Scared to Live, Scared to Dream:
A Concessionary Note on Magic Oneohtrix Point Never

Readers, I’m sorry. I made a mistake. I recently promised you a 10,000 word monstrosity on the new Oneohtrix Point Never album, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never, but I think it would be better for all if I cut my losses and abandoned the project.

It seemed doable at the time. I had clocked up some 8,000 words of notes but the end was nowhere in sight. That was quite exciting. To be in the midst of such an outpouring is the kick I’m always chasing. It was clear that, if I was to fully unpack all my thoughts and feeling about this release, it could probably be the length of a small book, and I had every intention of vomiting it all up for you to probably bookmark for later and never come back to. But, in the end, I lost momentum.

Magic Oneohtrix Point Never has me feeling very inspired lately because the questions it has raised chime with a lot of my present research. I have been unearthing the early blogosphere’s writings around accelerationism for much of this year and I am some 50,000 words into a new book draft, but more recently I have entered a new phase of research where I consider how the questions asked by the first accelerationists and hauntologists and speculative realists — although largely maligned today — have nonetheless continued to percolate in our cultural discourse.

Oneohtrix Point Never is exemplary of how those questions are manifest, but in trying to explain why I feel that is the case, I had begun to regurgitate a lot of my research. Whilst it has helped clarify my current work-in-progress immensely, I don’t think it would do me any favours to keep slogging away at it. The full exegesis is probably better left in the oven for a little while long.

Nevertheless, if I was to summarise where my head is at right now, I would do it as follows:

On the one hand, the early twenty-first century was defined by thinkers like Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, who were considering how a new political movement could be born after Occupy failed to produce a new popular anti-capitalist opposition (although its cultural influence on an emergent generation of young activists surely cannot be overstated). On the other hand, a lot of cultural discourse was defined by writers such as Simon Reynolds and Mark Fisher, who were explicitly concerned about a pop-cultural stagnation following the apparent “end of history”. This stagnation was supposedly disproven as the years dragged on and their critical view of the present was soon blamed on their disconnection from the youth or then-emergent subcultures. This does a disservice to their arguments. Though it is true that their critiques feel less relevant now than they once did — in part thanks to the terms they used to define their discourses falling into catastrophic disrepute — the tensions they uncovered have still yet to be fully resolved.

All in all, the questions that linger today are: What is the New? And how does it manifest itself? Or, alternatively: How is it produced? Philosophically, we can turn to Deleuze and Badiou. (I already wrote about this recently here.) Does the new emerge wholly ex nihilo? (Those who have internalised a misunderstanding of Fisher’s hauntological critiques certainly refuse to accept anything less than an absolute New, even though I reckon they’d reject it outright if it landed in their lap.) Or does the new emerge from a multiplicitious sense of the past? (The particulars of Deleuze’s theory of time(s) — difference and repetition, aion and chronos, etc. — are fascinating to consider here but aren’t so easily dissolved into a nice chat about pop music. Nevertheless, we can see this approach expressed in the work of William Burroughs, in hip-hop, in the Situationist International, in “deconstructed club music”, in all sorts of places.)

My feeling at the moment, for both contemporary music (pop or otherwise) and political philosophy, is that the truth is to be found in some synthesis of the two. How can we retain a fidelity to the new — new forms, new visions, new futures, new realities — without throwing the recombinant baby out with the bath water? How can we retain a cultural love of the sample, of chopping and screwing, of mutating, without becoming complicit in capitalism’s appropriations? How do we tell the two apart? How do use use the former to stay one step ahead of the latter?

Clearly these are very big questions. They were nonetheless some of the questions I hoped to tackle in my reflections not only on Magic Oneohtrix Point Never but all the previous albums Daniel Lopatin has released over the last 10-15 years. In fact, I had intended to break each of these albums down and consider how each entry in his oeuvre has toed the line between cultural innovation and capitalist appropriation.

Consider Replica, for instance — a slab of earworms created from sampled commercials and advertisements. It is a masterful and evocative record. It epitomises, I think, what Mark Fisher called a “digital psychedelia”; a capitalist counter-sorcery.

Advertisements are essentially fish hooks, intended to lure us into an engagement with the market. Lopatin, in removing the final destination and looping the samples into hypnotic grooves, emphasises that intention but uncouples it from its ultimate purpose. We feel that desire, hard-baked into the commercial soundscape, but here it is instead inserted into the unconscious in the form of earworms, and we are left with a music that leaves us desiring itself. Not a jingle that enforces us to remember a brand but a jingle that forces us to remember ourselves. It is both seductive and jarring in equal measure.

