In my professional life, I teach literature. Occasionally, I will force my students to read Neuromancer. The book tends to confuse my students and often draws mixed reviews, both admirers, and detractors. I have known students to become enamored with the cyberpunk genre to the point that by semester’s end they’re making a Shadowrun student club. I have also known students, one particular student comes to mind, that disliked the book so much that I had to stop his curse-filled diatribe. You may curse in my class, but you can’t curse that much. In short, Neuromancer tends to bring both reactions to the table. Nevertheless, before we ever start reading, I always make it a point to ask my students, what is cyberpunk?
Mostly this question gets bewildering stares. Most of them have never heard the word before and if they have, it’s not a term with which they interact a lot. To misquote the famous EDM artist Hieroglyphic Being, cyberpunk is after all an old science. Still, a few enterprising students always know cyberpunk by the genre characteristics displayed in video games like Deus Ex. These students will mention the computer hacking, the dark and rainy scenes, and even the counterculture aesthetic of punk music. They might say it is a genre that has something to do with cyborgs, which is partially true. Not one of them is ever sure of an answer, however. We usually end the conversation without a definitive answer. In my classes, there are never any definitive answers to be had, mind you. Then we read Neuromancer, usually takes about a week and on the last day of reading, I ask again, what is cyberpunk?
This time the answers flow more readily. Again, students describe computer hacking, but now some noted other themes in Neuromancer, the drug use, the casual love story, and even the profound sense of displacement that many of the characters seem to feel constantly. During this second discussion, I play a song by EDM composer, Pylot, whose music can be accurately described as cyberpunk electronic. The students immediately agreed that the music captured a cyberpunk aesthetic, but in the ensuing discussion, we had difficulty finding commonality between the music and literature beyond the simple characteristics. In a sense, we felt that cyberpunk must have a more profound set of ideas to be cyberpunk; a soul that is more than just simple characteristics. Like the Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell, cyberpunk itself wears many shells, but its essence is something altogether different, intangible? Maybe.
Thus, this essay has two purposes. One is to review Pylot’s music, which I believe is wonderful and richly complex, cyberpunk electronic to its core. Two, it is an attempt to answer the question that I pose to my students for myself, what is cyberpunk? I am interested in delving beyond the surface. Of course, cyberpunk is about hacking, computers, and even to a large extent the counter-culture ideas expressed by the word punk. I want to know if there is any other commonality in the examples. Let me preface this discussion by saying that I will not define cyberpunk with a rigid definition, to do so would be essentially counter-intuitive because any definition that I offer will no doubt be met with skepticism. Rightly so, conceptual borders never work; cyberpunk has many definitions, some more valid than others. Instead, I will endeavor to find if cyberpunk has a soul. No doubt, what follows will also be ultimately viewed as just another characteristic, but hopefully, one which offers a new, fresh take on the genre.
The Music Review
Pylot’s 2016 series of electronic music compositions, which I will call the Five Entries EP, are an eclectic mix 1980s inspired electronic dance music. Starting with the aptly named ‘After Dark’ which contains a steady mid-tempo, synthesizer-heavy central hook, the song sounds like a new artifact; a song that may have been commercially available on vinyl, somewhere in New York City in 1984, but has somehow made it into our own age, new. ‘Flashback’ the following track decreases the tempo, begins with a meditative piano and the sound of a motorcycle screeching to a halt. The scaled-piano becomes a motif that appears throughout the song, a lingering trace of a memory that echoes silently. The next song, ‘Blurred Vision’ begins slowly and contemplatively with a series of single synthesized notes before picking up speed with the help of a drum machine, it settles into a mid-tempo section that oozes with 1980s delight. The best of the entry in the series is number four, ‘A Race Against Time’ which starts with the cryptic computerized voice that tells us to “Drive all night.” The ensuing composition is the crescendo of the series, uptempo and infinitely catchy; if this were a movie this is where the hero would have met the main villain, and after all seems lost, would ultimately triumph. Lastly, is entry five, “A Place I Once Knew” in which a computerized-vocal heavy track that feels like the closing of a film, a robotic R&B motif dominates the tune. If you close your eyes, you can almost see a black screen with the closing credits of a typical film.
