“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature. CD distortion, the jitteriness of digital video, the crap sound of 8-bit – all of these will be cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided. It’s the sound of failure: so much modern art is the sound of things going out of control, of a medium pushing to its limits and breaking apart. The distorted guitar sound is the sound of something too loud for the medium supposed to carry it. The blues singer with the cracked voice is the sound of an emotional cry too powerful for the throat that releases it. The excitement of grainy film, of bleached-out black and white, is the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.”
— Brian Eno (1995)
I quit my job at the movie theater the evening of December 31st, 1999. I was too young and too cool to be ringing in the end of civilization at some minimum wage popcorn jockey post. I would land on my feet. Besides, a New Year’s party had been planned at the pond on the far end of my parents’ property. A bit of a freak scene had developed around the pond. A social experiment that included rednecks, gangsters, hippies and college kids—disparate cliques I had gathered in the eclectic spirit of the times. These raucous bonfire tailgate parties were primarily scored to rap and outlaw country. Communal music. At the stroke of midnight, safely distanced from civilization, we raised our respective beverages to David Allan Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”. The radio cheerfully reported no funny business worldwide. No airplanes falling from the sky. No skyscrapers collapsing like the end of Fight Club. That would happen nearly two years later.
In the early hours of the twenty-first century, after a botched New Year’s kiss followed by mass consumption of grass and booze, the real up-to-the-minute far out jams found their way into a Chevy Silverado CD player. Jams that, if one wasn’t on a particular wavelength, would have warranted an “I’ma head out” from peripheral hangers on. As some post-rock non-song or twitchy IDM lilted over the dying embers of the fire, my mind was abuzz with potentialities. This was a new year, new decade, new century, new millennium. It really felt like tomorrow had arrived, like no time since then has felt. If you were there and as cocked as I was.
Real quick, rate my 19 year-old fit: humongous Abercrombie and Fitch parachute cargo pants both perfectly functional and purely decorative. Messy Tyler Durden hair. Vintage snap button cowboy shirt snatched from dad’s closet. Johnny Knoxville gas station rack aviators. Mister Y2Kool. But back to the music.
Thanks to Napster and a newly acquired external CD burner, my inchoate audiophilia received an “I know kung-fu” knowledge booster. Multiple musical educations were happening concurrently. “Top Twenty Albums of the 20th Century” lists were being plundered at 56k modem speed. All music recommendations were welcomed (I hate that now), even requested! I studied the end credits of High Fidelity with pen and pad, jotting down every song title. My thirst for mp3s was insatiable, completely indifferent to era or genre. But a certain preference was taking shape. There was a leaning toward boundary pushing new artists like Sigur Rós, Björk, Clinic, At the Drive In and Aphex Twin. Rando shit I could catch my druggie friends off guard with. Shit to put on at the pond in a three a.m. haze.
It would be disingenuous to omit a few embarrassing overlaps from this formative period. For every Spin approved select cut in my growing library of stolen valor there was a Dave Matthews or ironic white boy rock cover of a gangster rap song to counter it. It was a messy trajectory, wrought with incongruous subcultural intersections. There were sociological pleasure trips to honkytonk clubs, jam band shows, a rave in an Oklahoma City shopping center supplemented by bogus ecstasy.
