Archive for 80s

Peak Retro: Ready Player One

Posted in Books, Culture with tags , , , , , on June 19, 2012 by vprime

Ready Player One takes place in a future universe in which a digital reality has supplanted the boring old analogue version. This world, the OASIS, was partly created by a man called James Halliday. The creation of this wildly popular online environment has made Halliday immensely rich. Too bad he’s dead, and he’s decided to award his estate to whomever can solve the series of puzzles he’s embedded in the OASIS. As a result, the popular culture of the year 2044 is dominated by nerdly obsessions from the 1980s as people dedicate themselves to examining Halliday’s every minute interest for clues. Wade Watts is the hero, a poor kid and an orphan to boot. His devotion to being a true follower of Halliday and encyclopedic knowledge of 80s pop culture trivia pays off for this underdog. What happens is not of great interest to me, since if you can’t already tell, Watts beats the game and wins the spoils. What is more interesting to me are some of the unexamined implications in this book.

First is the notion that searching for Halliday’s fortune (a subculture known in the book by the inelegant portmanteau gunter, a fusion of egg and hunter) eclipses present popular culture in such a way as to render it nonexistent. Everywhere in the OASIS, people live in 80s movies, listen to 80s music, memorize old Dungeons and Dragons modules because Halliday was known to have once played them. There’s little in the book about the world outside of the OASIS. What we do see are trailer parks in which the units have been welded into stacks, vague mentions of an energy crisis that leave certain areas with sporadic electricity, dormitories-cum-prisons in which corporate debtors are forced to work off their debts. The outside world is of little consequence to Watts, in part, because the economy of the OASIS has eclipsed that of the meatspace. Having money in the OASIS seems to be more important. There are some things that reflect the meatspace world. Transportation from one place to another takes credits that can be earned in the OASIS or bought with currency. But for the most part, power in the real doesn’t necessarily translate into power in the OASIS. Meanwhile, in the OASIS, teens run around wearing clothes from well-known 80s films, arguing about Ladyhawke, playing low-res arcade games, hanging out in replicas of Halliday’s childhood home and otherwise behaving more of less like teen versions of the book’s 30-something target audience.

This is the purpose of the book, as far as I can tell. It’s about combining 80s geek signifiers to press that nostalgia button for the reader. It posits a world in which a major geek fantasy has come true; the fantasy that pop-culture trivia will suddenly become the only relevant currency in the world. Then those who can recite every word of Monty Python and the Holy Grail will be kings. The cultural references seem placed throughout the book to trigger a reaction of “I recognize that, therefore I like it” from the reader, which is becoming a serious malaise in the 21st century. This isn’t Eliot making a statement with bits of Arthurian legend, it’s Watts driving a virtual hybrid of the cars from Back to the Future and Ghostbusters. Why? Not sure entirely. I kept expecting the references to have some purpose in revealing either Watts’ character or Halliday’s but I gave up on that about a third of the way through.

There seems to be no new culture, rather a pastiche of dead-ends from the 20th century. We’re not far from this ourselves; endlessly recycling films, music and fashion from 20-30 years ago. Patton Oswalt named this phenomenon “Etewaf: Everything That Ever Was—Available Forever.” And in the book, Watts praises the ready availability of every cultural artifact in the OASIS. Oswalt wrote that “Etewaf doesn’t produce a new generation of artists—just an army of sated consumers. Why create anything new when there’s a mountain of freshly excavated pop culture to recut, repurpose, and manipulate on your iMovie?” This is the world of Ready Player One, and the bleakest element of the book. Forget the 20 people living in one trailer, the absolute death of innovation and art signals the entropic state of American culture. Watts is a kid who is good at 80s arcade games. That’s his talent. He doesn’t produce or conceive of anything. I was initially surprised that Halliday’s will didn’t award his fortune to someone who was capable of innovating, as it appeared that what made Halliday special was this ability to create, but as I read I came to see Halliday as a disturbed person and potential megalomaniac.

There is very little to Halliday’s meatspace life. He’s drawn with the merest outlines of technocratic hero, meant to be a cipher figure into which the reader can project his or her geek sympathies. We know he was a nerdy kid. He worked with Ogden Morrow to create the OASIS. He apparently developed a young adult crush on a woman (I cannot remember her name. If you know it, drop me a line & I’ll put it in.) who was more interested in Morrow. As a result of Morrow’s marriage to this woman, Halliday became a recluse and spent the rest of his life in the OASIS.

Here I’d like to say that I hate “unrequited love” as a method of character building. It can work, but in this case it seems to exist in order for the reader to empathize with Halliday. It also hints at this nice-guy worldview in which it’s made into such a tragedy that the lover’s affections are unrecognized, yet it completely voids the woman’s agency to choose who she’d rather be with. I also hate “one-true-love” ideology and think it’s an excuse for obsessives to rationalize their issues. Halliday completely gives up on the real world after this one disappointment. This seems like an outsized response and exactly the sort of drama a teen would indulge in. His retreat from life seems like the symptom of an emotionally immature person. Bah. I am a heartless lady, because I always think “She picked someone else. Get over it.”