This experience has been shared by every 0PN record since. Indeed, every first listen to a 0PN record has been the same for me — I may not immediately enjoy it or be able to place it within my expectations, but rather than be absolutely repulsive I find myself always coming back for more. The feedback loop created is hallucinatory — whether it is capitalism or teenage memories of nu metal or format fetishishism, the target of Lopatin’s acidic practice is gradually displaced and a new kind of mental process takes over: one that is newly generative and inspiring rather than purely nostalgic or haunted.

This is where Lopatin’s time-travelling twists first emerge and set him apart from his peers. Whilst his practice is by no means — in and of itself — new, in constantly updating it to the present we find a new kind of psychedelia produced each time. It is hardly aesthetically comparable to psychedelic cliché but this is precisely how Lopatin has managed to skirt around the faults of his contemporaries.

For instance, I recently wrote about how I first saw Lopatin perform at an Animal Collective-curated music festival back in 2011. Looking back, 0PN feels like an odd fit for that line-up but, at the time, he wasn’t at all. His psychedelic output seemed very similar to much of what was being put out at that time but, in hindsight, it differs in a very important way.

The more typical production of hallucinatory feedback loops might be epitomised by a track like “Take Pills” by Panda Bear. It’s sampling of Scott Walker’s Proustian chanson “Always Coming Back To You” is inspired, but the track’s Sixties sentimentality is repurposed for a post-Beach Boys psychedelic bop that seems to lament a lost generation of acid casualties in a world where visions are nonetheless needed more than ever.

Lopatin’s output has never shared this psychedelic melancholy. In fact, his distance from his peers is arguably what has allowed him to persevere over the last decade whereas so many others have fallen from critical favour.

Lopatin seems innately aware of this difference. For example, in a 2013 cover story written by Derek Walmsley for The Wire, he notes that his love of synths set him very much outside what was popular at the time. When he was in college, he recalls, “it was the height of freak folk”, and his “Juno-60 and tape machine and loops”, contrary to what you might expect, were not welcome as part of that scene. “That whole experience was so unhappy”, he says. “It lacked a kind of communal vibe.”

So Lopatin finds himself falling in with the Boston noise scene. Walmsley notes what sets them apart, writing:

Noise is often discussed (and mythologised) as if it were a precisely definable musical style – a brutal endgame where all ideas of structure are thrown out the window. But in the US, particularly with its distinctively regional dynamic of independent local scenes, Noise was more like an optimistic fresh start, a blank slate for kids to start again from first principles and see where it took them.

Here we see how Lopatin, though he no doubt shared the counter-cultural tastes of his peers, was more attuned to the production of the new rather than a latent mourning of what was now in the past.

He may have initially hoped for some affinity with his peers, but this apparent inability to fit in with the Noughties cool kids has been vindicated. Recently reviewing Sufjan Stevens’ 2020 album The Ascension, Carl Wilson poignantly reflects on the “gauzy idealization of childishness [that] seemed endemic to indie rock” in the 2000s, “particularly among artists often grouped with Stevens as psychedelic folk or ‘freak folk’”. He notes that

collectively [the freak folk scene] seemed to be staging a kind of privileged retreat from the dystopic realities of post-9/11 America while claiming it as resistance. It recollected the worst solipsistic flower-child affectations of 1960s hippies and flattered and indulged their audiences’ insular LiveJournaling sensitivities.

In this sense, the Noughties idealization of a musical naivety was less a celebration of innocence than a mournful expression at its loss post-9/11. Freak folk was not an embrace of new freedoms but an attempt to hold onto to freedoms eventually lost.

The Boston noise scene may have been Lopatin’s saving grace. He has gone on to progress and mature in a way that very few others within his generation have. He has weathered the storm and retained his relevance from record to record.

How? Perhaps it comes down to a subtle difference in orientation. At the dawn of a new millennium and the end of an old dream, Lopatin was one of the grateful dead; his peers and the critics of the time were not grateful for their lot at all.

Fast-forward to 2020 and it feels like Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is an much-needed jolt for those of us who may be feeling that old melancholy creep back in, somewhat inevitably during this hollow and uneventful year where it feels like we have lost much more than just 12 months of our lives.

It is an album that is both strange and familiar. We hear shades of all of Lopatin’s preceding projects in here, as if he has expertly salvaged all the best bits of his various experiments and presented them to us on an irresistible platter. Philip Sherburne no doubt said in best in the leader for his review of the album for Pitchfork: “Daniel Lopatin’s latest doesn’t swerve in a new direction but instead serves as an overlook for his career, highlighting his skill at splicing the old and the new in continually fascinating ways.” Too right! And yet, this praise is also somewhat understated. It is the sort of praise all too often given to an album late in an artist’s career, which reminds us why we love them. A sort of victory lap, as it were.

