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.