The Tumblr trap: Is Internet culture turning musicians into content-producers?
More For Our Consideration
The New York Times recently ran a trend piece on seapunk, a nascent, Tumblr-fueled subgenre of dance music visually paired with oceanic colors and imagery. One of the defining characteristics of the mostly young adults and kids playing with these microscenes is the near collapse of their online and real-life worlds; seapunk figurehead Shan Beaste even told the Chicago Reader in January that one’s ability to grasp and understand the scene “depends on if you’re URL or if you’re IRL.” And while progenitors such as Beaste understand the playfulness of the whole thing, once the seapunk article appeared, many straight-faced online commentators shrugged and insisted they had already moved onto slimepunk anyway. Another day, another meme.
The fast-paced dissection and dumping of musical ideas was once how the indie world viewed pop music—a playground of fleeting thrills that aren’t meant to last. That’s among the elements that make pop exciting, that it unabashedly appeals to a wide audience and captures the dizzy excitement of today without regard for yesterday or tomorrow. Indie coalesced instead, in the latter part of the 20th century, as an oppositional subgenre of music, defining itself by what it wasn’t as much as what it was, threatening to wall itself off from the rest of the world in the process. And most of all, it wasn’t pop. It wasn’t fleeting.
The risk was that indie would become oppressively dour and drab, and by the end of the ’90s it sure seemed that way. If there was one underlying story of indie in the first decade of the ’00s, it was how the Internet and file-sharing opened that world up, encouraging exploration of a litany of supposedly uncool sounds—pop, dance, classic rock, R&B, metal, country, folk. And indeed the initial rush of online social interaction allowed listeners—previously separated by geography, class, and different sensibilities—to discuss music with individuals they’d have been very unlikely to interact with in person, exposing them to new and sometimes conventional-wisdom-exploding points of view.
As once-ostracized sounds seeped back into the indiesphere, they were initially packaged and greeted as new ideas, as fads. But slowly, they shed their dismissive tags and moved from tangential to central ideas. By the time LCD Soundsystem bowed out, nobody had called the group “dance-punk” in a half-decade; freak folk opened the door for Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and the bearded hordes; electroclash, the most sneered-at of these scenes, has been the most enduring, coaxing audiences toward everything from Justice to The Knife to Robyn to dozens of bedroom electronic artists. In recent years, the acoustic and the electronic have so hijacked indie that electric-guitar bands can seem novel and retro.
Lately, however, the memes have taken over, and they aren’t injecting themselves into larger sounds and contexts, but rather increasingly smaller ones. The genesis of this is probably chillwave, a simplistic, lo-fi sound that doesn’t ask much of its creators other than some reverb and a Pablo Cruise sample. And it doesn’t need much more: Like its visual partners—Polaroid images and grainy 8mm and 16mm film stock—it hits the knee-jerk nostalgia button of real or imagined childhood. It’s almost womb-like in its comfort: Just as with seapunk, water is a common ingredient. They also both gravitate toward the cheap-sounding as well as the cheaply made, seemingly suspicious of durable musical values like competence, fidelity, and, perhaps most importantly, shelf life. (It’s probably no accident that a buffer against this has been the recent return of guitars, volume, and velocity for the first time in years.)
The result feels like musicians threatening to become content-producers, churning out a steady stream of conversation topics and half-formed ideas without quality control. Being a part of a conversation feels as important as what’s actually said. That’s a sure route to obscurity, racing to appeal to the smaller and smaller audiences willing to follow at the real-time speed of Twitter and, especially, seapunk favorite Tumblr.
Last year, Drake spoke out about his distrust of Tumblr, lamenting that the drive-by social-media bulletin board discourages creativity and personal expression. Tumblr does have potential as a conversation hub—many people use it this way—but increasingly Drake’s characterization of it as a place for photos and gifs unencumbered by the written word seems accurate. Like Pinterest, the current social-media success story, it’s merely a way of broadcasting things a user finds cool, attractive, unique, or funny without explanation. And with its rolling presentation model, none of it is built to last.
Drake’s biggest problem with Tumblr, however, was that it limited personal expression, allowing users to simply draft off of the work of others. Its assemblage of images collectively provides a panoply of what the user presents to the world, but it’s generally just repostings of the work of the others. And like any social-media outlet, it can all be easily redrawn: Delete a tweet, change your Facebook profile, churn out new images on Tumblr and Pinterest, change your message-board handle, and you can reinvent yourself with ease.
Paradoxically, in this age of ephemera, if there is one topic that is actually discussed in indie/Internet circles, it’s authenticity: The WTF-nes of Die Antwoord, the way (to some) the inherent authenticity of being young and black papers over the social crimes of Odd Future, the head-scratching over whether Kreayshawn should be taken seriously or whether Lana Del Rey is indie or pop. Because the gifs and images displayed on a Tumblr page are meant to reflect the sensibilities of the individual posting them, it’s important above seemingly all else that that content reflects not only authenticity, but all the intangible qualities the end user values. It’s a weird, unwinnable shell game—guessing people’s intentions, locating cool rather than quality, racing to embrace and drop memes at precisely the right time. Proving you’re keeping up with whatever is minute-old can feel more important than identifying things that remain notable and worthwhile outside of a 24-hour Internet news cycle. Expressions and ideas that aren’t surface-deep don’t stand a chance in this environment. As a result, indie music threatens to fall into a place where listeners prize the associative power of a content provider rather than the expression or truth within an artist’s work.
If there is a new avatar for the indie-Tumblr world, it’s Claire Boucher, who records what she calls “post-Internet” music as Grimes. (She has since disavowed the tag, fittingly seeming petrified that it will become something as uncool, or permanent, as a subgenre tag.) Boucher is a figurehead for the new indie ephemera in part because she is one of the best of the recent wave of home electro-pop musicians, and because she articulately expresses the themes within her work. In short, her music projects emotional nourishment and depth of thought alongside its melodic charm.
She’s also a figurehead because she unabashedly believes in the power of social media, and loves the curatorial expression of Tumblr, romanticizing it as a home for all the interesting work online. And it certainly can be. But the idea that living a post-Internet life means choosing between URL and IRL, as Beaste hinted, or combining the two worlds and not being able or wanting to separate yourself from your online persona, is limiting. It’s even arguably cowardly, to carefully manicure a manufactured, reality-show version of yourself online via social media and let that idea of who you’d like to be substitute for your more complicated and complex real-world self. (True enough, another of Drake’s laments about Tumblr was that IRL people in no way tend to reflect their URL selves.)
Boucher has expressed a fear of people limiting her identity to merely a collection of her interests or a curatorial rather than musical force. And she demonstrated in the past week or so how limiting the URL-only life would be with her “Oblivion” video. In the clip, art-kid Grimes performs in the cheap seats of motocross races and football games, cutting a subversive figure amongst these knuckle-draggingly masculine worlds and twisting the norms of the audience/performer relationship. It’s the most striking thing she’s done, because she abandoned the safe cocoon of the Internet and waded into an unfamiliar real-world space. It’s among the first non-Internet things that this post-Internet artist has done. Not coincidentally, it’s also the most powerful.