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Songs of the ending
Twenty-thousand years of this, seven more to go
In 1972 David Bowie released his fifth album, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. It's about an androgynous bisexual alien rock star who visit Earth immediately prior to an apocalypse, and it's one of the most culturally important texts of the last half-century. It released the character Ziggy Stardust onto the world, presaged 50 years of queer politics, and inspired, and was inspired by, the era's great rock stars – most significantly Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. It has many of Bowie's great songs, including "Moonage Daydream"; “Starman"; "Ziggy Stardust"; and "Suffragette City". It is very close to a space rock opera, and if it is, it’s an opera that opens and closes in tragedy. The final song, "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide" describes Ziggy Stardust's onstage death. The opening song, "5 Years", tracks the effects of the newsreader making the announcement that the world is about to end:
Pushing through the market square
So many mothers sighing
News had just come over
We had five years left to cry in
News guy wept and told us
Earth was really dying
Cried so much his face was wet
Then I knew he was not lying
Climate change was not on Bowie's radar in 1972 and it had been a full decade since the Bay of Pigs fiasco. The apocalypse in "5 years" is firmly posed in the range of the hypothetical. Still, with characteristic Bowie anticipation, it is posed, and the world he imagines should feel eerily familiar to listeners today. There's public violence, suicide, racial tension, marginalised sexuality, and the desperate longing for human closeness. Through it all is the expression of a kind of mental overload: "my brain hurt like a warehouse / it had no room to spare". The experience of the ending, Bowie told us, would be desperate, violent, and exhausting. And it was time, in 1972, to imagine how that might feel.
By the time I was a teenager, British men with guitars were still the centre of gravity for white popular culture. One of those men, Devonté Hynes, was a founding member of Test Icicles, a kind of noisy dance-punk outfit that was, for a brief moment, the most promising band in indie rock. This was the type of band that featured three band members, three electric guitars, three vocalists, and not much else. Such was the excitement around Test Icicles that Domino Records signed them, story has it, sight-unseen. The band went into the recording studio, did one international tour, released their album, For Screening Purposes Only, then broke up immediately. These kids released the most hyped album in a decade and then immediately walked away. Hynes was 18 at the time.
'We were never, ever that keen on the music. I understand that people liked it, but we personally, er, didn't," Hynes said back in 2006. You can imagine what this type of sentence does to a man's reputation. Test Icicles were catapulted into the upper echelon of cool. Just at the moment every music writer in the UK was poised to write their own fawning review, the official stance of the band became Oh you think our music is good? Fuck you. Our music sucks. You can still listen to that album on Spotify. It holds up.
These days Dev Hynes records under Blood Orange – a name that might be more familiar to you. Blood Orange, not Test Icicles, is the vehicle through which Hynes has had mainstream commercial success, and the identity into which he seems to have settled for good.
But neither Blood Orange nor Test Icicles were interested in what I'm calling songs of the ending. I want to talk about what Dev Hynes did in between: Lightspeed Champion. In particular, I want to talk about a single Lightspeed Champion lyric.
By 2008 Hynes had released Falling Off The Lavender Bridge, a rambling, melodramatic suite of ballads and indie folk songs. Gone are the slashing electric guitars, the screamed lyrics. In their place are piano, acoustic guitar, a string section, a crooning voice. It's about heartbreak ("All To Shit") and alienation ("Everyone I Know Is Listening to Crunk") and bad sex ("I Could Have Done This Myself"). It's the type of mid 2000s albums that is just totally raw and exposed. If the 2020s were the decade of shamelessness, the 2000s were the years without embarrassment. This was the era of emo, after all, and Hynes was interacting with a climate that rewarded and demanded unfiltered portrayals of personal distress. But for all the cringe, Falling Off The Lavender Bridge is witty, self aware, and intentional. I think it's one of the best albums of the decade.
Midway through the album is "Dry Lips", and towards the end of "Dry Lips" is a line that has been in my head, hiding in crevices, occasionally peeking out, living on the scraps of my brain for over a decade. When you read it, remember that by 2008 we were in the post 911 world. We were in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most importantly, we were beginning to internalise the reality of climate change. An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006. Here's the lyric:
I give this planet another ten years
"At least." It's a joke, of course – the listener is expecting "at most". "I give this planet another ten years" comes in the register of pessimism; "at least" comes in the register of optimism. Strictly speaking, the sentence doesn't make sense.
And so we're asked to hold in our mind two contradictory pieces of knowledge. The first is that we now live surrounded by a lingering sentiment of dread; of ending; of loss; of mourning. The second is the recognition that this dread may be our permanent state. Yes, horrors are incoming. Yes, we will still be here tomorrow, ready to experience more. The world we inhabit is now in a permanent state of forever decay. This feeling of panic is not ending any time soon.
It's now over ten years since Hynes wrote that line.