In the fall of ‘00, OutKast’s Stankonia and Radiohead’s Kid A were released, two futuristic avant pop records that would define this micro-era that ran from about ‘98 to ‘02. The bouncy barbecue of Stankonia was warmly digestible compared to the cold vichyssoise of Kid A. Stankonia’s expansive palette and syrupy hyperspace lyrical flow felt like a house party at The Jetson’s. Kid A, though equally innovative, had a much more glum vision of tomorrow. A nagging collective feeling had been building over the year. Wait—was it collective? Was it just me? Was this despair a result of failing half my classes first semester of community college? What was it that felt so timely about the sci-fi melancholy of A.I.? A film you could probably sync Kid A to, Wizard of Oz/Dark Side of the Moon style. Maybe the books I was reading (Alex Garland, Chuck Palahniuk) were giving me collapsing infrastructure jitters. Kid A(nxiety) located this uncertainty and provided the musical correlate. Having developed a taste for radical departures, I was primed to have my mind blown by Radiohead’s direction post OK Computer. My expectations were met. The state of the art arrangements were beautiful, brutal, aching. Look, enough has been said and written about this band but they captured the zeitgeist in late ‘00 more than anyone else. I know. I was there. I bought Kid A at Hastings the day it came out. I watched them perform on SNL (with host Kate Hudson) that fall. And I lucidly recall seeing the video for “Idioteque” late one night after having smoked a blunt with a friend. An extremely low res quality performance captured by early digital cameras, my friend and I sat rapt, terrified by the video’s energy and Thom Yorke’s tantrum dance over sinister beats. Having given up the weed for over ten years, I now associate its psychochemical effects with first gen digital, seen elsewhere in Harmony Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Michael Winterbottom’s 24 Hour Party People. World becomes abstracted to pixels. Senses taking everything in at miniDV speed. Mental time codes skipping. The “Idioteque” video, A.I.’s fairytale dystopia, the mellowharsh double feature of Requiem For A Dream + Dancer In the Dark, all stylised descents into darkness that seem very prescient now in retrospect.
MTV2 was an aesthetic incubator for this type of audiovisual experimentation. In its early incarnation, the channel was free-to-air in my region and more alternative tailored than its flagship big brother on cable. The space age bodega vibe, pluralistic rotation and still hip to this day network bumpers made you feel like all culture was collapsing in on itself in an artful, non-social engineered way. This was no diversity mandate, this was organic eclecticism.
By spring of ‘01 I had gotten hired on at the rowdier, more low key movie theater across the street from my previous employer. The assistant manager was a high school acquaintance and after the closing shift the young staff would partake of marijuana on the roof and hang out in the office watching MTV2 for hours, frequently feasting on Grandy’s we traded stacks of free admission tickets for.
The rest of TV land had been in a vacuum since Seinfeld ended in ‘98. Along with other monumental shows of the decade: The Simpsons, Twin Peaks and MST3K, Seinfeld had transcended its medium by fully exploring and subverting its tropes. There was nothing left to say. A hard break with the past was needed. In Jackass there was comedy deconstructed to its basest, most primal form. The show was a loose collection of raw gags and violent hijinks liberated from narrative, descended from fish eye lensed skate video culture. In the novel new category of reality show (Survivor, The Osbornes, The Simple Life) security cam voyeurism depicted outrageous but real characters. And over on Adult Swim’s programming block, an irreverent, absurdist sensibility arose to meet a growing market of late night college age stoners in sore need of WTF random jollies.
TV was recharged with new energy and the tunes continued to flow freely thanks to peer to peer client LimeWire stepping up when Napster went defunct in July of 2001. Movies, outside the complimentary bottomless big screen viewings at my job, still had to be acquired by physical means. That summer I saved up some scratch and purchased my first DVD player, a beautiful pewter Magnavox. My movie collection grew and grew. Criterion had only been releasing DVDs for a few years and their early output was the height of the medium. Director’s commentaries, deleted scenes and other supplementary materials exhibited the unique qualities of this newfangled home video format. On my Magnavox I was watching so many great films of the past and thanks to workplace perks I was privy to every single new release coming out on the big screen. Knowledge: increasing.
On Thursdays at the theater, the film cans containing new movies would arrive. The reels would have to be previewed to ensure the film was in pristine condition thus fit for public consumption, so as soon as the theater closed, we would lock up, string up, get high, crack open beers and watch flicks all night long. Like the motley happenings at the pond, preview nights turned into huge bacchanals. All sorts of fringe weirdos from our social circle began showing up and the theater soon became an after hours speakeasy. Drinking, drugging, fucking behind the concession stand. It was high times. I would probably still be working there, twenty years on, if the establishment hadn’t closed nine months later.
