Thanks to that disorganized archive of damn near everything that we call the Internet, the flotsam of the past seems permanently accessible for the future.
So many memories now exist in a state of digital immortality, documented in Twitter and Facebook streams of thoughts and, before that, through MySpace or Friendster profiles, LiveJournal or Angelfire entries. This is extreme fodder for nostalgia, infinite inputs that compound the natural impulse to, as one ages and sags and scars, yearn for simpler times. But how exactly is one supposed to mature and move beyond those inchoate days when so much of the old stuff remains so indefatigably present? This challenge demands you pick a side: succumb to mere nostalgia or power through it, using what you can of its carnage to create something new from stray pieces of the past.
This is especially true of three modern Moogfest artists who don't sound much alike but wrestle with memory through cyberpunk-like fusions of past and present. There's the extravagant Adderall rush of pop semi-star Grimes, the dread-infected noise cutups of Oneohtrix Point Never, and the breached, damaged barrages of gender-freaking rapper Mykki Blanco. They reject simple, good-ol'-days longing for a moodier, more useful memory purge, tearing off the pieces of the nineties they can remix, refix, reify, and reorder into work that challenges the remember-when conceptions of youth. You hear frustrated, aspirational updates on nineties failings through their music, which highlights the difference between simply remembering and seriously reflecting, between lazy nostalgia and tough-minded revaluation. It's a face-off with the past that chews schmaltz and irony to spit out a reimagined moodboard of some baffling, bygone era.
On her 2015 album, Art Angels, Grimes explores feminist resiliency via the tragic optimism of nineties pop, delivered with an ejaculatory approach to sound that mirrors Clinton-rule excess. "Flesh Without Blood" and "Realiti" recall the Bring It On soundtrack, the Robitussin rage of Mindless Self Indulgence, and the swooping numbers of Mariah Carey, Kate Bush, and SWV. Grimes has pointed out that pop music was foreign to her as a child but more empowering to her later in life, when it was seen as hipster taboo. That feeling adds a wise distance to her music, because she now understands the implicit subversion capable through pop and its power to cut through politics. For Grimes, the focus is the patriarchy, made explicit on songs that mock male ego, privilege, and access: "I got friends in high places/I get out for free/I got in a fight but they don't know me/Because I'm only a man/And I do what I can."
Oneohtrix Point Never's Garden of Delete taps into existential turmoil by chopping nu-metal's histrionics into post-electronica, mapping the overloaded essence of every dopey, angry, and horny teen's brain onto eerie instrumentals. "Sticky Drama" and "I Bite Through It" mimic the sepia-toned menace of Nine Inch Nails videos, the narcotic drift of PC role-playing games, and the headbang reign of Korn. On Garden of Delete, Oneohtrix Point Never captures the underlying sadness and chaos of being a teenager and extends an earnest, aural olive branch to kids still living in places where there's a vacuum of empathy for the outsider.
On torn and frayed rap albums Gay Dog Food and Mykki Blanco Presents C-ORE, Mykki Blanco bears the weight of life as a "Sister Outsider" by valorizing the most subversive corners of MTV's alternative nation—gritty hip-hop, blunted trip-hop, and raucous riot grrrl. Mykki Blanco cribs attitude from Gregg Araki movies, emotion from the most fragile mid-nineties rap, and scope from the projects of Kim Gordon or Kathleen Hanna. She emulates and updates the freedom those movements howled with her black queer voice. Here's the wild-eyed, inspiring gusto of rap and punk of the nineties mainstream, gone radically inclusive for the next generation.
Grimes, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Mykki Blanco have all publicly wrestled with their influences in ways that make it clear they don't want the past to sit still. Grimes recruited Little Jimmy Urine of Mindless Self Indulgence to remix "Kill v. Maim," and she was wrongly accused of trolling when she turned a noteworthy DJ set into a reliquary of Top 40 hits. Oneohtrix Point Never remixed Nine Inch Nails and even toured with Trent Reznor, an experience that informed the aggro-bombast of Garden of Delete. For "Moment with Kathleen," from Gay Dog Food, Mykki Blanco worked with Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill and The Julie Ruin
"Moment With Kathleen" appropriately begins with Blanco freaking out about the encounter: "Last night I met Kathleen Hanna. She was so cool. She was so sweet. It was just like I imagined," Blanco screams just before a beat that mixes the wobble of industrial rock with the spiraling riffs of indie rock lands. Aware of how history has been kind to her but also how nostalgia has helped defang a movement she fostered, Hanna, in turn, ponders "the archive of the archive of the archive." In essence, she gives a name to the nefarious phenomenon that Grimes, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Blanco all fight—empty nostalgia, rather than the more nuanced version that makes their work vital.
The flip side of working closely with one's idols is that they're no longer preserved at a safe distance; you might see their flaws, their frailties. This is less of a problem for Grimes, Oneohtrix Point Never, and Mykki Blanco, because they don't harbor illusions that the past was better. What's challenging to them, though, is their subsequent responsibility for the future, or for the need to serve the alone, lost, and pissed-off kids flailing in 2016 just as their heroes once served them.
It's a heartening sort of reciprocity—there's no yearning for days forever lost, only an attempt to make art more insurgent than the stuff that changed their worlds long ago.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Dismembering Memory"