It’s an easy question for most people: “Where are you from?” They answer with a quick reference to their nearest metropolitan center. New York. Seattle. St. Louis. I have a little more difficulty responding. I was born in New Jersey, spent early elementary in Pennsylvania, started adolescence in Illinois and finished it in Michigan and California. Each place I’ve lived has imparted something within me: a mild Mid-Atlantic accent that slips when I’m angry or distracted, a taste for Polish food from dinners at my neighbor’s house, a love for car culture and keen interest in film and entertainment. So, when someone asks that simple question, what do I say? How many words can I get in before someone tunes out?
Moving has led to bigger problems than this. As I’ve hopped from suburb to suburb, from small city to metropolis, I’ve only experienced local culture from a distance. Sure, I can tell you about the new restaurant that opened downtown, but I know nothing of the community involvement it took to get it up and running. I can talk to you about hockey, or football, or whatever sport or team this town likes best, but I don’t have the passion that a native does. Even after spending years somewhere, bearing harsh winters and watching shops close and open, I rarely feel connected to the place.
Very few of my classmates shared my experience, and as a result, I turned inward — specifically, online. The internet proved to be a useful an outlet for my frustrations and feelings of alienation. It became a habit. What started as harmless fun on websites like Webkinz or Neopets in elementary school morphed into preoccupations with the status of my Tumblr or new threads on forums like 4chan or Reddit. On the web, I was surrounded with countless other faceless, placeless, ageless people looking for connection. Anonymity was a thrill.
As I became more engrossed in internet culture, my world view changed. I no longer wanted to feel tied to a place or a people. My taste in music changed radically as I turned to acts like Crystal Castles, Death Grips and Purity Ring, who tapped into my teenage frustration more than any other artist could. The internet was an invisible landscape of possibility, and I was going to take advantage of it.
Let’s start with Crystal Castles’ “Suffocation,” from their stand-out second self-titled album. The track opens with an unforgettable progression of sweet synth, contrasted by an anxious bassline and noisy harmony in the same tenor as the melody. Ethan Kath sews them together as Alice Glass comes in, her breathy voice rendered half-comprehensible until the first lines of the chorus come through clearly: “I suffocate / And promise me you won’t resuscitate.” Glass declares more and more of her self-destructive impulses, but is unable to completely erase her presence on the track no matter how much her voice distorts. As a teenager, I was drawn by the inorganic sound and angry, intense subject matter. The music my friends listened to didn’t access the ugly aspects of existence enough for me.
Death Grips’ “Hacker” struck the same balance of listenability, intensity and edginess that I could only find online. Opening with the stirring sounds of a public space, MC Ride comes in hot, referencing countless figures in pop culture and swaggering about. He’s surrounded by various sonic accoutrements like antsy riffs and distorted yodeling sounds all steadied by a driving beat. The best element of “Hacker” is MC Ride’s repeated taunt: “I’m in your area / I know the first three numbers.” “Hacker” reveled early in the power that media can bestow, those “first three numbers” of an IP being the key to accessing any personal information. Death Grips was ahead of the curve.
Not all of the music I grew up on was so dark, though. Purity Ring’s debut album Shrines built an elfish, wondrous landscape of digestible pop that was just as immersive as Death Grips or Crystal Castles. The internet has a knack for creating fictional spaces, and the body of Shrines is structured by the same electronic techniques that made my other favorites. For example, the track “Ungirthed” spins a story of spirits, who watch the world around them decompose, eventually joining the tombs themselves. Other tracks like “Saltkin” question the grip we have on ourselves: “There’s a cult, there’s a cult inside of me / Form a salt, sprinkle it around me.” The tenuously real space that Shrines attempts to define reflected my own anxieties regarding the internet: What can this space be used for? Does this fantasy loosen my grip on reality?
As a result of all my time spent on the internet, curating collections of songs, images and jokes for entertainment, I’ve developed a part of myself that can only be called “Extremely Online.” I can’t tell you why the phrases “BOTTOM TEXT,” “Smockin” or “Wass6p” and their respective permutations are funny, but I can tell you (with some certainty) that they’re funnier than most stand-up today. Memes and image Macros are parts of a lingua franca that help bridge the gap between my placelessness and desire to feel connected to something. Online, things are constantly evolving and engaging. It’s part of why I love it. The real world changes slowly, but in the digital realm, things appear and disappear without warning. One day you’re a Bitcoin millionaire, the next day you’re a broke boy that should have cashed out sooner.
Who knows how Bitcoin works, anyway?