September 12, 2019

9/11 made music fun and danceable, against existing soft, numb, emo trend

Here is an interesting podcast with Matt Christman from Chapo Trap House about 9/11's impact on pop culture, especially music. They focus more on the political angle -- what things must or must not be said in pop music in the wake of 9/11, did the culture of fear kill off aggressive rock music from the late '90s, and so on.

Characterizing music of the early 2000s, they identify the zeitgeist of numbness, sadness, schmaltizness, etc. as 9/11's cultural impact. My take has always been the opposite, and now that I've figured out the 15-year cultural excitement cycle, it's possible to separate what 9/11's effect was, and what would have already happened with or without a major terrorist attack.

The early 2000s were a vulnerable phase, a refractory period after the manic climax of the late '90s, and before energy levels had recovered to baseline during the late 2000s. So anything that typifies a vulnerable phase will be unremarkable to find during the early 2000s. Namely the soft, ethereal, numb, emo, schmaltzy trends that also characterized pop music of the late '80s and early '70s -- which were hangovers after the previous manic phases of the early '80s and the late '60s.

What made the post-9/11 zeitgeist feel so different was the social and cultural unity that it brought out of people from all walks of life, both normie and indie, teenagers and geezers. It was not as socially unifying as a steadily rising crime rate, as experienced during the '60s through the '80s, but it was of a similar kind, if lesser in degree (a one-time spectacle, not decades of constant crime stories).

And when people perceive an imminent risk of massive violent attack, they tend to discount the future, live more in the present, and want to party with others and enjoy their company while it's still possible.

So, 9/11's cultural impact would be something that looked unusual for an otherwise soft, numb, emo period -- one which, as the podcast hints at, was already under way before 9/11. (See the year-end charts for 2001 for reference.) It would be unusual in being more socially bonding and party-centered, relative to the backdrop of a vulnerable phase culture where people want to be left alone and sleep under a pile of blankets / sink to the bottom of the sea.

In two recent posts, I identified dance-punk and crunk as two such signatures of 9/11. I'd thought of them in that way since the 2000s, but these recent posts detail how they are clearly not what was to be expected given their backdrop (a vulnerable phase). Those posts are brief, so I won't rehearse them any more here. They're relevant to today since we've been in another vulnerable phase since 2015, and yet there's been no such trends this time around (since there's been no 9/11), while there is plenty of soft, numbing, emo music all over again.

Instead, I'll end with a real deep cut from the dance-punk craze of the first half of the 2000s, in honor of 9/11's enduring cultural influence. I was living in Barcelona when this was out, and got turned on to them by the long-term housemate who I was renting a room from. It was his friend's band. Nothing replaces face-to-face recommendations -- you couldn't hear this after reading some centralized website, no matter how obscure their branding. You had to get out, interact, and listen to what other people had to say.

"NYCgaps" by Delorean (2004):



September 7, 2019

Unsolved Mysteries in context of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle, including moral panics

I got curious about how widespread the musical trend was during the late '80s for songs that are heavily layered, atmospheric / ethereal, with at most simple repetitive beats and motifs to create passive trance vibes. Earlier posts here and here looked at pop music, but I thought about movie soundtracks and TV theme songs. Then I remembered!



Listen to the entire soundtrack here and here (two parts). Perfect for scaring the trick-or-treaters next month (assuming any still come by in these helicopter parent times).

Watch the entire original series hosted by Robert Stack on YouTube here, or on Amazon Prime.

* * * * *

Unsolved Mysteries debuted in the late 1980s, a vulnerable phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle. Its peak year for ratings was the '89-'90 season, and although it still did respectably into the '92-'93 season, it fell off a cliff afterward. This tracks the trend in the crime rate -- as crime rates plunged after their 1992 peak, audiences lost interest in a show based mainly on crime. Someone somewhere was apparently solving the crime problem, so why bother tuning in to a show that expected the audience to help solve outstanding crimes?

Then the show was miraculously revived on a different channel in 2001-'02 -- during the next vulnerable phase of the cycle. And wouldn't you know it? -- they're reviving it yet again! Perhaps to appear during the current vulnerable phase. The announcement of new episodes was made by Netflix in January 2019, so they'd better hurry and get it out by Halloween, because audiences will not be quite so interested in such a show during the 2020s, as the warm-up phase kicks in, and the backlash against victimhood culture will begin. At least they've re-released the original Robert Stack episodes, and the soundtrack / score, during the late 2010s vulnerable phase.

(The Dennis Farina episodes from the late 2000s were not new episodes, but repackaged ones from the original run, without the haunting persona of Stack's performance.)

The show was a product of the vulnerable or refractory phase, when people are so anti-excitable, so averse to social stimuli (which would be a sensory overload), that they develop a victimization complex for those 5 years of the cycle. Their energy levels are so low that they feel passive, and can only be acted upon -- and given how painful they will perceive stimulation during a refractory period, all actors would be perceived as wrongdoers, and everyone feels like a helpless victim.

In that mental and bodily state, they will naturally empathize with characters on a TV show who are victims of some kind or another.

Not coincidentally, America's Most Wanted also debuted during the late '80s vulnerable phase.

