June 3, 2022

Dreamy layered soundscapes in y2k R&B

When I first started figuring out the 15-year excitement cycle, I quickly hit on the tendency for harmonic rather than melodic music during the vulnerable phase of the cycle. Lots of layers, droning, sighing, ethereal, floaty, dreamy -- like coasting down a lazy river ride at a water park. Perfect for audiences who are in a refractory phase, and who don't want much stimulation or else their nervous systems will overload.

For more detail, see these earlier posts on the pattern for both indie and pop genres, here and here.

My examples from the early 2000s vulnerable phase were a bit sparse, because I was going from memory, and as it turns out, most of the key examples were from R&B, and I never listened to it that much at the time or since. But I've been reliving the y2k sound lately, and quite a few examples jumped out, which I would not have recalled from memory.

Only one is technically from the early 2000s, but the other three are from '99 -- they were ahead of the curve, leading into the early 2000s, and do not sound like the rest of the late '90s manic phase (techno, Eurodance, Britney Spears, etc.). The point is that they show the fatigue from the late '90s manic phase was setting in, and the cycle was just about to crash into a refractory state.

The late '90s and early 2000s was pretty weak for rock, compared to earlier eras, and electro dance music wasn't nearly as popular as it would become by the late 2000s and 2010s. The R&B and rap genres were a lot more central to the zeitgeist than before or after, so if you don't know what was going on in those genres, you'll miss a lot of the y2k vibe.

I won't do an in-depth analysis of each song, just a few notes about what they all have in common. As usual with the dream-pop sound, there are zillions of layers, both vocal and instrumental. There's not much melody or even hooks / riffs, but rather sleepy, trance-inducing repetitive motifs (like the harpsichord line in "If You Had My Love"). The rhythm section isn't very danceable, and there is minimal accenting of the off-beat, unlike the UNH-tsss percussion of late '90s techno / Eurodance (and no replacement of the hi-hats with other rhythmic instruments).

Vocal delivery is pretty low-energy and ethereal -- not because it's rap, and not meant to have lots of intonation changes, but because it's a dreamy ethereal time for R&B, rather than the belting-it-out style. Only "Thong Song" has an intense vocal passage, and it's only near the climax, not sustained throughout the song. All of them are written in a minor key, as per yoozh with the dreamy droning don't-disturb-me style.

For comparison, "Believe" by Cher from a bit earlier ('98) has the beginnings of the ethereal soundscape approach, but only in the intro and occasionally afterward. It has the standard UNH-tsss, hi-hat accenting the off-beat, super-danceable rhythm of the techno of its time. And the vocal line is more melodic, has much greater intensity, and is more uplifting. Also, written in a major key.

The songs that follow are quite a radical departure, and showed where the mood would be during the start of the new millennium, as excitement levels plunged into a refractory state.

* * *

"Genie in a Bottle" by Christina Aguilera (1999):

"If You Had My Love" by Jennifer Lopez (1999):

"Thong Song" by Sisqo (1999):

"Try Again" by Aaliyah (2000):


  1. The high-energy Latin dance section is not there on the album version of "If You Had My Love" -- they inserted that into the music video, probably because they felt it wasn't quite the right moment for a 100% dreamy harmonic sound. It was still '99, gotta put something more stimulating and exciting and danceable in there, or else the MTV kids won't resonate with it.

    Also worth noting the novelty of the internet as late as '99. It was still a strange, unexplored labyrinth to search around for secrets.

    Even with new online formats like streaming in the late 2010s and '20s, the creative class finds it all boring and been-there-done-that.

    I don't buy that -- the streaming thing is novel enough to spark your creative interpretations and speculations about what it could enable. Not just as a content-creator, I mean speculating about what the audience could see, how it could change the way things are, and so on.

    It's more like, there's no gas left in the tank of the creative class, by and large.

    Also, since our society is disintegrating, we're going to look back nostalgically, rather than dream about the future. Vintage tech, not futuristic tech. Back in the '90s, when we still had a somewhat cohesive society, the appeal of new tech frontiers was still able to resonate with audiences, and creators.

