Posted: Tue, April 23, 2013 | By: Franco Cortese
Artifacts, Artifictions, Artifutures 0.1
A futuristic aesthetic is taking the music industry by electric storm. Electronic music has seen a bigger rise in popularity over the last decade than any other genre of music. It seems to be the most invasive genre of the past decade as well, having been incorporated into pop music’s sonic repertoire to an increasingly greater degree throughout the 2000’s. Now it seems like the large majority of pop songs use EDM and electro-based styles as their foundation – whereas it used to be dominated by RnB.
Electronic music, and particularly the new, “popularized” varieties of EDM making their way into the tracks of more mainstream artists, is making the future seem cool and sexy to mainstream audiences!
It is beginning to replace the lifeless and alienating aesthetics associated with technology over the 2nd half of the 20th century, all hard edges and clean delineations – an aesthetic which makes us associate technology with a dehumanizing force that sunders enchantment from life by taking all mystery out of it. Such a sentiment seems alien to readers of Transhumanist rhetoric, but I think that most people have been generally untrusting of technology since the havoc it wreaked in the 1st and 2nd World Wars.
Electronic music takes those very same sounds that have become associated with technology – perpetuated by bassy, brassy robotic voices featured in science fiction pop culture, which were probably originally based off of real sounds once made by technology, the electric hum and reverberant drone of early electronic hardware – and now uses them to instead create an exciting, intense, high-amplitude soundscape that makes the future seem swollen with energy and the now infused with the future.
Whatever the particular history of memetic association that made it so, electronic music sounds futuristic, bringing to mind the onrushing future, high technology, and digitality as general aesthetic. The styles and themes used in recent music videos that heavily incorporate electronic dance music also evidences the futuristic connotations the genre can, and often does, create.
Indeed, specific sounds aside, the very structure of the music – with its hovering rises and heavy drops, as taken in some cases to the point of caricature by Dubstep – seems to emphasize the accelerating nature of the future and to cater to our immediate, presentist want of More-Right-Now – which is a liberating, self-empowering and self-legitimating impulse, and not necessarily a selfish, over-indulgent or negative one; we wish to live for ourselves fore and firstmost, as we by and large should.
Music is making the future seem cool and exciting again, and making technology a source of wonder and enchantment, rather than of dehumanizing and disempowering potentialities! It’s about time, because technology may very well be the root of enchantment – of the bountifully possible, the mysterious, the New. Like Arthur C. Clarke says, sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
Electronic music has been around since at least the 1970s, through the work of pioneers like Brian Eno (who also happens to be on Long Now Foundation’s 15-seat Board of Directors – coincidence?), but only started making real headway in the early ‘noughts, and only in the past two or three years has it really exploded in popularity. EDM was an idiosyncratic sub-genre less than a decade ago – and now it has a multitude of sub-genres itself, and seems to be the foundation of the large majority of mainstream pop songs lately as well. The Grammys have been around since the 50s, but it was only in 1998 that they made a category electronic music could fit into – their award for “Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical”. Since then Daft Punk has won two Grammys in 2007, AfroJack & David Guetta won one in 2011, and Skrillex won three in 2012 and another three in 2013. Deadmau5 even performed at the Grammys and the VMAs in 2012, which is a larger indicator of electronic music’s rising popularity; it is now popular enough to be considered mainstream. But that hasn’t stopped its increasing diversification; Wikipedia currently has pages for 22 sub-genres of Electronic music, with roughly 200 sub-sub-genre pages falling within those 22.
Dubstep in particular has become a huge hit among 16-25 yr. olds. Some is a bit more simplified than many other varieties of electronic music; the sound is hard, raw, grindy and loud, and a lot of the signal dynamics have been stripped from the trademark bass, but then there are other artists like Feed Me who manage to utilize that in-your-face, now-heavy sound while keeping the complexity and dynamicism typical of electronic music via heavily-layered, fast-changing melodies and harmonies.
This is important because we base much of our opinions on things, like technology, off of sublimated reactions and unexplicated associations that have made their way into the undercurrent of culture. Thus the reverberant robotic voice harkens back to the hum of early electronics, and the hard bass Dubstep is based off of harkens back to the reverberant robotic drone promulgated by science fiction pop-culture.
I think that by making the future in general and electronic and digital technology in particular look cool, the music industry is making the younger generations less susceptible to entertaining the overly-deterministic, disenchanting and alienating connotations of technology that arose in the late 20th century - allowing them to rightfully become excited (and more importantly enchanted) by technology, through the futuristic sonic aesthetic of electronic music. Rather than being seen as alienating, electronic music can now be seen as enchanting for how alien it is. Man has been xenophilic since before Zeno’s time - we may often fear the unknown but we also thrive on it - and electronic music seems to be utilizing our love for the unfamiliar to unwittingly deter the alienating and dehumanizing connotations that have grown up around technology during the latter half of the 20th century.
Rihanna’s 2nd last album incorporated House Music styles, and her last album featured EDM and Dubstep styles prominently. A collaboration between EDM artist David Guetta and Nicki Minaj, “Turn Me On”, also evidences the increasi predominance of electronic music in the pop genre. A November 2012 single by will.i.am and Brittany Spears, the electropop “Scream & Shout”, peaked at #3 in the U.S Billboard Hot 100. Judging by the video, they were going for an explicitly futuristic theme.