Four years later, by the time Cloud Nothings released Attack On Memory in 2012, indie guitar rock was already dead. Attack On Memory is its funeral dirge, a kind of swan song for angular slashing guitars and men expressing unabashed anguish. Form and content are in concert – the guitars are straight out of 2006 and the lyrics are expressly nostalgic. There is no album I know of so committed to giving voice to the sense that nothing good will come from the future. Just take a look at the lyrics to "No Future / No Past", the album opener:
No past (x3)
Then there's "Wasted Days", the album's highlight:
Well, I know my life's not gonna change
And I live through all these wasted days
Never thought that I'd end up this way
And I know it's gonna stay the same
In Attack On Memory the future has ended. But it is coming to an end explicitly because we have no power to change it. The attitude here is not simply that we're doomed, but that we're stuck with what we've got and we blew our chance for anything better. What is so often an externalised threat becomes an internalised failure. So by "Stay Useless", the fourth song on the album, we get:
Can I see what's going wrong with me?
I used to have it all, now I'm alone
I never said, I'm better off this way
I need something to do, somewhere to go
I need time to stop moving
I need time to stay useless
Can I feel so utterly unreal?
But nothing I could do would make things change
I'm stuck in here and I'm tired of everywhere
I'm never going to learn to be alone
What remains is impotence and lament. In the face of the ending, Dylan Baldi, Cloud Nothings' singer and lyricist, is bitter and self loathing. This isn't the narrator of "5 Years", who in the face of the ending reaches out of those around him, and it's not the Dev Hynes of "Dry Lips", for whom apocalypse is always both imminent and distant. This is a man expressing regret, self-hatred. The golden days are over. The future is bleak, or stagnant, and there is no escape from the impotence of the present. This is all horror. But there is also tragedy; tragedy in the sense, sometimes ebbing, sometimes flowing, that it did not have to be this way.
By the time Bo Burnham's releases Inside earlier this year, we are collectively midway through a pandemic, amid accelerating technological dystopianism. Frances Haugen would soon release documents revealing, inter alia, that Facebook ignored its own research showing that its products were actively destroying the lives of teenage girls. (Also: facilitating genocide.)
A decade after Attack on Memory and a full half century after "5 Years", Inside enters a world no longer willing to innocently entertain hypotheticals of world-ending. Instead, world-ending now is a core concept of bourgeois society. It's fitting that instead of Attack on Memory's unfiltered self-disgust, Inside returns its audience's sense of dread with a wry fatalism. It is as though our cultural production is nearing the end of the 5 stages of grief.
The psychic experience of the educated middle class at the peak of humanity's technological development is, apparently, extreme mental anguish, and Burnham comes to that class with a message: don't worry, I feel like shit too. What helped that message resonate like never before was the shared experience of covid-19 — an era which has thrown into relief the sheer weirdness of modernity. 2020 primed the audience to fully accept what has long been known in some quarters: that things are fucked. It became unmistakable; our noses have been shoved in it. This is a time in which we simultaneously say: the internet is destroying your brain and our society, please go outside, please talk to a real human; and, human beings are extremely dangerous, please do not go outside, please do not talk to a real human.
This is all to say that the creepiness of capitalist modernity was once the domain of heterodox audiences – think Mark Fisher's Capitalist Realism – but, well, modernity just keeps getting creepier. What was once something you only took seriously if you were a card carrying leftist is now a mainstream bourgeois shibboleth. It's the content of Instagram Stories (the same product giving young women eating disorders). It's the stuff of Netflix blockbusters.
Which is how we end up with "That Funny Feeling", Burnham's ode to the uncanny experience of living in this, for lack of a better word, 'society'. For the most part it's a list of the surreal realities (surrealities?) of this anti-social nightmare we've designed for ourselves. But I'm talking about it now because it is grappling, at its core, with the same existential terror that Dev Hynes reached for back in 2008 in "Dry Lips"; the same terror that Dylan Baldi directed at himself in 2012; the same terror that Bowie posed as a thought experiment in 1972: the prospect that this really might be the end.
The surgeon generals' pop-up shop, Robert Iger's face
Discount Etsy agitprop, Bugles' take on race
Female Colonel Sanders, easy answers, civil war
The whole world at your fingertips, the ocean at your door
The live-action Lion King, the Pepsi Halftime Show
Twenty-thousand years of this, seven more to go
What I want to say is that hypothetical of "5 years" and the joke in "Dry Lips", that the planet has at least another 10 years, gives away in "Funny Feeling" to a new level of fatalism. There's wryness there, and Burnham's first occupation is comedian, so the song never reads as wholly sincere. But there's also just not a joke here. The comedian sings it straight:
Hey, what can you say?
We were overdue
But it'll be over soon
The posture is exhausted, fatalistic, accepting. And then: relieved. The tension of "Dry Lips" – that we're doomed to live in an eternal state of doom, is overtaken by a yearning for that doom. The status quo is untenable, unbearable; the resolution to that tension appears like absolution. Burnham's lyric is poised as if to say, well, this really might be it. Thank god.