universal emotion (Am I better, now that there’s no you?).

That Battle Is Over

The positive feedback loop of imagining progress only in identitarian terms will amplify until its narratives are blown out in empty promises, calcified belongings, predictable associations. As the cannibal thinkpiece imposes its will upon art, so did we misfire and montage our unthinking onto pieces that could barely be contained (Why not think of Jenny Hval and embodiment, Hval and outrage? Grimes and power? Outrage’s child? Rabit-desire?). The forever-need of a critical perspective can’t be overwritten, because the new normal is continuously renewed like a subscription to our desire for political engagement, for relations that sustain and condition our listening lives.

While there’s a hopefulness in politicized music writing, an aspirational bent that leaves the art behind or deletes the natural/historical germ of the work in favor of a productive futurist fantasy (or at least an appeal to a marketable, trending movement), the infinite scroll of thinkpiece writing risks replacing the tools for carrying out actual political optimism with the mere feeling of collective attunement, feeding off our desire for the political. Because the music industry and clickbait virtual commons depend on hot takes (that our political reactivism be as verbose and hooky as a mixtape rapper’s output), thinkpieces can become a savvy engagement with our noisy moment that’s at times akin to gossip — an industrialization of what’s problematic, an imposition on the implications of identity.

To be clear, we are not glib about the work of social justice movements or the potential for writing to mobilize actors (listeners). Mainstreamed thinkpiece writing opens channels for otherwise othered experiences to offer engaged standpoint criticism of normativizing forces, prevailing trends, gaps in shared knowledge. It can write over and against an intimate listening public that would insist on merely pleasurable/universalized music appreciation rather than critical audition. Its embattled subjectivity can apply a mutant standard of objectivity to music criticism.

The danger mainly comes from baiting culture, the self-pleasing (and therefore stunting) fulfillment of recognition and re-production tied to territorialized writing, as if the heart of the matter were pre-recorded within the subject itself. Identity in all its fragmented figures of speech and embodiments (the sensuality of signs, the texts of skin) is an almost anachronistic obsessive focus for this moment, a mimetic undertow that reproduces the mass criticality of 2015. When the progress narrative of identity begins to loom like an endlessly relatable origin story; when there is little to dispel the suspicion that thinking piecemeal might drive the machine that turns out our individual timelines; when critical listening and critical sponsorship spins ad infinitum until ad nauseum until the process itself became constitutive of our identity listening together.

We will listen closely to musics of disruptive affect that make uneasy fits for publication. We will think beyond the redeployments of existing modes for better-being in this political moment, beyond the sort of thinking that prolongs our problematics and suspends their purpose at the same time, that creates a closed occasion for criticism. We will keep reacting and overreacting, thinking and thinking: and then? Sleep tight, forever?

From Lauren Berlant’s “Affect, Noise, Silence, Protest: Ambient Citizenship” (Cruel Optimism):

“.. the new crisis ordinary is engendering peculiar forms of something like ‘ambient citizenship’ — politics as a scene in which the drama of the distribution of affect/noise meets up with scenarios of movement. In the perspective it opens up on the way the political suffuses the ordinary, ambient citizenship is a complicated thing, a mode of belonging, really, that circulates through and around the political in formal and informal ways, with an affective, emotional, economic, and juridical force that is at once clarifying and diffuse. As sound, ambience provides atmospheres and spaces in which movement happens through persons: listeners dissolve into an ongoing present whose ongoingness is neither necessarily comfortable nor uncomfortable, avant-garde nor Muzak, but, most formally, a space of abeyance. As an atmosphere induced by sonic diffusion it is a habitation without edges, a soft impasse. As movement, as ambit, it is akin to ambition (whose original sense was to go around soliciting for votes), but even then it’s a gathering modality.”