By Jensen Suther
Bret Schneider’s recent critical review of Oneohtrix Point Never’s Garden of Delete raises important questions about putatively “new” or avant-garde elements in otherwise popular music. By focusing on OPN’s “art music” pretensions, the author seeks to unmask what he takes to be the key failing of the record: it employs the technique of pastiche in order to achieve a “demotic,” accessible sound, but the fragmentary, experimental character of that sound militates against consumption by the very masses for which it is supposedly intended. As he writes, “The tropes that are brought in to make the album more accessible—for instance the NES videogame soundtrack quality—actually serve the purpose of further alienating what remains of the supposedly ‘uncultured’ masses who still look to art for something more than commonplace experience.”
The admirable standpoint that informs every line of this review is betrayed here by scare quotes that tacitly express an allegiance with the masses. But good political intentions in no way guarantee the correctness of one’s analysis. Indeed, this sentence also reveals the review’s fatal flaw: it reduces OPN’s music to its social origin and function, mirroring the “middle-brow sociological analysis” it decries. Accordingly, it passes over in silence the particulars of its object, and the review pays for this inattention with its own incoherence. Because the author judges OPN’s music from on high, almost exclusively on the basis of its reception, the internal contradiction of Garden of Delete—that it thinks possible the impossible task of making kitsch elegant, as I will argue below—is misrecognized as the incongruence of eclectic and even opposed elements. This misrecognition finds expression in the review’s rigid separation of content from form. According to Schneider, the music incorporates “subcultural,” kitsch elements for the sake of the masses, while its form and technique are “neo-modernist” gimmicks intended to satisfy the need for “serious art” specific to the “upper middle class dilettante.”
Marxian epithets and a class-based taxonomy of culture, then, take the place of “immanent” musical critique. Because the album is judged in advance and too hastily grasped in terms of its social determination, its true social significance is obfuscated. Cultural objects yield their “truth content,” to borrow Theodor Adorno’s term, only through the interrogation of their sensible-affective specificity, or the formal and material features that make them the peculiar artifacts that they are. Aesthetic success and failure tend to reflect the politically true and false: social truth is the sole canon of artistic beauty, even with respect to so-called “lowbrow” and “middlebrow” artists, whose works can only actually be judged on a case-by-case basis, never by way of schematic class categories applied from above. Measured according to its own political criterion, Schneider’s review proves false precisely because it aims to “appeal to those who want to be ‘in the know,’ but [doesn’t] want to do the work of thinking required by aesthetics.”
Yet Schneider’s miscomprehension is not simply the result of error, and should be traced back to the music itself. The vaporwave genre pioneered in the early 2010s by Daniel Lopatin, the musician behind OPN, is defined by an ironic retro sound comprised of elements drawn from '80s-era commercial and popular music. In succumbing to the kitsch character of cultural detritus in order to go beyond it, or to unlock the potential of its illusory promise of fulfillment and escape, the music of vaporwave often risks a kind of postmodern triumphalism. It can appear, in other words, to nihilistically affirm or celebrate the emptiness of the kitsch it appropriates, instead of subjecting it to critique from the remove—at a hair’s breadth—of aesthetic form. The success of a work of art hinges entirely upon whether or not it can attain, internally, this minimal distance from its representational content. Schneider’s claim, then, that the retro “tropes” on Garden of Delete are incorporated in order to broaden the album’s appeal seems to me to miss the point rather profoundly, but in a way that is at least explicable: what the review’s author misrecognizes as an attempt to satisfy the demands of the market is in actuality an immanent engagement with past popular and commercial forms that exploits their obsoleteness in order, in the best instances, to underscore the historicity of the standpoint from which they are being beheld and thus to tell us something about who we are today and, ultimately, who we ought to be.
Unlike OPN’s previous albums, and the famous “eccojams” released under the Chuck Person pseudonym, Garden of Delete is an album of songs, with verse-chorus structures and lyrics that are sung, even if by a voice processed beyond recognition. Lopatin embraces bad taste in new ways, broadening the range of vaporwave sounds (outdated synth patches, sickeningly bright digital pianos, staccato arpeggiators, etc.) to include the kitsch of yesteryear, such as nu-metal guitars from the late 90s and the “drops” of contemporary dubstep. The thematic core of the record is its humanoid protagonist Ezra’s experience of puberty, or the “mutant standard,” as one of the tracks is titled, which serves as the starting point for the record’s manifold reflections on various aspects of the abjectness of embodied existence (“the theme is pus,” as Lopatin remarked in a recent interview).
