‘Hypnagogic pop’ and the landscape of Southern California
Frieze, Issue 137 / March 2011
by Simon Reynolds
I’m sitting on the AstroTurf lawn of The Grove, a ‘retroscape’ shopping mall in Los Angeles, listening to 1980s covers band The Copycats deliver immaculate counterfeits of bygone MTV hits. A 19th-century trolley car clanks by, passing the Art Deco movie theatre, and heads towards the Farmer’s Market, a vintage food court with clapboard stalls and hand-painted signs. Wandering over to an ornamental pond, I watch the outsized fish, so shiny they resemble miniature porcelain submarines. As The Copycats launch into ‘Billie Jean’, I suddenly think: this is like living inside a hypnagogic pop song.
Coined by The Wire magazine’s David Keenan in 2009, ‘hypnagogic pop’ is a term for a new generation of American lo-fi musicians who channel the 1980s sounds of mainstream radio rock, New Wave mtv pop, sedative New Age and the peppy synth-driven soundtracks of Hollywood blockbusters. Released as limited-edition cassettes and vinyl but reaching a larger audience through blogs and YouTube videos, hypnagogic pop shimmers with motifs and textures that flash back to the slick hits of artists such as Hall & Oates and Don Henley. The musical and conceptual pioneers of this movement, Ariel Pink and James Ferraro, are both based in LA, as are other rising figures like Sun Araw, LA Vampires and Puro Instinct. Ferraro’s frequent collaborator Spencer Clark lives in another sun-baked Southern California sprawl town, San Diego. Other key hypnagogues such as Matrix Metals and Rangers reside elsewhere but seem SoCal in spirit.
Hypnagogic is the term for a state between being awake and falling asleep, associated by some with hallucinations that are hyper-real rather than surreal. Life in LA – also the title of an Ariel Pink song, as it happens – does lend itself to a kind of ‘wide asleep’ trance, as your gaze falls under the sway of the sheer numbing beauty of the landscape and the weather – the way a certain slant of late afternoon light makes lawns glow eerily. Even the less attractive aspects of this town – strip-mall vistas that seem so desolate in the non-Sun Belt zones of the US – get softened by the bright lit blue skies (another Pink song) and by the peculiar mingling of utterly denatured built-up zones with outright wilderness.
LA is a city where Spectacle (in the Situationist sense) and the Spectacular (in the geological sense) are freakily entwined. As a recently arrived resident, I’m yet to tire of the juxtaposition of, say, an In-N-Out Burger drive-thru against the near-kitsch splendour of the San Gabriel Mountains. ‘Collage reality’ is how Spencer Clark describes the effect, adding that his music is a byproduct of living in ‘a zone that has beaches and mountains and hills as well as skyscrapers […] A lot of my music I see as landscape music.’
Hypnagogic is a 21st-century update of psychedelia. Like its 1960s antecedent, it looks to the West Coast, but its primary focus is LA rather than San Francisco; ’60s anti-urbanism has been supplanted by an ambiguous exaltation of suburbia. Hypnagogic retains the original psychedelia’s fixation on childhood but this lost innocence has been contaminated by pop culture: mtv one-hit wonders and ’80s cartoons replace the Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland references of Jefferson Airplane.
The scrambling of pop time is a culture-wide phenomenon in the West, but it feels unusually strong in LA, where pop radio is dominated by old music: classic rock, New Wave and eclectic stations like Jack fm that mimic a 40-something’s iPod Shuffle. Flicking between stations, there’s a visual analogue to what you hear in the endless interplay of different eras of commercial signage and shop-front décor. In no other city have I had such an overwhelming sense of the erosion of a cultural timecode, that pulse that once synchronized the sectors of the contemporary scene (fashion, design, music, etc.) and constructed a sense of epoch.
Last year James Ferraro posted a YouTube video to promote his albums Wild World (2009) and Feed Me (2010), but which also served as preview of a full-length movie he’s making (Touch Screen Splatter Punks of Digital Tokyo due to be completed in 2013). The excerpt concatenated low-budget horror (Ferraro as decomposing corpse, TV dinners that come alive) with archival snippets of President Reagan and hand-held footage of Hollywood street scenes: leather-booted vamps from the Valley, businesses like Happy Nails and LA Tanning, gossip mags with ‘plastic surgery shockers’ cover stories. By email, Ferraro told me about his future projects, the most striking of which is a ‘live webcam water birth viewable online with interactive chat functions’. The idea was inspired by witnessing ‘a lady give birth in a Starbucks at The Grove in Hollywood, surrounded by smart phones and digital cameras. So you see this reality will always be a part of my work.’
This reality is hyper-reality. In what may be a deliberately ’80s-retro gesture, Ferraro frequently sounds like he’s channelling Jean Baudrillard, talking of wanting to be ‘simulacra’s paintbrush’. Other ’80s totems spring to mind during his patter: David Cronenberg, when Ferraro talks of getting burned out on Hollywood, recharging his batteries in more earth-toned, bohemian zones of LA like Eagle Rock, then ‘jumping back into the movie screen’; Jeff Koons, for the aesthetic of kitsch sublime running through Ferraro’s work and the inscrutable ingenuousness with which Ferraro delivers his lines. He says he moved to LA to become an action movie star, just like his heroes Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone.
Also part of this iconic cluster is J.G. Ballard: Ferraro echoes the late novelist when he talks of movie stars as modern deities embodying qualities that human beings have admired since the dawn of time. High Rise (1975) and Kingdom Come (2006) spring to mind when you read the sleevenote description of ‘Headlines (Access Hollywood)’ from 2010’s album Last American Hero. The song is about people who get trapped in Costco (a bulk-buy, budget-price hypermarket) and devolve into a mutant tribe whose children, ‘born within the settlement’, grow up with ‘no conception of a world beyond’.
Not that you can really derive this from the track, a frayed instrumental that resembles the blues if its foundational figure wasn’t Robert Johnson but Harold Faltermeyer of ‘Axel F’ and Beverly Hills Cop (1984) fame. Elsewhere in Ferraro’s most SoCal-themed releases – Wild World, On Air (2010), and the brand-new Nightdolls with Hairspray (2011) – he explores a sound that draws on ’80s rock at its most artificial: shrill, garish textures like you might at hear in a guitar shop where some Eddie Van Halen wannabe is trying out too many effects pedals at once.
Like a modern-day Devo, Ferraro never lets on whether he’s reviling or revelling in the decadence and grotesquerie of US culture. The cover of Last American Hero is a glossy photograph of a Best Buy store, described in the sleevenotes as ‘the modern Gomorrah temple’. But Ferraro also enthuses about ‘the primal fantasies and fetishes, hedonistic urges, mouth watering narcissism and dreams manifested into plastic surgery in our digital age Whole Foods candy land’.
Shopping malls, celebutainment, cosmetic surgery, a consumer culture orientated around bipolar rhythms of bulimic bingeing and anorexic/aerobic purging – all this really took off in the ’80s. (And was taken to the extreme in California – for Baudrillard, America’s vanguard, a sort of hyper-America.) Perhaps the secret idea buried inside hypnagogic pop is that the ’80s never ended. That we’re still living there, subject to that decade’s endless end of History, killing time as we wait for something (seismic, subaltern) to rupture the dream.