Witch house 2

Now that witch house acts have moved from singles to albums – from 10 to 100 MB folders – it’s time to see how the mysticism is holding up. When caught by the light, dust motes can be beautiful for a brief moment. But the grey powder lying on furniture and neglected books is dull, everyday dust and nothing more.

As I wrote last year, the obfuscations – the tactics of illegibility and name/facelessness – of witch house was somewhat radical in the context of the facebook-dominated web. The common complaint from older generations has been that, in the past, you had to hunt for music in out-of-the-way record shops, you never knew very much about bands and things were mysterious, intriguing – whereas now all information is as far away as the next mouse click. By making themselves difficult to google, witch house acts were trying to fuck with this instant knowledge.

But as they get better known, little details, names and photos start to leak out. The withheld information that made them interesting can’t be kept secret forever and if nothing else of interest is given to take its place, then we’re left with the sense that “[t]hese hidden secrets are a sleight of hand, because there is no solid meaning, only mysticism.

Another way that these acts have tried to take control of their sonic fiction away from the greedy guts of the internet memory hole is by rationing their output. Young groups now tend to release something new every couple of months, filling up zip files with rough mixes, putting out anything and everything constantly. Witch house acts tend to at most release a handful of singles, maybe an album and some mixes. They’re not exactly digital ascetics, but most of them are careful about what gets released into cyberspace. As Masha Tupitsyn writes in the introduction to her book LACONIA,

“While the Internet gives all of us the opportunity to communicate and create, to comment and respond, it’s also obscured a more important criterion: What is it that we need to say and what is it that we don’t? What helps us with our work and our life and what distracts from it? What is necessary and what simply clutters up the world? In other words, how much “art” do we really need?”

A criticism to be levelled at witch house is that the music has no greater substance than a tumblog – a vague collection of images to be scrolled down then forgotten – or internet aural wallpaper. One gets the feeling that witchausers make music not for ecstatic transformation, but just as something to listen to while reading hipster runoff. But I’m a) not sure that this is true and b) not sure that the musical equivalent of a tumblog is a priori a bad thing. Witch house is undoubtedly music for the internet, but unlike listening to classic rock (or whatever) while aimlessly skim-reading, witch house is designed to make things strange, to make staring at a glowing box all night a little bit creepy.

One aspect of the whole thing that reminds me of tumblogs is the ventriloquizing of surface identities. Witchausers – who tend to be male – use femininity and blackness like a blog of photos. Blackness in witch house is pure surface, a grotesqued sample (to the extent that some WH acts have been accused of minstrelry). Femininity is more embodied through group membership and/or voice – you don’t hear a lot of young white male voices from these acts populated with young white males… This sort of ventriloquizing has a long history, one not confined to sampling. On the role(s) of the female Surrealists, Kate Zambreno has written that they were “[d]efined by spoken utterances” and that “the Surrealist aesthetic of automatic writing seems to suggest that the woman’s radical spoken utterances are not art or writing in and of themselves, but that an author is needed to edit and repeat, to shape and discipline.” (my italics)

To find out if witch house is “necessary” (Tupitsyn) we have to ask: What kind of mysticism are we dealing with? Is it the glittery mysticism of PR hype or is it a deeper kind of mysticism, one of ritual experience? A quick answer would be that it’s both – that it’s still in flux, unfinished. The question is complicated by another one: Are there internet ritual experiences?

For all their occultation of personal info, witchausers aren’t particularly magical. They don’t ever seem to go that far – there’s a reaching towards belief that they can’t quite grasp, they can’t quite break away from the safety of irony. You’re never sure if witch house isn’t on the level of a fashion magazine tableaux; models dressed up in occult-looking garb all the while thinking about nothing but cocaine and themselves. It’s not that the witchery of witch house has to be ‘real’; it’s that irony allows the participants a get-out clause. When witch house becomes uncool, they can shrug their shoulders and laugh, “It was just a joke, man”.

If witch house became about fervent, fanatical belief then it might really scare the shit out of everyone.


The greatest hits of R&B: The-Dream’s Love trilogy

The-Dream makes pastiche that stands out as inauthentic even in a world of academic pop and R&B. In one song he’s squeaking like Michael, the next he’s getting knee-deep like Kelly, in another he synths like Prince. His gestures and tics should come with an index of references. Every song is like a karaoke performance; his singing is imitation, amateur. His lyrics are often trite to the extreme – “on planes that fly” – and when not standard loverman tropes of shack up and break up, revolve around the most banal activities: shopping, drinking and the V.I.P. section.

