Dreamless Pop

When did dream pop lose its psychedelia and become the generic soundtrack for every new Netflix teen drama going?

I unashamedly like a lot of weird YA dramas on Netflix. Locke & Key is a good example. Dark is a better one. I liked The Umbrella Academy too. I even continue to have time for Stranger Things despite many being fed up with its pastiching. I think I just have a soft spot for shows that emphasise or try to exaggerate the sheer surreality of adolescence and childhood.

It’s an age old trope, of course. The two-part adaptation of IT might be the most obvious big screen example in recent years but it’s hardly new. Bingeing Locke & Key from my Sunday sick bed today, I feel newly aware of just how far this continuum stretches back.

The show contains numerous references early on, for instance — explicit ones, that is, in the script — to The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. This got me thinking about how, as a kid, I always preferred The Wolves of Willoughby Chase. Then I remembered in the pub last night how I inadvertently started talking about Skellig. On Twitter last week someone blogged about Elidor. Last year I read Alice in Wonderland aloud to my girlfriend before bed, for its own merits and to support a reading of Deleuze’s Logic of Sense

Across time periods, the strangeness of childhood and adolescence has been fertile ground for telling stories of the weird and the eerie. Perhaps that’s because fairy tales themselves have always been good examples of the weird. Culturally, we like to scare our kids, to install superegos, perhaps, but also I think just because their minds are more easily taken advantage of. It’s a fun kind of transcultural sadism…

This is all very obvious, really, but I guess what I’m trying to affirm here is that, past or present, I’m always interested to see how youth is used as a vector for sociopolitical potentials; how a child’s innately psychedelic perspective allows other worlds and forms of life to emerge in our cultural imaginations.

At times, I find my fascination with these sorts of stories becoming entangled with a sort of nostalgia for a previous social and cultural freedom but I also love to hear the new emerging from an articulation of a sensation I am already familiar with and appreciate the importance of.

Pop music can be great for this too. Lorde’s album Pure Heroine might be one of the best musical distillations of adolescent weirdness from the last decade. It’s an album that I listened to obsessively when it came out, not long after I left university, and I was totally consumed by its songs of teenage outsideness presented with a production style that felt incredibly refreshing. You’d be surprised — in fact, I even surprise myself — just how emotional that album makes me still, as an eerie document of fading innocence. That’s certainly what it felt like to me at the time, fully entering my twenties, newly outside the bubble of full-time education, feeling fully devoid of prospects, instead doubling down on the particular temporalities of unemployment in my hometown where I felt like I was slipping through the cracks into my own subcultural underworld.

I was thinking about all this and more whilst I was watching Locke & Key earlier. I thought about how much I liked the magical realism in the show, even at its most janky. I liked how this weirdness of the Locke family home could permeate the high school environment with surprisingly little resistance whilst the adults are, for the most part, oblivious to the teenagers’ dramas. The plasticity of the teenagers’ brains and the rigidity of the adults made me, as a viewer, feel oddly in between. Both responses were weird. But there was something else that kept pulling me back from this and which made it a really jarring experience, but not in a positive way at all.

The soundtrack could not have been any more generic if it tried.

I don’t know if there’s a name for this or not. There probably is. It’s that corporate pop that all sounds the same and has no message or distinguishable production style. It feels like it’s been made by some sort of hit factory somewhere. I associate it most explicitly with something like Made In Chelsea. It’s wellness pop. Gooped pop. Middle class generic pop made by some quartet who have had a completely frictionless twenties. You’ll know what I mean. Think Bastille and their hundreds of clones. It seems to permeate every teen drama there is, and it’s all the more obvious if a show has a supernatural or paranormal element.

When I think about k-punk’s various requiems for popular modernism, I always feel like we haven’t reached the true depths of its absence yet. The BBC might have sonically unweirded Doctor Who, for instance, but there was still a time recently when the music controllers for popular programming could shoehorn in contemporary oddities. I remember Top Gear car reviews soundtracked by Boards of Canada, for instance, and even though a whole generation might have wishfully modelled their lives after Skins, it felt like very few within its target audience were picking up Animal Collective albums after hearing them soundtrack a point of narrative tension.

Looking back on a show like Skins now — proverbially, at least: to actually rewatch it would be torturous — these sorts of musical decisions made it feel contemporary. It hasn’t aged well but, at the time, it felt like the bleeding edge of… something.

Watching these new weird shows, they feel distinctly devoid of a time — which, ironically, is what makes them feel most now. These scenes with cookie-cutter dream pop make the shows feel culturally disorientated in much the same way that many have claimed a show like Sex Education is. Whereas previous shows were buoyed by well chosen soundtracks these shows are dragged down by a complete lack of sonic imagination. They are defined by a sort of ambient music, especially when diegetic, that serves only to remove any well-scripted weirdness.

Why do I feel like the fault lies with Spotify? Maybe someone better informed can shine a light on the silent death of smart licensing? Maybe music licensing is one of those jobs woefully given over to algorithms? Or maybe this is the trickle down cultural impact of capitalist realism at its most banal?

Whatever the cause, all narratives of new worlds suffer if they’re incapable of referencing the newness of now. How are we meant to find connections between the radical magic of a coming new and the already contemporary if the characters on our screens aren’t given the same opportunity?

It’s almost as if we’re not supposed to. No longer are these strange tales of psychedelic childhoods meant to keep the fire of otherworldly potentials burning. They’re salves. Nothing more.

This stasis doesn’t lie with music licensing alone. I want to offer up another case in point that I’ve been thinking a lot about recently: Gilmore Girls.

My girlfriend just completed an epic rewatch of that show’s seven seasons and I enjoyed watching it myself for the first time — at intervals — alongside her.

The show’s wit still holds up todat and its machine-gun cultural referencing is pretty electric. But I kept thinking: All that aside, what are we left with? A relatable story of a modern middle class family. A girl and her mum, growing up together in Small Town USA. Rori Gilmore’s life aspirations of going to Harvard and joining the rat race as a hot shot journalist are weirdly 00s and bougie but the rapidity of the hypertext dialogue was pretty incredible to me. In fact, it was what made the show so entertaining for me personally. Bands and films and other references, from low culture to high, old to new, pepper every exchange. An otherwise generic sitcom is given a unique energy as it feels like the two central characters are, when not on screen, jacked into a rapidly emerging cyberspace and a contemporary moment of atemporal postmodern cultural proliferation. It’s the sort of metadialogue that has been fetishised in a sitcom like Spaced or, more recently, Community (where it is reduced to a particular trait of an autistic character) but here it exists intergenerationally and effortlessly.

What does this mean, if anything?

I’m not sure. But I’m increasingly disturbed of late that we’re continuing to lose a lot more from our pop culture than we’re aware of. I feel more and more like this is what constituted the “frenzied stasis” of late capitalism for Mark Fisher. The spectacular but superficially new distracts us as we lose far more than is currently being produced to the ambient incursions of capitalist stasis on our cultural imaginations.

I don’t like it one bit.


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