Instant Nostalgia: How Hypnagogic Pop is Redefining Culture & Why You Should Be Listening to Ducktails
How Hypnagogic Pop is Redefining Culture & Why You Should Be Listening to Ducktails
by Zachariah Webb
In an era where every blogger with a dictionary is apt to cobble together adjectives in order to pin down an artist’s particular sound, a proliferation of obscure subgenres of “indie pop” have come to resemble the inaccessible and incoherent family tree of a soap opera. However, one instance of a subgenre materializing from the world of music criticism—hypnagogic pop—is representative of not only a minor music trend of hazy, dream-like nostalgia, but a far-reaching cultural perception.
In 2009, The Wire’s David Keenan coined the term “hypnagogic pop” to encapsulate a recent trend of underground American musicians utilizing lo-fi, reverb saturated sounds and revisionist nostalgia to construct an aural aesthetic of a golden epoch long since faded. Defined as, “relating to, or occurring in the period of drowsiness immediately preceding sleep,” hypnagogic brings to mind the hazy, dreamlike quality of memories brought to life in the state between waking and sleeping.
Hypnagogic pop (or h-pop), accordingly, is a subgenre with loose boundaries, as it deals more so with the aesthetic similarities of artists prone to lo-fi productions, a clear dependence on the past, and DIY techniques of distribution. While artists like LA Vampires, Ariel Pink, Pocahaunted, Ducktails & James Ferraro clearly fit this approach, there is some crossover with its arguable spawn—chillwave, made famous in the mid to late 00s by Washed Out, Toro y Moi & Neon Indian.
The particular sound of h-pop is heavily influenced by the decade in which many of these artists were watching Saturday cartoons and drowning themselves in the synth-driven scores of early video games: the eighties. Drawing on this past, much music tagged as h-pop would sound perfectly at home blasting through an FM radio station forever lost in 1984. The woozy sounds of Ariel Pink and Ducktails seem to draw unironically on a wealth of old children’s cartoons and eighties chart pop-rock, distorting it into a hazy, psychedelic sound evocative of the surreal slant of late afternoon sun passing through the blinds.
The synth-driven hook of Ariel Pink’s eerie, “Fright Night (Nevermore),” would, for instance, be equally at home in an eighties public service announcement about the perils of stranger danger or on a millennial’s playlist for a retro Halloween party, while the bright neon vibes of “Beverly Kills” could just as easily be the unreleased theme to a Beverley Hills Cop remake. His music lends itself to a kind of “wide asleep” trance, where one’s far off gaze fluctuates between warm visions of the past and the smog-ridden sky. Occupying the ethereal space between the past and present, Ariel Pink especially seems to rely on borrowed elements from his childhood in the eighties to articulate a sense of overwhelming nostalgia felt by the present.
Another prominent artist of the loose-knit h-pop family committed to evoking images of “back then” is Ducktails. Inspired by the eighties Disney cartoon of the same name, Ducktails began as the side project of Real Estate drummer, Matt Mondanile, in a Northampton tool shed during his last year of college and has since spawned several albums and EPs. Several of which were, naturally, released exclusively on cassette. Dominated by airy vibes with a psychedelic slant, Mondanile’s work reveals what Pitchfork deems “a reflexively hazy attitude toward the way of the world” and drips with nostalgia for summers past. Ducktails is, therefore, a prime example of the blending of genres, influences & electronic textures paramount to hypnogogic pop. While distinctly more polished than his lo-fi earlier releases like Landscapes, Mondanile’s most recent effort, Wish Hotel is still a dreamy five-track soundtrack to an overcast afternoon. Check out “Honey Tiger Eyes,” the lead single from Wish Hotel, below:
Rejecting the modern ease of high-end production values, many h-pop artists turn to recording music videos with old VHS camcorders—splicing together old cereal commercials and snippets of MTV as a visual representation of their collaged sound. Distorted images and odd color saturation aid in a surprisingly cohesive articulation of a nostalgic aesthetic through both the music and its visual representation.
This piecing together of multiple influences and reference points from a familiar culture is often grounds for critique, as some claim that the work falling under the h-pop umbrella is merely a derivative collage as opposed to a genuine synthesis of their influences. With such an intrinsic relationship to the cultural products of the past, some claim it ultimately denies the possibility of creating anything original.
The authenticity of these artists is subsequently called into question. This critique fails to acknowledge the inherently derivative nature of art. Inspiration must come from somewhere, and as long as the primary source isn’t copied wholesale—but rearranged and distorted—it is authentic art. The artistic mutilation of these sources is often to the degree that an entirely new entity has been created. It’s “pop in a pop art kind of way,” remarked James Ferraro in an interview with Dummy Magazine. Our modern world is one of such hyper-connectivity that we are allowed a previously unimaginable vantage point on all that has come before us. H-pop makes use of that to mesmerizing effect.
Hypnagogic pop, or “the music of nostalgia,” can be easily applied to a broader portion of music today—everyone from the oft-criticized sixties vibes of Lana Del Rey to Bethany Cosentino’s sunny distortions of the California coast and the haze-crazy psychedelic work of Bibio. These artists are at their best when channeling revisionist nostalgia as an approach to songwriting. So what may initially appear a purposefully obscure subgenre is actually a rather on-point analysis of today’s music scene.
This highlights a major parallel between the philosophy at play in hypnogogic pop and the larger societal shift towards an instant nostalgia for the past. The aesthetic and inspiration behind h-pop is perhaps the most accurate representation of our modern cultural perception, which has become a pop-art collage of all that has come before. There is a proliferation of individuals on the Internet (i.e., Tumblr) revising and reconstructing bits of past cultural aesthetics in order to create new perceptions of those moments in time. We’ve turned into a vinyl-collecting, Instagram-filter-crazy bunch—cultural hedonists dining, seemingly unaware, on the best the last century has to offer us. We have become convinced that past decades were inherently better. And while that may not be entirely true, this impulse to rework and romanticize has led to a great aural aesthetic.
As this trend of revisionist nostalgia continues grow in its domination of cultural expression, & a whole horde of bloggers & musicians are busy reconstructing the appearance and sound of a past culture at once, the actual past itself begins to change. The primary source for future generations becomes vague and inaccessible. With the erosion of decade barriers between styles of the past and present, we have entered into a hyper-reality of musical freedom, where the lines between the reality of decades past and our modern reinterpretation of it become almost meaningless. What’s more “authentic” to the sound of the eighties, is it the opening theme of Beverly Hills Cop or “Beverly Kills” by Ariel Pink? What does “authentic” even mean to us as a culture anymore?
This debate—which would quickly dissolves into rhetoric more inaccessible than sadcore—ignores the possibilities of a continual reinterpretation of the past, all fed through a nostalgic golden haze and played back over a fuzzy cassette tape by the likes of Ducktails and Ariel Pink.