Lopatin has certainly covered a lot of ground. From sorcerous muzak and nu-metallic concrète to baroque synth-trap and Svengali pop, it feels like he has been moving ever further outwards, and so an album that feels like less of a sonic challenge and more in-line with his oversall sound is surprising, but, to me, it feels more like a fly-by. This isn’t 0PN losing its edge. It is a project on an elliptical orbit out in the trash stratum and 2020 has brought it closer to earth than ever before.

There is so much left to say here but, if I am being honest with myself, I have once again bitten off more than I can chew. Instead, I hope that I can continue to expand the pages upon pages of notes I’ve gathered over the last month into a series that fragments these thoughts and offers them up piecemeal, one essay at a time — whether on this blog or posted elsewhere. Later, they’ll no doubt end up patchworked within my next book project in all their glory but, for now, I’m constipated.

Before the laxative kicks in, I would like to leave you with a final thought, cut loose from the unruly Document, which perhaps summarises what feels so precious about Magic Oneohtrix Point Never in 2020 of all years…

The image that defines this album for me is actually tangential to Lopatin’s OPN output. Back in March of this year, mere weeks before the world locked down, Lopatin was on Saturday Night Live backing up The Weeknd on a performance of his song “Scared to Live”.

It is an evocative performance, at the time of recording and even more so looking back. Abel Tesfaye’s battered and broken face prefigures a cultural landscape pummelled by political upheaval and strife, nonetheless imploring the subject of his song not to be scared to live again. It’s upbeat but dark — the sort of romantic ballad that I imagine empowering an agoraphobe who hasn’t left the house since their mugging.

More explicitly, it feels like a love song to a movement. Tesfaye’s face evokes the beaten protestors of the Black Lives Matter movement who once again define our present discontent, but who are threatened not only by the long arm of the state but the emboldened militias that counter their cries with an increasing ferocity. Defiant but battered, it is a movement that implores a whole race of people not to be scared to live again.

Familiar but jarring as ever, Lopatin bounces in the background to the pop power ballad. As producer, he comes to resemble that unconscious voice that speaks to a time beyond the battered present, somewhere eternal. As Tesfaye weathers the pop frontline, Lopatin lurks in the background, although no less significant, having survived the cultural contradictions of the last two decades somehow unscathed, face intact.

We should not presume that this is because Lopatin has sat out the fight; that old mask was more like a cunning shield. He has instead reached his ultimate — but surely not final — form: the producer as Man-in-the-High-Castle, somehow able to produce visions of alternative presents.

As Enrico Monacelli recently highlighted, Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is an album that evokes “format flips”: “those moments in which American radio stations change their biology, ceasing to be, for example, predominantly easy-listening radio and becoming soft-rock radio.” Lopatin isn’t so much nostalgia for radio, he is radio — a receptor for shifting signals, with one foot firmly in the present, helping to manufacture today’s hits, whilst his other foot is in the eternal, evoking the river that such hits are tossed into without a paddle.

This is how Magic Oneohtrix Point Never feels. It is not only that it compiles all that Lopatin has learnt and explored over the last decade or so, but in doing so it seems to map a way out of our stasis, beyond the injuries that ache all too presently.

With “Scared to Live” in mind, I think my favourite track on Magic Oneohtrix Point Never is “No Nightmares”, also featuring the Weeknd. It is a track that seems to reach out of its own conceptual landscape and into Tesfaye’s. Whereas the message behind “Scared to Live” seems self-explanatory, the sentiment behind “No Nightmares” is more elusive, but it is surely related…

Once you’re no longer scared to live, stop being scared to dream.

This is but one example how Magic Oneohtrix Point Never manages to float above the plane of pop’s present somewhat omniscient, with an eye to the past but also an eye to a future that has all but vanished in the fog of lockdown. If the future is going to be worth having, we have to learn lessons from both of worlds: the material and the immaterial. But, even more importantly, we have to realise that it is in the gap between the two — between the battered new struggling to be born, and the recombinant that emerges eerily unscathered — that is where the true new is lying in wait for us.

Lopatin has known for this a long time. We’ve struggled to keep up. If Magic Oneohtrix Point Never feels familiar, it is because Lopatin has been channelling this message for a long time now, but he has expressed it here with a whole new clarity.

This is to say that, although the sounds are different, the message is a repetition. But this is also why his message is so powerful and revelatory.

Consider the fragmentary text that still appears beneath the videos archived from his old Memory Vague project, first released over a decade ago:

It is in the weird stasis of in-between zones that this polarized system breaks down
This zone contains secrets that inform the future via exploding the past

[Nostalgia’s failure is a decoding force]

Magic Oneohtrix Point Never decodes 2020 in real time, as Lopatin doesn’t just express this in-between zone but finally becomes it.

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