The aughts were a period of unprecedented technological innovation. With the rapid propagation of interconnected devices and online safe havens came the widespread emergence of an “internet culture.” A new wave of art reveled in the limitless promise and disruptive emancipation of the digital age. Fears of a Y2K bug were abandoned for new hope and unbridled optimism: a growing, free web seemed to herald a utopia of personal liberty.
But as this growth continued into the 2010’s, the grim reality set in. The infrastructure that had once brought freedom to millions was becoming increasingly undemocratic and unpredictable. The internet was now an inextricable part of the human experience, capable of good and evil in equal measure. The same massive social media platforms and search engines that empowered millions now had immeasurable sway over public opinion. Protesters were using Facebook to organize during the Arab Spring while digital authoritarianism rose in China. Free chatrooms and message boards became home to radicalizing echo chambers. It was time to reassess the nature of our relationship with the internet.
Musicians have been conceptualizing the digital age as far back as at least the 1980’s. Albums like Kraftwerk’s Computer Love and The Age of Plastic by the Buggles imagine a computerized future to varying degrees of fear and acceptance. The entire electronic music scene of that era was, in a sense, informed by a vast new world on the horizon. Foresight has its limits, however. It was not until the turn of the century that true internet music reached listeners. This music suffered from the same naïve optimism as politics and public opinion at the time. Artists adapted their sounds to a changing lifestyle, but seldom questioned the implications of this change beyond standard juvenoia. This is where post-internet music comes into play.
Post-internet does not mean anti-internet. This new generation of musicians and artists is not scared of the web or nostalgic for simpler times; instead, it is questioning and confronting the profound effect of new technology on the human experience. In other words, music is becoming increasingly internet-aware.
Some of the first discernible post-internet albums were released by surprisingly old bands. The Fall’s Sub-Lingual Tablet is a brilliant, though oblique commentary on the subliminal ways in which smart technology is altering our brain chemistry and behavior (even the album’s title appears to be a double entendre, referring to both a form of medicine and a touch screen phone). Songs like “Junger Cloth” and “Facebook Troll” allude to the primitive behaviors and impulses that internet ecosystems often devolve into. Meanwhile, “Black Door” sounds eerily similar to Black Mirror on Netflix. This is not a surprising pattern of behavior for The Fall; lead singer, Mark E. Smith, once famously said that “Fall fans invented the internet.” He may not be wrong. Shortly before the 2003 release of Country on the Click, an album that was internet-influenced in its own right, the demo was leaked online. A furious Smith cancelled the release and spent the summer remaking the album, culminating in the release of the critically acclaimed The Real New Fall LP (Formerly Country on the Click).
More notable is a band that has been digital-focused from their inception. Atari Teenage Riot’s 2011 album Is This Hyperreal? provided a soundtrack for disillusioned “occupy” protestors and vigilante hacking groups around the world. The band firmly advocates for public reclamation of the internet from politicians and corporations. Their songs feature confrontational lyrics like, “Well, are you going to act or will you just stare at your screen to hours on end?” and “I think I can’t trust my eyes anymore.” They too, like the Fall, acknowledge the internet’s capacity for degeneration with tracks like Re-arrange Your Synapses and Collapse of History. Harsh soundscapes stand in sharp contrast to the optimistic techno of contemporaries like Daft Punk, helping to put digital hardcore on the map.
No assessment of internet-era music is complete without an obligatory mention of Radiohead’s OK Computer. Though the album’s abstract lyrics and pervasive guitar instrumentation obfuscate any direct criticism of the world, one cannot help but see the album as a cautionary tale of 21st century life’s many perils. The track “Karma Police” stands out as a prescient anticipation of societal unrest, as its title and opening lyrics bring to mind the ‘cancel culture’ that currently pervades social media.
Perhaps most important in the assessment of post-internet music are the newest artists to embrace it. As we approach the 2020’s, musicians are emerging on the scene who have lived their entire lives alongside computers. They do not see the internet as an exciting new innovation to brighten their sunset years: it is their societal inheritance. Many have been socialized in the digital age, and will have to live with its repercussions for decades to come.
One such artist is Holly Herndon. Her music is almost totally computer-based, using the programming language Max/MSP to manipulate her voice and other elements into compositions that deeply reflect digital media. She warps and layers organic elements into profoundly inorganic soundscapes, drawing parallels to online platforms where millions of participants coalesce into abject caricatures of human society. Herndon’s use of AI in the composition process reflects the attempts by computer programs to simulate human expression and experience. In her company are Arca and Antwood. Arca’s experimental production and visceral performances embody the prosthetic attachments of our virtual lives to our tangible ones. Deeply personal themes and lyrics are encased within cold compositional shells. Their songs have very personal and corporeal titles, like “piel” and “castration”, while the instrumentation lingers behind, detached from the exposed vocal performances. Meanwhile, Antwood’s Sponsored Content explores the encroachment of corporate machinations upon digital consciousness. It contains embedded advertisements that confront listeners with the commodification of their attention. Other artists adopt a more passive post-internet influence. Yves Tumor, Lotic, Toxe, and more implicitly discuss the boundary between the real and the synthetic.
Even long-exalted groups, like Massive Attack, are applying their dated albums to a modern context. The trip hop royalty recently went on a tour to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their seminal album, Mezzanine. They collaborated with film-maker Adam Curtis to re-appropriate their anxious 1998 album as poignant modern commentary. Massive screens projected critical messages and video collages, creating a disconcerting backdrop to stunning musical performances. There was something jarring about watching the audience dance and sway while grim messages like “Suspicion is another form of control” towered overhead.
One of the most exciting post-internet newcomers is Amnesia Scanner. The Berlin-based duo’s oversaturated dancefloor tropes push the boundaries of avant-garde EDM and explore the limits of the digital experience. Their 2018 album, Another Life, is possibly one of the best albums of the decade. Its extremely distorted vocals and melodies almost fall into the uncanny valley of dance music, clearly influenced by the artificial underbelly of the online world. Their songs seem to feign naïveté, potentially symbolic of how the average internet user is largely unaware of the threat they are under. Another Life’s tracks are extremely danceable while still hyperbolic and apocalyptic, as if throwing a rave on the edge of cataclysm. Amnesia Scanner’s visuals are equally strong. The music video for “As Too Wrong” embodies the notion of hyperreality, as a race car crashing into a barrier takes a turn for the surreal, tumbling endlessly along the track.
The internet is an environment of extremes—it appears to hold salvation and Armageddon within the same interface. The new music of the post-internet era exposes and analyzes these extremes. Vocals are unnerving and over-processed, while instrumentals sound like amplified projections of our ailing cultural conscience. Powerful saturation and sensory overload mimics the torrent of information that confronts internet users. Though prone to dance-influences, post-internet music should not be conflated with the vapid and nihilistic club music that is churned out daily. It is an earnest attempt to better understand our changing world in a way that other modern genres, like indie and trap, almost completely overlook. Though many post-internet artists are relatively obscure, it is crucial that we pay close attention to the beginnings of what could soon become a massive cultural movement. As we start to question the complicated role of the internet in our lives, our music and culture should follow suit.