After a grueling night shift in a factory that seems to have more robotic employees than human, you wake coated in sweat. Has it always been this hot this time of year? Your memory seems to escape you—you have more important things to worry about than the weather. Like enough money to cover your ever-rising living costs. You still have to hear back from your dealer about that addy, but demand is up right now, so you might have to slug it for a couple weeks, and that’s gonna be hell. What’s more, your wi-fi is for shit and it seems like all your tech is falling prey to planned obsolescence.
Wasn’t summer supposed to be carefree? Ten, fifteen years ago, didn’t people do stupid shit like go on road trips or out to the nearest body of water to just sit on its shores and enjoy the rec drug of their choice? Everyone says this is what it’s like in the “real world” and you just gotta get used to it. But these are the same people who slave away in cubicle farms, taking pay cuts and making sacrifices just to get by. We’re all being roasted alive in the city, but it’s like nobody’s been outside long enough to take notice. Like frogs on a slow boil.
At least music is more accessible now than it’s ever been. You slip in a pair of noise-cancelling wireless headphones and connect to a corporation-backed music streaming service, longing for it to take you somewhere else between the ads, somewhere you can forget that there’s no way out of this world we’ve made for ourselves. But you know it won’t, no matter how well the app knows your tastes in music. Still, you can’t help but notice a trend in music at large lately—the detachment, the disillusionment, and for some reason punk bands are singing about extreme body modding now. It doesn’t happen often, and sometimes comes from the strangest of places, but you wonder if the people writing these songs feel as trapped by society and anxious of what cybernetic horrors the future holds as you do. If you can’t find a way to escape, then maybe you can find solace instead.
Let me add to your woes. I admit I’m relatively new to cyberpunk music as a genre, but I prefer to listen to the music that falls onto my radar through an augmented ear. Something about these songs I’ve come across over the past couple years screams cyberpunk to me, whether it’s the message or the vibe they’re sending out. You might not associate their sounds with tales from the near future, but that’s not what this is about—this is about the Cyberpunk Now. Take a listen, maybe you’ll find something you like.
“American Trash” – InnerPartySystem
I was originally going to write a separate article on InnerPartySystem, a three-piece dance punk outfit from Pennsylvania, as their music contains heavy industrial elements and the topics they address are very in line with the cyberpunk worldview, despite being fully grounded in the present. They constantly reference dystopian imagery—their name is a clear reference to 1984, and their Download and Never Be Content EPs speak to the cynicism and technofetishism we’re all familiar with. Unfortunately, aside from their self-titled debut album, the band hasn’t released any music over the past decade, and the lyrics on InnerPartySystem stand on shaky ground when comparing tracks. Still, for their short run, they showed immense promise and make me wonder what could have been if they’d continued making music. “Don’t Stop”, for instance, is a high-voltage criticism of the third-order simulacra that is celebrity culture, vehemently tearing into the cult of fame’s vapid and destructive nature. “Everyone is the Same” speaks to classic dystopian themes of conformity, putting lead singer Patrick Nissley in the role of a Winston Smith-esque character with bite. And for some reason I have a fixation on lyrics that provide a cynical take on hedonistic culture, as heard in “Die Tonight Live Forever”. Perhaps the growing self-awareness among the party crowd speaks to something deeper in me—I know that drugs, sex, and other ephemeral pleasures are simply a means of escaping our harsh reality and don’t fix our problems, but we’re trapped by our vices, as though it’s by design.
“We’re all here because we’ve lost control”
Fortunately, “American Trash” takes the best elements of the above tracks and rolls them into one. InnerPartySystem lashes out against America’s propaganda machine with chaotic misanthropy over electronic riffs that’ll make any industrial fan’s spine tingle. If there’s a more relevant time for InnerPartySystem to start making music again, it’s now.
“Kill V. Maim” – Grimes
Sling your insults, lowlives. You probably are most familiar with Grimes as the contentious romantic interest of billionaire/genuine asshole Elon Musk, but hey, it turns out she has a music career too! As you might have noticed by the cringeworthy music video above, Grimes has a penchant for classic cyberpunk like Akira, which is on full display in her most recent single, “We Appreciate Power”, a fusion of pop and industrial that depicts a cultlike affinity for society’s artificialization. However, the lyrics are a bit on the nose and “Kill V. Maim” has a more original construction, so I’m doing that one instead.
You probably hate it. I kind of hate it too, but it’s so fucking catchy. The premise behind the lyrics sounds like it was written by a crazy person, inspired by Michael Corleone’s character transformation in The Godfather: Part II. But also like, what if he was a vampire?