Taken on their own, all five entries could be seen as electronic love letters to the bygone 1980s; all in line with other mainstream music pieces that display an extemporal quality. These songs are akin to such hits as Neon Indian’s “The Glitzy Hive” or M83’s “Midnight City,” a song whose beautiful 2011 video is inspired by the films The Village of the Damned and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. What all of these have in common is what I like to call, new artifact aesthetic, meaning that at their heart they sound like old pieces of music inspired and composed in the 1980s but are new to the present day. The patina of time is a carefully crafted artistic motif. This aesthetic is different from 1980s homage, Netflix’s Stranger Things comes to mind as an example of homage since it is both influenced and takes place in the 1980s. New artifact motif, in a basic explanation, adheres to a desire to displace time through art, to give the feeling of the 1980s, today.
As you can guess from the titles of the tracks, After Dark, Flashback, Blurred Vision, A Race Against Time, and A Place I Once Knew, there is an implicit narrative described in the music. Musically the five tracks build a traditional story arc of rising action, denouement, and falling action. In fact, when I first listened to them I was unaware of Pylot’s website and made my own story in my head that I thought strung the songs together well. My story was not very good, mind you, but I imagined action, characters, and events occurring in my mind, no doubt cliché bits of my favorite movies and stories, but still, a narrative inspired by the music. In this way, the songs have a theatrical quality in that you can imagine the film to which they might belong.
While this theatrical quality can be said to exist in many other genres, I believe cyberpunk’s core beliefs depend on a narrative’s ability to be extremely visual irrespective of the medium in which the narrative appears. In other words, what makes Pylot’s music cyberpunk is the music’s ability to inspire a virtual story in the mind’s eye. My larger point is that whether you read a narrative or listen to a song, cyberpunk is a genre that must absolutely be driven by the visual sense. Cyberpunk must always inspire a movie in your mind’s eye! I believe that without a heavy visual component something cannot be accurately described as cyberpunk. Other genres do this as well, lyric ballads come to mind here as does the ever-popular Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game. But at its core, cyberpunk exists as a fundamental extension of the visual sense. The shit has to look cool, as my grandfather was sometimes apt to say. The look, the theatricality, is everything.
Pylot’s music is evidence of this visual necessity. The songs are imbued with a narrative consciousness. As further evidence, recall Neuromancer‘s famous opening line, “The sky above the port was the television tuned to a dead channel.” In that opening line, besides just being an awesomely bad-ass way to start a book, Gibson is describing a new methodology of relating to the world, through a screen, and by extension through a sense of theatricality, what happens on that screen. The narrative begins as if you have just turned on the television. The first thing you see is a dead channel that needs to be populated with the picture and story, which quickly follows. There are many different interpretations into what a dead channel actually looks like, Gibson himself has said that he had in mind a silver-black screen from a 1950s cabinet Motorola television set. Most people believe it to be the snow-fuzz pattern of an antenna-less channel. Whatever your interpretation, all of these are dependent on the idea that the book is setting up a visual performance. In other words, the book behaves like a television show or film on a screen, right down to the fuzz at the start when you first turn on the screen.
The importance of this opening line for the cyberpunk genre cannot be understated. Gibson is describing the way a new generation of people has learned to interact with the world, through screens. Consider these personal questions and try to answer honestly to yourself, please. Have you ever imagined your life to be a movie? Have you ever listened to a song and imagined yourself in the video? How many times have you used a word or phrase and thought that would be a good status update on my blog? These are thoughts that your great-grandfather most likely did not have because he lived in an age where a screen was not a predominant theatrical motif, in an age before Neuromancer. Your great grandfather likely had analogs to the screen, a car windshield, a train window, or maybe even the actual theater stage, but these are essentially different from the television or computer screen that you have today. Cyberpunk always takes place on a screen, virtual or real, but more importantly, relishes this idea as fundamentally necessary to its existence. This theatricality is part of the soul of cyberpunk.