I have yet to write a comprehensive post on how the rise and fall of society-wide moral panics maps onto the excitement cycle. This review of the phases of feminism across the excitement cycle provides a guide, though. Exhibitionistic, invincible, sex-positive feminism peaks during the manic phase, followed by victimhood feminism during the vulnerable phase, followed by a return to normalcy or losing one's overly inhibited ways during the warm-up phase. For now, all that matters is that major moral panics erupt during the vulnerable phase.

In fairness, U.M. does not give free rein to the crazies of a moral panic, but does present "both sides" and ask the viewer to judge for themselves. Still, not something you would see in a phase where the panicking side is under a backlash by an increasingly skeptical populace.

I'm only halfway through the 1st season, and it's saturated with the moral panics of the late '80s. Foremost is the Satanic Panic -- it's so prevalent that it even makes its way into the Son of Sam episodes. Those murders took place during a warm-up phase (late '70s), when people are coming out of their shells, and nobody thought of a Satanic ritual angle at the time, nor during the succeeding manic phase (early '80s). It wasn't until 10 years later, when people were now in a panic mode owing to the vulnerable phase of the excitement cycle, that all sorts were willing to spread and believe theories that the Son of Sam murders were part of a broader Satanic cult committing ritual sacrifices.

But there's also a lesser known moral panic that most people have forgotten about by now -- alien abduction. Not just sightings of UFOs, or visits from aliens, but being victimized and violated by them -- abducted off to their ship, held captive in a clinical setting, typically naked, and probed and otherwise touched bodily and even sexually without consent by the callous perpetrators from beyond. It's no different from being kidnapped and sexually molested or raped, which people in a refractory state are hypersensitive toward, often to the point of paranoia (e.g., "being creepy in the DMs" is tantamount to rape, in the current #MeToo vulnerable phase).

In the U.M. episode, an expert says that women who claim to have been abducted often complain about problems to their reproductive system, and the man interviewed says he recovered a childhood memory of an "alien" man sitting on his bed, lifting up his shirt, and touching him. Those are clearly references to sexual molestation, whether the people want to project it onto aliens or not. So, alien abduction was part of the broader rape panic of the late '80s (including the "date rape" panic, childhood ritual sexual abuse, etc.). It was sci-fi rape.

"Anal probe" became a common phrase when talking or joking about UFOs, because it was so common to hear about such things from the purported witnesses -- they were made into victims, not just neutrally visited by the aliens. Come to think of it, that dismissive and pejorative phrase likely came from the warm-up phase of 1990-'94, when people no longer felt vulnerable and victimized by everything, and there was a backlash against overly credulous victimhood culture.

Not coincidentally, the Urtext on being victimized by alien abduction -- Communion by Whitley Strieber -- came out in 1987, hit #1 on the NYT Best Seller list, and was made into an indie movie starring Christopher Walken in '89.

Two posts to follow will look at Unsolved Mysteries' place in the crime-and-cocooning cycle, as well as the status-striving-and-inequality cycle. I didn't realize how many themes it touches on until watching again for the first time in 30 years.

September 4, 2019

15-year cover song echoes: "Rock On" in glam rock and dream pop

The original by David Essex and cover by Michael Damian both come from the refractory phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle (1973 and 1989), and both made the year-end charts.





As discussed before here and here, this phase focuses less on catchy bouncy melodies because that would be too stimulating. The performers' and audiences' energy levels are still in a crash after the previous manic phase, and they have not yet been restored to baseline levels by the following warm-up phase.

This state leads them to focus more on layers, echoes, and drones in ethereal textures that wash over them as they lie still, unable to get up and move around. Soothing repetitious motifs keep them in a passive trance.

Such a dream pop style shows up in both the indie and mainstream worlds during the vulnerable phase. The genres from the first half of the '70s are glam rock, early krautrock, and cosmic music -- not the most dreamy, spacey, heavily layered and overly produced music, but certainly in that direction.

In the glam rock example above, by the end there is very heavy vocal self-echo and layering, like a chant. The bass line is simple, repetitive, and trance-like. Otherwise it's very sparse, more of an unsettling kind of minimalism like being alone in the woods at night, hearing only the repetitive chant of crickets, frogs, and droning breezes.

The cover has a standard rock instrumentation, but it's really more of a dream pop song than a proper rock song. No guitar riffs, no rhythm guitar, no killer solo, no vocal range. Although it does have stronger percussion, it's still not very danceable -- you're drifting along passively under the multiple layers of cool soothing textures. A little less vocal layering in this one, since it's richer instrumentally, and they're filling that role instead. Like I said before, the late '80s are a mine for mainstream dream pop songs.

I always think of those late '80s overly layered dreamy hits as roller rink music. Most people aren't moving their legs, torso, and arms enough to count as dancing -- they're just coasting on by in the same direction, with minimal rhythmic movements, melting into a crowd like a school of fish in the ocean.

Or maybe I'm only remembering it that way because that's when I was going to the roller rink -- late '80s / early '90s, toward the end of elementary school when you're just beginning to get social and want to be around the opposite sex. I either wasn't born or was just a toddler during the roller disco days, when there may have been more actual dancing going on.

And even if I hadn't been too old to go roller skating into the mid-late '90s, the roller rink was already going extinct due to the helicopter parents of Millennials not allowing them to congregate in shared public spaces with minimal supervision. Really stunted their social development. Hearing roller rink music makes me nostalgic not just for that particular space, but the whole socially outgoing period that began in the '60s, before closing itself off into the cocooning period circa 1990 and lasting through today.