    Now that our society and culture have no future, why bother speculating and dreaming about where its tech could take us?

  2. If you want me IRL,
    Baby free me from this cage,
    I'm a streamer in a touchscreen,
    You gotta unlock the right page

    If you want me IRL,
    I can make hand-hearts with you,
    You gotta send me all your fan-art,
    Gotta know that you're true

    I'm a streamer in a touchscreen, baby
    You gotta unlock the right page, honey
    I'm a streamer in a touchscreen, baby
    Slide, slide, slide it and log me out

  3. "Waiting for Tonight" by J. Lo is another good comparison. Pretty standard late '90s techno, with the UNH-tsss percussion. Not much in the way of droning layers. Dance-y, high-energy, stimulating.

    Turns out it was first released in '97 by a Eurodance group, which is why it sounds more prototypically late '90s. Fatigue hadn't set in yet.

    And yet the J. Lo version is from the same album as "If You Had My Love", and both were huge hits. So there was still some UNH-tsss gas left in the tank in '99, but audiences were already starting to feel like wrapping themselves up in the soothing multi-layered blanket of drone-lines.

  4. ASMR as a whole is about dreamy layered soundscapes, with lots of droning and sighing forms of sound creation. It's occasionally broken up by discrete, stop-like sounds, but then there are long intervals with continuously drawn out sounds.

    And it's about relaxing, drifting off to sleep -- just like dream-pop music. Also, peaks during the vulnerable phase of the excitement cycle, when people can't tolerate too much stimulation. For ASMR, the late 2010s -- which also saw the shoegaze revival of "In Undertow" by Alvvays, etc.

    I was reminded of these similarities during Fauna's ASMR stream tonight. When she's massaging the earpiece with oil, it creates a droning layer in a soundscape. It's a continuous motion of the fingertips tracing circles around the ear, slowly done, and repeated over and over for hypnotic, trance-inducing effect.

    Then she adds another sighing layer by slowly blowing or breathing into the ear. And whispering whenever she talks, very ethereal.

    There are only so many layers she can "play" at once, while live. Could be interesting to experiment with adding several layers on top of each other, each track recorded separately... or maybe that was the intent of the would-have-been group ASMR with her, Mumei, and Kronii.

    It would simulate several of these soothing activities all happening at once, perhaps covering a range of pitches in order to fill out the soundscape. They would have to follow the same "meter" or rhythm, though, or else it would sound chaotic with multiple "voices" singing to a different beat.

    Fauna, have you heard "Drop" by Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions? Early 2000s, dream-pop / shoegaze. Right up your alley. I was thinking you could cover it for karaoke, but I doubt they have it available. Also, to recreate the full dreamy atmosphere, you couldn't do it live, it would need several tracks layered together. But with your kalimba substituting for the rhythm acoustic guitar, or for the glockenspiel.

    Or would that run afoul of your contract about recording vs. just performing music? Well in any case, something that would easily fit with the rest of your aesthetic, whether directly or as an influence.

  5. Fauna's visuals for the ASMR streams are also trance-inducing and hypnotic in their repetitive motions. But only in a few places of the visual field -- not a crazy kaleidoscope all over. Most of the field is perfectly still, echoing the mostly silent soundscape. But then there's her eyes blinking, tresses bouncing, and hands making simple gestures, back and forth, round and round again, until you are lulled into a slumber.

    And the eyes holding contact, just like her voice is always directed conversationally to the listener, not eyes looking any old direction, nor the voice talking to whoever about whatever.

    She didn't amass that forest full of saplings without knowing the ways of the spellcaster, that's for sure.

  6. Here's Fauna in top Manic Pixie Dream Girl form, and for Christmas Eve, no less, when everyone needs their spirits picked up. I'm a newer viewer, and am just going through her archive.


    Men will literally watch streams of their earthly guardian angel rather than go to therapy...

    Just like I said about this classic Pokimane ASMR video:


    Guys only want one thing -- and it's disgusting (affectionate encouragement).