So why am I including a god damn pop song in a cyberpunk music article? Well, from where I stand, “Kill V. Maim” represents a slight shift in the pop culture landscape—Grimes’ vocals shift from sickeningly sweet to harsh and growly on a dime, scored by electronic instrumentation with an industrial drumbeat. The edges that Grimes occasionally toy with in her writing is indicative of the other half of music intertwined with cyber culture, which we have labeled in the past as cyberpop. While Grimes’ J-pop influences come through with astounding clarity, cyberpop hasn’t quite gained a foothold in the western world just yet, and doesn’t seem to be a recognized genre among music critics. But consider this: while Grimes may be a lunatic, she certainly has more notoriety in pop culture than most of the musicians we cover. Should Grimes become an influence on other mainstream artists, it might mark society’s general disposition towards the cyberpunk dystopia we live in. Who knows, maybe that fateful day when your number comes up and the megacorps send a razorgirl after you, she might be listening to this song as she repos your cloned heart by cutting it out, smiling innocently.
“Am I Dreaming” – Yukari
Another example of cyberpop, Korean musician Yukari’s “Am I Dreaming” is a simple, tranquil tune that feels like a reprieve from the crushing nature of urban society. It’s something to drown out the noise of traffic and helicopters on those long summer nights. Yukari brings dream pop into the 21st century, opting out of any analog instruments—even her voice has a too-perfect quality to it at moments, and I still can’t quite tell if it’s been autotuned. For all I know, this track could have been composed and performed by an artificial intelligence. It’s easy to get lost in the atmosphere Yukari creates, weaving imagery that feels stunningly peaceful in our world gone wrong, but her single repeated lyric almost sounds like a cry for help.
“Tell me I’m dreaming”
You’re dreaming, Yukari. The desert of the real awaits.
“Strict Machine” – Goldfrapp
I’ll admit this addition to the list is almost obligatory. “Strict Machine” has already appeared in two major cyberpunk franchises: in the second act of 2012’s Dredd we hear it played in a drug den; in “Crocodile”, an episode from the fourth season of Black Mirror, it’s played at a club. However, “Strict Machine” is in a league of its own among London-based trip hop duo Goldfrapp’s library of works. It seems to insinuate that our obsession with technology is like being in a sadomasochistic relationship with an android, allowing it to control our every move. The song’s fully synthesized instrumentals and Alison Goldfrapp’s airy vocals, as usual, seem to be following the trend among featured artists in this article series, which I think helps with its street cred.
“Radio” – Sylvan Esso
In the same vein as “Strict Machine”, “Radio” harshly criticizes the modern shape of the music industry, though you might not notice if you’re just listening to its energetic, poppy grooves. Sylvan Esso, hailing from Durham, North Carolina, expresses the frustration of living in an overconnected society that demands constant content generation. This is reinforced by many of the song’s elements; the synths sound like something out of an informational video about new technology from the 1980s, conveying sterility while adding a measure of grace through Amelia Meath’s rich vocals, which fall into a chorus that sounds something like a draining battery struggling to pump out more juice. All while reminding us that someone’s always keeping an eye on that music industry standard: three minutes and thirty seconds, the ideal time for a radio single. Sardonic and vicious, “Radio” may be the only way Sylvan Esso knows how to speak out against a society that’s working us to death.
“Han-Tyumi and the Murder of the Universe” – King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard
For an example of cyberpunk-themed prog rock from the last place you’d expect, “Han-Tyumi and the Murder of the Universe” is the final chapter of the indefinable concept album Murder of the Universe, one of the five (FIVE) albums put out by the immensely talented, Australia-hailing King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard in 2017. If you haven’t given it a listen yet, be forewarned—it gets pretty damn intense. Narrated by Natural Reader’s UK, Charles text-to-speech app as Han-Tyumi, the story follows a cyborg born into a digital realm who finds no meaning in his existence and desires only two things: to vomit and to die. In order to achieve these goals, Han-Tyumi creates a machine that will allow him to make a spectacle of puking. Of course, things go downhill as soon as Han-Tyumi chooses to merge with the machine, who is disgusted with its own existence. Han-Tyumi begins spewing his guts out infinitely, which eventually consumes his universe. Dark and deeply unsettling, the narrative of “Han-Tyumi and the Murder of the Universe” is claustrophobia-inducing and draws similarities to cyberpunk horror flicks like Tetsuo: The Iron Man.
“Sun Was High (So Was I)” – Small Black
This might be the one. The ultimate dystopian summer track. For some reason I find shoegaze to be immensely cyberpunk in nature when it chooses to be, and “Sun Was High” fits the mold almost perfectly. Originally composed and recorded by surf rock revival duo Best Coast, Small Black‘s cover warps the original meaning of the song without changing a single lyric. Its moody, distorted synths sound less like a love song and more like the pit in your stomach that you feel instantly upon waking from a long bender fueled by a cornucopia of substances. In a haze as you find yourself roaming the blistering steel corridors of the metropolis in which you reside, you feel like there’s something important you needed to remember, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. Instead, your mind drifts back to the person you’d set out to forget in the first place. It’s a very specific feeling, and one that I know too well.
We’ll be back to our regularly scheduled dose of metareality next month. Until then, if you want to go more in-depth with musicians that are shaping the world of music into the one cyberpunk predicted, you can find all Soundtracks to a Dying World articles here. In the meantime, what are some dystopian singles that have popped up in your lives?