The Singularity You Can Hear: Post-Internet Waves in Popular Music

Sandra Canosa

 

To say that the Internet changed the music industry would be an all too obvious understatement. From instant downloads and streaming technologies to self-made YouTube stars and the Twitterazi, there’s no aspect of the music biz today that’s been left untouched by the crawlers of the digital web.

But in an age where we’re never more than a thumbswipe away from the expanse offerings of the Internet, where playing a new single on YouTube is more commonplace than listening to FM radio, it’s rare that we ever take a moment to stop and think about how the Internet has actually affected what music is, or even what it sounds like.

It’s not just that the rich analog tones of vinyl have been replaced by the compressed sounds of 24-bit audio played through laptop speakers (there are plenty of ways to combat that decline, as the resurgence of vinyl has adequately shown). The very ways we consume music – and the experiences we expect to get out of it – have drastically changed.

 

Call it a new era. Paradigm shifts have occurred in popular music before, of course: MTV is routinely credited/blamed for making a pop star’s physical image and camera-friendliness as important as her music. A single could suddenly be made a hit through the power of music video alone. Madonna, Prince, and Michael Jackson, behemoths of musical genius that they are, could not have happened quite as magnificently as they did in that time without the aid of the music video as a vehicle to deliver their songs to the masses.

Even before that, “popular music” as we think of it today was largely dependent on the newly formed concept of the album as an actual physical collection of songs recorded by a singular artist in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Before that, pop music circulated by sheet music or via live performances only – but after, you could go to the record store and take home the artist with you.

As the critical theorist Marshall McLuhan famously quipped, “The medium is the message.” The recording studio enabled the rise of recording artists, the Frank Sinatras and Elvis Presleys. The music video drastically shifted the concept of the pop star package. If the Internet is our primary medium today, how has it changed the message of popular music?

In fact, we’re right now so deeply ingrained in the tangles of the web – as a medium, as a virtual lifeline – that it’s difficult to even imagine what our musical landscape might look or sound like today without it. Few consumers today can even fathom paying money for an individual recording, especially when it’s readily accessible through a web download or streaming service.

 

Yet the Internet’s presence can be felt in more ways than just a post-Napster aftershock. Some of today’s biggest stars force us to reconcile with how we use the web, if only subconsciously. The “surprise album drop,” as perfected by the likes of Beyoncé, Drake, and the late David Bowie, for example, depends not only on the web as a means of distribution but the instant gratification gossip machine that is social media to spread word of its arrival.

Widespread Internet access has also granted artists a way to draw inspiration from an incredibly diverse range of sources from anywhere on the planet, at any time throughout history. These influences could be as subtle as an unexpected jazz turn in a new pop song, or they could, as with much of Kanye West’s music, become the basis for the song itself: The rapper has sampled everyone from Brenda Lee to Can to Manu Dibango.

Somewhere outside the pop mainstream, however, there are more avant-garde artists engaging with the Internet as a critical source of inspiration much more directly, artists whose work is bound up in a self-reflective examination of what it means to create in a society that’s become inseparable from technology. This kind of “post-Internet” art – which has waves not only in music but in literature and visual arts, too – looks to the Internet not only as a tool or a source of inspiration, but as the very thing that defines our social structures today.

 

The “post” of post-Internet doesn’t imply that we are beyond Internet, but that we live in a time where we no longer see it as a novelty. It’s become so routine as to be simply another fact of life. As with postmodern, post-rock, etc., the “‘post’ not only means that it comes after, but implies an awareness of its medium, sources, audiences and its limits,” as Peter Defraene explains for HumanHuman. “The movement then takes this self-awareness as its new subject. The result is a metastate of looking.”

One of the most prominent names in this contemporary post-Internet music scene is Holly Herndon, a doctoral student at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Sanford University, and also a 4AD labelmate with the likes of the National, Deerhunter, and Future Islands. Herndon uses her laptop as an overt instrument, not just technologically, but emotionally. Her work is bound up in the ways that modern connectivity affects us as emotional beings, whether positively (as in her song “Lonely At the Top,” intended to trigger an autonomous sensory meridian response) or negatively (as in her song “Home,” a lament for the trust violated by the NSA).

Yet even within the popular music mainstream, this kind of critical self-reflection of ourselves as tech-bound beings is not too hard to find. Country songs about unrequited texts, rap songs born out of Twitter beefs, meme-based music videos. Even indie-media darlings like Grimes and Childish Gambino routinely push the envelopes of the sounds, forms, and shapes that popular music can have – and it all has to do with the possibilities of the technology before us.

As the march of social and technological progress soldiers on, whether toward some dystopian fantasy-reality or the realization of the AI singularity, what post-Internet art can do is remind us to stay self-aware, to examine our surroundings, even as they change from moment to moment. It can explore the crevices and cracks of a human emotionality that is increasingly tied to our technological appendages. It can question the notions of what art and music is, and what it can become.

 

Author Bio:

Sandra Canosa is Highbrow Magazine’s chief music critic.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

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