On January 31, the car and space entrepreneur Elon Musk released a song titled, “Don’t Doubt ur Vibe,” which as of today is the seventh most-listened-to track on Soundcloud worldwide (two days ago, he bragged about it being in the No. 8 spot). Although my untrained ear doesn’t know what subgenre of music the song fits in to, I can confidently say that it sounds like a normal song. If it came on the stereo in a store or if it were background music in a scene on TV, I would generally have the same feelings about it as I would about any other generic song.
The song, which ended a month where Tesla’s stock rose by 56 percent, is very self-indulgent, and its success surely enables Musk’s conception of himself as a man who can kind of do whatever he wants. (He’s gone to court for his shitposting on multiple  occasions.) Nothing is out of his domain, including, evidently, becoming the only billionaire in the DIY music scene — given that “Don’t Doubt ur Vibe” sounds exactly like the music made by his partner, the indie musician Grimes, who got her start in the Montreal’s experimental music underground, it is very likely that they collaborated on the track together (that is, if Grimes didn’t compose the song outright and then let Elon warble some vocals and put it on SoundCloud). Musk’s song is further proof that our conception of what it means to adhere to a DIY ethos, in which we value creation and experimentation over results, is severely lacking in the internet age.
At one time, picking up a guitar and emulating old Minor Threat seven-inches offered the quickest route to becoming punk, but at some point, kids realized that all they needed to start making songs was to pirate some cracked audio-editing software and install it on the laptop that they already owned. But DIY is no longer an aesthetic sensibility based around lo-fi and punk sounds, or fuzzy guitars in a bedroom with flannel shirts and the Fugazi documentary DVD on the floor, as evidenced by the thriving community-based rave scenes popping up all over. Angeles’s underground rave scene birthed the Community Meeting series, which hosts speakers on mental health and offers strategies on how to cope with suicide and addiction. It’s the same spirit of 1985’s Revolution Summer in Washington D.C., when bands came together to address the violence at shows that was destroying the scene, which Ian MacKaye described as, “a situation where the shows were becoming increasingly, moronically violent and a lot of people were like: ‘fuck it, I’ll drop out, I don’t want to be a part of this any more.’”
As a general rule, DIY scenes bloom in places that offer the cheapest rent and from styles of art that offer the lowest barriers to entry. But these scenes become oversaturated quickly, and become unstable once they’re deemed “cool” or “profitable” by outsiders. The story is the same for DIY online. Numerous music blogs cropped up in the early and mid-2000s, offering on-the-ground coverage of shows and seeking out the most obscure acts possible, only for many of those acts — Arcade Fire and Vampire Weekend are notable examples — to subsequently blow up, with corporate backers buying a music site here or funding a documentary on East LA punk there. The injection of cash has been great if you’ve ever wanted to make money being somehow involved in indie music, but by yesterday’s standards we are all scabs and deluded apologists, trying to change things from the inside. These days, there are nearly as many shuttered underground music venues as defunct independent music blogs.
The fight we're talking about isn't— Devon Welsh | True Love Out Now! (@devonwelsh) November 22, 2019
Musicians vs DJs or
professionals vs amateurs
Anti-corporate vs corporate
Community vs tech-isolation
Humanism vs silicon-fascism
Ask yourself, is x good for our humanity? Does this empower us, or weaken us? And do we have a choice?
The lure of money has caused even the biggest musicians on planet to embrace what a very dumb man once called “Fugazi capitalism.” Even top-tier artists like Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber seem to survive on touring and merch sales, with their music serving as essentially marketing materials for the real product. But even live music may be in jeopardy. Grimes, Musk’s current life partner who made the near-perfect album Art Angels in 2015, publicly mused on the state of live music in a November 2019 appearance on the podcast Mindscape, transcribed below courtesy of Brooklyn Vegan:
“I think live music is going to be obsolete soon,” she said, pointing out that “DJs get paid more than real musicians.” “It’s kinda like Instagram or whatever,” she continued. “People are actually just gravitating towards the clean, finished, fake world. Everyone wants to be in a simulation. They don’t actually want the real world. Even if they think they do and everyone’s like, ’yeah, cool, live music!’ if you actually look at actual numbers of things, everyone’s gravitating towards the shimmery perfected Photoshop world.”
Similar to “selling out,” it’s difficult to understand what makes a musician “real.” We’ve been here before: the internet is and isn’t real; nothing is ever new, it’s just faster and more extreme; people have always stayed home to read, whether they’re consuming Instagram captions or long Russian novels. Technology isn’t bad because it’s new and scary, it’s bad because its current iteration does unethical things. Even the luddite movement wasn’t anti-technology as much as it was a labor movement that sabotaged technology as a pointed act of protest.
