We all have moments like that. Some come out of nowhere, without an easily identifiable trigger. Some are clearly the product of crisis, the sudden realisation that too many things are going wrong to feel right.
This time, the war in Ukraine was weighing on my mind. But the source for my existential panic was deeper and less defined. It had to do with my despair at the return of feelings I had boxed up long ago.
Here I was listening to music from a microgenre, dreampunk, that tries to conjure a more compelling future, while being pulled back into a past I had been happy to leave behind. And the result was temporary paralysis.
I stepped off the trail, found a large rock to sit on, and forced myself to breathe more slowly. I listened to the birds, already raucous with spring, and the sounds of a creature making its way through the underbrush in the dry streambed below me.
Then I touched the tip of my finger to my sport-style Bluetooth headphones and turned the record back on. Maybe, instead of using music to block out what was troubling me, I could find a way to confront it: Mooncup could serve as a window instead of a wall.
The track “Jesus Is Inside Me” was just beginning. Against a background of soft hissing, I heard sounds that reminded me of being underwater: a slightly hesitant swell, corkscrewing through the bed; periodic radar-like pinging; an electronic harp or two, being brushed back and forth.
I thought of floating. I pictured the large wave machine that graces the vast apartment of Gorodish in the movie Diva. I saw myself striding purposefully down the halls of the starship Enterprise.
Still, I never lost touch with my surroundings. The sun went behind an outcropping, leaving me in shade. As I turned to watch the granite face of the ridge grow redder, I realised that I had put my distraction behind. I was elsewhere and I was still there.
There are times when concentrating on culture feels like a retreat from politics, a way of tuning out the pain we cannot bear to witness. But that’s precisely when politics is most blatantly cultural.
While sharing poems, pictures of sunflowers, or the video of a little girl singing “Let It Go” in Ukrainian from a bomb shelter may seem like political acts, they all fall within the domain of cultural expression.
Even calls to boycott Russian goods, or shaming corporations like McDonald’s and Coca-Cola to forego business as usual do not qualify as politics in any traditional sense.
Culture is what we turn to when we can’t achieve our goals through rational deliberation, when we are unable to communicate directly. Unfortunately, we struggle to recognise this compensatory aspect.
The more heated the conflict, the less opportunity there is for deliberation, the harder it is to perceive cultural activity for what it is.
That’s why we feel pressure to avoid spending time on anything that strays from the subjects dominating the news. Changing our social media icon to blue and yellow feels important; going to see the new Batman movie does not.
It makes sense. As I sat on my rock, though, listening to the music of wetcatsmell, I was forcefully reminded of the need to set aside time for culture that isn’t focused on the present conjuncture.
Not only because it does us good to get away, if only in our minds, but because experiencing that kind of culture draws attention to all the cultural activity that gets passed off as something else.
My plan for this week had been to discuss Mooncup in relation to the overlapping microgenres it both represents and artfully resists, dreampunk and vaporwave.
The rise of streaming services has made it possible for consumers to classify and rearrange vast quantities of music, creating new categories which, though initially amorphous, nevertheless provide the foundation for producers to make new music that shores up their boundaries.
Although plenty of music that makes its way onto dreampunk and vaporwave-themed playlists still dates from a time before streaming, more and more of it derives from the work of musicians who are self-consciously invoking those microgenres.
While the process itself isn’t new – funk and punk both resulted from this type of impulse – it plays out much faster in the era of streaming, when it is possible to sort and reclassify vast quantities of music without the burden of securing financial or institutional access to content.
You can create your own playlist suited to any mood or topic and share it with others, just because you feel the urge. If a “Ukrainian War Soundtrack” featuring Kanye West, Mr Bungle, and Nirvana seem like a good idea, you can make one in a matter of minutes.
For that matter, you can take thirty songs off a long dreampunk playlist and create a new one called “Ukrainian War Soundtrack”. No one is going to stop you. Unless, that is, you live somewhere where access to streaming services has been cut off.
These days, that’s what freedom seems to mean: provisional access to a vast amount of content that can be lost at a moment’s notice. What can’t be taken away so easily is the memory of having had this access before it was suspended.
Somewhere right now, Russians are making new music that could be classified as dreampunk or vaporwave and that hopefully will be, once normalised relations with the virtual West have been restored.
Compared with the suffering of the Ukrainian people, or the Afghan, Syrian, or Iraqi people before them, their plight seems insignificant, perhaps even ridiculous. But we shouldn’t underestimate the psychological impact of living in a world where so much of what we care about can be taken away so easily.
