Do we like the music, or do we like the aesthetic?

In the internet era, the full artistry of a musician doesn’t often fit on a CD.

aesthetic

Emery Little

The internet era has added a new level of aesthetic mystery to the music scene.

Samuel Hyland, Staff Writer

When the UK-based avant-pop artist Dean Blunt was called onstage to accept NME’s Philip Hall Radar Award in 2015, he didn’t accept his prize—instead, a black-clad, equally-bald (albeit bulkier) lookalike rose from the crowd to semi-confused applause, greeting hordes of suspicious attendees en route to a firm handshake with the trophy’s grinning presenter. The song “Lush” was blasting at ear-splitting volume as he made his way stageward; even if anyone in the audience caught on to the somewhat obvious ruse, there was little chance that they would have been able to yell loud enough to alert officials. 

“Thanks to the man upstairs, God almighty,” the lookalike said hurriedly. His voice sounded nothing like that of the artist he was impersonating. “Thanks to NME. I finally made it. Power!”

And by the time presenters shouted to alert him that he was going the wrong way, he had already vanished back into the audience.

Dean Blunt’s artistry hinges heavily on the same effect, where the music, and the music alone, is left to speak for itself with little-to-no exterior embellishment. You have no idea what’s going on, what Blunt is thinking nor where he’s coming from—all you have is the product. The only clues to Dean Blunt’s personality are the ones in his discography, and if you want to understand him, you must put your ear to the void.

Such outputs act in stark contrast to the performance-heavy makeups American audiences have grown to expect from favorite musicians. Blunt was initially warmed to U.S listeners via a series of experimental collaborations with the rapper A$AP Rocky, wherein the most interesting thing besides the music was the glaring difference in personality: A$AP Rocky is an outspoken fashion darling who wears quilts to Met Galas; Dean Blunt is a cryptically silent iconoclast who probably watches Met Galas underneath quilts. But to assess Dean Blunt in context of A$AP Rocky is to outline a lowkey-yet-pervasive distinction across artists in the internet era—you can either draw fans to music, or draw them to your aesthetic. The digital landscape we exist in affords more than enough room for both approaches; the same technological advancements used to make overedited (albeit impressively so) studio vlogs can be put towards curating similarly-impressive soundscapes. When the sonic substance isn’t there, the visual substance takes its place. Are our favorite musicians selling us music? Or are they selling us an image?

At 12 a.m. last  Christmas morning, I found myself sunken into a living room couch with Playboi Carti’s “Whole Lotta Red” blasting from an illicitly-downloaded version of Spotify Premium. I was by no means the brand of Playboi Carti fan that had spent years desperately thirsting for new music, and for every second that he belted guttural, half-English-half-leviathan squeals into my ears, I was forced to retrace what had moved me to listen to an hour of it while sitting next to my Christmas tree. The rollout to “Whole Lotta Red” was rife with cryptic tweets (“oMG ! FucKkkk . w3 did iT . iM CRYIN”), esoteric Instagram posts and occult-adjacent mannerisms. One got the sense that even though Playboi Carti wasn’t explicitly saying it, he sought to purport himself as something beyond humanity—an entity that only came out of hibernation once every several years, and with an urgent memorandum from the underworld. Hearing “Whole Lotta Red” was advertised a lot like seeing a solar eclipse. Whether you were into the man’s music or not, much like I’m sure not many of us are lunar astronomy enthusiasts, its visual ethos demanded that you sit down, shut up and hear what the creature had to say. 

And I was sold. By the time I heard Kanye West angrily sneer “I promised Playboi we’d get the tape out ‘fore the weekend is over,” even though I was in no way looking forward to the tape in the first place, I felt as if I had been inducted into a movement larger than myself: the promise wasn’t just for Playboi Carti; it was for me too, and I was one of several million people across the globe reaping the benefits at the same time. I forced myself to scream along as the voice in my head ordered me to “Jump out the house.” I forced myself to resonate with its emphatic dislike for “friendly ass” people. I forced myself to, as a friend of mine excitedly live-texted me through his own listening experience, find some value in the trappification of painfully-cliche 1950s vampire movie organs. And by the time the final track faded out, there I was, sitting next to my Christmas tree, smiling a confused smile and racing for positive things to text back. 

With nothing good coming to mind, although it is likely the worst place to seek honest music opinions the moment after an anticipated LP comes out, I ventured to Twitter. A copypasta had been making the rounds in Playboi Carti’s replies all morning: “Just finished listening to WLR, currently lost for words man, crying real tears carti bro, this is quite possibly, quite literally, sincerely, the worst possible music I have ever heard,” it said. “My ears are dripping with blood, currently on my way to the emergency room as I type this.”

Even though the reply was obviously sarcastic, its crux was just as jarringly purging as the joke was corny: if Playboi Carti’s image didn’t grant him the caliber he currently enjoys, and there were no detractors to flood his comment sections with exaggerated accounts of album-induced medical escapades, would any of us (devout Carti fans excluded) be forcing ourselves to sit through an hour’s worth of his claim to otherworldliness at 12 a.m. on Christmas morning? At the same time, and on the same app that Twitter users were commenting mass-produced copypastas beneath the hermetic rapper’s tweets, upstart MCs with SoundCloud accounts were begging prospective listeners to give their new mixtapes a chance. Despite their differences in approach, both Playboi Carti’s cryptic posts and the SoundCloud rappers’ desperate pleas were doing the exact same thing—marketing for a new project—with the sole difference being in the level of hype to be substantiated.

Let’s conduct a thought experiment: pretend you’re scrolling through Twitter, and you come across a comment from an obscure account. “I would really appreciate it if y’all could run up my new single (100 emoji),” it reads. “It’s crazy fire and I think you’ll vibe with it (fire emoji). Just a young MC trying to make it out, u dig! (praying hands emoji).” 

You’re feeling quite humanitarian today, so you hit the link, which may or may not be an aggressive pornographic virus. For the sake of our experiment, the song in question is “JumpOutTheHouse” by Playboi Carti. How long do you last until you close the track and get back to Twitter?

Because both Playboi Carti, and the hordes of artists who thrive on similar mystique-first-music-second models, have worked their exteriors to a point where the frenzy surrounding the substance can outlast the substance itself, they no longer have to focus all their energy on music to fill out the job requirement of being an “artist”: the artistry is happening whether it’s on a CD or not. This loophole is just as beautiful as it can be damning: for an artist like Dean Blunt, without a compelling image to carry the product to consumers, the product must sell itself—which means there is no room for anything less than adequate. All the same, for an artist like Playboi Carti, with layers and layers of extortionate mythology prefacing any musical substance, even if you convince all of America to listen to your tape, you simultaneously run the risk of that many people being pissed off that said music doesn’t live up to its ethos…unless you hire a lookalike to attend awards shows on your behalf.

In the internet era we live in, the artistic canon of musicianship is no longer barred to just musical constraints—but whether our favorite musicians are selling us on tunes, aesthetics or mystery, something is being presented to us, and we’re eating it up.