Little Pink Nothing

I always wanted Ariel Pink’s music to do more for me. The initial allure was mostly there but ultimately I never found he was able to do much with it. His best albums never left me more than lukewarm.

I’m not just saying that because he’s now being (reasonably) treated as persona non-grata since he and John Maus were spotted at last week’s putsch, or because of his pathetic interview on Tucker Carlson. Pink has had credible allegations of abuse swirling around him for years, and he’s never really bothered refuting his scummy statements on race and gender. It hasn’t been easy to take him seriously for a while now. Nonetheless, saying I’m not a particularly huge fan of his music because of all of this would feel cheap. Left-wing art and politics would be a lot easier if fascists weren’t capable of making good art, but the fact is that they are, and denying that is dishonest.

No, I’m saying this because all the grief Pink is rightly receiving right now (please don’t call it a “cancellation,” that’s lazy) gives us a chance to discuss one of the most frustrating and complicated wrinkles in the never-ending discussions around hauntology. Pink is frequently credited as seminal in those loose and slippery aesthetics that came together in the mid-aughties into a cluster of overlapping (sometimes synonymous) genres. It might have been hypnagogic pop, it might have been chillwave, or it might have been simply hauntology, which some say was basically the Brits’ word for hypnagogic. Parsing genres is often tiresome.

Here’s Alex Denney ten years ago in The Quietus reviewing Pink’s Before Today:

[Jacques] Derrida’s concept of ‘hauntology’ was appropriated by writers Simon Price and Mark Fisher to describe music employing an array of aural tics to convey a nostalgic vision that’s siren-like in its seductiveness and every bit as untrustworthy. Central in all this is a sense of decay – conveyed in Pink’s music through pointedly lo-fi production and tape hiss, fragmented sequencing and warped time signatures – that nudges the listener towards an acknowledgement that none of this is real, while still allowing you to enjoy the music at ‘face value’. What Pink gives us, then, is “the reality of the lie”, as Zizek puts it…

So there we have it. The various sounds and techniques and filters and gestures, leaning into the already-happened in such a way that it is very conscious that it has already happened, and so are we. Hypnagogic pop, hauntology, chillwave, vaporwave, and the winding overlapping list continues. It always struck me as odd that Pink was lauded as such a central figure in all of this when there were other artists who more deftly captured the structure of feeling described by Denney. Artists like, say, Black Moth Super Rainbow (more on them in a minute, but I’m apparently not the only one who was confused by Pink jumping the queue in front of BMSR).

Nonetheless, the initial grab that Pink’s music provided, the pull into that space where the past never really went away, where everything simply repeated itself in the never-ending end of history, was effective. The problem was that I kept waiting for him to do something with it. Instead he wallowed in it. The hisses and imperfections, the age-warped sound, the earnest retro-ism, it all seemed to be interesting enough to him that all he needed to do was wrap himself – and us – in it. Interesting? Sure. But rarely transcendent.

This limitation is roughly analogous to the limitations (and dangers) of nostalgia itself. We miss the past, so we return to it. With how dismal the present is, and with how inconceivable the very idea of a future seems, who can blame us? The problem isn’t in the urge to revisit the past, it’s what we do when we arrive there. Some, like Ariel Pink, see it fitting to just return and stay, having fun like a kid in a sandbox because the aesthetic trappings of the time he’s visiting have been stripped from all that made living in that time complicated and trying. It is, in its own way, an dehistoricization. Always a shallow approach.

More than anything, it lacks awareness. After all, we’re in the past, but also not really, and there is something unavoidably and fascinatingly synthetic about that. One of the central characteristics of hauntological sounds, one of the whole reasons they haunt us, is because of that weird “here but shouldn’t be” starting point. The disorientation of giving ourselves into this reality of the lie is both the fun and the pathos of it.

Given this, letting the sound just sit in the past with a little bit of decay between it and us seems an odd place to stop. But that’s what Ariel Pink does. Most of his music, though processed through a lo-fi screen door of yesterday, still ultimately clings to conventional pop music structures. Strip away the ironic smugness and you could just as easily be listening to an eight-track of an unremarkable garage band you found in your uncle’s basement. Again, this makes for an interesting gesture. And Ariel Pink is free to have that be his modus operandi if he so chooses. But you can only be backward-facing for so long until you just become backward.

A primary reason we look to the past is because we feel we’ve left something behind, something unlearned or unreckoned with. We aren’t always conscious of this. It’s why hauntology isn’t enough, why it’s most interesting when it’s part of a broader aesthetic posture seeking to redeem rather than reify, to bring the old and decaying into the present. It’s a refusal to close an open casket.

An artist that straddles this gap successfully enough creates cracks in the edifice of now, and you can actually start to see something like a future. The hauntological only really comes alive as a component of what some call salvagepunk, and what I and my co-thinkers at Locust Review have taken to calling gothic futurism. The idea of the anachronism, the left behind, screaming forward into the present, despite all attempt at repression, is a wonderfully diabolical, messy, and psychedelic prospect.

Which brings us back to Black Moth Super Rainbow. Tom Fec – and we may as well include his music as Tobacco in here – and the rest of BMSR have always shown far more curiosity and creativity regarding the complexities of chronological disjoint. The heavy use of analog electronic instrumentation is full-spectrum for them. Not even the human voice manages to escape it, always and without exception processed through vocoder, an effect that once sounded like the future but now comes off as something from an alternate timeline we don’t have full access to. Not so much lo-fi of as a mysterium of “anti-fi.”

A BMSR song treats time less like a linearity, less like a slide rule with instances we can only revisit once at a time, and more like a tangled web of the discarded and unresolved, still moving and often festering. More often than not, the way these moments interact is like something out of a body horror film. The crescendos of their best songs are where the unresolved pops open, its repressed outcomes splattering across the canvas of now, revealing a tension between the (post-)human and forces altogether indifferent to the mutation they’re causing.

When I use the term “psychedelic” to describe this, I don’t just mean in the sense of drugs or mind-altering substances (though I can personally attest that seeing BMSR live while tripping balls is a lot of fun). I mean it in the Marcusian sense, of “psychedelic reason.” This is the process through which a person glimpses their own subjectivity for what it is and the different valences that have held back that subjectivity; valences which we more often than not take as granted, immutable, and eternal.

One doesn’t get that with an Ariel Pink song, at least not often enough to note. His songs revisit moments, but the moments themselves remain static and inert. This isn’t to simply compare artists, but to get a sense of what Pink’s music lacks. The freedom we experience in listening to it is very quickly withdrawn when we encounter, as we inevitably will, a top-to-bottom wall painted like the outside. Rather than the nostalgia becoming a pathway to something revelatory and self-realizing, it becomes the point itself. It is, as Holly Lewis suggests in her recent paper at Historical Materialism, an irrealism of stupefaction rather than liberation.

There are, of course, millions of others in thrall to nostalgia in this country, looking back to some fictional version of the past when things were supposedly more stable, predictable, fun so long as you stayed in your lane. Many of them are responsible for the rubble that was once a promise of a decent life. Others are standing in it and are, unfortunately, hoping against hope they can recreate the fiction. If only they could get the Blacks, the queers, the immigrants and communists out of the way. About fifteen thousand of these people turned up in Washington earlier this month under just that pretense. A few hundred managed to squeeze their way into the Capitol Building, the red carpet rolled out for them by the cops, sloppily aiming to impose the fiction through scattershot force. Most just stood outside and watched the chaos like cowards, perhaps a bit horrified at what it looks like to make a lie a reality. One of these people was Ariel Pink.

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