Doctor Who Week: Doctor Who & Hypnagogic Pop

In the August issue of the British music magazine Wire--subtitled "adventures in Modern music"--there was a piece on an American music movement that writer David Keenan dubbed "hypnagogic pop", defined as this:
"Hypnagogic pop is pop music refracted through the memory of a memory. It draws its poweer from the 1980s pop culture into which many of the genre's players were born, and which is only now being factored into underground music as a spectral influence. Hypnagogic realms are the ones between waking and sleeping, liminal zones where mis-hearings and hallucinations feed into the formation of dreams."
Like a lot of crazy, still-being-formed trends, "hypnagogic pop" is more one of those "you know it when you hear it" type sounds. The way I've been selling it to people though is "Imagine if Christopher Cross and Michael McDonald tried to recreate the soundtrack to say, Blade Runner while high on painkillers". Of course, that makes no more sense than Keenan's definition, but that's kinda the point.

It's warm, trippy electronic music that sounds like a lot of stuff from our collective pop culture past but very new and different. The sounds, tones, and feeling of all the popular culture you grew up on if you're between twenty and forty just minus the "popular" part, so the songs can last for forty minutes or crib from pop hits of the even further past and just kinda in general, wander around in their own sonic spaces.

I won't and can't vouch for every artist under the umbrella of "hypnagogic pop", but the whole scene is interesting, whether it's Washed-Out out yacht rock-ing "yacht rock" or Ducktails turning like, party time TV bumper music into it's own kind of bliss-out or slightly more popular groups like Wavves and Girls (who fit Keenan's definition, though no one except for me is putting them under that label).

Still, the music's a bit weak and navel-gazing--save for Wavves and Girls, whose music is about navel-gazing--and as far as I can tell, the only artist really worth something is James Ferraro, pictured at the top of this post, next to Tom Baker. Ferraro's work is significantly more out-there than the rest of the hypnagogic pop-ers' work: He releases dozens and dozens of CD-Rs every year, songs are usually 20 to 40 minutes long, and it's all wrapped around a late 70s to early 90s fuzzy, warbly VHS, Reagan-inspired doomsday conceit. Or something. One of my favorite releases of his was this year's Citrac, a 2-LP set of songs from past releases with titles like "Computer Chipped Police" and "Flesh Circuit" and "Liquid Metal".

The cover (pictured below) is an S & M dude standing triumphant in front of a scene that's a lot like the place where the finale of Cobra takes place. Reverse side is a messy still from CNN International from the inside of a fighter plane; the inner sleeves are a collage of stuff from Left Behind and Robocop and Lawnmower Man. In a way, I sorta think the "statement" being made is kinda obvious but well, something about the rather disastrous current state of the world sent through the lens of 80s action movies and weirdo Christian pop-culture phenomenons. It's nonsense and it's not.
That all these releases are very much handmade, worked-on, and thought out, and totally free of all the usual music bullshit even "indie" artists are a part of now--most of Ferraro's stuff is only available on super limited CD-Rs--adds to their appeal: They're rejecting the smoothed-out, super-clean, computer assisted everything of this decade. This is where "hypnagogic pop" and Ferraro especially, intersect (for me) with Doctor Who...and why the new Doctor Who is not only bad, but kinda like, morally problematic. Interestingly, Keenan's "hypnagogic pop" article invokes the sense of half-dreaming, which isn't all that different from the whole "3am" vibe I was just babbling about in Doctor Who.

I also think the music is working on a level not all that different from Doctor Who: Messing with the collective unconscious of science-fiction and genre in general, and bending it all kinds of new weird ways. See, Doctor Who came about at a very interesting time in science-fiction history--the early sixties. The 1950s had seen a kind of tipping point for sci-fi, where it was no longer the pieces here and there, in a Poe or Verne or Wells story, in Lovecraft's conflation of hell and the outer limits, Buck Rogers and Superman but an increasingly dominant aspect of popular culture. And so, episodes of Doctor Who just kinda jam all this stuff together and cleverly update or flip it.

"Genesis of the Daleks" is just a WWII allegory sent into space without losing all the complexities of the actual event. Check out "The Power of Kroll" which is a Lovecraft story but minus that whole pesky, racial superiority thing Lovecraft injects into everything. Doctor Who is taking sci-fi tropes and making them weirder and cooler, in part because it's sent through Tom Baker's meta-smirking--which helps the whole real/not-real, hypnagogic, 3am vibe--and in part because it was using technology of the era, which just happens to be stuff that still looks awesome in 2010.

And though Ferraro's consciously using the past and Doctor Who was to some extent, employing the cutting-edge, or the cutting-edge on a BBC budget, it was still indeed an aesthetic choice. One that thirty of so years later is still totally awesome, but may actually hold more power now. Think of it as how something like Fantastic Mr. Fox is not only really cool on its own, but how it brings stuff like those old Harryhausen movies back into context. A continuum of the hand-made and thoughtful. Inverted images, dirt-cheap green screen, third-generation video quality due to overlapped effects, etc. are a huge part of Doctor Who's appeal because it's in part, an aesthetic experience--and all you nerds gotta remember that.


Joseph said...

Doctor Who Week rules! Each post makes me want to see the series more

Daniel said...

I think the compelling thing about Ferraro's "the world is fucked and scary" message is that it's filtered through intensely dramatic forms (80s action movies and far out Christian end times prophecies and apocalypse cults), forms that, though they seem incredibly over the top, actually reflect a real visceral terror (and excitement) about the future.

I totally see the similarities between Ferraro's music and Dr. Who, though the only series I've ever seen is "City of Death." The look of Scaroth is something that continues to astound me.

Viagra said...

Dr. Who? hahahaha I just love this one. The show was so good, and so well presented... this posts are making me go straight to rent the videos and have my very own Dr. Who marathon

Jesse Reese said...

Viagra...who are you?