Where’s Our Silicon Valley Summer of Love?
Our culture is as optimistic about the promise of technology as ever, so why aren’t our musicians embracing that optimism?
To look at the cover of Tangerine Dream’s criminally underrated 1981 synthpop album Exit is basically enough to understand precisely how it sounds. The blocky, all-caps digital-clock typeface; the dusty, glowing tunnel leading towards a child’s face like a deleted scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey: yup, this is an 80’s album about the future. And indeed, it is — the first track, “Kiew Mission,” is a nine-minute ambient techno exploration, all synthetic-bell atmosphere and hushed, Russian-language vocals about global interconnectedness. A couple of tracks later, “Chronozon” comes blistering in, synths screaming and spiralling upward with proto-Daft Punk and energy.
What pervades this album, more than anything, is a deep, deep fetishization of the future, and moreover, of technology. Interviews with the band about the record center around the tech the band used, the krautrockers rhapsodizing about the dozens of synth tools and patterns they used to create the album’s chilly futurescapes. 1981 was a year full of science fiction aspiration — the American Space Shuttle program successfully launched, the first American “test-tube baby” was born, the first Delorean rolled off the assembly line — against a backdrop of global unrest. That year also saw attempted assassination of President Reagan (and the actual assassination of Anwar Sadat), the introduction of crack cocaine and the first discovery of AIDS, all amplified by the lingering threat of global nuclear destruction. In short, shit was getting real — Tangerine Dream dealt with the Sci-Fi future by making art explicitly about that strange, potential reality.
Obviously, TD weren’t the first band to lay their obsession with technology onto wax, nor would they be the last. Sixteen years after Exit, Radiohead dropped OK Computer, bringing a whole new level of anxiety to these questions of the human relationship with technology (“Airbag,” about the constant danger of modern transportation, “Paranoid Android” and “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” explicitly name-checking science fiction themes). Nowhere on the album is that theme more explicit than on “Fitter Happier,” a sort of spiritual successor to “Kiew Mission,” in which the O-G text-to-speech robot creepily and dispassionately recites slogans of post-modern living. Less futuristic fetishism and more “what have we done to the Earth?!”, OK Computer shifts an obsession with technology into the present day, loaded with anxiety, but still in awe of its power. But not every successor to Tangerine Dream has had such a dour view of our relationship with tech.
Daft Punk, more than any other group, had taken the mantle of Techno-Optimist into the 21st century. One of their first mainstream hits featured a roboticized voice spouting transhumanist nonsense over euphoric, digital funk — it’s the Bizarro-World version of “Fitter Happier,” and it’s glorious. But even DP has turned away from that vision — no longer shooting for a starry future, they steeped themselves in the sweet Kool Aid of nostalgia. First, by soundtracking the retro-Sci-Fi catastrophe TRON Legacy, and then, even more explicitly (and spectacularly), by reaching into the archives of golden age funk and analog recording for Random Access Memories. By 2013, the one-time leaders of the techno-optimists had turned their gaze completely backward.
So who, then, carries the banner for the pro-technology future, one in which infinitesimally tiny robots repair our arteries and cure our diseases, in which mobile technology brings new levels of connectivity to everyone on earth? That crusader might just be Steve Aoki, the man of the infinite party, himself living in a sort of Utopian wealth-cocoon. His newest two-part album Neon Future (see, it’s about the future) is a two-part epic of Steve Aoki-esque EDM, peppered with quotations from bona-fide futurists (and also J.J. Abrams, who made a couple Star Trek movies, which is apparently enough). Inspired by the decidedly-un-lampoonable passing of his father, Aoki began reading about nanotechnology as a medical tool, and from there expanded into a general fascination with futurism and the more plausible aspects of science fiction. That fascination led to Neon Future, whose opening lines (“In the neon future, we’re going to transcend and overcome the limitations that have plagued us for thousands of years”) declare its intentions in capital (or maybe neon har har) letters. This is the album we’ve been looking for! The document of optimism for the 21st century, surely heralding a new tech-art-revival, a sort of Silicon Valley Summer of Love!
