Underlines make music about the anxiety of being alive

Apparently, one of the most exciting stories in music this year is the lack of excitement around music. In January, the question was asked “Does old music kill new music?” went viral when a newsletter by jazz historian Ted Gioia (republished by Atlantic Ocean) highlighted data showing that listener numbers for newly released songs fell from 2020 to 2021 – compared to listener numbers for older songs. Gioia claimed that the music industry had “lost confidence” in the new, and he shared anecdotes suggesting that children today are strangely in love with the hits of previous generations. Many people who shared his post on social media used it as an opportunity to declare that listeners were stuck in a retro trackit is today the music was badand that the internet had killed from the very concept of novelty.

The conversation generally got past the fact that streaming allows us to quantify something that has always happened: People listen to their favorite songs, no matter when those songs were released, over and over again. But the theory that the old kills the new clearly has wide appeal right now. As we enter the third year of a pandemic, the passage of time feels broken. More than a decade into the Spotify era, culture has broken down in a way that makes it harder to talk about the latest hot stuff. The endless archives of the Internet have put the past in direct competition with the present. Record companies, as Gioia pointed out, are recalibrating around this reality. Is our culture? Are our artists? When the past is infinitely accessible, then does it shape how the future sounds?

While social media sparked these questions, I was deep in the violence of an obsession with a new musician: stresses, the recording name of 21-year-old Devon Karpf, who makes intelligent, guitar-laden electronic pop about the fear of being alive. So far, their main claim to fame has opened for the hyperpop duo 100 Gecs and the work of Blink-182’s Travis Barker. But Karpf’s debut album from 2021, fishmonger, sounds like an expertly produced band with a record deal and not, as is actually the case, an unsigned SoundCloud dabbler stuck in their parents’ house because of COVID-19. Music glitches, hip-hop backbeats, distorted vocals and emo tunes feel great now– Yet it also drips with nostalgia for 2000s pop punk, 90s alt-rock and, most surprisingly, far from cool Millennial touchstones like MGMT and Cobra Starship. When I first heard the album, I could not figure out if I was so fascinated by it because it was familiar or because it was not.

Fishmonger remained on loop for me – and then stresses released a follow-up EP, boneyard aka fearmonger, it was even better. The new songs ranged from acoustic ballads to EDM freak-outs with mocking keyboards and fragile, rumbling melodies. The vocals seemed to slip between identities – you feel like you’re listening to a cartoon in one verse, a tattooed punk in the next – while delivering mysterious, evocative lyrics. The more I listened, the more I was assured that old-against-new Twisting on the web was about economic structures, not generational aesthetic longings. Now, as always before, young people would continue to use the past to push on.

When I spoke to Karpf on the phone in January, they came out as smart, self-conscious and very much in love with music. As children in San Francisco, they started using their father’s computer to burn CDs with loops of their beats. In high school, Karpf became a jazz band nerd with a penchant for music theory. But their main influences were the scenes they discovered on the internet – especially dubstep, a dance music subgenre that grew in the early 2010s. “Skrillex gave birth to a whole legion of children who were 10 years old when ‘Scary Monsters’ came out and realized that was what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives,” Karpf said, referring to a famous swoop-hair DJ and his 2010 song and EP with the title Creepy monsters and sweet spirits.

Dubstep, who supercharges reggae rhythms with bass tremors, got a stereotype of bridge-ishness when artists like Skrillex and Diplo gained fame. But for Karpf, dubstep was “like rocket science shit,” suggesting the endless possibilities of electronic production. “It’s a method of making music that is experimental in ways that no other kind of music is,” they said. “The structure does not change at all, but the places where you experiment, where you get reputable, are sound designed.” Karpf mentioned Skrillex’s characteristic “growl” noise, which other artists have struggled to accurately copy. “The concept of having an equation that has been unsolved by someone over 10 years is so fascinating to me,” they said.

Underscore’s latest music only sometimes sounds like dubstep. But it reflects the sensitivity of someone who has logged countless hours playing with audio software and exchanging streaming links. In Twitch livestreams for fans, Karpf selects their song’s layers of sounds, samples and effects. There are many references: They will talk about a bass line that evokes Rage Against the Machine, or about how bands from the MySpace era inspired them to write a song in a certain key. Such a picky, playful production is essential to the freshness of the music. An eye-catching track, “Tongue in Cheek”, makes pop-punk tropes feel new, thanks in part to how the instruments move in the mix. The riffs are like a submarine – running under a calm surface and then breaking it.

The vocals are also innovative. Following the model of the 21st century’s most important pop musicians, Karpf uses technology to sing beyond the physical limits of the human voice. The way 100 Gecs’ Laura Les, a trans woman, “manipulated her voice to make it sound more authentic to her identity” gave Karpf the confidence to have their own vocals at all, Karpf told me. In general, Gecs’ appearance in the last few years has put energy on the online scene of young pop decorators, of which stress is a part. Gecs “made us all realize that all these sounds that we would push out because we figured it would hurt our chances of earning a living – people want to hear it,” Karpf said. “People want to hear things that are distorted. They want to hear something that’s funny.”

The result of these revelations is music that is non-binary in both form and content. (“You see straight people doing hyperpop, and it’s like, Yo, what’s going on?Said Karpf with a laugh). Underscores ‘incredible “Girls and Boys” seems to turn the perspective of a whole series of voyeuristic songs about sexual minorities – think of Blur’s “Girls & Boys” or The Killers’ “Somebody Told Me” with other people who could kill me? ”reads a line.) Other numbers dissect fame worship with the implication that for some children – not only queer children, but also children of color (Karpf’s mother is Filipino and their father is white) – hungry for role models not junk at all. “Tongue in Cheek” pays homage to an unnamed celebrity that Karpf said they had based “their whole personality on” when they were younger; on Discord, underscore fans have been trying to guess who that celebrity was .

Queer emo dubstep may sound like a parody of what the new wave of the future may be, and highly referential songs about imitating other people may seem to support arguments that our culture is stuck. But then again, Kurt Cobain idolized John Lennon, Beyoncé took inspiration from Tina Turner, and Skrillex was obsessed with the Aphex Twin. Innovation has always emerged through the creative use of well-known ingredients, the embrace of new technology and the expression of previously repressed views. Although the entertainment industry may well be restructured to reward established brands at the expense of the upstarts, communities are still being formed around new artists all the time.

The Underscores played their first ever headline show last month at a small club in Brooklyn. The spectators featured young people in cat ears and transparent backpacks mashing and singing along to every word in a sleek catalog of songs. At one point during the sold-out concert, Karpf broke into a cover of No Doubt’s “Hella Good,” a pulsating, still futuristic-apparent hit from 2001 that I hadn’t actively thought about for years. The rush of nostalgia in me rushed up against the excitement of being disoriented in the present. Karpf had told me that one day they would like to tour with a band of instrumentalists, but most of that night they were the only person on stage to jump around and sing to a backing track. The emptiness around them felt like a precious thing, unexplored space.

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