After I had regrouped, I left the rock where I had been resting and continued my hike, alternating between different tracks on Mooncup and various dreampunk and vaporwave playlists. As I listened, I began to sense the relationship between the record and its influences on a more intuitive level.
I was particularly taken by how wetcatsmell seemed to deviate from the norms of those microgenres. How “Saltlick”, possibly my favourite track on the record, seemed to turn the sweepingly cinematic vibe of foundational dreampunk by the likes of HKE inside out, bringing its rhythmic underpinnings into sharp relief.
Or how several tracks integrate the early videogame sounds referenced by vaporwave into an aesthetic that resists the lures of easy nostalgia.
I decided to reach out to May, one of the band’s four members – only she and Adam worked together on Mooncup — to find out more about their feelings about the record and its relationship with the history of those microgenres.
“Mooncup is a really strange album in my eyes, because my own personal life shaped the music massively. When we started writing it, around October, I wasn’t out as trans. Since then, I have left my partner of five years, had my home broken into and my possessions trashed. I’ve lost many friends, moved houses, and started dating my bandmate. So much change has happened to me and around me. I think it shaped the album massively. It’s a relic or a testament from a really turbulent and unbelievable time, with crazy highs and lows.”
Although the record doesn’t sound to me like standard dreampunk, May made it clear that the wetcatsmell project began with fandom. Despite having very little in the way of connections or following, May was able to get her favourite label Dream Catalogue – the one most responsible for dreampunk developing into a sustainable microgenre – to release Mooncup by asking its impresario Lucid to do so over and over on Twitter.
The legitimacy of being on a “real” label soon led to Riz and The Monarch joining the band and is now making it possible to put together a physical release of Mooncup that will include remixes by other artists. It’s a great example of how perseverance – and not a little luck – can help a project that starts from nothing gain traction faster than would have been possible before the streaming era.
It would have been almost impossible for me to discover wetcatsmell and ask May questions about the band without the access that Bandcamp and Twitter make possible. Although achieving musical legitimacy can still be a challenge – Dream Catalogue’s seal of approval was huge for Mooncup – it has never been easier for artists to find an appreciative audience beyond their local scene.
But the potential for instant internationalism depends on factors behind the control of almost all of us. As diverse as the communities that form around microgenres like dreampunk and vaporwave are, they are always in danger of becoming more exclusive, as access to them is restricted by political and financial impediments.
We should not underestimate the impact that the war in Ukraine will have on the technologically dependent freedoms we too easily take for granted. What is happening in Russia – however necessary it seems to those of us who oppose the war and support the self-determination of the Ukrainian people – can all too easily happen here as well.
Indeed, it is already happening, to millions and millions of people whose financial struggles are preventing them from staying connected. Unless access to the Internet, in all its permutations, starts getting treated as a human right, we will continue to exist in a state of cultural precarity, our opportunities for transporting ourselves elsewhere at the mercy of corporations that want us to pay a monthly subscription to retain access to the culture that makes life bearable.
The world we want is the one where artists like wetcatsmell can make the transition from consumer to producer as painlessly as possible, so that something new and interesting can still emerge from the vast amount of culture piled up in digital archives.
“This is why we see people sampling a lot of Japanese things etc. Initially, samples like this created a sense of the unknown, the mysterious or even things like globalisation. But once ideas become tropes they start to just mean something, because that’s what they’ve meant in previous works. I suppose it’s a fashion of sorts, an almost instant language communicating some kind of lofty and abstract ideas.”
The “almost instant language” May describes here can only achieve full effectiveness in a world where barriers to the sharing of information are being torn down instead of built up. That’s our only path forward.
“I think that the reason why dreampunk is so profound is because of how previous notions of fantasy and science fiction are now bleeding into reality. If you think about Web 3.0, the metaverse and transhumanism, and also ancient ideas like mysticism, dreampunk is almost a reflection of reality, or a soon to be reality in a prophetic sense. This is why dreampunk is compelling. It’s a rejection of the current paradigm and has no antiquity, it’s a deeper look into the world around us.”
But that reality is at risk right now. We need to remember that as we cope with this crisis and the ones that will surely follow. As we’ve seen over the past two weeks, the future May eloquently describes can be taken away from us at the flip of a switch.
The vision she articulates of a better world can only be sustained if we stay connected.
“I’d say a lot of these landscapes created in the music are more real and accurate than you’ll find anywhere else. There’s some kind of magic in the air that dreampunk is tapping into earnestly and expressing. In a way, it’s an opposite to fantasy, or fantasy with purpose. Instead of harkening back to some idyllic location, dreampunk finds beauty in truth and what is already here, or soon to be here.”
Photograph courtesy of Mirek Pruchnicki. Published under a Creative Commons license.