Grimes is leading a generation of online musicians to the material world The post-internet pop that Grimes pioneered suggests a world beyond the digital that no-one expected.
‘Post-internet’. Not the most inspiring neologism for a genre, is it? A clunky readymade that reveals no sense of place, no hint of what instruments you might hear nor what city or scene it calls home. About the only thing it does suggest is a vague sense of the contemporary, of being ‘after’ the internet (which has existed in some form since the 70s anyway). What the handful of post-internet artists so far do have in common, though, is a catalogue of music which takes the networked world as its subject – a world in which people like us exist virtually as well as materially, connected through an infinite web of links with no fixed structure or hierarchy.
Beyond simply opening up vast tranches of artistic endeavour to modern-day musicians, the internet also provides subject matter of its own – the very experience of living as a hyper-connected being, and the consequent fear of disengagement with the ‘real world’. Though it’s not always made explicit, attempting to deal with this niggle through music has led to some exciting work in recent months from the likes of Grimes, Laurel Halo, James Ferraro, John Maus, Actress and Pictureplane. All of these artists could be credited as being ‘post-internet’, despite lacking a shared sound or scene.
Take Ferraro, whose 2011 album ‘Far Side Virtual’ is obsessed with the infinity-mirror effect of the digital world, a globalised no-place of glossy jingles and homogenous coffee. Or Laurel Halo, who likes to play around with the ‘dichotomy of virtual happiness and virtual information’ on synthesiser compositions with names like Supersymmetry and Strength in Free Space.
There’s Actress too, who recently told Dazed that humans become digital when they start “putting language in circuits”, a conclusion he reached after learning to program an Amstrad. And Denver’s Pictureplane, whose retro synthwave, filed under titles like Post Physical and Techno Fetish, sees a post-human future as a place where queer identity can both flourish and assimilate.
Grimes has been most forthcoming in declaring herself post-internet, acknowledging that unlimited access has been perhaps her most important influence.
But it’s Canada’s Grimes who has been most forthcoming in declaring herself post-internet, acknowledging that unlimited access has been perhaps her most important influence. “I basically consider myself a cyborg,” she says, while worrying that she relies on the internet for all her social interactions: ‘If we didn’t have an iPhone we’d be fucked.’ But if Claire Boucher accepts that she’s a cyborg, her flesh irretrievably entangled with machines, she’s also adamant that we can be much more than virtual avatars, Facebook friends, Skype buddies or Twitter celebrities. On Be A Body, a track from the recently released ‘Visions’, she uses her post-internet musical aesthetic (a seamless blend of sugary sweet pop vocals like 80s starlet Tiffany, the dreamy delusions of the Cocteau Twins, the hypnagogic haze of Ariel Pink and the cold beat of Detroit) to demand something more from life than being hunched over a laptop screen, desperately trying to make a connection.
“I close my eyes until I see / I don’t need hands to touch me / Be a body
I lean on walls until I stand / I touch my face with my hand / Be a body
So then what am I? / Be a body”
In an era of virtual relationships, when we let technology do the hard work of keeping up with friends and family or making new connections, the possibility of leaving the ‘real world’ behind has become a legitimate and widespread fear. Information technology and the internet are often seen as faintly unnatural, distancing us from our bodies by allowing us to upload our minds into the ether and abandon flesh-and-blood ties. Hollywood has often leaned towards the dystopian angle, with Neo’s journey into The Matrix being the tidiest example of this bodily severance.
Because ever since Descartes declared “I think, therefore I am” in 17th century France, we’ve been on the path of dualism, imagining our minds and bodies as separate entities. This concept of separation underpinned the Enlightenment and continues to inform our laws and beliefs concerning our bodies. In the 21st century that division seems sharper than ever, the mind more separate than ever, as we learn to communicate not through our eyes, ears and mouths but through the codes and algorithms of the internet.
Boucher’s call to ‘be a body’ reminds us that you can only be on one dancefloor at a time. It’s material beings that give those ethereal sounds meaning.
And then you have Grimes, the self-described ‘cyborg’ and post-internet artist, who owes much of her fame to blogs and video clips, who relies on the internet for everything, who takes the historical and geographical treasure trove of digital music as her palette – and she’s telling me to ‘be a body’? Now that information technology is pretty much ubiquitous, surely accessing music has become a process that leaves the body behind? But Boucher’s call to ‘be a body’ reminds us that, in the end, you can only be on one dancefloor at a time. That no matter how many new songs you download, whether you’re discovering an awesome tape from Africa or a coldwave 80s obscurity, your ears can only soak up tracks one by one. And whether your new jam was uploaded to YouTube last year or last night, you live in this moment only, in this or that town, with those friends, sleeping in that room and wearing those clothes. It’s the material beings around you that give those ethereal sounds their meaning and context.
The dream of disconnecting our minds from our bodies and floating into cyberspace has not come to pass in the way the early 90s cyberpunks fantasised. In 2012 we don’t ‘log on’ to the internet as a geeky pastime, frittering away our evenings talking to virtual strangers about The X-Files (well, only occasionally); instead, the internet has broken free of its static boxes and attached itself to us, our bodies and lives. While Hollywood depicted a freedom from our bodily baggage in The Matrix, Silicon Valley got to work on gadgets ever more closely attuned to our physical presence and sensory desires – the immersive IMAX cinema, the person-as-player for Xbox Kinect and, most importantly for me at least, the MP3 player – a tiny black box that puts my entire record collection in my pocket. Technology surrounds us, drowns us, but it’s more closely moulded to our bodies every day. Have you checked out those new Google glasses yet?
In a web of infinite connections, us internet users become both producers and consumers of information; neither the rulers nor the ruled in a rhizomatic structure which lacks clear authority. Boundaries between humans and machines start to crumble as the technology becomes smaller, more portable and more usual. But even when the scale of our immersion in technology becomes overwhelming, this is the thing to remember – the machines are the background hum to our actual lived lives. Changes in technology have brought about new kinds of communication between humans, but in the end they facilitate our flesh-and-blood social relations. And when it comes to music, even though the internet can take us in a flash to sounds we’ve never imagined from across the globe, we still can’t help but live by Grimes’s simple edict.