On the short interlude track “ECCOJAMC1,” a sample from folk singer John Martyn’s “Solid Air” is time-stretched so that the line “don’t know what’s going ‘round inside” becomes an expression of anxious pubescence: “I don’t know what’s going on inside.” A nauseating looped synth line, its notes bent from the vibrato effect of a modulation wheel, amplifies the ugliness of the artifact-ridden, pitch-shifted voice that mirrors in its grotesque deepness the breaking voice of a male adolescent. We are introduced to Ezra on the eponymously titled second track, replete with berserk arpeggiators, jack-in-the-box falsetto voices, and wonderfully incongruous finger-picked guitar, but it is the seemingly throwaway “ECCOJAMC1” that reveals the stakes of Garden of Delete, whose vaporwave nihilism aims to shatter the illusion of spiritual maturation, of the transition from childhood into adulthood, by emphasizing the constancy of human animality and the enduring repulsiveness of embodied existence.
“ECCOJAMC1” is a prelude of sorts to one of the album’s most ambitious tracks, “Sticky Drama,” whose irresistible melodic lines and dub dynamics evoke Skrillex and complement lyrics that perversely distill the “sticky” quintessence of the festival utopia his music signifies for every teenager. Schneider is indeed right to point to the popular elements in the album, as this track demonstrates perhaps more than any other. But the song frustrates expectations by replacing what should be an explosive “drop” midway through with the militant double bass of a drum machine and disjointed, atonal synth solos. This erases the specificity of the popular reference, which is transformed in accord with the demands of the song. Likewise, lines like “sticky drama is the girl for me / she’s so sticky from the memories” reveal the popular depiction of erotic love for what it is, bare libidinal investment. Memory just serves to intensify animal longing. Yet the ejaculate innuendoes repeated throughout the song are strikingly contrasted with barely decipherable number series—phone numbers for locations in Boston, Lopatin’s hometown. The only personal elements in the song, the only “human” moments, are conveyed impersonally, and in such a manner that they remain inscrutable. The enigmatic phone numbers underscore what is missing from the empty sexualized memory the track does explicitly engage: these seemingly unrelated elements thus jointly transform a stark depiction of dehumanization into a negative imprint of actual erotic fulfillment, the form of remembrance in which true intimacy would consist.
Garden of Delete succeeds, then, when its kitsch elements are through-composed according to a principle of montage, not pastiche. These elements are not simply incorporated but are also transformed, in some way unlocked through their juxtaposition and placement within the compositional whole. Yet the center of these songs cannot hold; the collapse of the musical context that ennobles the detritus it absorbs gives rise to a veritable “garden” of artifacts blooming in a sickly light. On the record’s lengthiest and most important track, “Mutant Standard,” the only audible human voice asks: “Are you sure about that?” This doubting question is the “caesura” of the song and points to something essential about the album itself. It could be a slogan for the record’s thoroughgoing skepticism, which dictates that all claims to authenticity and all promises of fulfillment be disbelieved. This is strikingly reflected in the album’s title: Garden of Delete is the “determinate negation” of the Garden of Eden, whose claim to innocence it debunks. But it also does not debunk it, or rather, in “losing” the notion of a “loss of innocence” entailed by the idea of Eden, the Garden of Delete not only deletes Eden, but points to its actual possibility. The aesthetic depiction of the reduction of human beings to “pus” is the “self-negation” of a dehumanized humanity. The frenzied voice at the five-minute mark on “Mutant Standard” says nothing, but screams shrilly, as if trying to break through the incessant uptempo arpeggios that serve as the track’s backbone. It is the speechless voice of a pubescent humanity, which has still not come into its own.
Acknowledgments: I am indebted to Ksenia Sidorenko for in-depth discussion of key points in this essay.