Y2-comedown. Dot com bubble burst. Dopamine depleting. Friend in psych ward after ecstasy overdose. Monday, September 10th, 2001, I was up late stoned watching DVDs with friends. Could it have been The Graduate or Midnight Cowboy? I was getting into early Hoffman around this time. The next morning I was deep in the throes of xanax assisted slumber when my hysterical mother came crashing into my room around eight thirty CST. Hungover, I watched the second tower fall on TV as I refreshed the AOL news page. That night as I drove with friends to go pick up a dime bag, Amnesiac was issuing doom through the car speakers. The drug dealer was talking about the seven seals of Revelation. The end of the end of history had commenced.
Later that month I pirated a bootleg of The Strokes’ Is This It. The tracklist was not in order so the first song I ever heard of theirs was “Hard To Explain”. Over the course of the angular, lo-fi new wave garage rock track, my jeans grew tighter. My hair grew shaggier. An impressionable lad had found a new sound and a new look. When the movie theater-cum-party clubhouse was shuttered in 2002, I took a job at a jukebox repair/rental/record shop. I cleaned up old machines and loaded them with music for events, weddings and reunions. I had blossomed into a full on hipster, surrounded by vintage technology and media that just felt “more real, more authentic”. I had looked long and hard at the transgressive, serious, cutting edge works of the early aughts and decided to retreat into the past with the rest of the culture.
The pushing of mediums to their furthest possibilities resulted in an outrunning of the technology that defined their parameters. Surmounting societal dread triggered a collective regression into fuzzy, comforting nostalgia. Old was new. Irony was dead. The wired, edgy Fight Club was so last century. In was the idiosyncratic The Royal Tenenbaums, a symmetrically composed metropolitan dramady directed by Wes Anderson. Anderson was an effete overachiever who crammed his films with vintage songs, clothing, gadgetry, throwback fixations of all kinds. His stories were set in a niminy-piminy version of the modern world that was impossible to place in a specific time. Is This It and The Royal Tenenbaums exemplified a burgeoning retro New York cool. New moods for new moderns.
It’s not Anderson’s fault he was so good at twee that he transcended it, where none of his imitators were able to. But the number of people dressed up as characters from his movies at Halloween alarmed me to a growing trend. Come mid ‘00s, a host of Anderscentric content was being pumped out. Amélie, Garden State, Juno, Arrested Development and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind all cashed in on a millennial demand for affected works about sensitive characters struggling to cast off childhood. Aside from meticulously curated soundtracks and quirky wardrobe, they usually featured oblivious misfits (Napoleon Dynamite, Dwight Schrute), safer versions of Dawn Weiner, Mark Borchardt or Ghost World’s Seymour whom we could affectionately laugh at from an aesthetic distance. Everything had gotten too precious for my liking. Wasn’t all this stuff a kind of escape from the surveillance state, wars in the Middle East, anthrax scares? No one wanted to face the present, let alone the future.
The mass egress into a mythical late twentieth century outside of history was also happening in music and fashion. The Strokes’ back to basics, anachronistic take on rock influenced dozens of bands. Tech utopian chic was outro. In were groups that looked and sounded like they could have come from anywhere but the present moment. Bands you listened to on an iPod who went around pretending iPods didn’t exist.
At first I regarded this slow cancellation of the future as a victory lap. A comprehensive evaluation of the previous four decades, demonstrated with the speed and ease at which one could now research a look, a sound, a big mood. Google had usurped the public library, the street expedition, the crate dig. People were becoming walking avi’s with cut and pasted fashion from former epochs. From electroclash to post punk revival to freak folk, there was a race to achieve total authenticity by means of recreation. Natural pleasure of imitation writ large. Analogue recording techniques and vintage equipment further deepened this time confusion. It was a fun reprieve, I don’t care what Mark Fisher said. The tunes were good, the shows were a blast, the musicians looked cool and the singers had cool voices. Peak pop culture victory lap would be The White Stripes’ Fell In Love With A Girl, a song recorded on outdated equipment, performed by an ex husband and wife duo pretending to be siblings and dressed like ‘60s go-go dancers, replete with Michel Gondry directed stop motion music video made with Legos. Twee as fuck.
