Through the Looking Glass With Adult Swim

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Oneohtrix Point Never's "Still Life" video.

The Internet is weird territory, mostly because of how unfathomably deep it goes, how many curiosities you can discover, how many subcultures exist—if you search for one thing on Wikipedia, of course it leads to another and another and you end up reading about Emperor Norton. Okay, maybe that’s just me, but you get the point: excavating the web is like falling into a rabbit hole, and like Alice in Wonderland, one may find herself in obscure environs made up of the dark minutiae of Internet culture.

In recent years, many musicians—primarily electronic—have been exploring various Internet rabbit holes and turning them into art; I’m talking about Daniel Lopatin’s recreation of the offbeat and abject internet and Rjyan Kidwell’s presentation of the JRPG as a meta-life; I’m talking about whole genres like vaporwave and chillwave that have been invented to explore ’80s late capitalism with accelerationist critique. Often, as is the case with Macintosh Plus and High Tides, the band’s aesthetic is inextricably linked to the subculture it elucidates. These projects attempt to simulate an immersive trip down the rabbit hole, and most do so quite successfully.

Thom Yorke on Space Ghost.
Thom Yorke on Space Ghost.

Note each artist’s adherence to bygone curiosities: the early internet, PS2 games, and quarter-century old elevator music, respectively. Note the influence of anime in all of these pieces: Oneohtrix Point Never references hentai; Shamaneater is based on the Persona series; anime has always been at the heart of the vaporwave aesthetic. This is significant: most of the albums compel the listener with appeals to nostalgia—nostalgia primarily informed by the narrative of introverted geeky white boys born before 1990.

For a while I’ve been considering these sorts of nostalgic digital excavation, and I was driven to think—what obscure, bizarre worlds exist outside the Internet? What culture can I observe with dark fascination? What rabbit hole should I follow?

The FAQ created by Rjyan Kidwell to guide listeners through the Shamaneater universe.

Well, what about Adult Swim? Sure, it’s a Turner-funded and packaged entertainment product, but it’s also an independently curated station made by guys who thought it would be funny to appropriate the characters of shitty 70s Saturday-morning cartoons to make TV non sequitur. It’s sincerely cool and experiential piece of entertainment. It’s nostalgic. It’s got all the anime you could ever want. It’s confusing and trippy and awesome.

But, to me, what makes Adult Swim such a singular work—moreso than anything else on the idiot box—is the way it directly addresses its audience. It doesn’t just advertise its own shows to jerk off in your face like the major networks—the bumpers talk to the viewer. Hell, T.O.M. hosts Toonami from an inexplicable spaceship and shares video game reviews. Adult Swim itself becomes a docent guiding us through a museum of shows chosen and arranged to create a deliberate narrative.

The shows are great; the bumpers are great; but to me, as someone with less interest in TV than music, what has really defined my A.S. experience is the music. I remember seeing Boards of Canada’s Tomorrow’s Harvest promotional transmission in a Champaign, Illinois Holiday Inn late at night. I remember staying up to watch Adult Swim air Dan Deacon’s excellent “When I Was Done Dying” video (with animation by Off the Air) and that creepy Flying Lotus collaboration with David Firth. I flip out every time I see a song by Clark or Tobacco or Four Tet in a bumper. (If you’re interested in the kind of music played during Adult Swim bumpers, this site compiles every A.S. bumper and sorts it by artist.

As much as I like Adult Swim, I never really followed its rabbit hole. I never immersed myself in a whole night of its crazy world. So for the past week, I’ve stayed up late to watch all of its programming, note its music selection, and go down the rabbit hole as far as I can. I made it a rule not to watch any of its syndicated re-runs (nobody deserves to endure that much Family Guy). But I saw plenty of Rick and Morty, and I tried to follow the plot of half-a-dozen Toonami anime shows, and I lost too much sleep.

A screenshot from the Adult Swim app "Virtual Brainload."
A screenshot from the Adult Swim app “Virtual Brainload.”

At some point during the commercial break in the continuous battle that is Dragon Ball Z Kai, I came to realize the artifice of the rabbit hole. When I listen to R + 7, Oneohtrix Point Never’s 2013 album, I am convinced that Lopatin has observed an extant world somewhere in the internet and interpreted it through music. When I listen to Vektroid, I am convinced that she has observed the currently popular ironic internet aesthetic and spun it her way. I assume this because each album provides a glimpse into what I believe to be a larger diegesis—and that “glimpse” bit is significant. The appeal of Oneohtrix Point Never or Vektroid has less to do with the actual existence of the culture they “explore” and more to do with the mystery they create.

For example, hentai exists, and on the internet, it’s actually kind of mundane. Most people aren’t really into that sort of thing, and consequently only a select group seeks it out. But if it’s depicted as something alien with the right soundtrack of microtonal 80s synthesizers, all of a sudden it becomes alluring. It’s like a teasing peek through the veil of Maya. It’s like the “object” of the male gaze. And it’s weirdly nostalgic.

But it’s not real. No matter what you like to sexually objectify, hentai is not going to make you feel the same way as any album that references it. The music of rabbit holes isn’t going to take you to any realm—it exists to its own end. What that end may be varies: for most of the examples I’ve given, it’s satirical or otherwise critically aporetic.

But Adult Swim is different, I think. It doesn’t conceal its purpose; it’s just a bunch of weird TV shows with cool music in between. It’s grounded in real images instead of those we project while listening to music. It’s never a mystery; it’s just fun to watch whether you’re stoned at three in the morning or just genuinely interested in what the hell is going on in Xavier: Renegade Angel.

I know it’s easy to get sucked into the albums I mentioned and lose yourself in the world they create, but their images are superficial and do not reflect the reality of Internet culture. The music romanticizes and obsesses over the mundanity of the Internet. Works that attempt to exemplify any piece of culture are inherently subjective, and that subjectivity must be scrutinized just as rabbit holes must eventually be escaped. We have an obligation as listeners and consumers to deeply consider what it means to be obsessed.

As for right now, though, Aqua Teen Hunger Force just started, and I can’t be late.