Review Summary: cuz I only have eyes for you
We tend to think of technology in art as a supplement to the finished product. In music, the prevailing mode of thinking is that the computer is most tastefully employed when it enhances the performance without calling much attention to itself, like a band to a pop singer or a sound crew at a concert. Which obviously isn’t to say technology can’t be integrated into the performance; as a rule, EDM artists manipulate electronics to create something futuristic, but their touch is still prevalent. Radiohead’s Kid A
is a good example of this; though the instruments employed on that record were surprisingly digital for a rockist time, the art was still human
. The record was still very much an extension of Thom Yorke’s anxieties about the approaching singularity, about the human soul meshing with the mechanical one. Kid A
is scary for what it foretells, but it isn’t of
that future, and perhaps that’s why it was so critically lauded. Though it expressed angst about the computer’s growing presence in music, there remained a definite sense of an artist pushing buttons. Humanity in digital art is comforting because it assures man’s continued mastery over the machine. It’s the idea of man ceasing to matter that is terrifying.
But what if it needn’t be? There’s much anxiety about humanity lost to the power of a screen. A brief scan of Twitter and Tumblr will reveal folks wrestling with their addiction to the machine they use ten hours a day. The computer is so popularly understood as a representation of the real, and that this is inherently bad, that we forget to look at it as an object of the real itself, and by doing so, deny its artistic potential. One of the critiques of postmodernism is that its end game, if it even purports to one, is the deconstruction of culture and form, that its artists skewer every convention until meanings themselves feel illusionary and fake. Jumping this cliff can be pretty existentially frightening. What can be built from a movement based on breaking down the past? What can the future hold when originality has been made obsolete?
Perhaps the answers lie with the computers we reluctantly embrace. With virtually the entire artistic library of the 20th century a few keystrokes away, there’s incredible potential to discover new things, reimagine them, and play. The historical canon is so widely known that rather than futilely attempt to add to it, the postmodern artist can repurpose selections from it not in commentary, but simply in creation. We’re approaching an age where originality can’t be privileged because we’ve run the gamut of what artists and musicians can do. Best to embrace this fact and the coming singularity. Though the limit of what humans alone can achieve is so definitively in sight, it does not mean the end of beauty--just a slightly different definition of it. Which brings us to Floral Shoppe
is an elusive piece of bedroom plunderphonics. It comes with a mystique that it simply sprung from the ethereal Deep Internet, shared by some enthusiastic message board junkie trying to figure out just what the hell it is. It is an album released under a pseudonym of a pseudonym (Macintosh Plus and Vektroid, respectively), so that by the time you dig deep enough to find Ramona Andra Xavier, the person behind it and over 40 other vaporwave projects released under various names, it seems strange to view it as her work rather than that of the nebulous Macintosh Plus, even when you know Macintosh Plus is simply a name on a bandcamp. This is likely intentional; such a reading certainly falls in line with the sonic makeup of the music, which has all but erased authorial touch.
Formally, Floral Shoppe
is a collection of easy-listening tracks from the 80s and 90s, forgotten bits of adult contemporary muzak--a genre designed to anonymously fill silences--battered into warped epics. Sounds matter over performance; Pages albums, smooth jazz compilations, Diana Ross records, the N64 Turok soundtrack, are all fed into the Macintosh Plus machine and spit back purple, unsettling, with voices slowed to wordless drawls, tempos abused at whim, snippets mashed over each other at clashing time signatures. It’s as though Macintosh Plus looked upon her samples without reverence, took their hyper-produced sounds and erased any resemblance of the humans who made them. Floral Shoppe
, in turn, listens like a digital Pompeii, a collection of pop-cheese artifacts arranged into tourist attractions to be viewed with curious and detached wonderment.
When Floral Shoppe
came out in 2011, it and vaporwave as a genre got pegged, perhaps a bit too zealously, as an ironic indictment of post-capitalism, which in turn led to a gross misread of the movement’s aesthetic as purely silly. Attaching the dreaded “ironic” tag on what is often not too far off from elevator music pretty much nipped vaporwave in the bud; a negative Anthony Fantano review of Floral Shoppe
and an annoying 4chan bandwagon you’ll see mimicked on the Sputnik soundoffs page stunted the genre’s growth, relegating it to “hipster-trash” status alongside seapunk and witch house. This is unfortunate, especially in the case of Floral Shoppe
. While other Vektroid releases pushed the line of innovative reimagining and straight muzak, Floral Shoppe
is a stunning record that transcends any contextual bullshi
t it was saddled with. It is its own universe, a sensuous slice of virtual reality that endures because it most of all is more interested in creating something beautiful than sneering at something inane.
This starts at its sample selection; the vocal tracks of Floral Shoppe
each center around a devoted, perhaps distressingly so, conception of love made all the more dire by Macintosh Plus’ reworks. The opener, an abusive take on Sade’s “Tar Baby,” introduces the record’s themes well: in addition to turning Sade’s sultry whisper of “I love you so…” into a haunting moan, Macintosh Plus fucks
with the fourth wall far more aggressively than she does on the rest of the record, as if she were beating the listener’s ear into submission. A saxophone hook trips over itself for two bars before snapping back into tempo; it returns later grooving at high speed while the rest of the track is drowning in psychedelic miasma. All the while, the track maintains an edge of mysterious sexuality, but one that’s certainly distorted by all the fuck
ery. By the time the cheery synths from Diana Ross’ “It’s Your Move” come skipping in for track 2, the lightness of the bounce is difficult to trust. This is the idea.
is constantly--and delightfully--unsettling. Things always sound off
, as tempos subtly fluctuate or vocals are turned from sincere declarations of 80s cheese to mocking sneers; it’s a joy hearing “You need a hero, someone to rescue you!” sung with a hair of almost-menace. Most of Floral Shoppe
accomplishes this unease with subtlety, particularly in track 7’s quiet switch from ambient drone to light jazz, but it’s when Macintosh Plus breaks character with a giant, operatic flourish that Floral Shoppe
truly peaks. After a long cool-down between tracks 6 and 9, the first “Untitled” kicks down any complacency with sonic monstrosity. The track is simply two lines from Zapp’s cover of “I Only Have Eyes For You” repeated in a deep, sloth-like voice, but with the electronic pulse blasting behind it in hypnotic waves, it’s as mesmerizing as the record gets. The cycle of the chord changes and the deep, highly-processed harmonies from the original vocal go down like cough syrup. Tracks 10 and 11, which were added onto Floral Shoppe
after its initial release, end up sealing the record’s quality. When the closer, a swirling sample from Jamie Foxx’s “Sleeping Pill,” just stops
mid-repetition, it leaves behind both a silent resonance, as if the album were still playing in the ether, and a stupid, shit
It’s a fittingly mercurial end to Floral Shoppe
, a record both of powerful anonymity and impeccable craft. The mystery this record carries with it, from that garish cover to the non-existence of Macintosh Plus to the obscurity of the samples, is half the charm, as though it was the internet spitting back what we’ve been feeding into it. It’s the beauty it achieves within its form, though, how it discovers a sensuous heart in broken, forgotten adult contemporary music that suggests a direction for the future--a romantic postmodernism, if you will. It embraces the inundation of the internet information age, the power of technology, human obsolescence, and makes them sound sweet. Ramona Andra Xavier didn’t record the samples or mash them up much more beyond intense temporal fuck
ery, but outside the confines of originality, credit, the idea of “the artist” as God, she created a beautiful record that’s both warm and strange, nostalgic and futuristic, bizarre and totally simple. It could well be the future’s first masterpiece.