As the ‘00s carried on, this tendency would degenerate into a Zooey Deschanel facsimile of indie-ness that would infect everything from ukulele scored antidepressant commercials to children’s television. By the early 2010s, the hipster proclivity for perfect taste and perfect presentation would fall out of fashion and a new wave of radically transparent hot messes such as Kanye, Lena Dunham and Trump would emerge alongside the oversharing apparatus of social media and a rising tide of political correctness 2.0. Thanks Obama.
The last big pond bonfire convergence happened in September of 2003—a going away party. I was moving to California for college proper and in a few short days would be loading up my DVDs and mp3s and lighting out west. This night was the end of an era. I don’t overly pine for those unsure, naive days of yore, when everything for but a brief moment was scored to drum ‘n bass music. When even fonts looked unbelievably futuristic. But sometimes I do wonder where Missy Elliott disappeared to in her flying car. Sure, that blobby iMac VW New Beetle world was repellant in its own way, but it seems more innocent, more oblivious than the exceedingly self conscious times we’re wading through now. I get it. That’s just how the halcyon thing works. But I maintain that those were the last truly futuristic years. Excesses of any period fade into kitsch but the items I covered here remain strikingly ahead of their time and have sadly not been surpassed.
Now firmly installed in the streaming age we leave behind certain textures and tactile sensations that can’t be replicated. There’s no commitment of choice in this age, we are free to browse the aisles and consider the options forever. In doing so we take great works for granted because of their deceptively perpetual availability. On a societal scale, most of the strides we seem to be making are nothing more than LARPs trotted out to simulate a false sense of momentum. Could be I’m just overlooking the magnificence of smart cars, phone apps and technological breakthroughs in cannabis consumption. In the way of convenience industry innovations there have been great leaps in keeping the stressful lives of the downwardly mobile effectively pacified. Instant accessibility, which I was a naive early champion of, hasn’t done much for deep appreciation. A fatigue has set in.
I’m still out here in 2021 trying to cultivate a pondside state of mind. I continue to chase after that rush of the vitally relevant and support it when I find it. There have been fashion-forward contemporary works that have raised my hackles but not in the way that bullet time or “Bombs Over Baghdad” did twenty years ago. A genuine novelty we do seem to be currently experiencing is a boom in independent tastemaking via online personalities and podcasts creating new canons and curriculums for cultural thrillseekers. The tradition of the formidable record store/bookstore/movie theater oracle is alive and well in these sumptuous takes and DIY dispatches which point a way forward, beyond the modern horror of the critical aggregation site. This monastic order of authentic non-bug hipness upholds a criteria of uttering taboo truths, reaching for something more gnarly and transcendent than the current antiseptic or faux-transgressive contentscape, and engaging with challenging work that re-mystifies through boredom, provocation and formal distinction outside the conformist court of public opinion. A faithful remnant of online aesthetes combined with a kind of nervous system ketosis and rejection of neo-liberal focus group media could guide us back to that millennial morning crackling with possibilities.
We might also need to accept a sobering reality. Not trying to bum anyone out here but what if we really have exhausted all aesthetic potentials. Can this gig go on forever? Maybe the total flattening democratization of art has made it impossible for the rare and the beautiful to rise above the glut of mediocre noise gumming up the platforms. What if technology as a creative tool has reached its final form? All that’s left are variations on pre-existing themes, with diminishing returns. Perhaps it won’t be global cataclysm that finally summons the benevolent aliens out of hiding to aid our troubled planet. Maybe, well aware of this growing crisis of inspiration, fleets of UFOs will appear with the sole mission of revivifying the collective consciousness. To offer us new tools and modes of expression previously undreamed of. It’s this or: we truly are nearing an end, all significant corners of the human condition have been explored and expressed, and it’s time to set the canvas aside and start preparing ourselves for an omega point beyond the countless cycles of death and rebirth, suffering and suffering converted into expression. Dunno, only speculating.
There have been weary eras in the past, lulls before gigantic bursts of industrious creative activity. Look no further than the incredible music created in the UK in the late ‘70s through the ‘80s, during an end-of-empire period of recession and social decay in that country. It’s not in my power to will a renaissance into being but I can be prepared as best I can to seize on the moment should it arrive. To ride the wave, be able to define it, and be able to make my own contribution.
— The Eternal Dillard’s has a Twitter account.