And yet. And yet The-Dream’s greatest-hits-of-R&B act has created a fascinating and inventive series of song-cycles. He has somehow managed to throw everything at the wall and make it stick. His concept-heavy albums have songs with themes that fall twisted on top of one another, whose structures expand and contract the possibilities of R&B.

For all his posturing and boasts, in videos he seems like a shy geek hiding under his hat, collar and sunglasses. He looks like a cartoon spy or the Invisible Man. It’s like he has to make up for his belly and jowls by working on the body of his songs instead. And some of those bodies are beautiful. Every album so far has featured love songs loosely revolving around a theme, first Love Hate, followed by Love vs Money, then Love King. Within each album there are usually one or two tight song cycles, songs that bleed sonically and lyrically into each other. Love King’s outrageous Prince pastiche ‘Yamaha’ – about the thrill of a new relationship – runs seamlessly into ‘Nikki pt. 2’, where this new romantic situation is complicated by the return of an old flame. Dream’s meta-narrative runs deep, as the Nikki of the title featured in Love Hate (the first album) and refers to his real life ex-wife. ‘Yamaha’ starts with Dream chatting a girl up with “Don’t know your name, little mama” and near the end, without warning, becomes about Nikki (“still got your name tattooed on my back”) then – as if the song doesn’t notice – continues being about the new girl until breaking into ‘Nikki pt. 2’ with “Nikki I miss you”. That song, wistful and remonstrative, slides directly into the anger of ‘Abyss’, where Nikki can “cry till you drown your face” for “it’s all because of you”.

These song cycles are Dream’s bread and butter. They seem explicitly designed to be listened to in order as part of an album and don’t work as well as youtube videos. Love vs Money’s title track packs a punch with the bitter line “wanted to take you home to my Mama” because it was said so open-heartedly in ‘Take U Home 2 My Mama’ a few songs earlier. But his masterpiece is a song that can stand alone (although it too shifts seamlessly into its successor). ‘Fancy’ is a six minute, slow building meditation on the high life, a song about “diamond rings and all those things”. Over a languid, hazy rhythm, the narrator tries to convince us and himself that he is happy with his lover and his wealth. The song is ostensibly about a girl, a “fancy” girl that Dream is spending this numbed bliss with. It starts with sweetness and excuses: “she made her way from nothing/can’t fault her for wanting something/she loves men that can afford”, but as the hollowness of their lives and their love becomes more inescapable – “She’s with me because she wanna live fancy/I’m with her because she’s beautiful” – the music starts to snap out of its reverie and when the beat finally drops the heavy 4×4 climaxes with… sparkles. The niggling sensation that everything is not right takes over and we go from the champagne laziness of ‘Fancy’ to the painful heartbreak of ‘Right Side of My Brain’.

But after all that the derivative charge still stands. It just may be that The-Dream is one of the few real world examples of the postmodern conceit that a clusterfuck of references can create something that transcends those references. And while Dream’s lyrics are often truly ridiculous (the stand out has to be in the aforementioned ‘Yamaha’ where Dream says to his girl “Police hate us/Why?/Because they never seen a girl with an ass so fat”) his delivery can make simple lines heartbreaking. ‘Mr. Yeah’ starts like a throw away with Dream boasting that “my publisher love when I do this”, but quickly turns into the humble admission of the cuckolded narrator that “you can always come back”. Just the soft, plaintive way he says “yeah” at the end of this song makes my heart melt. Pleasingly he cuts through the treacle at the last moment by adding “can we fuck now?” in the same sad voice.

The-Dreams albums are like an intricately structured trip through R&B past and present. Dream would be notable if he was only the co-writer and co-producer of two of the best big-hit songs of recent years (‘Umbrella’ and ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’) but his willingness to experiment with song cycles could open the door to a whole new R&B. Just a new R&B that is strangely antiquarian.

What witchery is this?

Witch house is almost a taboo subject. One of the problems with commenting on this sort of activity is that it is designed to be over at just the point where people start talking about it to this degree. It is designed to self destruct and become unspeakable again. Before, it was unspeakable because it was unknown, soon (now?) it will be unspeakable because you should know it by now. You should know better.
The secretive nature of these music projects is their raison d’etre. Make no mistake; these are occult endeavours.

