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The Meaning in Dry Cleaning

If the world is a mess, why isn’t angry music more culturally present? Let me venture a guess in the sweet confines of this blog: most music now goes straight to more personal emotions like despair and hopelessness, ones that are better served through the intimacy of headphones (most music is now private); anxiety, anger, and inter-generational angst take on social forms and get funneled into memes. (Each generation finds its own way to sneer. OK, boomer.) Anger is a social emotion, and angry memes go further than an angry song.

And yet, there is still new caustic music. One of the more exciting examples I’ve recently come across, of course, is British. Dry Cleaning released two tight EPs this year that feel completely appropriate for the Brexit era. The band mixes the angularity of post-punk with the mumbling absurdity of ASMR. Vocalist Florence Shaw excavates YouTube comments, Instagram captions, and advertising copy to construct lyrics that resemble inner monologues. They show how frequently what we type into text boxes takes the form of confession. Together, the result can only be described as cut-and-paste schizophrenia.

Here’s a sample from their song Goodnight:

“During what was probably the longest two and a half months of my life after a near-death experience, I could not sleep. I was on edge at all times, and the only thing that kept me going was Saw 2. My cat died three months ago at 17 years old. When this song plays I can remember the good old days when I was a kid, how we played together with my cat at home alone with my brother and all the good days I had with her. Good night, sweet princess.”

These comments come from an Aphex Twin video on YouTube. There’s something bizarre at work here—earnest emotion sabotaged by placement. Shaw is selecting and arranging, but the outcome is not much different than what’s already presented in the comments section or by the algorithm itself. Nothing gets to stand alone in the stream, and the experience of reading it can only be explained as absurd, incohesive, and disorienting. The reason our feeds eventually become all jokes and rage is because they’re both hysterical—the only thread that can tie it all together.

It’s surprising how quickly we consented to reading everything through streams and algorithms, and how ill-equipped we are to emotionally manage it. Everything is slotted alongside anything else, so it is natural to feel like everything is connected, but nothing in the world fits together. We all know how streams and advertising illicit anger through rage mechanics, but less has been said in popular media of how algorithms and big data incite paranoia and magical thinking.

“How does Instagram know to show me ads about board games? Was it listening to my wife and I talking last night?”

“The junk mail pregnancy ads from Target are in the mail slot again, weirdly timed with my menstrual cycle.”

“Why does it seem my phone always slows down right before a new one is announced?”

“The televisions at the gym are out. The bank website is down. The car’s check engine light is on. Is Mercury in retrograde?”

In the absence of obvious reasons, we become mystics of the stream just like the sky, assigning mysterious behavior to algorithms, mapping meaning onto the position of stars and dates of birth, believing that if we can’t change what controls us, perhaps we can believe a story enough to interface with it. The right story makes incohesiveness legible, and by knowing the pattern, we can be given a clearer understanding of the world, create success, and be lead deeper into ourselves. They can guide our infinite choices and finally create real possibility. Or so they say. In this environment, it’s no surprise that astrology and tarot have returned to popularity.

Again Shaw:

“Unwanted oils. I keep fit running after my kids. Imagine being able to stack the odds of lasting love entirely in your favor.”

I’m not certain where these comments come from, but there is something about their texture that feels so intuitively and oppressively Instagrammy. I don’t want to get too cerebral about Dry Cleaning’s music—I think this music is more about feeling than ideas—but all the same, it is fascinating to see how the hysterics of the online world can be captured in music. Of course, I could also be guilty of reaching for patterns in the same way as what I’ve described above. The words may not mean anything.

“Dog proposal. She’s written a dog proposal.”

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