Anyway, Halliday continues to live after his death in the form of his avatar, a Dungeons and Dragons wizard called Anorak. The quest structure of the story involves its own troubled love plot between Watts and an avatar named Art3mis, who are both competing to complete the game. What’s troubling about the nature of the game is that it centers on deep knowledge of Halliday’s teen obsessions. These cultural products are framed as sources of comfort in Halliday’s youth. So, in seeking to make the game reflective of his lonely youth, Halliday is not so much reaching out to another similarly introverted outcast, but is ensuring that the winner will be someone who has studied him intensively. In other words, instead of looking for someone who created his own rich inner world out of cultural scraps, Halliday is ensuring he recreates himself by geek osmosis. He doesn’t want the heir to his fortune to be any another geek, he wants to create another geek as close to his own personality as possible, and since this is a world in which all culture is made out of retro, the method he chooses to replicate himself is pop-cultural pastiche. Halliday has made the OASIS a place where thousands of people live out his memories. There are planets devoted to replicating his childhood home over and over. In contrast, there’s much less veneration of the still-living Morrow, perhaps because he hasn’t waved a multi-billion dollar carrot in people’s faces to make them memorize all his favorite movies.

Halliday’s influence has shaped pop culture into his own personal scrapbook, which leads me into the next problem. All the people in the book are devoted to Halliday’s memory because there is a large cash prize attached. So what happens when the prize is won? The story really doesn’t linger on this point, but it appears that solving the game would essentially deprive thousands of purpose and destroy the world for gunters. Without the prize, why would anyone continue to participate? By proving his devotion to all things Halliday, Watts has eclipsed him and in essence destroyed his memory. Perhaps the future of Ready Player One is about a kid reliving Watts reliving Halliday playing Atari. If you want a vision of the future, imagine a Rubik’s Cube stamping on a human face—forever.

At the end of the story, Anorak appears to give Watts the prize along with a few words of wisdom. Part of which include an admonition not to become a recluse and spend all his time in the OASIS. Cough. If Watts wasn’t already 80% of the way there, would he have won the prize? Seems pretty weak to impart a life lesson that’s essentially “Go play outside.” Watts ends up sitting in a garden with the real Art3mis, having won her love despite out-competing her in the game. The end undercuts everything that has come before and makes an attempt to reassert the importance of the real world. I read this as a sigh of authorial defeat. What remains when the hero has essentially attained virtual godhood? Taking a walk outside. It strikes a false note because the real world has been so completely marginalized by the OASIS that it’s difficult to believe it matters at all. We’re returned to the values of our world, even though they have no place in the world of the story.

I’d love to have juxtaposed my thoughts about this book with another book; Simon Reynolds’ Retromania, but I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

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Music for a Monday: Fields of the Nephilim

Posted in Culture, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2011 by vprime

When I first discovered the Fields of the Nephilim, I was reading lots of The Sandman, Michael Moorcock, books about Aleister Crowley, and those excellent short fiction anthologies White Wolf used to produce for the World of Darkness. This music was the perfect accompaniment for such dark mythologies.  The dark silhouettes cut by the Fields on their posters seemed to come out of the same dreamworld as The Sandman. Their music combined Ennio Morricone-style guitars with killer basslines and Carl McCoy’s deep voice. The Fields created their own mythology out of chaos magic, Lovecraft, and an inverted order that reveres darkness and negativity. Carol Shield’s excellent book Goth’s Dark Empire describes The Field’s identification of dark forces such as Lovecraft’s  Great Old Ones with dark femininity—a force representing chaos that provides ultimate freedom from the strictures of the mundane world.

The Mission tried their hand at the cowboy-hat goth thing, but they managed to miss the truly malevolent and sublime mythic dimensions of the Fields of the Nephilim.  Much flack has been handed out to the Fields for their dust-covered undead cowboy look. In retrospect, it may seem silly and melodramatic, but I consider it a sign of their devotion to their own mythology that they bothered to dust themselves in corn starch before hitting the stage. This music still manages to conjure up images of Morpheus, Elric and Crowley for me.

In a conversation with a friend recently about goth appropriation (this is pertinent to an upcoming post regarding my time at DragonCon), we agreed that while Joy Division and The Cure covers were likely to continue to be made by the latest hipster darlings, at least the Fields of the Nephilim were safe from being twee-ified in our lifetimes.

So, enough talk, let’s watch some videos!

Moonchild, inspired by the Aleister Crowley book of the same name. Note here the imagery: caves, water, a veiled woman in white. McCoy’s persona here is running deeper into an underworld presided over by a lunar goddess. The lyrics indicate he’s seeking asylum from the persecuting forces of rationality.

Psychonaut, which shares a title with a book on chaos magic.  In this video, McCoy seems to be undergoing a death and rebirth ceremony. He sings most of the song from behind a violet veil, as though located in the spirit world. The image of McCoy hanging like Odin from Yggdrasil crops up in a lot of these videos.