Or… perhaps not. Firstly, although there are some genuine high points, Aoki’s album is mostly unlistenable — its dedication to its own themes (along with the generic, fist-pump-EDM-pop) veers too often into the realm of overt self-parody. It’s a boring, soggy mess, rarely hitting the visceral, face-in-a-jet-engine highs of his previous work and more often recalling Plan 9 from Outer Space than 2001: A Space Odyssey. Secondly, it hasn’t exactly been an overwhelming success — while Neon Future I hit #1 on the U.S. electronic charts, it didn’t break into the top-30 Billboard albums, and its sequel performed even worse. Simply put, there wasn’t a market.
We are at a point in our society where technology and futurism might have more pop-cultural currency than any time since the atomic age. Among our biggest celebrities and titans of industry are programmers, inventors, and people who invest gajillions of dollars into projects that want to “solve death” like it’s a complex math problem. We have (extremely well-read and well-funded) publications galore that cover the technology industry exclusively, and others that cover tech with the same degree of seriousness and attention that they devote to television and sports. But if we’re so steeped in technology, and if we’re so excited about that fact, where is the art that reflects that? Why has out popular culture so embraced our Sci-Fi present and not-too-distant future, while our artists reject it?
Perhaps science fiction isn’t ever purely innocent, purely optimistic. Philip K. Dick, Aldous Huxley, even lifetime space-crusader Arthur C. Clarke all expressed some degree of anxiety about the future. Perhaps there is no market for it, but perhaps more importantly artists simply aren’t excited about portraying a purely utopian future (I wouldn’t be the first to point out that the original “Utopia” might itself have been a satire). Even while we as a society more and more often grow to believe some form of a peaceful, technologically-enabled future is possible (the impending threat of a Donald Trump presidency aside), that vision fails to inspire the minds of our artists.
One needs only look to the newest record from ANOHNI (neé Antony, of Antony and the Johnsons) to see the reaction by a “true artist” to our current times. She’s taken the anxiety of OK Computer and blown it out into a full-scale dystopia. 2016’s highest-profile release to focus on The Future is probably her debut record Hopelessness. If the record’s title didn’t tip you off, its outlook is a huge fucking bummer. In its lead single, “Four Degrees,” the singer portrays herself as some sort of supervillainesque dictator, using global warming as a lever to destroy the world, proclaiming “I wanna burn the sky, I wanna burn the breeze/I wanna see the animals die in the trees.” Another song is called “Drone Bomb Me,” which is about, you guessed it, the dehumanizing nature of warfare conducted through robotic proxy. This is an album that certainly has a lot of thoughts about the future, but optimism definitely isn’t one of them.
Listening to Hopelessness back-to-back against Neon Future is actually quite fascinating. It’s impossible not to see (or, I guess, hear) their similarities — both fascinated by sonic texture and detail, both clearly grappling with the questions that will confront our children more than they affect our lives today. Hell, their cover art is even kinda similar. But despite Aoki being the one who’s excited about the future, Hopelessness proves a far more exciting listen. It’s gorgeous, intensely creepy, and profoundly weird. The positive message is, sadly, less interesting than the dire one.
It’s very possible, however, that Aoki is simply the wrong vessel for a very interesting, and relevant, thought: he’s almost 40 years old, producing a genre of music that is mostly out of vogue, even among the hardcore EDM scene (it’s also possible that this utopian vision is only accessible to a primarily white, hetero, male, upper-class audience, but that is beyond the scope of this little essay). It seems like now, more than ever, we should be primed to see the emergence of some group of young experimenters, emerging from a garage somewhere in Palo Alto not with a new type of compression engine, but with an album that captures all of the zeal and enthusiasm for the future that so many people (including myself) seem to feel. Until then, I recommend asking a DJ friend to make you some mashups of TEDx Talks and Neo-Disco classics, sit back, and dream of a brighter tomorrow.