Is laptop-produced, hi-fi music the punk rock of the Internet age?
Vaporwave, however, is a mere component of the larger, comparatively apolitical movement towards clean, dry textures and production techniques in the DIY context. Laurel Halo's Quarantine (2012) staged dry, unadorned vocals against a dense, muddled wall of electronica, forcing two sound-worlds to compete for the same space. Ariel Pink's Mature Themes (2012) marked a Ween-like jump from the murkiness of his earlier work to an unsettlingly arid production aesthetic. This year's Don't Look Back, That's Not Where You're Going, from Inga Copeland (half of hypnagogic pop duo Hype Williams) rejected the messy, fuzzy jumble of her previous output in favor of a streamlined, Madonna-esque pop approach. Halo, Pink, and Copeland, like Ferraro, are known for operating from the margins of culture and taste, and that's precisely what renders their use of clean, dry sounds so provocative.
Dean Blunt, the other half of Hype Williams, made an especially striking statement with this year's debut solo endeavor,The Redeemer, an LP that maintained the scattershot, indiscriminate sampling tactics of Hype Williams' One Nation (2011) and Blunt and Copeland's Black is Beautiful (2012), while doing away with the grimy, resinous sonic impurities that permeated those records. Just as Black is Beautiful jumped impulsively between snippets of free-jazz drumming, inept MIDI-flute noodling, underwater video-game music, and other disparate ideas, The Redeemer trades off between K-Ci & JoJo string samples, John Fahey-esque guitar impressionism, intimate voicemail messages, and theatrical piano hammering a la Tori Amos. However, the absence of sonic fuzz presents a novel tension between the album's haphazard composition, and its clarity of presentation, deeming Blunt's intentions far more ambiguous this time around.
Whereas Black is Beautiful's lo-fi approach placed its component samples squarely in the domain of weirdo art, fulfilling expectations of what DIY music "should" sound like,The Redeemer forces its listeners to consider each snippet at face value. "Imperial Gold," a twee, brightly produced folk tune towards the end of the album, would fit comfortably in a Portlandia episode, but what are we supposed to make of it, coming from Dean Blunt, the outsider? Does it present a moment of sincerity, a tongue-in-cheek jab against the art-world, or both? Much like Ferraro with Far Side Virtual, Blunt subverts the meaning of his musical gestures with simple shifts of context.
Similarly to Pavement's initiation of the lo-fi movement,using the limited resources at their disposal, this emerging trend of cleanly-produced laptop music represents the confluence of modest means and radical ideas. If anyone in the '90s could start a three-chord garage band, surely anyone in 2013 with a laptop can compose original music from the scraps of their sample library. However, like punk, the lo-fi approach has lost much of its potency in the last 20 years, and simply cannot provoke the same bewilderment that it used to. By using sterile, dry sounds for subversive effect, provocateurs like Blunt and Ferraro have inflamed the art-world all over again. This is the punk rock of the Internet age.