For 20 years – for the specialists, longer than that – a new world of digital connectivity has been growing at the horizon. At first it was a utopian dream boldly extrapolated from concave screens in small grey plastic boxes. A cybercultural world founded on chat rooms, electronic mail and personal websites; an investment not just of considerable capital, but of hopes for new community and equality.
By around 2010, the internet had begun to shift from a hobby whirring away atop a desk to something ubiquitous, obligatory, a fact of everyday life. This is when the backlash began. Silicon Valley’s geeky dreamers had become tycoons, their platforms and products now undemocratically powerful and all but inescapable. The lifestyle that ensued from it all was being discussed as a danger to cultural, social and psychological wellbeing: driving us apart, exhausting our nervous systems, destroying creative industries.
By the end of 2016 it seemed as if the digital future had unleashed a nightmare present with immediate consequences, both personal (abuse, feelings of Instagram inadequacy) and political (Brexit, Trump, the alt right). Twitter is routinely referred to as a “hellsite,” and any talk of the internet and its users as a force for a better tomorrow now seems bitterly naive.
And of course, it’s impossible to talk of the last decade of digital growth separately from economic factors. One way of looking at the current moment is that if digital connectedness is not quite the cause of all 2018’s troubles – there’s also the economic hardship and inequality compounded by the financial crash of 2008 and the culture wars that followed – it's at least a new and viciously effective arena in which to fight over them. Nevertheless, the digital world has become a powerful symbol of modern issues, and as such it was inevitable that it'd become not only a place where new music emerges, but a subject matter of new music too.
As the internet was going mainstream, the music of both the underground and the pop charts was characterised by nostalgia, as if the first way to try out the new digital technologies was to use it to take a closer look at the past.
For emerging music, platforms like MySpace, and then SoundCloud and Bandcamp, were rivalling the cassette and CD-R undergrounds for accessibility and ease of distribution, even as much of the music remained focused on the analogue era in sound and style. But soon the retro-diving began to catch up with the present, and that meant incorporating the history and presence of digital technology itself.
Seapunk, vaporwave and the hyperactive cuteness of collectives like PC Music, Activia Benz and JACK댄스 / Non Stop Pop were among the first to do this to the point it erupted into a trackable scene (even if those scenes' activities were mostly online) in the early ’00s. The music that emerged was a honey-dressed salad of ’80s and ’90s kitsch, the visuals lurid and neon enough to match, yet it always had some present-day sparkle, be it glitchy experimental techniques or the implication of today’s digital world through an ironising lens of more innocent halcyon times.
Elsewhere, a new kind of electronic thrill emerged in club music and the areas surrounding it, and it went beyond or entirely eschewed vintage caché, seeming to speak to a disorienting contemporary moment and the hi-tech future cracking open from within it. The record that for me stands on the cusp of this is Jam City's Classical Curves from 2012, which passes smoothly from a retro future of ballroom to a genuine future shock. A wave of cybernetic energy followed it in club music internationally. Grime split into classic and modern factions, with producers like Visionist and Logos embodying the latter by not merely copying the futurism of classic London grime but fulfilling its mutant promise. And hugely influential parties like GHE20G0TH1K and Janus helped forge new forms of queer and minority expression around wildly innovative mixtures of club musics of many kinds, and did so accompanied by a crucial online presence. (Much of the music in this paragraph now sometimes bears the shorthand of 'deconstructed club music' a label that's somehow both too vague and assumes too much, and which tends to suggest a scene or a sound when a closer look reveals a series of shifting networks and the momentary echoes between them.)
The relationship between much of the music that arose at this time and the digital world around it could be explicit or implicit. Tracks like QT's Hey QT or Hannah Diamond's Hi – or the more experimental music of Holly Herndon's Platform or Giant Claw's Dark Web, and of course James Ferraro's notorious Far Side Virtual – squarely reference and address particular conceptions of the digital lifestyle, however much you choose to believe they're winking as they do it.
Beyond this, hearing something of the internet in recent electronic music is one of many paths open to the listener, and doing so has its roots in the associations between electronic music and futuristic technology that goes back to Kraftwerk and beyond. Then there’s the role of the platform itself: just because music or a musician is on the internet – even exclusively – doesn’t mean the music is about the internet, or even need express something of it by implication.
The art world had its own manifestation of this moment, and from it the term 'post-internet' emerged to refer to art that addressed the effects of digital technology on modern ways of seeing and living. This was, however, usually art that was based in relatively traditional gallery and art-school settings rather than an online culture itself, even if often drew from online culture. Similarly, lots of music that has been thought of as post-internet has been released conventionally, and even on aged media such as vinyl or cassette. (One exception is Gatekeeper's Young Chronos, which was released in 2013 as a USB flash drive and a free torrent on Piratebay.)
So ubiquitously present is the internet in 2018 that it's less common today to find music that explicitly addresses the internet rather than just feels its effects. Just as not all books are about paper and not all radio shows are about electromagnetic radiation, the digital medium itself may be receding into the background as a style or subject matter for new electronic music. In fact, the whole notion of a musical expression that portrays a particular (past or present) cultural milieu with a degree of artistic distance – especially ironic distance – has been criticised as 'conceptual.' Conceptual music, it's argued or implied, is music about ideas or postures rather than emotions; its makers are veiled pretenders rather than authentic, expressive artists. Much of the criticism of what some would call post-internet music ('accelerationist' music is another term) has taken this angle.