So what do we bemoan when we critique contemporary music? Luckily we’ve moved on from DIY reactionism, yelling about how the kids don’t know how to play instruments anymore. But the flip side of this mindset, in which we welcome uncritically welcome anything new or popular in this world, is just as fraught. Take Billie Eilish, whose producer/brother Finneas O’Connell recently said the following onstage at the Grammys after the pair accepted the award for Song of the Year: “We just make music in a bedroom together. We still do that and they let us do that and this is tough. All of the kids who are making music in their bedroom today, you’re going to get one of these.”
As great as it is that this happened for Billie and Finneas, come on. Their parents are both Hollywood actors; Finneas’s last gig wasn’t working the door at a dingy punk bar, it was being on the show Glee. I’m not doubting that the family didn’t struggle to get to where they are or that they make music in their bedroom, but the details of the “came from nothing” narrative can obscure how kids like them were set up to succeed in ways that most plucky brother-sister music duos simply are not, and how for all of Elish’s eccentricities, her music is essentially boilerplate pop with some trap drums and weird sound effects thrown in.
Compare this with 100 Gecs (stylized 100 gecs), another breakout electro-pop duo. Band members Dylan Brady and Laura Les are genuine DIY musicians who collaborated over the internet (probably in their bedrooms, even!), whose music, while catchy, lacks the stadium feel of Elish and her brother.
At times, everything about 100 Gecs feels like an inside joke with no punchline. Their music is uniquely chaotic, a combination of rap-rock dubstep by way of if the AOL dial-up modem sound got a Jock Jams CD and collaborated with a kpop band going through a black metal phase. Or something. I like to think of them as a punk band, but is that just what old people say about music they don’t understand that’s made by young people? Regardless, they are a Monster Energy drink for my soul.
Listening to 100 Gecs, you’re inundated by a constant stream of sounds, none of which stick around for very long. Their lyrics hide their vulnerability through layers of absurdity. “Money Machine,” a track about trying to convince yourself you don’t care about someone who might be ghosting you, begins, “Hey little piss baby, you think you’re so fucking cool, huh?” There are softer parts, such as the crooning, romantic declaration of, “I’m ’bout to hit the boof,”before you’re hit with a wall of chunky guitar drops and AutoTuned screams and percussive shouts (different from the screams), which at some point gets augmented by black metal-style growling and a riff that kind of sounds like Leftöver Crack. Between the video game blips and beeps and the catchy guitar twings and twangs, the layers of each song form a sound that’s difficult to parse, like — do these instruments even exist IRL, or is this a sample of a coffee grinder pitched up and slowed down through four filters and then algorithmically cut to a beat? This is music that sounds like how being on the internet feels.
While writing this piece, I finally committed to canceling my Apple Music subscription in favor of fully purchasing music and revisiting my old mp3 library. The change was a shit-ton of work, requiring that I manually enter a log of the albums I’ve bookmarked on Apple Music since 2017 and then finding the corresponding album’s page on Bandcamp so that I can purchase a digital copy. If an album isn’t on Bandcamp, I then log the record on a different list I’ve made, titled Albums To Figure Out How To Purchase. The move is born from guilt and a quest to not only consume music more ethically, but to narrow my choices of what to listen to in the hopes that I’ll then appreciate that which I do have.
Archivists are always seeking to preserve all that they can, just in case what seems like a meaningless piece of data today will one day reveal exactly what our current moment’s entire deal was. I remember the chill that went down my spine when I first really realized that my beloved hard drives would one day crash, that everything required a backup, that nothing in this world truly lasts. But like DIY spaces and defunct blogs, ingenuity is born from the margins, making the best of the glitches and accidents some used to bemoan. Record-scratching becomes stylistic, the grain of shooting film in low light now looks charming, purposeful typos become memes, we download apps to replicate the restrictions we used to have, throttling our ability to be always online, locking our phone in a box to get back to an old feeling, an endearing side effect of the limitations of reality. 100 Gecs might have bottled this moment’s feeling in a Four Loko can, preserving those glitches and sonic spasms as a portrait of this time. Elon Musk’s vanity mp3 will too live on, unplayed and collecting dust in whatever state-of-the-art archival system he can afford, untouched and uninteresting, fading into obscurity as its cultural capital diminishes. After all, deterioration is not solely physical.