Now, consider the character of Peter Riviera in Neuromancer, who is described by the book as a psychopath whose sexual deviances must always involve a betrayal. He is a cyber-magician, a kind of oral storyteller. His left lung has been replaced with a host of electronics that allow him to project holographic hallucinations on both willing and unwilling audiences. What he thinks, you see. Riviera sometimes turns these hallucinations into short narratives as a stage show, he is a most theatrical character. Thus, he should be a prime example of a cyberpunk hero if my idea of theatricality is correct. Riviera, you will not be surprised, however, turns out to be about as close to a villain as Neuromancer has. His behavior and eventual betrayal of the main protagonists can at one level be simply blamed on the fact that he is mentally unstable; after all, he is a psychopath.
In a symbolic sense, however, Riviera is actually the antithesis of the visual motif because he does not use a screen at all. The technology in his body allows him to bypass screens completely. This is the reason he is the villain because his mode of relating to the world is at odds with the text of Neuromancer. He does not use screens and thus he is mistrusted in a world that is wholly dependent on screens. His mode of relating to the world, through holograms, is generally unknown. Even Case has seldom seen the kind of technology Riviera uses. For the characters in the book, meeting Riviera is akin to us as 21st century Americans meeting a colonial American. We would be able to communicate in English, presumably, but our worldviews would be fundamentally different, our engagement with society so varied, that we could hardly hope to see eye to eye on very many things. Riviera is stateless in the book, a man without a country to call home, which again is symbolic of his status as outsider and betrayer. In my opinion, he is also a man out of time, perhaps a harbinger of the holographic era that is yet to come, but one that cannot possibly exist in the screen centered world of Case and Molly.
One last example of this visual motif. If cyberpunk relies on theatricality as I am arguing, then a cyberpunk films must also rely on this visual motif. Can film, which is already visual medium, reinforce a sense of theatricality? Certainly. Consider Neo’s interrogation scene in the first Matrix film. This scene famously begins with a shot of various blank monitors and then zooms in tightly on one to inhabit the scene, as if we the audience were looking in on the interrogation and go through the screen to stand in the room. Strangely, this is not far from the truth because we the audience are seeing two screens, the screen where we are watching the movie and the monitor within the narrative, in essence, a double dose of theatricality. By in large, the first Matrix film is replete with screens within screens, this is but one example that I think shows how the film depends on the idea of being seen. Diligent internet theorists have surmised that the scene may be a visual reference to the Architect, a character that appears in the Matrix Reloaded that sits in a room with many monitors. I like this idea, it means the Wachowskis were already thinking of a longer narrative, but more importantly were aware of books like Neuromancer that establishes cyberpunk’s theatrical motifs using screens.
Pylot’s EP Revisited
What makes Pylot’s EP noteworthy here is that the album goes further and provides an accompanying website and actual detective narrative that is meant to be deciphered alongside the music. Pylot’s has joined the screen and music himself. The songs are sonically built to be heard as a narrative, but when read alongside the website you get the tale of a person with no memory, who awakens in a motel alone with the jacket and the keys to a motorcycle parked outside. The jacket contains what he presumes is his name, Pylot, and as he rides his memories begin to come back and someone directs him to a nearby city over the helmet’s built in speakers. He arrives at several locales as the songs progress, but on entry five, he gets to the central dark tower in the city. There are a couple of puzzles to be solved along the way, including a cipher that I admit I am personally having trouble deciphering.
In January of 2017, the website featured a sixth entry, which describes Pylot’s arrival in the city and his meeting the people directing him, a group known as Shadowtask, which coincidently is the name of a new 2017 EP. The Shadowtask EP contains five new songs, Caine, Data, Locke, Clova, and Shadowtask which continue Pylot’s story started in the Five song EP. The Shadowtask EP continues the pernicious preoccupation with a new retro-aesthetic and in my opinion, succeeds to a much higher degree than the previous five songs EP. The electronic dance tunes are frankly better, and richer in their hooks, and provide a beautiful danceability, (after all shouldn’t all EDM be about dancing?) but more importantly the tunes have a vibrant sense of theatrical scope, meaning you cannot help but picture in your mind’s eye the imaginary film that these songs may supposedly belong to. The Shadowtask EP story, unfortunately, descends too steeply into cyberpunk cliché, but where Pylot’s narrative falters, the music more than makes up for it. I highly recommend both EPs. As of August 2017, Pylot tells us he has a host of new music projects ahead.
Please visit http://iampylot.com/ for more information and Pylot’s complete story thus far.