    How are you people not consuming the content of the '95-'99 manic phase births? Whatever other roles they can play in the culture, the '85-'89 sad boys & girls, and the '90-'94 wild-child boys & girls, can't do the earthly guardian angel. Nurturing, resilient, caring, fun-loving, adventurous, and earthy without being coarse.

    The 2000-'04 sad boys & girls can't do this either. Billie Eilish or Olivia Rodrigo? Whatever their strengths, it's not as MPDGs. The next manic-phase cohort is too young right now (2010-'14 births).

    And of course there's the '80-'84 manic-phase births -- like moi -- but most of us have stopped creating content of any kind online. Sadge.

    Right here and now, it's the '95-'99 cohort who can play this crucial role. And they're all streamers or maybe vloggers, not podcasters (at least, not primarily), not shitposters (anymore...), etc.

    You'd have to suffer from terminal levels of girl-hating to not resonate with at least *someone* from that cohort who's a Manic Pixie Stream Girl.

    One of the few signs of fertility in this moribund culture, and it's very much appreciated.

  7. 5 6 7 8,
    Come on in and stay till late

  8. An ASMR that is overtly a guardian angel roleplay. From 2020, the start of the restless phase, when the Manic Pixie Dream Girl role emerges from hibernation.


    Hmmm, I swear I've heard that impish single-giggle laugh somewhere before...

    Back when I started writing about MPDGs in spring of 2019, I had no idea where they'd appear. I thought movies, TV, maybe music. But it was the streamers -- duh, in hindsight.

  9. Aimee Terese's twitter account has been unsuspended

  10. Aimee Terese is back from the Land of the Banned yet again! Suck on that, leftoids! Don't they know the phoenix comes from Phoenicia? Cultural ignorance can be a real killer.

    Every time they throw a demi-goddess into the River Styx, they're just building up her tolerance to it, elevating their nemesis ever closer to immortality.

    How can they not see this? LOL. First time the ban lasted a year, this time it was only a month. Next time, a week? Then a day? And suddenly --

    "Error: Your mass report has been rejected because the account, @aimeeterese, belongs to the group, Shitposting Immortals, who cannot be banned. Stay mad and cope harder, libtards."

    Glad to have you back online, special fren. :)

  11. Gura sang "Torn" on karaoke. Gen Z echo-ing Gen X, very heartwarming. :)

    I don't think Millennials associate that absolute staple of late '90s music with the zeitgeist, because they're thinking of the culture that children could resonate with, like the boy bands and girl groups.

    The more adult-oriented fare, even if it was also a chart-topper on the Hot 100, wasn't on their radar at the time. And maybe it's just my perception, but I don't think Millennials like adult music much in adulthood either, and therefore don't revisit the adult songs of previous decades when they go on a nostalgia trip.

    Very unlike what we Gen X-ers did during the '80s revival of the late 2000s and 2010s. "Mad About You," "In Your Eyes," "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us," etc. Whether it was your fave or not, you knew it, and it had to be included in any honest '80s revival.

    The only mature music that Millennials seem to like is if there's also an art-music angle to it, like Kate Bush, Talking Heads, Annie Lennox, etc. Part of their cosplay as eternal counter-cultural art-school students, or something.

    Boomers were like that too -- branded themselves early on as The Youth Generation, not aware that they'd get old before long, and then they'd be stuck pretending to be young forever. Major bummer to be over 30 / 40 / 50 / etc.

    They didn't keep alive the mature music of the '60s and '70s, only the youthquake staples that they identified with at the time. Again, like it or hate it, but how can you ignore all the music made for people over 25, across two whole decades?

    If anything, it's Gen X that went back through the '60s and '70s and picked out the adult-oriented songs. We've always been curating our culture to fit with a mature rather than adolescent lifestyle.

    "Without You" by Harry Nilsson was the #4 song of the year for 1971, but was also high on the adult contempo / easy listening charts, so Boomers mostly let it languish. It wasn't until Gen X-er Mariah Carey revived it in the early '90s, as Gen X as a whole was moving into the cultural spotlight, that it achieved canonical status -- both the original and the cover.

    Just one of many examples.