One key moment in this critique came in 2015 when PC Music artist Girlfriend of the Year (GFOTY) was called out for an ironically racist joke on social media. GFOTY is, perhaps more than any other PC Music artist, a character, a performance, a concept: onstage and offstage. Yet notably, the controversy was based in the belief that her comments were offensive even if they had been made in an ironic or satirical conceptual frame: an ironic racist is still reproducing racism. Excoriating comments made by the producer Lotic on Facebook about the controversy expressed frustration with conceptual music and the “mysterious” producers who make it in general:
"you can congratulate pc music et al. for their mystery and ‘clever’ use of ‘irony’ or you can just investigate and realize that it’s merely a vapid art project by a handful of rich kids...
i would actually bet money (of which i have little) that no other queer/poc gave a shit about pc music... until, like, today. and that’s because, for some people, music is still a medium reserved for genuine expressions of emotion or feeling (the last one?), as opposed to a way to explore a concept...
‘conceptual’ and ‘mysterious’ usually turn out to be an abdication of responsibility (there’s nothing brave about not showing your face and nothing exciting about having nothing real to say). and we can’t be afraid of emotional or confrontational music. since when has music not been political? since when have we not turned to music when we need uplifting or comfort?"
For me, in hindsight, Lotic's comments clearly signal a shift of focus in underground musical aesthetics away from conceptuality and toward a new form of authenticity rooted in the personal expression, experience and solidarities of people who experience structural oppression. While conceptual digital music has receded, what has come to the fore has been something more sincere, emotive and more politically direct (you might even say honest). Rather than ironic music for the internet age, some of today's most vital producers make a passionate music for the age of Black Lives Matter, Me Too, and queer struggle.
Take Lotic's own work. Their recent album, notably titled Power, doesn’t adopt a pre-existing musical style laden with cultural connotations for conceptual purposes. Though a lot of styles have gone into the mix, they act as roots rather than references and from them rise a unique, seldom-heard voice. The music communicates emotion primarily in its gestures and lingerings, its broken harmonies and eerily insistent rhythms. Artists such as Arca, Pan Daijing, Yves Tumor, Klein, Toxe, Rui Ho, Visionist and many others can be heard in similar ways: a music not (or not yet) of any particular genre, not from History or Culture as previously constituted (by the hitherto powerful, of course), but from bodies and the resonances between bodies.
Even though these artists use digital sounds, what they communicate feels fleshy, intimate, embodied. The best of this music finds a compelling union between its achingly honest renderings of disempowerment and the newfound power, confidence and transformation it wrests from it. Indeed, this is what the music is setting out to do: lots of emerging artists today talk about their music and the spaces it inhabits (clubs, bodies) as a form of catharsis or self-care. Elysia Crampton has talked about her music as “trying to map out some sense of self and body that is ultra-body.”
Even more revealing than the music itself are the networks that surround it, which are aiming to do exactly the same. Underground music collectives have, in various forms of political solidarity, built new layers and spaces on top of the platforms of SoundCloud, Bandcamp, Twitter and Facebook. NON Worldwide is a collective for artists of Africa and the African diaspora, while Eternal Dragonz networks Asia and its diasporas. Discwoman, Objects Limited, Producergirls, Siren and Sister (which was founded by Toxe) are collectives or associations that each, in their own ways, provide space for producers, DJs and listeners that identify as female or non-binary. Oakland label/event series Club Chai states on their Bandcamp page that they “center diasporic narratives, women, and trans artists, DJs and producers and hybridizes non western sounds with club music.” While such strategies address present-day needs, they also serve to reclaim the historical origin of club musics as spaces by and for queer people and/or people of colour in a scene now often dominated by straight white men.
Yet where such a politics is less explicit or organised, the use of particular digital technologies to make and distribute music still follows socio-political fault lines such as access to resources. Look, for example, at who is releasing and listening to vinyl versus who uses mp3s, streaming or YouTube. Prominent forms of contemporary hip-hop, like SoundCloud rap (note the name) and drill, might not conform to the ’90s idea of a utopian cyberculture, but the internet has provided a space for them that traditional channels do not. (Certain authorities, such as the British police in the case of drill, have sought to shut them down).
In particular, it’s difficult to imagine the idiosyncratic style of recent underground rap, sometimes called 'mumble rap' – both as comic and poignant, earthy and bizarre, as the best grime was in the 2000s – coming up through the mixtape and vinyl networks of hip-hop's previous generation, with its emphasis on respect for craft and classics. Ironically, although mumble rap and its ilk are strongly associated with digital technologies such as autotune, sampling and of course SoundCloud, it can be seen as another example of the perennial lo-fi method (traditionally associated with rejecting digital in favour of analogue), in that it puts out music in the cheapest, most accessible and immediate way, meaning there’s little concern for conventional standards of technique, be that rap technique or production technique. It’s just that the cheapest, most accessible and immediate way is now digital, rather than analogue.
In 2018, the internet and the digital technologies it’s connected with don’t represent some hi-tech, future world. Instead, they're low tech, pervasive, the first threshold of public music-making, the very soil from which everything grows. This is why the phrase 'post-internet music' can only go so far. Even if we appreciate that 'post' means 'in the wake of' rather than strictly 'after,' the term implies a special visibility of the internet within our cultural consciousness, as well as a separation of internet and music that's becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Love it or hate it, the internet is our life, and it's where tomorrow’s music is coming from.