Blue Water. What can I say about this? The video begins with the hanged McCoy and follows him into what seems to be an underworld in which he’s cooked by elemental spirits. I’m not sure what’s going on with his Elizabethan mullet here. This video shows how absolutely gorgeous McCoy is. Truly, I consider Carl McCoy to be one of the most beautiful men ever. In the end, the Hanged Man is resurrected and leads the nuclear mutants from the Preacher Man video away into the forest.

Sumerland. In this video, we see another woman, veiled and masked. McCoy stands within the flaming ritual circle, perhaps to summon this desert goddess. Through the flickering flames, his face merges with hers and the mask falls away.

For Her Light. Mostly concert footage, but a fantastic song nonetheless.

I skipped over McCoy’s Nefilim project, which was a little too metal for my tastes. The Fields of the Nephilim released an album in 2005 which keeps the dark sound, but punches up the speed for something that still sounds metal-adjacent to me (actually, it sounds like late Ministry covering the Fields of the Nephilim.) I enjoy several of the tracks on this album, but they don’t have the goosebump-raising power of the earlier works.

I have to close out on this Roxy Music cover, which is absolutely pitch-black.

The Rise and Fall of Skinny Puppy

Posted in Music with tags , , , , , , , on March 2, 2011 by vprime

Listening to Skinny Puppy was like living in a haunted television. The vocals were run through layers of dirty distortion that made what came out of our stereos sound like a tormented soul in hell or worse. Over this and assorted electronic noises, clips of movies or tv shows with telltale midcentury diction floated, unmoored and decontextualized so that they may as well have been more synth noise.  The lyrics, such as they were, vaguely hinted at death, torture and despair. Narratives were absent, just nebulous words connected only by some nearly schizophrenic  associative process that inspired a codebreaker’s fervor in me. My middle school boyfriend—a pathological liar with unaccountably great taste in music—and I would pour over liner notes, debate what samples were supposed to mean. In the days before everything was on the internet it was a massive triumph to finally prove that the line in The Choke was “assuming that were possible” and not—as said boyfriend insisted—“assuming I were comfortable.” We spent hours trying to conjure up lucid dreams while Skinny Puppy tapes reeled out on the stereo in my room. What we expected from those dreams in not clear. Something like divination, maybe. Communicating with those eerie disembodied voices?  The music was disturbed, irrational and perhaps we wanted to think we were like that too.

We—and here I mean all the Goths who grew up in this late 80s-early 90s not-quite-Gen-X- but-close-enough milieu—thought of ourselves in some ways as like these songs. Full of random noise, made of senseless words from TV shows that only came on after everyone else in the house was already asleep, knowing a world of pain existed out there but not sure we were actually feeling it. Songs like “Deep Down Trauma Hounds” spoke to us of horrors in remote, vague terms. If there was identifiable pain in all the vivisection and torment, it didn’t seem to belong to anyone specific, so we made it belong to all of us. We reveled in the strange, dissonant noise. We had been vivisected, it said so on our ripped black shirts. And if—as in all likelihood—that wasn’t true, we would find a way to do it to ourselves. If ever there was music made for zombies, this was it.

There was talk that Skinny Puppy was going too mainstream when Last Rights came out. There were fewer of the songs that challenged you to sit through eight minutes of stuttering samples and tinny drums. The lyrics were more coherent but still cryptic. Though this album gave us the hauntingly beautiful “Love In Vein”  and the quiet melancholy of “Mirror Saw” it still dared you to prove you were not a poseur who’d skip through “Circustance” or “Download.” Then Dwayne Goettel died, The Process eventually came out and it had all kinds of horrors like Ogre’s unprocessed vocals and acoustic guitar. Was the band trying to be Skinny Puppy Unplugged? If the opening acoustic guitar of “Candle” played over any club’s system and you headed toward the floor everyone would know you were a noob. You’d better sit on those cockroach–kickers until “Testure” played.

In retrospect, The Process shaped a lot of the industrial that came after. But it also began Skinny Puppy’s deviation from a band that would make most people call the exorcist to something that might conceivably be played in association with some sort of sporting event. There was a time in the early aughts when one could hear Front Line Assembly on MTV sports. I feared this would be Skinny Puppy’s fate.

The excellent book House of Leaves has a dedication reading “This is not for you.” This, then, exemplifies how I felt when Skinny Puppy t-shirts started cropping up on regular kids. This was not for them. They hadn’t listened as intently, trying to scratch some meaning out of the songs. They didn’t understand where this music came from. They liked some rocking guitars and bass drums and didn’t care about the message. Of course, it was the time that anything vaguely labeled “alternative” was stripped from the fans to sell toothpaste. I’d cherished this music that was spooky and weird and I didn’t want to share it with everyone. Sometime close to 2003, I stopped trying to keep up with any music save a handful of obscure German acts. I mined the past and avoided the present. I ignored Ogre’s solo albums and focused on the multi-volumes of Back and Forth. The Process really marks the end for me.

As I was looking for videos to insert into this post, I came across this:

This is just the worst sort of thing. Trying to throw some sort of banal hip-hop attitude into Skinny Puppy? It’s not funny, it’s not cool. It seems like if Skinny Puppy aspired to be played at wet-t-shirt contests, then this would accomplish that.

Sigh.

I need to get some sleep. See you in electric dreams.