Witch house is one of those internet genres that has many names. Its practitioners are very concerned with obfuscation and of being hidden. Naming and language play an important part. Individual projects have various or unpronounceable names, track titles are either symbols or scrambled text. Photos of members aren’t common and artwork and lyrical themes portend to hidden meanings. These hidden secrets are a sleight of hand, because there is no solid meaning, only mysticism.

Those who have been grouped under the witch house umbrella tend to be young, so they have already been dismissed as “hipsters”. This tall poppy mentality explains the secretive nature of witchausers. Once one becomes a known entity, one can be reduced to a word. So much of witch house is an attempt to avoid becoming language and to reside in ritual instead. A perfect example of this is the HTML triangle (▲), the use of which has become trendy of late and also very much associated with witch house as it is a favoured symbol of these unconsciously associated acts. The triangle was used because it had no direct meaning, but could symbolise anything and was vaguely occult-looking (it is, after all, a pyramid). Overuse has now inevitably made it a cliché. It now does have a meaning; as a symbol of hipster conformity and emptiness. This is why witch house is occult.

Language is scrambled or concealed in witch house. Vocals are rarely untreated and no sound is “natural”. Images are either brash cut ups or photos where light obscures any subject. An aura of gloom and drugs hangs around, sticky like syrup. The music is somewhere between DJ Screw and black metal [1], the “wrong” type of production dominating human songs, synthesising the human into the machine rather than vice-versa.
These occultist musickers channel anxiety and hedonism into ritual. In the spirit of these rituals of occulting language, let’s call witchausers – and “hipsters” in general – by the symbol that they embraced because it meant nothing; ▲.
The use in ▲ of magickal-style ritual is an attempt to escape chronic self-consciousness. The ideology of magick perfectly suits the “hipster”. It’s not difficult to see the “hipster” as an aristocratic adept, researching and hoarding secret knowledge in his ivory tower – and of course, occult language is very important in both magick and ▲. The word “hipster” itself is a kind of spell with its own, secret logic. To call someone a “hipster” is to curse them with being uncool. “Hipster” is an old fashioned word for someone who is “hip”. Using this ancient honourific is meant to satirically expose a person for trying too hard and being out of touch. The use of the word “hipster” is always sarcastic. The spell works both to curse the receiver and imply that the caster is the true adept. The caster of the “hipster” curse is speaking from a higher position of occult knowledge; she can see that the receiver is not a true adept precisely because she is one. There can be no word for the true adept as the true adept must remain hidden, un-named.
Try to pronounce these names of witch house projects in your mouth: oOoOO, ///▲▲▲\\\, †‡†, Gr†LLGR†LL, ℑ⊇≥◊≤⊆ℜ [2]. Not only do they confound pronunciation, but many of them confound search engines themselves. This is a deliberately occult act. The desire to be invisible to search engines comes from a desire to lengthen the ever more brief life of subcultural capital minutiae. These people are hiding in plain sight.

Paradoxically, these bands become invisible to a new form of mass culture (the search engine) by making use of an old form of mass culture (the logo). If we look at the fate of the HTML triangle symbol, we can see that even something designed to be hidden – the meaning of which is occult and beyond language – can be uncovered, identified and exposed as empty and obvious. As soon as the symbol is no longer occult, it takes on meaning and becomes stupid; it becomes a joke. More than that, it becomes another trap for the non-adept to trip over. It becomes another curse.
But there is more to these rituals than just obfuscation. The spooky synths, spikey high solos and ghost/demon voices are meant to summon up spirits for a séance. As these musical entities operate and form online, the space that they are haunting is the internet. A computer screens artificial glow causes its users to stay up late into the night – and it’s for 3am that this music is made. Like the endless, decontextualised images on a tumblog, witch house moves through the internet unburdened by meaning. Haunting the listener with guesses and (only ever implied) significance, this music glides through the gargantuan network of meaning and language that is the web.

Like a drug, witch house is all effect with no cause. But it has a purpose: to make you think without language. For now.

[1] Especially Les Légions Noires. Note the similarly unpronounceable names, secretiveness and creepy atmospherics.
[2] and there is already a parody entity “called” ▼□■□■□■