  12. But a Zoomer like Gura notices the mature culture from earlier periods, all the way back to the Midcentury. Edith Piaf, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Perry Como, bossa nova, "Beyond the Sea" -- you name it. All regulars in the karaoke playlist for the sharky chanteuse.

    It's very reminiscent of Gen X looking over that same period. There are so many Gen-X guys whose defining affectation is digging Frank Sinatra. But that doesn't mean they actually hate it, or didn't notice it. They're just exaggerating. Still, something Millennials would never do.

    Who can forget the swing music revival of the late '90s, entirely by and for Gen X-ers? Another staple of the zeitgeist lost to time, unless you were there to see Squirrel Nut Zippers perform on the second stage at the HFStival in nineteen ninety-whenever...

    Same with Mad Men, a defining Gen-X cultural work, whose characters were from the Silent Generation -- not perpetual adolescent spotlight-hoggers like the Boomers, or the Greatest Gen (like Roger).

    Millennials would have to cosplay as the Beatniks, or hippies / SDS in the '60s and '70s.

    Rockabilly seems to span both Millennials and X-ers, although from what I can tell, X-ers put a mature spin on it -- the woman with the bandana around her up-do, as a homemaker (but, like, a badass chick homemaker). Millennials emphasizing the rock 'n' roll, neo-Bonnie-and-Clyde youth angle.

  13. Mumei is another Zoomer in the group, and her karaoke is also tilted in the mature direction, like Gura. Train, Vanessa Carlton, John Denver, and yes, even Frank Sinatra.

    That's not to say they don't resonate with youth culture -- Gura sang "Party Rock Anthem" earlier this year, and Mumei has sung "Welcome To the Black Parade" several times. They're not "young fogeys," i.e. 20-somethings LARP-ing as middle-aged people.

    Still, it's striking how easily they identify with mature culture from earlier decades, whether the 2000s or the '50s. It's not just Midcentury LARP-ing, or else they'd hate Train and Vanessa Carlton as 21st-century abominations. They can go back decade by decade, and pick out the mature stuff that intrigues them.

    It's not an individual personality thing, since Gura's personality is not like the older sister or mother, but a hyperactive youngster (naturally, she's still in her early 20s). It's a generational thing, being a Zoomer rather than a Millennial. They're not an over-the-top, in-your-face generation, even in their early 20s.

    Likewise, Millennials in their early 20s were not picking through mature classics -- unless there was an art-y angle to it -- like the Zoomers are today. Millennials were, and will always be, an over-the-top generation, like the Boomers.

    I keep saying it, but if you're not following the streamers -- actual streamers, not podcasters on a streamer platform -- you're really missing out. Not just on the entertainment value per se, but also if you're just curious what the Zoomers are like.

    They never leave the home, so you can't get a sense from IRL. And they don't hang out on Boomer, X-er, or Millennial platforms -- mainly Twitch, TikTok, and somewhat on YouTube.

  14. "Thong Song" seems to have a shit ton of recent views and comments. It was released going into the refractory stage but it's popular when coming out of the refractory stage.

    "Cruel Summer" by Bananarama might fit this theme for the earlier cycle. Originally released in '83 in the UK but not charting in the US until '84 with its inclusion in The Karate Kid. (according to wikipedia)

  15. I included "Trick of the Night" by Bananarama in that post on dream-pop going mainstream during the vulnerable phase of the cycle ('85-'89 in that case). By the end there are so many layers droning and sighing on top of each other that you don't know whether you're asleep or awake.

    Their early stuff I like better, from the new wave style of the manic phase (early '80s). Their self-titled album is one of my favorites of any genre or time, not a skippable song on the whole thing. Iconic cover, too -- black background, expressionist colors, big hair, totally '80s.

    I almost bought the record of it, it was in the locked box in a used media store -- but it didn't have the fold-out poster of the expressionist new wave babes. So, no sale.

    Anyway, from their early material, I think "Rober De Niro's Waiting" is the most dream-poppy. It's still very catchy, melodic, and bouncy -- not trance-inducing -- but it is more subdued and ethereal in those aspects compared to a body-bumping banger like "Cruel Summer".


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