Hypnagogic pop

This post is heavily indebted to (read “completely ripped off from”) an article by David Keenan in this month’s issue of The Wire.

I had previously been aware of some of the artists mentioned in this piece, but (as with Simon Reynolds‘s 2006 article on “hauntology” in the magazine), the author made a convincing case for the existence of a concrete musical and artistic movement, with many of these musicians sharing common themes and aims in their work. In a way, this movement mirrors the current British trend for romanticised 1980s-influenced music often made by people too young to properly remember the decade (see Frankmusik, La Roux etc.).

However, whilst these British artists favour meticulously reconstructed, mainstream-oriented synth-pop, the largely American movement that Keenan has tagged “hypnagogic pop” instead tries to convey the half-remembered, dream-like associations of early childhood in the ’80s – the term “hypnagogic” refers to the state between sleep and waking, as described in the article’s reference to “the moment just before you go to sleep as a child, while somewhere in the distance the sounds of pop and disco come muffled through the wall and infiltrate your subconscious”.

Keenan’s piece proved particularly compelling to me because, although I was born slightly earlier in the 1980s than many of the artists that he writes about (December 1981 to be precise), I grew up in Africa until 1990. Since then, the ’80s have always exerted a strange, unreal fascination over me, as I was only ever exposed to certain aspects – often completely random and arbitrary – of the decade’s culture, without ever experiencing the concrete reality of Western life in the 1980s.

I have never related to the sort of ironic attachment to “cheesy” ’80s culture favoured by the mainstream media, and have often found myself deeply moved and fascinated by music and culture deemed worthless and ephemeral by said media, so I was intrigued to discover a whole generation of young artists who share what Nika Danilova (aka Zola Jesus) describes as an “artificial state of nostalgia for the decade”, free from the baggage of actual day-to-day reality and experience.

Having investigated this musical subculture further, some of the artists whose work particularly moved me were: Ducktails (aka Matt Mondanile), whose music suggests to me the idealised eternal summer of ’80s teen movies – both seemingly limitless in its hopes and possibilities, and bittersweet in the inevitability of its end – as well as half-remembered suggestions of sun-bleached “yacht-rock” hits such as Don Henley’s The Boys of Summer (heavily referenced in Keenan’s article) and Chris Rea’s On The Beach; the electronic explorations and soundscapes of Oneohtrix Point Never (aka Daniel Lopantin, also of Infinity Window) recall for me the incredible elation and poignancy of teenage self-discovery so brilliantly conveyed by Tangerine Dream’s soundtrack to Risky Business, as well as the sounds and visuals of any number of Michael Mann films; Gary War locates and amplifies the psychedelic and transcendental heart of seemingly ephemeral 1980s bubblegum pop, perfectly conveying the sense of hypnogogia that David Keenan describes in his article.

“Roses” by Ducktails

“Soft Program (You Knew)” by Oneohtrix Point Never

“Good Clues” by Gary War

Finally, one of my favourite current artists, who did not feature in the article – but whose sound and aesthetic share much with those musicians already mentioned – is Nite Jewel (aka Ramona Gonzalez) from Los Angeles. Like Gary War, Nite Jewel is loosely affiliated with Ariel Pink, arguably one of the first artists to mine this sort of musical territory. Like the other so-called practitioners of “hypnagogic pop”, Nite Jewel’s sound clearly references the stylistic and instrumental tropes of the 1980s. However, her particular musical touchstones are the sounds of ’80s R&B and Latin Freestyle, refracted through the half-remembered dreams of childhood.

Personally, her music perfectly reflects how transported I felt the first time I heard songs like Summertime, Summertime by Nocera or Change of Heart by Change, and the uplifting power this music still holds even when far removed from its temporal and cultural context. I will leave you with one of my favourite songs from Nite Jewel’s excellent debut album Good Evening:

“Let’s Go (The Two Of Us Together” by Nite Jewel

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6 thoughts on “Hypnagogic pop

  1. Pingback: KOMPLOT – THE PUBLIC SCHOOL « Reg Master 1

  2. Pingback: Music Reviews, Week of 5/19/2010 « Little Advances

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