The literary critic Jesse McCarthy’s essay “Notes On Trap” combines musical analysis with cultural history in a dizzying, nearly-encyclopedic account of a now-ubiquitous genre of music. He writes that, “Trap is the only music that sounds like what living in contemporary America feels like. It is the soundtrack to the dissocialized subject that neoliberalism made.” While reading, I was reminded of the 2014 piece “We Are All Very Anxious” by the English collective We Are Plan C. The essay’s thesis is that anxiety is a “reactive affect” to contemporary life, which is increasingly defined by political instability and post-truth politics, as well as pervasive mass surveillance and social fragmentation.
McCarthy points out something obvious: If it’s difficult to say how we feel in public, the music of recent years has been telling us how we feel for a while. It works like this not only in content but also in form, in format. Music is better than almost any other art form at capturing the kind of placeless feelings that one gets from seeing increasingly horrifying and ludicrous news, logging on and off of dream-like social media simulacra, seeing people crowdsourcing funds for essential healthcare and negotiating the baffling array of techno-capital contrivances that mediate transportation, interaction with strangers, interaction with colleagues, interaction with close friends and loved ones. It’s a public secret that a lot of us are incapable of dealing with all of this, and the popular music records this — it practically trips over itself to tell us what we already know.
Consider “raingurl” by Yaeji. The beat is miniaturized to the size of mobile streaming, almost a scale model of itself. The kick drum is an obscure thump, routed through plastic, and the percussion is a brittle stage whisper. Everything inessential is discarded or diminished to the size of her languid, halting vocals — she mumbles, and the rest of the instrumental mumbles with her. Her drum patterns codify the tendency of dance music to end up mostly accompanying stationary head-nodding while holding a drink (and more often: walking somewhere, sitting on the bus, studying, a constant distraction). The beat in “raingurl” does not move forward, it rather levitates and rotates like a sprinkler head. A song from the same EP, “drink I’m sippin on,” does much of the same thing to a sort of bubble-wrapped trap music. The drum pattern has the gliding fluency of trap but none of the momentum. It instead sways pendulously side to side, directing the listener’s attention to the ceiling.
Sasha Geffen writes in his review of Yaeji’s EP2 that the songs “remind you of the limits of dancefloor transcendence, and the strange, lonely pocket you fall into when you aim for transcendence and miss.” It might be more appropriate to say that the songs take that pocket as a starting point: You’re disillusioned from the moment you walk into the club. The definitive move in Yaeji’s lyrics is the abrupt pivot from rumination to half-hearted partying and back again, and her production style sticks definitively to the former. Her remix of the Australian producer Mall Grab’s track “Guap” is emblematic. Her deadpan delivery completely changes the energy of the 20-plus years of accumulated references to “the club” that she has inherited, and the production style is more moody than anything else. With her voice, the repeated line “Every time I walk in I feel the same / In the shadows, life is just a game” loses any insider allure and becomes almost a plea.
Her music is, in summary, presenting an internal and an external state at the same time, presenting the public narrative of nihilistic luxury and accumulation while also showing private doubts, dejection, rumination, anxiety. “raingurl” prickles like doubt, moves with a weird fixedness. It is music of the moment, music that moves into the future only because there’s nowhere else to go.