Such future-forward art should not be confused with what is more appropriately considered “futurist art” – that is, art that incorporates elements of futurist methodology (i.e. modeling possible futures, scenario-building, etc.) or that is created with a radically different future in mind, which I will be addressing in another piece. The pop-music artists discussed above shouldn’t be considered futurists – they aren’t speculating about the future with any sort of analytic rigor, or at all really, and don’t use any of the methodologies common to futurism.
But nonetheless pop songs and music videos are incorporating futuristic themes and imagery to an increasingly greater degree; whether this is due to its increasing popularity or whether it is creating such popularity is a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg, concentrically-reciprocal-causality type of problem. The popularity of handheld electronic devices like Ipods, Smart-phones, Tablets and the like probably contributes to the attractiveness and popularity of the electronic, digital, virtual, new-technology-oriented and otherwise futuristic feel as well.
Advertisers have also caught onto the trend in the past year, with the list of EDM tracks featured in commercials growing by the month. The HiTech and FutureForeward feel is becoming increasingly cool, and people looking to make a buck are taking notice.
Electronic music also has some other important parallels with futurism. It is utilizing the advantages of electronic democratization more than any other genre of music right now. Electronic music is made using software programs rather than physical instruments. Being software, it is amenable to increases in computational price performance al a Moore’s Law and Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns. Things that cost hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars in studio and sound-editing equipment a mere decade ago can now be done on a PC – and often with free or open-source software.
South-African Hip-Hop Rave Group Die Antwoord made all the music for their first album using only their home PC – and it went on to become such an internet sensation that they got signed by Interscope Records, who quickly asked them to reel it in a little and dampen the diversity - which promped Die Antwoord to drop the label and launch their own. This is a real world example of the radical democratizing effect digital technologies (in this case the internet and cheap /open-source sound-editing software) can have, and global-scale self-empowerment and self-realization that they make possible. Die Anwoord wouldn’t have existed if they needed expensive sound mixing and editing software to be in the same tier as the ones with the most resources. With these technologies we can not only take our future back from fate, but remake it anew too.
Last but not leastly, the fact that electronic music is almost completely disassociated from physical instruments (save the turntables and mixers used in live performances) makes it the first genre to embrace what I claim is the way of the future for art. Art of all varieties, from sonic to visual to eventual olfactory and somatosensory art, will begin to be made not using physical instruments, but rather via a series of interfaces increasingly transparent and culminating in a point where we manipulate, modify, modulate and create the relevant variables (e.g. notes and other sonic paraphernalia for music) directly via the mind, translating the informational models instantiated as thought directly into an informational form that can be played by the correct physical instrumentation (e.g. as a file on your computer), or else to be instantiated without “physical instrumentation” via BCI-mediated sensory modulation. Highly precise BCI that understand what patterns of synaptic activation correlate with what internal impressions – for example, BCI analyzing activity in your sensory cortex and generating the song you have stuck in your head.
While at first glance this seems to require a science of qualia, it may not be so formidable. We need not be able to predict what physical changes to a person’s brain would result in what qualitative changes to a person’s “internal impressions”, “experientiality”, or “subjectivity” (depending on what you want to call it), as a predictively-accurate science of qualia would be able to do. Correlating existing qualia with existing neurological activity would simply require a painstaking process of manual correlation between what a person sees, hears, etc. with what their brain is doing at the time. If it is limited to sensory impressions, which can easily be controlled (e.g. have subject look at red screen), then some progress could be made. If all new sounds are created by manipulating the same sequence of basic units (e.g. notes) or unit-ranges (as there are an infinitely-divisible number of intermediate-steps between two given notes), then we may be able to painstakingly record the neural correlates of all those individual units, such that the creation of new emergent patterns (as in creating new melodies, harmonies, etc. in the mind) is derivable from knowledge of the neural correlates of that emergent pattern’s basic units.
In the future we will think our songs and our movies into existence, keeping on hand the BCI and software needed to transfer our internal thoughtstuff into an informational format or medium playable by either physical hardware (i.e. using sound waves) or via BCI-mediated sensory modulation. Electronic music is pioneering this trend today because their interface is less removed from the mind than physical instrumentation is. This virtuality is a virtue of electronic music – not a shortcoming. Electronic music is unhindered by the constraints of physicality, and unfettered by the particular abilities of a given physical instrument. If you know your signal mixing, modulating and modifying, then it’s almost all in the mind – except for the cumbersomeness of the software, which might make certain types of mixing, modulating and modifying too hard to be worth the bother.
In the next installments of this series, I’ll provide some empirical support for my claim that electronic dance music incorporates or generates futuristic themes, motifs and connotations, and that the increasing popularity and interdisciplinary invasiveness of electronic music helps to promote futurist, future-friendly and future-focused memes, improving the general connotations and wordless impressions we have in regard to advanced technology, technological growth and the future by showing us how cool, self-empowering and enchanting both technology and the future can be. The more mainstream futuristic memes and aesthetics are, the likelier we are to facilitate the birth of a safe and self-empowering future – because the more people aware of and thinking about the future, and how different it could be, then the higher our chances of making concerted efforts to realize a promising future, and to consider the risks, and opportunities that are only set to increase as the onrushing future-fiery horizon gets closer. Then, I’ll discuss some real futurist artists (who either use futurist-related methodology, who speculate about the future, or by creating in a way that takes into account the radically different nature of the future and with a radically-different future audience in mind), and conclude with a more detailed look into what I foresee the future of art to be(come).